ISSUE 598: Zisman- Apr 10 2001

The high-tech office


Pen-based IBM notebook misses the market

Even though IBM's Thinkpad notebooks are well-regarded and commercially successful, the gnomes of Armonk, N.Y., are at it again, reinventing the notebook computer.

This time around, their goal seems to be to make a notebook that is, well, more like a notebook.

Packed up, the new Thinkpad Transnote even looks like a notebook, a stylishly slim, black leather ette portfolio that will fit right in at any business meeting. Open it up and it reveals a split personality.

On one side (you can order it either left- or right-handed), there's a Windows computer, sporting a Pentium-III 600-MHz processor with a smallish 10.4-inch 800x600 screen, 128 MB memory and a 10-GB hard drive. A network adapter and modem are built in, something I wish was true of every business-class computer. There are neither floppy nor CD drives, however.

The screen is unusual. It props up on the middle of the computer and can be flipped over to act as a small display panel. (At the press of a button, the image flips too, so it remains right-side-up.) The screen is touch-sensitive; you can press OK with your fingertip or the included stylus.

The other side of the portfolio holds a legal-sized pad of paper. There's nothing special about the pad, but when you write on it with the included digital pen, the Think scribe hardware underneath turns your writing and drawings into digital ink.

It can save up to 50 pages of notes even when the computer is turned off and can transfer them either right away or on demand over to the computer's Ink Manager software.

It's not quite as smooth as it ought to be. You have to remember to click on the edge of the Thinkscribe to let it know each time you move to a new sheet of paper or else your jottings will be overlaid on top of one another.

And while you can use either half with the other section folded underneath, this can feel clumsy.

The Inkmanager software makes it easy to store and view your notes on the computer and it's straightforward to copy and paste them into a word processor or other application. (Lotus Smartsuite office suite is pre-installed.) Your pages can be saved as graphic files for e-mail attachment and can be organized into categories or connected to keywords for easy searching. Your notes can even be linked with the calendar in Smartsuite's Lotus Organizer so you can find what you wrote on any specific day. There's no attempt at handwriting recognition, however, so don't expect that your handwritten notes will be magically transformed into computer-edit able text.

Palm and Visor users intrigued by the idea may want to check Seiko's Smartpad (about $300), a portfolio with space for your PDA (not included) and a pad of paper. Here, too, notes written on the pad are transferred as graphics to the computer. There are separate versions for Palm III series, Palm V and Visors.

Pricing for IBM's Trans note starts at $4,699. And you will probably need to budget for an add-on CD drive. (IBM's costs $359.)

But sorry, IBM, I just don't get it. It's neat technology, but I find it hard to imagine the market. You've got to really dislike typing to spend a cool five grand in order to get your handwritten notes into a computer.

Over the years, IBM's designers have produced a series of innovations in their Thinkpad line. Some, like the eraser-sized Trackpoint pointing device, have been keepers. Others, like the fold-out Butterfly keyboard or a removable screen that could be used as a display panel with an overhead projector, were interesting technology that quickly vanished from the marketplace.

I suspect the Transnote falls in the latter category.

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