A new era for pen-based computing will dawn this autumn with the launch of Windows XP Tablet PC Edition and a range of new hardware. We recently got our hands on one of the first new Tablet PC prototypes, Acer’s TravelMate 100, the worst-kept secret in the business -- this prototype has been making the rounds for ages.
At first glance, the TravelMate 100 appears to be a traditional, 1.5kg ultraportable, but there's a twist: pop open the lid, push two buttons at the bottom of the 12.1in. display, and the screen rotates up to 180 degrees on a central hinge. More importantly, you can rotate and fold the screen so that it covers the keyboard, with the display facing up. This transforms the TravelMate 100 into a tablet PC that you can write on. Expect to see two primary form factors as tablet PCs become more prevalent: convertible units, such as the TravelMate 100, and tablets that ship with external wireless keyboards.
In addition to this unique display, the TravelMate 100 is equipped with an 800MHz ultra low-voltage Pentium III-M processor, 256MB of RAM, a 20GB hard drive and a 56Kbps modem, as well as integrated 802.11b wireless and wired Ethernet networking. For good measure, the system also includes two USB ports, a single Type II PC Card slot and a FireWire (IEE 1394) port. Additionally, you'll find several specialised buttons that allow you to toggle wireless on and off (and extend battery life), as well as switch the display between landscape and portrait modes. We'll let you know how all this hardware performs when we run benchmark tests on the full-production unit in the autumn. We'll also know the price then, as Acer hasn't set it yet.
Despite the urgings from Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and others, there are obstacles to overcome before we’re likely to see a major shift to tablets. Handwriting recognition remains a major issue. The Acer TravelMate 100's combination of software and hardware is the best we've seen so far, although it's still far from perfect. If we were relying on this system to convert all our scribbles to readable text, we'd be sorely disappointed.
Even so, there are many innovative features of the new Windows XP Tablet PC Edition. Windows Journal, for instance, allows you to select different pen tips, from fine chisel to marker. Furthermore, it simulates ink flow based on the pressure you exert on the screen. The harder you push with the stylus, the thicker the stroke. You're also able to select text, even if you don't convert it, and apply various types of formatting to it, such as bolding, italicising, and changing colours. From Journal, you can copy and paste your writing into a variety of applications.
Although we were impressed by the design of the TravelMate 100, it has some minor annoyances. First, the latch that holds the display in place during tablet operation can be a bit fussy. One of our colleagues who attended a recent Tablet PC reviewers' workshop in Redmond actually managed to break his within a week of receiving the prototype. We were also frustrated that when in tablet mode, the system's screen ends up covering part of the speakers, muffling the sound.
The big question regarding this and other tablet PCs is: will they turn out to be more than a niche product? Check back in the autumn as we review the barrage of pen-based that’s due to hit the market.