Convertible capability: Five tablet PCs tested

Tablets have been around for a while, but with a new breed emerging that rival ordinary laptops, these convertibles could represent the new standard. We examine five of the best.



Tablets have been around for a while, but with a new breed emerging that rival ordinary laptops, these convertibles could represent the new standard. We examine five of the best.


Contents
Introduction
Fujitsu Stylistic T4020C
Lenovo ThinkPad X41
Acer TravelMate C310
Toshiba Portege M200
Hewlett-Packard TC4200
How we tested
Specifications
Editor's choice
About RMIT

In June 2003 we looked at some of the early breeds of tablet PCs. Since then, the adoption of tablets in many sectors has taken off. The medical industry in particular, has been quick to adopt tablets, finding the usable, on-the-move portability particularly helpful, and the future for many workers will no doubt become more closely aligned with "bedside-computing".

With wireless technology beginning to infiltrate business, the possibilities that these devices offer are only beginning to be realised and tested. Manufacturing floors, sales reps, even the 2006 Olympics or anyone giving presentations have seen an advantage in being able to carry around a laptop and interact with it easily. With a wireless network, imaginative new business possibilities are emerging, and it will certain be interesting to watch where this technology gets applied in the next year or so.

Previously cost has been a limiting factor for many businesses who couldn't justify the excessive price when a regular laptop would be almost as good, but as prices have slowly begun to drop away, and functionality, weight, comfort, and battery life have improved, these funny looking twisty-flip-top laptops have developed a genuine market.

Most of the major laptop manufacturers now offer a model or two, and since our last review they have been refining the specs and designs. This month we looked at five including models from Fujitsu, Lenovo, HP, Acer and Toshiba.


Contents
Introduction
Fujitsu Stylistic T4020C
Lenovo ThinkPad X41
Acer TravelMate C310
Toshiba Portege M200
Hewlett-Packard TC4200
How we tested
Specifications
Editor's choice
About RMIT

Fujitsu Stylistic T4020C
The Fujitsu Stylistic T4020C is quite a small and compact tablet weighing in at only 2.16kg -- not bad for a tablet which has a built in optical drive. The Acer was the only other tablet to feature an integrated optical drive, but it did weigh some 700 grams more and had a much larger footprint.

The Fujitsu was equipped with an Intel Pentium M 1.86GHz processor, 512MB of RAM, Intel 915 graphics, and a 60GB hard disk drive. The contrast on the 12.1-inch screen was excellent and the clarity was quite good, our only complaint was speckle across the screen. The reflective screen can also be somewhat annoying.

The Fujitsu featured a combo optical drive. It wasn't a DVD burner, just a DVD-ROM and CD burner. But you can upgrade to a DVD burner or you can replace it with a second battery.

As for communications and connectivity, this tablet scores highly. It offers gigabit Ethernet, supports a, b and g wireless networks, Bluetooth, the most common input output connectors, and a Sony memory slot as well.

Holding the tablet in "tablet mode" is fairly comfortable but it favours a right-handed person. Your left hand would rest over the felt that covers the memory and optical drive so it would give a right-handed person a better grip. A left-handed person would find where they rest their hand a bit slippery and they would be covering the grills where most of the heat is exhausted.

The fingerprint scanner is one of this tablet's standout features. It also comes with a piece of software called OmniPass, which can be used to manage your passwords, encrypt files, and secure your desktop.

To use the finger scanner you have to first launch the OmniPass software and add a new user. You then enter your Windows account information like your username, domain and password, and choose the finger you want to "enroll".

The sensor is located where you would typically find it on a standard notebook, just below the slide pad. If, however, you were using the tablet in the convertible mode, you wouldn't be able to access the sensor without lifting the LCD. The IBM's sensor is located in a much more convenient location -- on the screen.

The Fujitsu performed well in the speed tests clocking the third-fastest time in Winstone. There wasn't really much between it and the Toshiba -- consider them equal in speed. The test results indicate that the graphics processor affects its overall score in Winstone. The Intel graphics is just not quite up to the performance of the nVidia processors, which resulted in the lower score for the Fujitsu, but it was still equal second fastest and by no means slow.

In the battery run-down test the Fujitsu recorded a score of three hours and 13 minutes, which wasn't a bad effort but we expected better.

