Tablet PCs provide pricey but practical computing
by Alan Zisman
(c) 2002 First
published in Business in
, Issue #684 December 3-9, 2002; High
Last week's column found that
Microsoft had, in a relatively low-key way, released two new operating
systems. Both Windows Media Edition and Tablet Edition are built on top
of the year-old Windows XP and only come with specialized hardware.
While media computers such as HP's Media Center PC are aiming for home
use, tablet PCs are targeted towards business users who are unable or
unwilling to use the keyboard on a traditional notebook.
Unlike Palm or Pocket Windows PDAs, tablet PCs are "real computers"
with large-enough screens, hard drives, and standard peripherals. They
use a full-sized version of Windows and run standard applications like
More than 10 manufacturers -- including Toshiba, Fujitsu, HP-Compaq,
and Viewsonic -- have released hardware running Tablet Edition in sync
with the software's debut (and just in time for holiday purchases).
Slates lack keyboards entirely, looking like scaled-up PDAs but running
standard Windows applications. (You could, however, plug in a keyboard
if desired.) Others, like the convertible Acer TravelMate C100 that I
was loaned, live a dual existence: they open up into a standard
lightweight notebook or, by twisting the screen around, they become
The $3,600 TravelMate weighs in under 1.5 kilograms (3.1 lbs) with a
small but crisp 10.4-inch screen. At first glance, it might appear
under-powered with its 800-MHz Mobile Pentium III, but this
no-longer-high-end processor offers better battery life (3.5 hours),
and will be plenty powerful enough for most users. All the connectivity
options needed are built-in: USB 2, Firewire, modem, Ethernet, and
wireless networking, along with an external CD-drive. Also in the box
were a second battery and AC adapters for a range of international
When it's transformed into a tablet, data entry is done with a special
stylus: an electromagnetic resonance pen. Unlike a Palm, tapping on the
screen with fingertip or pen doesn't work, so don't lose the stylus. A
nice touch is the ability to rotate the screen 90, 180, or 270 degrees.
Tablet Windows includes several new ways to enter data. There's a
journal application that opens into a virtual notebook, ready for your
pen-input. You can sketch or take notes on its pages with your jottings
stored as "digital ink." If needed, select your writing and tell the
computer to translate it into text for word processing or e-mail. It
didn't do a bad job with my far-from-perfect printing and script, but I
did have to proofread and correct before sending it on its way.
You can leave yourself Sticky Notes, handwritten and placed on your
screen. As in non-digital life, this assumes you can read your own
More useful, perhaps is that Tablet Windows enables any program that
accepts text input, from a Web browser to a word processor, to get
input from the stylus. An icon on the task bar opens an Input Panel at
the bottom of the screen. Text can be entered using your choice of an
on-screen keyboard, handwriting, or even Palm-style characters.
While not perfect, this first release is surprisingly usable.
Tablet-style computers aren't new. But up to now, they have been
designed for specialized niches markets, like the digital pads used by
some courier companies to keep track of deliveries. Microsoft and its
hardware partners are hoping a standardized Windows operating system
will expand the market for portable computers.
They've done a good job: light-weight, reasonable battery life, and
built-in wireless networking combine with acceptable handwriting
recognition to make a computer that is easy to carry around and use in
circumstances where tapping on a keyboard might be awkward or
The price is too high, but like most technologies, it will become more
affordable. I wouldn't be surprised if in a couple of
computer-generations, pen-input becomes a standard feature for all