tablet computer fails to take on iPad
Alan Zisman (c) 2010 First published in Business
April 13 - 19, 2010 issue #1068
High Tech Office column
I’m writing this column the morning after Apple’s April 3 release of
its iPad in the United States. There are rumours of an April 24
Canadian release. Hopefully, by the time you read this, we’ll know
something for real.
You wouldn’t know it from the press, but the iPad is far from the first
touchscreen computer. Last fall’s Windows 7 release included touch
features, though you can’t use them on just any computer that runs
Windows 7. And those features were just the latest update to
Microsoft’s Tablet PC software, which has been available since 2002.
Back then, Bill Gates said, “Within five years, I predict it will be
the most popular form of PC sold in America.” It failed to happen,
though tablets gained some popularity, mostly in vertical markets such
as health care.
Vendor’s haven’t given up, though. Released in January, HP’s TouchSmart
tm2 (about $1,100) looks like an attractive small laptop, with a
bronzed aluminum body embellished with an etched-on pattern HP calls
It’s got a 12-inch display and a large touchpad, which (like recent Mac
laptops) lacks visible buttons and supports multitouch gestures. The
relatively low-speed 1.3 Ghz core duo CPU improves battery life, which
HP promises to be over eight hours. Like the iPad, there’s no
battery-draining DVD drive.
Unlike a standard laptop, though, the screen can be flipped around and
closed to cover the keyboard, giving it a double life as a tablet. The
screen responds to finger touch or to a stylus for more precision. A
switch on the side of the case lets you flip between portrait and
landscape screen orientations.
Used as a tablet, Windows 7’s touch features let you enter data by
writing with the stylus, which has reasonably accurate handwriting
recognition. As well, there’s a virtual keyboard, which responds pretty
well to finger taps. However, unlike Apple’s iPhone or iPad, it doesn’t
pop up automatically as needed.
The stylus can be used as a pressure-sensitive input device if you
install graphics software such as Photoshop and Corel Painter. The top
of the stylus can be used as an eraser in those applications.
In many ways, it’s a nice system, especially since it’s considerably
less expensive than similar models from Dell or Lenovo.
Like past generations of Windows-powered tablets, though, I suspect it
will be doomed to be a niche product, beloved by a few but ignored by
most. Part of the problem rests with Windows: it just isn’t really
designed to be finger friendly.
Apple’s iPad uses an operating system and applications designed for
touch and originally made for the small screen of an iPhone. Scaled up
to the iPad’s 10-inch screen, it reportedly feels responsive and
expansive. By contrast, despite nearly a decade of touchscreen support,
Windows has menus, scrollbars and dialogue boxes that really want to
work with keyboard and mouse. On the tm2, you can click on them with
your fingertip or with a stylus, but it feels clumsy.
Another problem is applications. Apple put a lot of effort into
reworking its iWork programs for the iPad, recognizing that standard
computer applications just aren’t finger friendly. Even after years on
the market, however, there are few Windows applications designed to
make use of touch. Microsoft has long bundled OneNote – a very good if
little-known stylus-friendly note-taking application – with Microsoft
Office. HP adds
several touch-enabled applications to the tm2 like BumpTop for
organizing photos and Corel PaintIt Touch.
Yes, you can use the tm2 as a standard smallish Windows laptop, and it
does just fine in that role. But if that’s what you want, there are
lots of alternatives.
HP has demonstrated a keyboardless Slate model, expected for release
later this year; while resembling an iPad, it promises Flash support,
standard USB ports – the laptop features missing from Apple’s product.
But as a Windows device my suspicion is that, like the tm2, it will be
an awkward touch device – and will lack the tm2’s built-in