The new tablet PCs are hitting the streets in the next few weeks, and for once I am at a loss as to what to say about them. They are a study of opposites: many good and bad things, put together in the same package. So I'll tell you about them, and let you be the judge.
When I first saw this nth version of the tablet PC this summer, I was pretty excited. The spec list is impressive: the tablets have 10+ inch diagonal screens that are beautiful to look at, and contain a plethora of ports including both wired and wireless Ethernet. The machines run a special tablet version of XP and can operate in either portrait or landscape mode and include handwriting and speech recognition as well as support for regular USB keyboards.
But I should have known better. Once I got a unit into my hot little hands, the bloom was off the rose. The unit I ended up testing is the Viewsonic Table PC V1100. Besides the specs cited above, it also comes with ports for VGA out, speakers and mike, USB and FireWire, an 866 MHz Pentium III processor, and PC Card and SD RAM card slots, and 56 K modem. It sounds great -- literally the speaker isn't bad, and once you get used to your tablet playing music it is rather nice. It is not quite as portable as a Rio or iPod but portable enough.
I first noticed that something was wrong with the installed version of XP tablet edition -- it didn't recognize the internal wired Ethernet card. Luckily the wireless network worked fine, and I was able to attach it to my network and run the XP system recovery disk on my server and reinstall the operating system to find that Ethernet adapter. That brings up my first disappointment with the unit: you don't have any external drives, unless you can attach to them first over the network or make use of a docking station (which I didn't have).
The built-in wireless network is nice, but because the antenna is integrated into the computer, the radio reception isn't as good as a PC Card wireless add-on with its own external antenna. Okay, I can live with that, particularly for the convenience of having the wireless gear built-in.
Then I started noticing problems whenever I wanted to hibernate the device and have it wake up. Sometimes it did a Rip Van Winkle on me and wouldn't wake up. Other times I had to push a series of buttons on the front panel to get things rolling again. I don't know why: I never got a consistent sequence to document.
But really what we should focus on here is the handwriting recognition features. For those of you that have used previous incarnations of handwriting recognition, you will be pleasantly surprised: You can input directly into Windows applications from the pen (you do need a series of special extensions to the XP version of Office that you have to download from Microsoft's web site). And you can use the entire screen's real estate as the input area. The machine will then recognize your scrawl and convert it into text and insert it into your application: you can annotate PowerPoint slides, compose documents, calculate spreadsheets, whatever.
You can also scribble on sticky notes, or on virtual lined paper as part of the Windows Journal application, and store these away for future reference, just like that trusty pad of yellow lined paper. There is one major difference, and that is you have to write on glass with the tablet's pen. And unlike the Palms and Pocket PC devices, you must use the supplied pen: your finger or any ole pointy stick won't cut it. That is good, because you need someplace to rest your wrist as you are jabbing at the screen with your pen point. But it also means if you lose the pen, you are toast without a replacement.
Writing on glass isn't natural. The glass is a solid surface without any "give" that makes writing on paper such a joyful and expressive experience (well, maybe for us writers). The pen just glides across the glass surface, and I am not sure how long it would take me to get used to it. I gave it the Strom ultimate torture test: I played Solitaire for a solid hour (hey, it is a job, I know). After a while, I got to even win a game here or there. But I still didn't like sliding across the glass surface.
Now, my handwriting hasn't been all that terrific ever since I had some shoulder surgery about a month ago, but I was pleasantly surprised that the machine did a credible job at recognizing my scrawl and converting it into text. It wasn't perfect, but it was pretty good, as long as wrote slowly and clearly enough.
You don't have to use a pen all the time -- you can attach a regular USB keyboard as I mentioned earlier. Or you can use the pen and the on-screen keyboard to peck out a short message -- similar to how the Palm works, of course with a bit more screen real estate at your disposal. It is nice to have choices.
The speech recognition was also initially impressive. I always wanted to make like Scotty in that Star Trek movie where he tries to talk to the 1980s-era Macintosh (but at least I wouldn't mistake the mouse for a microphone). After training it with my voice for about 15 minutes, I was able to walk through a few commands. I would think the novelty would wear off quickly, though. The hard part is that you have to bring up the application to the foreground to use the commands.
So is it a laptop replacement? Not really: it weighs about the same (3+ pounds), and isn't much smaller, particularly if you need to attach an external keyboard. It might make sense to use on a plane where you have limited space and are afraid to open the laptop hinge for fear of being whacked by the quickly reclining passenger in front of you -- but I am not sure that the tablet + keyboard combo is anything better. (You can get a stand to hold the tablet vertically but I don't think the stand will work on an airline tray table.)
Is it a better PDA? Not really. It is far too big to be carried everywhere like a Palm or Pocket PC. And while the wireless built-in is nice, it isn't the type of wireless that is needed to do email everywhere: you'll need another PC Card to stick in there to communicate with the CDPD or 3G networks.
Will it work on the shop floor? Maybe, if people can get used to carrying it around. I do think that the coming months will be telling for the little bugger -- if VARs and integrators develop new vertical applications for it, it could become a big seller. People that are using tablets today like insurance, field service, and health care will be happy to see that you can use standard Windows applications and also glad to see the improvements to the speech and handwriting recognition features compared to what they were using before. "That combined with the wireless capabilities makes the individual much more productive than they had previously," says Kim Kasee, VP of Marketing, Motion Computing, who manufacturers a competitive tablet to the one I tried out.
So you see my dilemma. It slices, it dices, and sometimes works in interesting and new ways. And for about $2700, it is a bit pricey for a laptop. But with the right kinds of applications and software tools, this could take off.
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