Tablet PCs - 30 Jul 2003

We review 5 of these new mobile devices

Microsoft launched Windows XP Tablet PC Edition at last fall's COMDEX computer show in Las Vegas. Since then, according to IDC, vendors have shipped about 72,000 devices based on the new OS. That's not a large number, but it's big enough to represent one of the few bright spots in today's depressed PC market, and it was a sufficiently large volume that some vendors reportedly sold out of their initial designs.

Tablet PCs from Acer, Hewlett-Packard (HP), Motion Computing, Toshiba America Information Systems, and ViewSonic represent a variety of different approaches to designing a device to exploit the XP Tablet PC Edition feature set. In evaluating these devices, I concentrated more on ergonomics, usability, and suitability to task than on specific performance benchmarks. I also put each device through a fairly severe usability and battery-life test by editing a book chapter on it. All five devices worked well, although each has strengths and weaknesses. Some of the devices have docking stations, and I tested those units in both docked and undocked modes. All come with built-in 802.11b wireless network support, which I used extensively on my home office wireless LAN (WLAN).

What Is a Tablet PC?
Before I get into the specifics of the various units that I tested, let me review what makes a tablet PC different from a conventional notebook or laptop PC. A tablet PC is a mobile computer that runs a special version of XP that you can operate with an electronic stylus rather than (or in addition to) a conventional keyboard and mouse. The stylus communicates with an active digitizer built into the tablet PC display that accurately reports the stylus position (typically, at four times the resolution of the display) and, in most cases, the stylus pressure against the display (e.g., pressing harder against the display draws a darker line).

The OS used for tablet PCs, XP Tablet PC Edition, is a version of XP Professional Edition that supports electronic ink and handwriting recognition. XP Tablet PC Edition includes an application called Windows Journal that allows onscreen note-taking and a pop-up Tablet PC Input Panel that lets you use the stylus for input to text fields in any Windows application. Figure 1 shows Windows Journal and the Tablet PC Input Panel. You can use print or cursive forms, and you can use the stylus to select one letter at a time from an onscreen keyboard at times when handwriting recognition won't work.

XP Tablet PC Edition retains, and in some cases provides enhancements to, XP Pro features. For example, speech recognition is integrated into the Input Panel. People rarely use speech recognition on conventional notebook PCs, but the tablet PC form factor is well suited to it; add a headset and boom mike, and you can dictate text while holding the unit in one hand and the stylus in the other hand for editing. I did this while testing the units in this review, and it works. I also used Windows Journal for note-taking and Microsoft Office XP with the Office XP Pack for Tablet PC add-on, which all the tablet PCs I reviewed provided, for extensive writing and editing. The tablet PC prices listed in this article don't include the cost of Office XP.

To answer the big question right up front, yes, the tablet PC form factor really does work. Each of the devices I reviewed provides the full power of XP Pro running on a high-end processor, but the small size and light weight of the units (and built-in 802.11b wireless network support) provide unparalleled mobility. When you need it, you can add a keyboard—by plugging the unit into a docking station, setting it on a stand, or (for some of the units) twisting the display around to uncover a hidden keyboard. After spending 2 weeks testing these units, I'm completely confident that I could live with one as a full-time PC (although in most cases, I'd want an external monitor for use on my desk).

Let's examine separately the five units that I tested. Note that Table 1, page 45, shows the common specifications for each unit, including physical size, weight, display size, and processor speed; the sidebar "Other Tablet PC Vendors" lists the Web sites of other vendors in the tablet PC space; and the sidebar "Tablet PC Applications," page 46, identifies some applications designed for this form factor.

Acer TravelMate C102Ti
The Acer TravelMate C100 was the first tablet PC device I had an opportunity to use (see Mobile & Wireless, "Acer TravelMate 100," November 2002,, InstantDoc 26688); and the Acer TravelMate C102Ti retains its features. It's a convertible device—in one mode, it looks exactly like a conventional notebook PC, but press on the hinges at either end of the display to unlock them, rotate the display 180 degrees horizontally, fold the display down over the keyboard, and you find yourself holding a tablet PC.

The C102Ti works extremely well as a conventional notebook PC, benefiting from a high-resolution display and good keyboard. It's a bit more problematic in tablet mode, in part because you must carry the weight of the keyboard and external ports even if you don't need them. The large primary stylus is easy to lose (I lost both the C100 and C102Ti styli) because the device has no place to stow it. A small backup stylus that fits into a slot at the top of the C102Ti's display works but is less than ideal for extended use. And you can use the keyboard only when the display is in landscape mode (you can vertically orient the nonconvertible units—the ViewSonic Tablet PC V1100, Motion M1200, and Compaq Tablet PC TC1000—when you use them with a keyboard). The C102Ti's on/off button for the 802.11b wireless network card is a nice feature and is easy to use in notebook mode, but you must open the case to use it when in tablet mode—a minor inconvenience.

The C102Ti makes a fine presentation platform. If you store your presentation on the hard disk, you need only carry the C102Ti—you don't need a docking station or adapter to connect the device to an auxiliary monitor or LCD projector.

The C102Ti comes with trial versions of WebEx Communications' WebEx Mobile Meetings and FranklinCovey's TabletPlanner for Tablet PC (for brief descriptions of these applications, see "Tablet PC Applications") and is covered by Acer's standard 1-year "carry-in" international traveler's warranty. The C102Ti is a fine choice for users who want a lightweight notebook PC that can also be used as a true tablet PC when required. Acer recently announced the availability of the TravelMate C110, which is built on Intel Centrino mobile technology.