Product Fujitsu LifeBook T4020C
Price TBA, but expected to be AU$4299
Vendor Fujitsu
Phone 1800 188 284
Web www.fujitsu.com.au
 
Interoperability
Excellent Wired & Unwired connectivity. Sony Memory Stick support & FireWire.
Futureproofing
Features a built in optical drive. Provision for a second battery. Fingerprint recognition.
ROI
Quite fast, average battery life and most expensive.
Service
3 years parts & labour.
Rating
Fujitsu Stylistic T4020C

Contents
Introduction
Fujitsu Stylistic T4020C
Lenovo ThinkPad X41
Acer TravelMate C310
Toshiba Portege M200
Hewlett-Packard TC4200
How we tested
Specifications
Editor's choice
About RMIT

Lenovo ThinkPad X41 Tablet
The ThinkPad X41 tablet was the only sub-2kg tablet we reviewed. It's very thin but doesn't include a built-in optical drive -- since you can always go back to your work desk and plug in an external USB optical drive, how important is an optical drive when you're on your feet?

The ThinkPad featured the slowest processor out of all the units tested. It contained an Intel Pentium 1.5GHz M processor and featured 512MB of memory, Intel 915 graphics, and a 60GB drive. The 12.1-inch screen was very sharp and the colours were good. The brightness doesn't go up that much but it's still more than acceptable.

This tablet has good connectivity options with both wireless and wired networks with a, b, and g supported, as well as Bluetooth and Gigabit Ethernet. It doesn't offer FireWire or S-Video.

The ThinkPad is the most comfortable tablet to use by far. There has obviously been a lot of thought and design put into it. The battery is quite large and sticks out an inch and a half from the tablet. It looks a bit weird but we quickly realised why as soon as we changed to tablet mode -- you can get a good hold of the tablet by wrapping your fingers over the battery. It even has a rubber surface so your fingers won't slip. Your palms are well supported at the base with a clever design supporting your thumb and stopping it from slipping off. This works for both right and left-handers. Additionally, the ThinkPad has the simplest and most effective latch, locking the LCD down over the keypad when in tablet mode.

It has a fingerprint scanner like the Fujitsu but what separates these two scanners is where they are located. On the ThinkPad it's on the LCD itself, rather than on the keyboard like the Fujitsu. This is a much better idea because being a tablet PC you're going to be using it in tablet mode alot of the time and you don't want to be flipping the LCD constantly to get at it. The scanner uses a similar process to the Fujitsu when enrolling a finger.

The ThinkPad's keypad also deserves a mention -- it separates the functional keys from the standard keys and the buttons are a nice size. The only thing it's missing is a glide pad. Most standard ThinkPad notebooks feature both a trackball and glide pad but we suppose, with the form factor used here, it can only fit one mechanism.

This tablet is not a speed demon. It was the slowest, and that's because it features the slowest CPU and graphics processor of the review models. Unfortunately, at the moment you can't upgrade to a faster processor but generally speaking it is really still quite fast. The combination of a "slower" processor and small screen made this tablet run for 5.5 hours, which was a fantastic result.

Product ThinkPad X41 Tablet
Price AU$3,749
Vendor Lenovo
Phone 13 24 26
Web www.thinkpad.com.au
 
Interoperability
Excellent wired & unwired connectivity.
Futureproofing
½
Max RAM limited to 1.5GB, fingerprint recognition.
ROI
½
Slower but has a very small footprint, most comfortable to use. Best build quality and excellent battery performance.
Service
½
One-year, two-hour commitment warranty express service.
Rating
½

Contents
Introduction
Fujitsu Stylistic T4020C
Lenovo ThinkPad X41
Acer TravelMate C310
Toshiba Portege M200
Hewlett-Packard TC4200
How we tested
Specifications
Editor's choice
About RMIT

Acer TravelMate C310
The Acer C310 looks like a standard-sized notebook, but can also be used as a tablet. The Acer has the largest screen at 14.1 inches and came in the heaviest at 2.89kg. Because of its weight we can't really see hospital staff carting something so big and heavy around day after day.

If you're going to use this more often as a notebook rather than a tablet, and you want a very fast notebook, and you can't do without a large screen, and an integrated optical drive, then this would probably be your best option.

It comes with an Intel Pentium 1.73GHz processor, 512MB of memory, and a super-fast nVidia graphics accelerator with 128MB of dedicated memory. It also has a huge 80GB HDD and an internal DVD multi-format burner. The screen size was the largest of any of the units. Its native resolution however, was a bit on the low side, only 1024 by 768. We would like to have seen a resolution of something like 1400 by 1050 on a screen this size. The display quality wasn't too bad -- text appeared sharp and colours were nice and vivid -- but like the Fujitsu we were disappointed by speckles all over the screen.

You get the works in terms of connectivity -- wired and wireless network support (b and g only), three USB ports, FireWire, and S-Video.

