Take one tablet to improve mobility

A review after three weeks use of Lenovo's ThinkPad X41 tablet PC.

I have a mobility problem, because of the way I work in my office. My desk has five LCD monitors and I am used to spreading out my work across two Macs and a PC—I've completely spoiled myself. Until recently when on the road, I have opted for a single hugeNo other portable computer I've used has been designed to be held like the ThinkPad X41. Powerbook screen, which has hampered how I deal with the real needs I have to check messages, surf the Web and IM with colleagues. Short story is that I am adding a Lenovo ThinkPad X41 tablet to my mobile office, and I like it.

I still carry my PowerBook for those times I actually sit down to work, when I'll have two computers running in front of me. It's a viable simulation of my working environment at home, which increases what I can do when on a trip. The real relief, though, comes when I am walking around or driving. The 17-inch Powerbook is big enough to serve a salmon dinner and, when opened, leaves room for salad, vegetables and bread. It's virtually impossible to open and use, unless I have a place to sit.

The tablet PC is an ideal walking around device, because you don't need to open it to use it and with an EV-DO card installed I can keep my connection to my company's Exchange server at all hours of the day.

I've been using the ThinkPad X41 tablet for three weeks. It's a loaner from Lenovo, but I'd happily buy one of these because it is light and well-designed. The way the battery is built into the case, which lets me get a firm hold on the computer when using it, is just one of the simple features that has made this thing a lot of fun to use. No other portable computer I've used has been designed to be held like this one, and at 3.5 pounds it is the lightest PC I've used that didn't make me feel like I was missing important features, such as a full-sized keyboard. I like the way the monitor snaps to the rest of the case when using it as a tablet, while the weight and balance of the whole system is more pleasing than other tablets I've tried.

I found Lenovo's fingerprint-based security to be a gadgety thrill at first and just plain convenient after the novelty wore off.

The screen, though it is much smaller than I am used to at 12.1 inches, serves the purposes I have for the device very well. The pen interface built into Windows XP Tablet PC Edition is acceptable, though still a bit awkward because it does not walk through a tuning process to customize itself to the angle at which I hold the pen. Having used every pen computing OS since the Go OS on the EO Personal Communicator (remember the PDA with the handset grafted to it?), Windows does outperform earlier OSes in terms of handwriting recognition, though that is, in part, simply a result of Moore's Law. It would be improved by doing more to learn about the user's input—the tablet settings, which offer slider controls for "spatial tolerance" aren't a lot of help.

In fact, the drawback of the system is that it runs Windows. Lenovo includes a suite of utilities for managing network connections, backup and other daily hassles that are superior to the Windows controls. It took me a while to figure out that I shouldn't use Microsoft's wireless networking control panel, because it simply lost its connections after the system went to sleep. When I use the Lenovo utilities, the system is actually easier to use than Windows is; I switch Wi-Fi and EV-DO connections all day without restarting. If I try the same things using just Windows utilities, the system craps out two or three times a day. Lenovo should add more features for customizing the pen experience, it would improve the overall performance of the system.

I also like to type, and that's why a pure tablet or a handheld just wouldn't be satisfying. The X41 monitor pivots and reorients quickly, where I have seen several tablets that take a long time for the screen to refresh after changing modes. It came with a full Gigabyte of RAM, compared to the standard 512MB (though Lenovo's offering a free 512MB upgrade through the end of the month) and, even though the specs say there is supposed to be a 40GB drive, this one seems to have a 60GB drive. Were I producing audio or video with this system I'd be interested in an option to upgrade to a much larger drive. The system would sell for about $2,200 if the memory were upgraded at full price.

My list of essential tablet software to add to the ThinkPad:

  •     ActiveWords, which lets you enter commands to run scripts using the pen. It's one reason I've wanted to use a tablet since I saw Buzz Bruggeman demo the tablet version at PC Forum in 2005.
  •     OneNote, from Microsoft, an Office add-on that lets you mark up documents with the pen, as well as take notes. If you have to use Office, OneNote will make people jealous of your cool pen computer.
  •     Firefox, because. The tabbed browsing is excellent with the pen. IE 7 isn't bad, either, but I prefer greater ecological diversity on my computer.

The essential hardware add-on: An EV-DO card from your least-hated wireless carrier. The fast connections aren't ubiquitous, yet, but when you find yourself in an airport, at a conference or in the car where Wi-Fi isn't convenient or is maxed out, EV-DO is a joy. I use Sprint's service, because I have my business wireless with them. The EV-DO card is a power hog, drawing down the battery at least 50 percent faster than when I am not using it.

My conclusion: I'd buy a Lenovo ThinkPad X41 if I had to return this one today. I'd also want to upgrade my Powerbook to a 17-inch MacBook Pro, but the tablet would come first. I have a salmon platter already.