Is the pen mightier than the mouse?

NEC's Versa LitePad, starting at $1,500, comes with a 900-MHz ULV Pentium M processor, 256M of RAM and a 10.4-inch screen.

The GoBook Tablet is a ruggedized model with an 866-MHz ULV Pentium M, 40G hard drive, 256M of RAM and a 8.4-inch screen. It's priced at $2,587.

For some users, a tablet PC has all the right tools

I've made no secret that I love the tablet format for a portable PC.

I get along fine with standard keyboards but do very little text input out of the office, so I've always resented having to tote one along on road trips simply because all notebooks had one.

I also don't watch movies or carry a stack of CD-ROMs, and I don't want the extra weight of a built-in optical drive.

Until the tablet PC became available I was actually trying to use a tiny PDA for all mobile use'but that was out of necessity, not out of choice.

Over the years I've seen and reviewed everything from the original IBM-PC and IBM-XT systems to the failed IBM Micro-Channel experiment and many of today's latest PCs.

In my own little computer museum I have a massive Spark laptop that weighs in at a remarkable 14-plus pounds, came with two floppy drives, and, I believe, a choice of 32K or 64K of RAM. There are a couple of smaller notebook PCs sitting on my shelves, too. But I hadn't used one for years'until I got my hands on one of the first tablet PCs.

To me, the tablet form is what laptops should have been from the beginning. But, of course, the technology to produce them simply wasn't there, in part because the speech- and handwriting-recognition software wasn't able to meet the demands of a user who otherwise needs a keyboard.

No best tabletM

I have a favorite tablet model, which has a 4-hour-plus battery life the way I use it, a screen the size of a sheet of typing paper so I can view text in full pages, and is very light, in the minimum usable configuration.

I don't require much hard-drive capacity, memory or processor speed out of the office, so my choice was relatively easy. But there is definitely no best tablet PC.
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I prefer a slate-style tablet with no keyboard other than one I plug in on rare occasions. Others will choose the convenience of an attached keyboard in the convertible tablet format, while still other users need a ruggedized system or one loaded with computing power.

The biggest market I see for tablets is in the field-service arena, whether that is troubleshooting nuclear installations, emergency services and disaster relief, or simply keeping geographically diverse networks up and running.

For field service, the primary need is a capacity to store and display massive amounts of reference data and graphics, along with an ability to make some notes as required.

A second class of user is the executive, who has very similar needs.

Weight and battery life probably are the most critical factors to consider, because all of the tablets in the accompanying chart probably can do the job.

Certainly, you don't want a tablet PC as your main word processor workstation, unless you intend to hook up a standard keyboard and monitor'which is entirely reasonable if you occasionally need a lightweight portable.

The biggest drawback of tablets is the low screen resolution combined with poor viewing angles, though the latter doesn't matter so much for individual users.

Tablets have relatively low screen resolutions because screen technology hasn't yet advanced enough to have both high resolutions and pen/touch screen capabilities.

It's important to note that there are two kinds of tablet screens; one works only with some sort of stylus, the other is an older-style touch screen design that works with any pressure source, such as a finger.

Tablet PCs cost more than a comparably powered desktop but the price isn't as bad as it may first appear. Consider these special features vs. a typical $900 desktop.
  • Lower power consumption

  • Included LCD monitor to save space

  • Wireless capability right out of the box

  • Built-in digitizer.

With some tablets costing no more than low-end notebooks, the form factor has definite appeal even from the cost standpoint.

John McCormick is a free-lance writer and computer consultant. E-mail him at powerusr@yahoo.com.

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