Being a larger Tablet PC, the Acer has a little more area to rest your palms while typing. The keypad is pretty much the same size as the other keypads except for the ThinkPad, which was smaller. The Acer keypad is symbolic of the other Acer keypads with keys slightly curved -- it's probably not curved enough for most users to notice but it actually feels slightly better than the average straight keyboard. You will place much less strain on your wrists using this style keypad.

The Acer was the fastest tablet tested. Even though it didn't have the fastest CPU it featured a very fast graphics processor which helped it record the highest score in Winstone. In the battery run-down test it managed three hours and 25 minutes, which is a little on the low side but the Acer did have the largest screen and larger screens do use up more power than smaller ones.

Product TravelMate C310
Price AU$3,999
Vendor Acer Computer
Phone 1300 366 567
Web www.acer.com.au
 
Interoperability
Excellent wired & unwired connectivity, FireWire & S-Video.
Futureproofing
½
Big screen, optical drive, big HDD.
ROI
½
Fastest tablet but too heavy and has a large footprint.
Service
Warranty: three-year pickup and return service.
Rating
Acer TravelMate C310

Contents
Introduction
Fujitsu Stylistic T4020C
Lenovo ThinkPad X41
Acer TravelMate C310
Toshiba Portege M200
Hewlett-Packard TC4200
How we tested
Specifications
Editor's choice
About RMIT

Toshiba Portege M200
The Toshiba Portege M200 was the second lightest tablet at just over 2kg. The main reason it's so light is because it doesn't feature an optical drive. It's only 100-or-so grams heavier than the ThinkPad but it is a lot larger.

The Toshiba featured a fast Intel Pentium M 1.8 GHz processor with 512MB of RAM that can be expanded to 2GB (compared to the ThinkPad's 1.5GB maximum). It comes with a large 80GB HDD that spins at 5400 RPM and an nVidia graphics accelerator with 32MB of dedicated graphics memory. So in terms of the main hardware specifications you get more with the Toshiba than you do with the ThinkPad.

The Toshiba has a 12.1-inch screen which runs a screen resolution of 1400 by 1050 which we feel is way too high for an LCD of this size -- text can be hard to read. When we set the resolution back to 1024 by 768 text became fuzzy and blocky so we quickly opted for its native mode. The brightness was good and the contrast was excellent but there were speckles on this screen as well.

The Toshiba features a 100-megabit Ethernet adaptor where all of the other units have gigabit Ethernet.

It supports both a and g wireless networks, as well as Bluetooth. No FireWire or S-Video comes with this unit but all the other standard connectors are there including USB, PC Card, and VGA.

The LEDs that display the tablet's status can be found "twice" just above the keypad. Toshiba double up here, so you can view the LEDs in either tablet or notebook mode. It would be so much better if they could just put the LEDs on the LCD like everyone else. This tablet also covers the speakers when in tablet mode which does affect the sound quality. All the other vendors have front-firing speakers and play sound out from the side when in tablet mode.

In terms of performance the Toshiba was second fastest and on par with the Fujitsu. The Toshiba has a slightly slower CPU, but faster graphics accelerator which explains the similar performance.

Its battery lasted for four hours and 39 minutes, which was the second best, but still almost one hour less than the ThinkPad.

Product Portege M200
Price AU$4,070
Vendor Toshiba
Phone 13 30 70
Web www.isd.toshiba.com.au
 
Interoperability
½
Good unwired, only offers 10/100 wired, network connectivity.
Futureproofing
½
Large HDD, max RAM 2GB, no gigabit Ethernet.
ROI
½
Good spec and performance and battery life. Average weight and comfort.
Service
Three-year international parts and labour warranty.
Rating
½
Toshiba Portege M200

Contents
Introduction
Fujitsu Stylistic T4020C
Lenovo ThinkPad X41
Acer TravelMate C310
Toshiba Portege M200
Hewlett-Packard TC4200
How we tested
Specifications
Editor's choice
About RMIT

Hewlett-Packard TC4200
The HP TC4200 is a great-looking tablet which also appears and feels tough. It weighs 2.1kg but doesn't have an integrated optical drive. Your only option here is to attach a USB optical drive which is of course optional.

The HP featured an Intel Pentium M 1.73 processor with 512MB of RAM, 60GB HDD, and Intel 915 graphics. The 12.1-inch LCD is quite nice -- colours are vivid and the sharpness is very good. Like many of the other displays tested; speckles were prominent across the entire screen.

It has excellent wired and wireless network capabilities and has all the basic input and output connectors. There are three USB connectors, one located on the right, another on the left, and one on the rear of the tablet which is great for easy access to these ports. There's no FireWire or S-Video.

HP provides both a glide pad and trackball which is something you only really see with larger notebooks. The standard and function keys are all the same colour and are really small which can be annoying for someone with large fingers.

