Beta tablets a bitter pill

The Fujitsu Stylistic ST4000 works in several positions'standing up, propped on its folder or held in the crook of an arm for writing.

Tablet PCs could revolutionize computing and become the leading format within five years, as Microsoft Corp. chairman Bill Gates has predicted. Or they could vanish like their predecessors, notably 1993's Apple Newton MessagePad.

The GCN Lab tried out two beta tablet versions before their Nov. 7 launch: the Stylistic ST4000 from Fujitsu PC Corp., a pure slate model with no keyboard or mouse; and the Hewlett-Packard Compaq TC1000, a cross between a tablet and a notebook PC. Both use a stylus as the primary means of navigating menus and programs.

The lab has not yet tested convertible designs with screens that rotate 180 degrees and fold down over the keyboard like a writing pad.

The notebooklike TC1000 probably will be more popular than pure slate models'at least until users decide to abandon their mice.

It weighs 3 pounds without a docking station. If I mislaid the radio-frequency pen, I could do nothing with the unit'unlike most handheld PCs, it has no touch screen.

Nevertheless, the inch-thick TC1000 is a full-powered Microsoft Windows XP system with a 1-GHz Transmeta Crusoe TM5800 processor, supported by 256M of 133-MHz synchronous dynamic RAM.

Battery life was impressive though shorter than advertised. Our test TC1000 quit after about three hours, 30 minutes of use. The integrated IEEE 802.11b wireless connection helped drain the battery quickly, but the tablet kept running longer than many notebooks the lab has tested.

The most impressive component is the nVidia GeForce2 Go 100 graphics controller with 16M of dedicated memory. More than acceptable for business applications, it can also handle most simulations and game applications.

Besides the two ports on the tablet, the HP's fairly extensive docking station has a DVD drive and four Universal Serial Bus ports.

HP did a good job of ruggedizing the system by including a magnesium-alloy shell, polycarbonate polymer for extra strength in some areas and a shock-resistant screen protected by a bezel mounting. Even so, the unit was more fragile than a typical notebook, especially during transport.

Because the lab received a preproduction beta unit, we exercised more care than usual. The lab team could not get a benchmark score because the DVD drive malfunctioned before we finished loading our test software. Other errors included booting problems that company engineers promised to fix before production.

Few peripherals

The Stylistic ST4000 was a pure slate without keyboard or mouse, though it had USB ports to attach such items. The LCD fits into a binder for writing notes that can be stored in graphical format or translated to text.

The Windows XP handwriting-recognition engine leaves a lot up to individual writing style and penmanship. Some volunteer users who tested the application for the lab averaged close to 90 percent accuracy in recognition. My own scribbling was less than 10 percent accurate. For most testers, the system's accuracy hovered around 70 percent.

Such low recognition rates alone could handicap the fledgling tablet PC market.

The ST4000 weighs 3.2 pounds, a bit more than the HP unit. The processor is a bit slower'830 MHz supported by 256M of SDRAM. Fujitsu designed a special heat-dissipating fabric cover for the back of the unit.

Lacking a keyboard out of the box, the Fujitsu has several navigation buttons along the base. You can, if you're quite familiar with Windows, manipulate the tablet in case you lose the pen.

The Fujitsu, like the HP, broke before the lab completed its tests. The tablet stuck in a boot cycle, and after I removed the batteries to force a reboot, the screen no longer worked.

Had both products performed without defects, as the lab team was assured production units will, the $1,699 TC1000 probably would have scored a B grade. It was powerful for the money, and its only big flaw seemed to be the XP handwriting recognition app.

The ST4000 would also score well but not quite as high: B minus. For $2,100 and $2,700 depending on hardware options, it cost more and had less-impressive specifications. Plus, a keyboard is probably a necessity for most buyers.

If PC tablets are to be more than a passing fancy, manufacturers have a long way to go to provide the tools now common in the most basic notebook PCs.

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