This Year, Tablet PC Improves in Leaps and Bounds; Laptop of the Month: Acer TravelMate C300 Convertible Tablet PC

I have a reputation at Windows & .NET Magazine for being the guy that doesn't like Tablet PCs. But this reputation is undeserved: Although the first-generation Tablet PC machines were based on underpowered Pentium III M chips that offered lackluster battery life, I could see promise in the platform, and Microsoft Windows XP Tablet PC Edition was a surprisingly solid 1.0 release.

With the release of a machine based on Intel's Centrino mobile platform in 2003, however, the Tablet PC's fortunes changed dramatically for the better. The Centrino--which consists of the powerful but battery-friendly Pentium M processor, an efficient supporting chipset, and a compatible wireless antenna (curiously limited to 11Mbps 802.11b technology in its initial iteration) is everything the Pentium III is not. Processing power is on a par with high-end Pentium 4 chips. And the battery life is phenomenal.

PC makers responded. Some, such as HP, with its Compaq Tablet PC, and Acer, with its TravelMate C100 series, kept their well-designed first-generation Tablet PC designs, but equipped them with Centrino innards, making them dramatically more usable. Other PC makers--notably Toshiba, which already made the market-leading Tablet PC design--created innovative new devices that take better advantage of the unique capabilities of the Tablet PC platform. As a result, second-generation Tablet PCs were less niche product and more mainstream notebook.

Second-generation Tablet PCs still ship in one of two form factors: traditional slate-style tablets, which don't include integrated keyboards, and convertible laptops, which you can use as regular laptops, but feature unique hinged lids that can swivel to create a slate-style tablet. For the typical business traveler, convertible laptops make more sense than slates, although I can see the latter gaining traction in certain vertical markets. But whereas first-generation Tablet PCs were all ultralight designs, second-generation devices come in a variety of form factors, making them appeal to a wide range of buyers. For example, you can now buy Tablet PCs with 14-inch screens, and some offer resolutions above the XGA standard that predominated in the first generation.

Microsoft hasn't sat still either. The company's next-generation Tablet PC OS--code-named Lonestar, but recently renamed to Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005--will ship in late June and offer several enhancements over the initial release, making Tablet PC devices more viable. Best of all, XP Tablet PC Edition 2005 will be available free of charge to all Tablet PC owners. Microsoft is delivering XP Tablet PC Edition 2005 as part of XP Service Pack 2 (SP2); if you install this release on a Tablet PC device, you get the Tablet PC updates as well.

So what do Tablet PC users get with SP2 and the XP Tablet PC Edition 2005 updates? The most obvious change is a dramatically enhanced Tablet Input Panel (TIP), which makes entering digital ink more natural. Here's how it works: In the initial XP Tablet PC Edition release, the TIP would appear docked to the bottom of the screen any time you tapped the stylus in an onscreen UI element, such as an edit box. Now, the TIP appears in-place, so you don't have to keep moving the stylus up and down the screen to reach it. That is, the TIP is now a floating window that appears only when needed; it's more convenient and it doesn't take up valuable screen real estate.

The TIP is also more intelligent than its predecessor. In addition to the standard Writing Pad (handwriting) and onscreen keyboard input types, the TIP now includes a Character Pad mode that previews the system's recognition of each character as you type, letting you make corrections before the handwriting is entered into the form you're using. This makes your handwriting-based input more accurate.

Laptop of the Month: Acer TravelMate C300 Convertible Tablet PC
A solid second-generation Tablet PC, the Acer TravelMate C300 is a convertible laptop design with a 14-inch XGA screen. Unlike first-generation tablets, this device could be your only PC, and as a traditional laptop, it offers all the amenities you'd expect--a powerful 1.5GHz Pentium M processor; integrated wireless, USB 2.0, and FireWire ports; and an integrated DVD/CD-RW drive (still a rarity with Tablet PCs) as well as the unique features you can get only from a full-featured Tablet PC, including a pressure-sensitive pen-enabled screen.

I've been using the C300 as a standard laptop for the most part, but I swivel the screen around when needed to do handwriting or sketching. Compared to first-generation tablets, the C300 is a bit heavy at 6.5 pounds, probably too heavy for many people, but I found the device's size and weight to be acceptable.

Battery life is fantastic, even with the single battery my system contains. I was able to obtain 4 to 5 hours of battery life per charge, depending on the wireless and screen settings, and Acer says an optional second battery--which would fill the modular bay that the optical drive currently uses--would extend battery life to 8.5 hours. And like Acer's smaller C100 tablet, the C300 features a gently curved, ergonomic keyboard, something I'd like to see on more laptops. The keyboard is nicely laid out, and I adapted to it quickly.

Acer throws in a few interesting features as well. Bluetooth is optional, but I'll reserve judgment on that technology for a while yet. And Acer provides a nice 4-in-1 media card reader that plugs into the PC card bay for compatibility with Memory Stick, MultiMediaCard (MMC), Secure Digital (SD), and SmartMedia cards, a nice touch for PDA and digital camera users.

I do have a few quibbles. Unlike Acer's smaller tablet, the C300 doesn't feature screen latches, and the screen seems to want to swivel on its own while in laptop mode (it locks down when used as a slate). In slate mode, the microphone and PC card slot are on the bottom of the device, which can be problematic: The microphone is useless in this position, and if you need to use a PC card, it sticks out awkwardly. Both of these options should be moved to the far side of the screen, at the top, where they would be more usable. You can optionally set up the Tablet PC's screen orientation such that the microphone and PC card slot would be at the top; but you shouldn't have to do this manually.

Overall, however, the C300 is a great laptop, which I couldn't say about first-generation Tablet PC devices. If this machine represents the future of the Tablet PC, and I think it does, this platform has a great future. Kudos to Acer for getting it right: Combined with the right options and the XP Tablet PC Edition 2005 update, the C300 has it all.

TAGS: Windows 8
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