The HP has some handy shortcut buttons on the LCD like a Ctrl-Alt-Del button and a scrolling up/down and enter jog dial. Unfortunately there is no button to change the orientation from portrait to landscape -- you have to use the Q Menu (which is a piece of software that runs on the HP).

The base of this tablet is also quite slippery, it could be awkward to hold for a longer period. We would have liked to see a bit more done here in terms of comfort. The digital pen is small but does have an eraser on the end which is actually quite handy.

On the base of the tablet there is a connector for a second battery. You can use it as a travel battery to give you an additional four hours of battery life.

The standard battery completed the run-down test in four hours and 28 minutes which was a good result. We unfortunately were not able to run Winstone on the HP -- it constantly crashed the benchmark and we weren't able to rectify the problem.

Product TC4200
Price AU$3,599
Vendor Hewlett-Packard
Phone 1300 304 894
Web www.hp.com.au
 
Interoperability
Excellent wired and unwired connectivity.
Futureproofing
½
Max RAM 2GB, provision for second battery.
ROI
Good battery life. Unfortunately because Winstone crashed constantly, performance was not measurable. Average weight and comfort.
Service
Warranty: three-year parts and labour, on-site, and 12 months battery.
Rating
Hewlett-Packard TC4200

Contents
Introduction
Fujitsu Stylistic T4020C
Lenovo ThinkPad X41
Acer TravelMate C310
Toshiba Portege M200
Hewlett-Packard TC4200
How we tested
Specifications
Editor's choice
About RMIT

How we tested
We tested and evaluated each of the tablet PCs based on the following criteria:

  • Standard performance and compatibility benchmarks.
  • Display quality including evenness, clarity, colours, and resolutions supported.
  • Audio including the audio chip used and sound quality, volume level, speaker/s location, I/O and ease of use.
  • Keypad including key size, spacing, layout, travel, feedback, support, and colour differentiation.
  • Stylus including tips, button size, and functionality.
  • Workmanship and design including ergonomics, robustness and durability.
  • System expandability including the number of I/O ports, CPU, memory and hard disk size.

Business Winstone 2004
Business Winstone is a system-level, application-based benchmark that measures a PC's overall performance when running Windows-based 32-bit applications on Windows XP. Business Winstone doesn't mimic what these packages do; it runs real applications through a series of scripted activities and uses the time a PC takes to complete those activities to produce its performance scores.

The list of ten business productivity applications includes five Microsoft Office applications (Access, Excel, FrontPage, PowerPoint, and Word), Microsoft Project, an e-mail application (Lotus Notes R5), a compression program (NicoMak WinZip), an anti-virus program (Norton AntiVirus), and a Web browser (Netscape Communicator).

Business Winstone 2004 BatteryMark 1.0.1
BatteryMark measures battery life on notebook/ tablet computers running Windows 2000 or Windows XP/ Windows XP Tablet.

What to look for

  • Convertible or Slate
    Convertibles tend to be heavier but have larger displays and built in keypads.
  • Communications
    Does the tablet have an integrated modem and Gigabit Ethernet, what wireless networks does it support -- 802.11 a/b/g, Bluetooth?
  • Battery Performance
    Anything over four hours is quite good, above five hours is excellent.
  • Shortcut buttons
    These are handy to perform several functions that you'd usually need a keyboard to perform.
Specifications

