Web Extra: Tablet PCs

Sometimes the best-laid plans drift off course.

While vendors were planning their new tablet PCs running Microsoft Windows XP Tablet Edition, they predicted three distinct form factors. But the advantages of one format'the convertible tablet'have led to a merging of the other two, so that only two distinct formats really exist.

The convertible format comes from Acer Inc. and Toshiba America Information Systems Inc. Their tablets are basically notebook computers that work and act like other notebooks, except that the LCD can rotate 180 degrees and then fold down over the keyboard.

I didn't expect this format to be popular, because in tablet mode there's no way to get rid of the keyboard's bulk. You end up with a thick tablet that is also heavy compared with pure tablet models.

My logic was that tablet buyers want either high portability or job functionality. If they could use a notebook, they would buy that. Otherwise, I thought, they would opt for a pure tablet.

That is turning out not to be the case, partly because people tend to stick with what they know, and partly because the tablet-pen interface needs improvement.

In our tests, more than one unit gave us trouble when we used the pen interface exclusively to navigate the Windows desktop. Some problems were minor, but a few were real pains.

People already know how to use keyboards and notebooks. So perhaps they feel more comfortable buying a notebook with the bonus of turning it into a writing tablet'albeit a somewhat large and clunky one.

The two other formats, the pure slate and the hybrid tablet, have almost merged. For the same reasons that convertible models are popular, every pure slate and every hybrid has add-on keyboards and mice available as options.

The Compaq design, the only real hybrid on the market now, has a keyboard that snaps into place under the tablet. ViewSonic Corp., Motion Computing Inc. and Fujitsu PC Corp. add keyboards via Universal Serial Bus or infrared ports.

In a docking station'another option that is standard for almost every nonconvertible tablet'with their keyboards and mice attached, every one of these tablets looks like a desktop system, or at least a thin client.

Almost all tablets use Intel Corp.'s low-voltage mobile processors, but the stated clock speeds are deceptive. These processors never perform as fast as standard desktop processors.

The GCN Lab's benchmark software pinged all of them well below their claimed rates. Don't expect even the convertible systems to have the same raw power as comparable notebooks or desktop PCs. They do well enough with basic applications such as Microsoft Word, but anything graphically intensive will probably show performance problems.

Another thing you should know before buying is that the pen is an indispensable component, especially for the nonconvertible models.

If you are on the road and away from your peripherals, the pen is your only way to navigate the system. Misplace the pen, and you have a very expensive paperweight. It won't be good for much of anything until you find or buy another pen. A few models have side menu buttons for navigation without the pen, but that is a slow and imperfect process.

Adding a true touch screen to any of these models would be helpful. Careless users could keep working with a standard handheld stylus, a pencil eraser or, in a pinch, a fingertip.

Of course this would add some weight, but the benefits would outweigh the costs, as well as eliminate a component that is prone to battery failure and loss.

Until tablets become more powerful and user-friendly, the top models are probably going to continue to be the convertibles that treat tablet use as a bonus. A few tablets now on the market get it almost right, and for first-generation products they are a pretty good crop. But all need significant design improvements.

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