Tablet PCs: Take one and call me in the morning

Summary:Tablet PCs may be great for impressing your friends, but how useful are they in a corporate context? We look at five Tablet PCs from major vendors to find out.

Tablet PCs may be great for impressing your friends, but how useful are they in a corporate context? We look at five Tablet PCs from major vendors to find out.

A Tablet PC is a cross between a notebook and PDA that allows you to make notes using a stylus like you would on a PDA. You have the ability to use a stylus as a replacement for a mouse and write on the display. It sounds quite neat but because tablets are a new product, they are quite expensive.

The impetus for Tablet PCs came from Microsoft, which released a version of Windows called Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, and ran a strong promotion campaign. Most major notebook manufacturers have embraced the tablet form factor. We look at five Tablet PCs from different vendors to see how they stack up. We also compare the performance and price of a similar priced notebook.

Why tablet?
Tablets are ideal for workers who take notes while standing. Doctors, nurses, teachers, salespeople, and those who are on the manufacturing floors are among the many that would benefit from using a Tablet PC as part of their everyday routine.

However, there are a few factors that may deter you from a Tablet PC. For example writing on a tablet doesn’t feel the same as writing on a piece of paper. Prolific writers predominantly still prefer their keyboards over writing on a tablet as they can type faster than write. So what are the advantages you may ask? You may laugh about it now, but they do help reduce paper consumption. They also offer alternative methods of input: keyboard, stylus, and voice. Tablet PCs also allow you to work in an ad hoc way and this is what makes them very appealing.

There are two styles of Tablet PCs: convertible and slate. Convertible tablets look like standard notebooks and have standard keyboards but they can turn into a tablet by turning and folding the display back over the keyboard. Slate tablets on the other hand don’t have a keyboard. Convertibles also tend to be larger and heavier but they generally provide a greater sense of familiarity to users.

A major factor in a company’s decision to purchase a Tablet PC is the ergonomics and features they offer. Most Tablet PCs use Intel Pentium III processors, but HP and a few others use Transmeta Crusoe processors. This is a little behind the notebook bleeding edge, with many high-end notebooks using Pentium 4 or the new Centrino processors. Tablets are also quite a bit behind in the graphics department. The tablets we looked at used graphics chips that have been superseded in current-model notebooks. Hard disks are pretty much the same, and the displays of course are kept small—usually 10.4 inches to keep the overall size of the tablet small and the weight down.

What you will find standard in a Tablet PC is 10/100 Ethernet port, a modem, and built-in 802.11b wireless networking. Some feature Bluetooth, but not usually as standard.

As far as ports go they don’t come with parallel or serial connectors. CD-ROM and floppy drives are also left out to keep them nice and light. (You can still connect them up to an external CD-ROM or floppy disk drive.) The slate tablets can be connected to docking stations, which have built in CD-ROM drives. Also common are PC Card slots, CompactFlash Readers, smartcard readers and FireWire connectors.

Most tablets feature simple hardware buttons that allow you to launch functions that you would normally do with a keyboard. Slate tablets have a button which enables you to quickly change the orientation of the display from portrait to landscape. With convertible tablets, you have to go into the software settings in order to change the orientation. Most vendors place their buttons on the Tablet PCs so they are easy for right-handed users to press when they are using the tablet in portrait mode. So right-handers would hold the tablet in their left hands and write with their right-hands; left-handers would be doing the opposite and have a little more trouble reaching the buttons.

Tablet PCs
1. Acer C102Ti
2. Fujitsu Stylistic ST4110
3. HP Compaq TC1000
4. Toshiba Portégé 3500
5. Viewsonic V1100
Things to look out for...
Benchmark scores
How we tested
Scenario/Editor’s Choice
About RMIT
There are also issues with the placement of speakers. With the ability to rotate the screen between landscape and portrait modes, you will not have the same audio experience. The vendor specifically places the speakers to a preferred orientation (landscape or portrait), but not both. As we found, it’s an even bigger problem with convertible tablets. With the Toshiba, for example, if you turn and fold the display back over the keyboard, you cover up the speaker with the display, which cuts out a lot of the sound.

Holding these devices can be a little awkward at times. They can get a little too warm and they aren’t very hard to drop on the ground either. They don’t come with a carry handle and they don’t seem very rugged.

Also don’t expect to have perfect accuracy while writing—instead, be patient. You will have to go back and correct errors. Finally, none of these tablets will replace a desktop for most users, as they’re slower and a lot more expensive than your standard notebook. We can see them replacing ultra-portable notebooks, which already use similar hardware.

All Tablet PCs use Windows XP Tablet PC. They also have additional software installed for handwriting recognition. Below are screen shots of hand recognition software applications that come as standard with Windows XP Tablet PC.

  • Journal: Windows Journal was developed especially for the Tablet PC. It allows you to enter notes, images, and sketches with a stylus.
  • Sticky Notes: Sticky Notes is the digital version of Post-It notes. You would use this if you had to write down a name and telephone number, for example.
  • Tablet PC Input Panel (TIP): TIP enables users to enter text with a stylus, which then gets converted into typed text. The TIP also features an onscreen keyboard.

Topics: Tablets, Reviews

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