Tablet PCs provide pricey but practical computing

    by Alan Zisman (c) 2002 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #684  December 3-9, 2002; High Tech Office column

    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 Microsoft Office.

    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 tablets.

    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 power standards.

    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 writing.

    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 unacceptable.

    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 portable computers.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan