- Flexible design -- tablet with external keyboard and carrying case
- built-in digital camera
- 4-in-1 flash card reader
- Moderate specification
- no PC Card slot or optical drive
- so-so battery life
- awkward to use in notebook mode in confined spaces
EliteGroup Computer Systems (ECS) is not currently a name to conjure with, but the company is working on it. The Taiwan-based outfit is currently best known for its motherboards, but has recently set its sights on complete devices, including desktop and notebook computers. The £765 (ex. VAT; £899 inc. VAT) EZ-Tablet EZ30D is the first of what's expected to become a steady flow of products from the company over the coming months. And rather than stick with a tried-and-tested formula, ECS has decided to be innovative.
It’s difficult to categorise the EZ-Tablet EZ30D. The name suggests that it runs Microsoft's Tablet PC operating system, but our review unit was actually supplied with Windows XP Home. The same unit with Windows XP Tablet PC Edition costs £835 (ex. VAT); alternatively, you can opt for Windows XP Professional and pay £805 (ex. VAT). The word ‘Tablet’ in the product name actually refers to the hardware design. This is a two-piece unit, with a separate keyboard and display. You can wander around with the tablet (screen plus system unit) only, or use the tablet in conjunction with the keyboard as you would a conventional notebook. The tablet houses everything required for full functionality (touch-screen, processor, hard drive and all ports), while the slim (~5mm thick) keyboard is permanently housed in a folding case. To use it with the tablet you need to slot the latter into a housing that forms part of the case. The connection between the two parts is built into the case. The case wraps around to provide complete protection for the EZ30D for transportation, and there is a second case, designed to house the tablet only, which incorporates the same A-frame mechanism used to set the screen section at an appropriate angle for viewing. The tablet weighs 1.18kg and measures 23.6cm wide by 17.5cm deep by 2.5cm thick. When in its case, the EZ30D is considerably thicker than any notebook we’ve seen, and a bit on the heavy side too. Aside from size and weight, there are two other potential problems with this configuration if you're looking for a notebook to use while travelling: when arranged to hold the EZ30D in a configuration appropriate for use in notebook mode, the case requires a minimum of 40cm of table depth (and ideally close to 50cm), which is rather more than a conventional notebook needs. Working on a train, for example, you can easily encroach on the table space of the person sitting opposite. Also, the use of the soft case to produce the notebook orientation makes it virtually impossible to work with the EZ30D sitting on your lap or briefcase -- as you might with a conventional notebook -- because there is a flexible gap between the screen and keyboard rather than a solid hinge. As far as conventional measures of notebook design go, the EZ30D has a relatively small screen -- just 8.4in., with a native resolution of 800 by 600 pixels. The graphics subsystem can deliver higher resolutions, up to a maximum of 1,280 by 1,024 and a letterbox format of 1,600 by 600, but in these cases you'll need to scroll around, making them most appropriate for output to an external monitor. The screen’s touch-sensitive surface is designed for use with a digitiser pen: this causes a little reflection, although we did not find it overly annoying. We were able to touch-type on the (relatively small) keyboard, although people with larger hands may find this more of a challenge. Twin rubbery pads sit either side of the touch pad and though they don’t look too nice they do help prevent the wrists from sliding about too much.
ECS's target markets for this device encompass the professional, educational and consumer sectors. The EZ30D's 800MHz Transmeta Crusoe 5800 processor running and 256MB of DDR RAM don’t provide the power that some users in these sectors will need, although we had no problems creating documents or browsing the Web via the built-in Wi-Fi (802.11b) connection. Gaming will be another matter, though. Nor is the sound output up to much: music streamed from our wireless network nicely, but the mono speaker’s output is tinny and unimpressive. Output via headphones is better. All of the ports and connectors needed to use the EZ30D are housed on the tablet section. On the left-hand side there are microphone and headphone jacks, plus a release for the digitiser pen. On the top edge are the power switch, a toggle for 802.11b, and two buttons that function only when in tablet mode. One, marked SAS, emulates a Ctrl-Alt-Delete key combination and calls up the Windows Task Manager; the other, marked FN, provides access to the BIOS setup screen. To the right of these keys sits a 4-in-1 card reader that can handle SmartMedia, Memory Stick, SD and MMC media. It's a pity that CompactFlash doesn't get a look-in though. The right-hand side houses the power jack and, under a protective cover, a pair of USB 2.0 ports, VGA out, and RJ45 and RJ11 jacks. At the top right there's a VGA-resolution digital still/video camera. On the front, to the right of the screen and well placed for use with the right thumb, there are two very large buttons for scrolling up and down. These come into their own when you're using the tablet as a Web access device, where long screens of information need to be read. Storage is provided by a 40GB hard drive, but you’ll need to add any optical drives via USB if you need them. ECS provides a software suite to help you get the most from the EZ30D, including an application for using the camera. Power Presenter RE works in conjunction with Microsoft's PowerPoint and allows direct input to presentations via the digitiser pen (you have to provide your own copy of PowerPoint). Free Notes and Office Ink both allow writing and drawing to be captured to the screen, and require Windows XP Tablet PC Edition. Pensoft Pro is a handwriting recognition tool that does not need this operating system: you either hunt-and-click on a soft keyboard, or form letters directly on the screen with the cursor. Pensoft Pro inputs text into the currently opened application -- we used it successfully both with Google and WordPad, although it takes some practice.
It is unfortunate that the EZ30D Tablet PC refused to complete any of our benchmarks successfully. Without a complete set of performance tests, it's difficult to give a full evaluation of the system's performance. Typical battery life is quoted at about 2.5 hours: we left it running in always-on mode and disabled hibernation, and it stayed alive for 2 hours and 55 minutes doing nothing more than running the screen. This and our experience while evaluating the system suggests somewhere in the region of 2 hours for battery life for general working, less if you constantly use wireless networking. With its fairly low-level specification, the EZ-Tablet EZ30D is best thought of as a second computer rather than a main machine. Looked at in that way, it's a flexible and cost-efficient option. It's not the kind of device you're likely to want to carry regularly, but it is portable and its tablet configuration is appealing if you have a wireless network and an always-on Internet connection.