System model name Acer TravelMate C310 HP TC4200 Portege M200 (PPM21A-0P8ZP) Lenovo ThinkPad X41 Tablet Fujitsu LifeBook T4020C
Distributor Acer Computer Hewlett-Packard Toshiba ISD Lenovo Fujitsu
RRP price $3,999 $3,995 $4,070 $3,999 TBA, but expected to be $4,299
Phone number 1300 366 567 1300 304 894 13 30 70 13 24 26 1800 188 284
Web site Link Link Link Link Link
Warranty 3 year pickup and return service 3 year parts, labour, onsite except 12 months battery 3 year parts and labour, pick-up and return service 3 years pickup and return 3 years part and labour
Processor Intel Pentium M 1.73GHz Intel Pentium M 1.73GHz Intel Pentium M 1.80GHz Intel Pentium M 1.5GHz Intel Pentium M 1.86Ghz
RAM/maximum 512MB/2GB 512MB /2GB 512MB/2GB 512MB/1.5GB 512MB/N/A
System weight 2.89kg 2.10kg 2.02kg 1.88kg 2.16kg
Battery rating 14.8v, 4400mAh 10.8v, 4800mAh 10.8v, 4400mAh 14.4v, 4500mAh 10.8v, 5200mAh
Display size 14.1in 12.1in 12.1in 12.1in 12.1in
Native resolution in landscape mode 1024 x 768 1024 x 768 1400 x 1050 1024 x 768 1024 x 768
Digitizer N/A Wacom Wacom Wacom Wacom
Graphics nVidia Geforce Go6200/ 128 Intel 915GM/ shared DVMT nVidia Geforce Go5200/ 32 Intel 915GM/ shared VMT Intel 915GM/ shared DVMT
Hard drive 80GB/ 4200RPM 60GB/ 5400RPM 80GB/ 5400RPM 60GB/ 4200RPM Sale unit will be 80GB/ 5400RPM
Optical drive DVD Optional External Optional External Optional External Combo DVD-ROM and CD-ROM recorder
Integrated Modem 56K Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Integrated 10/100/1000 Yes 10/100/1000 Yes 10/100/1000 Yes 10/100 Yes 10/100/1000 Yes 10/100/1000
Integrated wireless A/B/G Yes A/G Yes A/B/G Yes A/G Yes A/B/G Yes A/B/G
Bluetooth Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
PC card slot/ SD media/CF card/Sony memory stick Yes/Yes/ No/No Yes/Yes/ No/No Yes/Yes/ No/No Yes/Yes/ No/No Yes/Yes/ No/Yes
USB 3 3 2 2 + 1 powered USB 2
FireWire/S-video/VGA Yes/Yes/ Yes No/No/ Yes No/No/ Yes No/No/ Yes Yes/No/ Yes
Audio ports (microphone, headphone) Yes/Yes Yes/Yes Yes/Yes Yes/Yes Yes/Yes
Docking station connector No Yes Yes Yes Yes
Integrated fingerprint scanner No No No Yes Yes
Operating system Windows XP Tablet PC Edition Windows XP Tablet PC Edition Windows XP Tablet PC Edition Windows XP Tablet PC Edition Windows XP Tablet PC Edition
Carry bag N (optional) N (optional) N (optional) N (optional) N

Contents
Introduction
Fujitsu Stylistic T4020C
Lenovo ThinkPad X41
Acer TravelMate C310
Toshiba Portege M200
Hewlett-Packard TC4200
How we tested
Specifications
Editor's choice
About RMIT

Scenario winner
Scenario 1: This company wishes to supply its mobile executives with Tablet PCs.
Concerns: The execs will be concerned with style, performance, and features.

Scenario 1 Winner:
Acer TravelMate C310
Acer wins out here because of its good performance in Winstone. It also has more features than any of the other tablets and styling any executive would be happy with.

The Acer, more than any of the other tablets here is more suitable for someone who is going to use the tablet more as a notebook than a tablet.

Because it's so well featured and fast, your executives can use this Acer as a desktop replacement notebook and also have the flexibility to use it as a tablet whenever they might need.

Scenario 2:
A hospital IT manager is looking to evaluate tablet PCs for its doctors, who will be making rounds and inputting notes from the bedside, plus using the device as their regular desktop in their office and possibly from home.

Concerns: The docs are particularly interested to see if handwriting recognition will work even for them. Also size, weight, portability, battery life, cost, durability, and performance are key factors.

Approximate budget: AU$5000

Scenario 2 Winner:
Lenovo ThinkPad X41 Tablet
Picking a winner here was easy, the tablet that was lightest, most portable, durable, comfortable and had the best best battery life was the ThinkPad. It's not the fastest but there is so much going for this tablet that it outweighs its lack of speed.

T&B Editor's choice
Editor's Choice
The Lenovo ThinkPad X41 Tablet wins the Editor's Choice award for being the most comfortable to use and also for having excellent communication offerings from gigabit Ethernet, Bluetooth, and Wireless a, b, and g support. Its super light for a Convertible and the build quality is second to none.

It's down on processing power compared to the rest of the field but it's no slouch.


Contents
Introduction
Fujitsu Stylistic T4020C
Lenovo ThinkPad X41
Acer TravelMate C310
Toshiba Portege M200
Hewlett-Packard TC4200
How we tested
Specifications
Editor's choice
About RMIT

RMIT IT Test Labs
About RMIT IT Test Labs

RMIT IT Test Labs is an independent testing institution based in Melbourne, Victoria, performing IT product testing for clients such as IBM, Coles-Myer, and a wide variety of government bodies. In the Labs' testing for T&B, they are in direct contact with the clients supplying products and the magazine is responsible for the full cost of the testing. The findings are the Labs' own -- only the specifications of the products to be tested are provided by the magazine. For more information on RMIT, please contact the Lab Manager, Steven Turvey.

This article was first published in Technology & Business magazine.
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