Tablets get it right

HP's TC1000, with a 1GHz processor, 256M of RAM and a 30G hard drive, could be used to replace a desktop PC. It starts at $1,699.

Henrik G. DeGyor

Left: Motion Computing's $2,519 M1200 combines a 933-MHz Pentium 3 mobile processor and 512M of RAM with a 12.1-inch TFT screen.

Right: Acer America's TravelMate C110TCi is a convertible tablet running at 900 MHz with 256M of SDRAM. It's priced at $2,299.

Handy features and processors that run cool contribute to the growing popularity of Tablet PCs

When Microsoft Corp. released its Windows XP Tablet PC Edition last November, few observers believed that a genuine paradigm shift in mobile computing was taking place.

But sales of the devices, which combine the keyboard input of traditional notebook computers with a digitized screen 'tablet' that receives a user's handwritten input, are outstripping initial expectations.

About 25 vendors are currently manufacturing Tablet PCs for the commercial market, all them having agreed to develop their products around Microsoft's specifications.

A study by International Data Corp. of Framingham, Mass., found that by Dec. 31, less than two months after Microsoft's release of Windows XP Tablet Edition, about 72,000 Tablet PCs had been sold worldwide.

'For only six weeks, 70,000 units is pretty significant. We're still at the very early stages of the early adopters,' said Alan Promisel, an IDC analyst.

Promisel expects that more than a half-million Tablet PCs will be sold worldwide this year, with a growth in sales of nearly 20 percent next year. Based on those figures, Tablet PC sales could reach about 35 percent of overall notebook PC sales within two or three years.

While different manufacturers' Tablet PCs can vary widely in basic hardware configurations, processor types and speeds, memory, interfaces and displays, they are all built around Microsoft's Windows XP Tablet PC Edition.

Windows XP Tablet PC Edition is a superset of Windows XP Professional, with the features and performance of Microsoft's latest OS and some extras thrown in for mobile users.
I used a Hewlett-Packard Co. Compaq Tablet PC TC1000 to test these features and everything I've seen so far indicates that a Tablet PC is far more than a nifty gadget. In fact, I plan to buy one as soon as I can gather the bucks.

For one thing, the price is right. Most tablets hover around $2,000, or maybe closer to $2,400 if important accessories like a docking station are added.

Dual roles

As for performance, with a fast processor, plenty of RAM and 10.4-inch or 12.1-inch TFT display, any Tablet PC can serve as a very powerful, lightweight notebook.

Equipped with a docking station and associated peripherals such as a full-sized keyboard, mouse, external CD-RW/DVD drives, speakers and high-end monitor, a Tablet PC will be the primary desktop PC in my home office.

Here's the skinny on the extra features of Tablet PCs loaded with the Windows XP Tablet PC Edition that convince me that these devices represent the next wave of computing.

Windows Journal. No doubt about it, Windows Journal is the sine qua non of Windows XP Tablet Edition. With it, you've got a tremendously flexible, all-purpose computing device that can turn your handwriting into electronic data and do much, much more. Without it, you've just got another thin notebook.

Windows Journal lets you write notes by hand, using an electromagnetic pen on the display surface. When I touched the Windows Journal icon with the unit's electromagnetic pen, it immediately became an electronic notepad. With no training, I was immediately able to use the display and the pen just as I would use a yellow legal pad.

And because Tablet PC displays aren't touch screens (only the electromagnetic pens produce handwritten characters), I could comfortably lean my arm or hand on the display without inadvertently creating or wiping out extra images.

Most important, because the TC1000's electronic 'ink' is an actual data object and not just an image file, I was able to quickly convert my handwriting into text. This takes some time for most users to accomplish successfully, but both users and the tablet tend to get better with practice.

Incidentally, Windows Journal also lets you electronically insert space in your handwritten notes to include new thoughts next to the ones you've written. It also comes with a powerful search engine for storing, searching and retrieving handwritten notes.

Input panel. Turning on this feature lets you use either handwriting or the on-screen keyboard to annotate documents. Though my handwriting is abysmal, and I generally prefer keyboard input, I found it very easy to add handwritten comments that were stored electronically in the same documents I annotated.

Office XP Pack for Tablet PCs. This feature, downloaded free from the Office XP home page, lets you extend the pen capability of Tablet PCs to Office XP applications, including Word and PowerPoint. You also can send handwritten e-mail via Outlook 2002'and people who receive them don't need a Tablet PC to read them.

Sticky Notes. This utility lets you make short notes or reminders and place them on your desktop for easy viewing.

Speech recognition. In my view, speech recognition will be one of the most powerful and promising computer technologies of the next decade. Windows XP Tablet PC Edition's Speech Recognition feature lets you dictate notes and even control some applications with your voice.

Microsoft says you can extend speech recognition capabilities to third-party applications by using the Tablet PC software developer's kit in conjunction with the Microsoft Speech API.

In addition to these features, all Tablet PCs come with ClearType, which provides highly readable booklike text. Want to annotate a document you've just read and send it to a colleague? Mark it up with your digital pen and e-mail it using the Tablet PC's wireless connectivity to a LAN.

The Tablet PC's digital pen can be programmed to make customized 'gestures' to subsitute for many keyboard or mouse functions such as pointing, clicking or dragging.

Let the top down

The most obvious way in which tablets differ is in design. Convertible tablets use the traditional notebook clamshell design. Their integrated keyboards and rotating screens let them convert into tablet mode. Acer America's TravelMate C1100TCi, PaceBlade Technology's PaceBook Tablet PC and Toshiba America Information Systems' Portege 3500 are all convertibles.

Slate tablets such as Fujitsu's Stylistic ST4120 and NEC Solutions America's Versa LitePad don't have integrated keyboards. If these 'pure slates' require keyboard input, you can add one via one of several Universal Serial Bus ports or an IEEE 1394 FireWire port.

The only hybrid Tablet PC I know of is HP's TC1000, because its built-in keyboard can be detached, making it into a pure slate.

To date, size is the only real difference in Tablet PC displays. Displays of all models listed in this guide are either 10.4-inch or 12.1-inch TFT screens with typical resolutions of 768 by 1,024.

When Tablet PCs were first released last November, most vendors chose Intel Corp.'s low-voltage Pentium III mobile processor because the chip ran cooler and consumed less power than other Intel processors at that time.

First International Computer, Hewlett-Packard, PaceBlade Technology and TDV Vision selected the Transmeta 5800 Crusoe chip set.

The latest advancement in chip sets for notebooks is Intel's Centrino package released last March. Centrino was designed for mobile computing. Batteries last longer on a single charge and Centrino will boost further use of built-in 802.11b, an Intel official said.

J.B. Miles of Pahoa, Hawaii, writes about communications and computers. E-mail him at [email protected].


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