Contact: Acer * 408-432-6200 or 800-637-7777
Price: $1499
Decision Summary
The Acer TravelMate C102Ti is a convertible notebook/tablet that offers a good mix of features in a compact package.
Pros: Good ultralight notebook PC that converts into tablet mode for note-taking
Cons: No holder for standard stylus; small backup stylus fits into unit but is uncomfortable to use

Compaq Tablet PC TC1000
HP's first tablet PC differs from competitors in several ways. For the $1799 list price ($1699, if you don't need a built-in 802.11b wireless network card), you get a convertible device, which, like the C102Ti and the Toshiba Portégé 3500, functions as either a notebook PC or as a true tablet PC. However, you can completely remove the Compaq Tablet PC TC1000's keyboard, which results in a smaller, lighter device that's easier to hold in one hand for note-taking. A heavy (6.5-pound) optional docking station can hold the unit—without the keyboard—in either portrait or landscape orientation for desktop use. The $299 docking station includes a multibay port that can accept a CD-ROM, DVD, 3.5" floppy disk, or hard drive (at additional cost). A $79 USB multibay port is available if you don't need a complete docking station.

The TC1000 display is outstanding—it offers higher contrast and a wider viewing angle than the other tablet PCs reviewed here—possibly due to HP's choice of tempered glass rather than plastic for the display surface. Unfortunately, the display is too small for comfortable viewing at arm's length—you'll need a separate monitor to use the TC1000 as a desktop replacement. The TC1000's VGA video port provides full multimonitor support.

The TC1000's stylus is unique: All the other tablet PCs I evaluated have a passive stylus, but the TC1000's has a battery and a switch in the nib. The extra weight makes the stylus feel more substantial and gave the best results with Windows Journal and XP Tablet PC Edition's built-in handwriting recognition. The downside is that replacing the stylus is expensive ($49), and you can expect to change the AAAA alkaline battery every 6 months or so. The HP stylus also doesn't transmit pressure information, which some graphics applications use. (The styli of all the other products I tested do transmit pressure information.) HP offers 1-year and 3-year warranty options on the TC1000.

Internally, the TC1000 differs from competitors by using Transmeta's Crusoe processor; which is optimized for minimal battery consumption. HP claims the longest battery life—over 4 hours on a charge—of any tablet PC that uses a standard-sized battery. The overall feel and flexibility of the TC1000 design are outstanding—I only wish it had a larger display.

Contact: Hewlett-Packard * 650-857-1501 or 800-752-0900
Price: $1799
Decision Summary
You can use the Compaq Tablet PC TC1000 as a standalone tablet PC, mini-notebook with keyboard, or in a desktop docking station.
Pros: Best display; flexible design that lets the device function as a standalone tablet PC, mini-notebook, or small desktop replacement (with optional docking station); long battery life
Cons: Display is too small for desktop use without an external monitor; expensive stylus with separate battery has good feel but isn't pressure-sensitive

Motion M1200
A group of former Dell executives formed Motion Computing in 2001. Like Toshiba's Portégé 3500, the Motion M1200 uses a relatively large 12.1" Thin Film Transistor (TFT) LCD display, although in almost every other respect, the M1200 is about as different from the Portégé as possible. Rather than a convertible notebook design, Motion opted for a pure tablet PC that plugs into an optional docking station to become a reasonable desktop PC. The M1200 works surprisingly well in both modes, although the display can feel a bit large in the hand and a bit small on the desktop, and the separate keyboard is smaller than standard.

In tablet form, the M1200 is noticeably larger than the Compaq or ViewSonic units but about the same weight. The larger size can be a bit of a mixed blessing in your hand or lap. The M1200 provides a full-sized stylus that doesn't require a battery; it has a comfortable feel and works well with Windows Journal and the Input Panel. The M1200 provides four function buttons, a five-way directional cursor control, and a dedicated logon button. Like all the other units in this review, it gets warm when you use it for an extended period.

The M1200's optional flex dock ($230) combines a weighted base, substantial hinged support arm, and frame. Slide the M1200 into the frame until it clicks, and you have what looks like a nice 12" flat-screen monitor. The frame rotates 90 degrees to switch between portrait and landscape modes, and the M1200 automatically repositions the text and graphics on the screen when you rotate the frame. All the M1200's ports are replicated on the back of the expansion chassis.

Motion supplies with the M1200 a slightly undersized USB keyboard (I'd prefer a full-sized keyboard) and a fast FireWire (IEEE 1394) DVD-ROM drive that you can plug directly into the M1200 or into the expansion chassis. Motion also provides a stand to hold the M1200 upright on a desktop when you're traveling without the flex dock. In both pure tablet and desktop modes, I found the M1200 acceptable. The M1200 comes with Motion's proprietary Dashboard software and Adobe Systems' Adobe Acrobat Reader; it has a 1-year limited warranty.

Motion recently announced the Motion M1300, which is based on the Centrino mobile technology. The base price for a 900MHz version will be $1899, and the base price for a 1GHz version will be $2099.

Contact: Motion Computing * 512-637-1100 or 866-682-2538
Price: $1699
Decision Summary
The Motion M1200 offers a 12.1" display that you can use as a standalone tablet PC or (with an optional docking station) as a desktop replacement.
Pros: Large 12.1" display means this tablet PC can function as a desktop replacement (when used with optional docking station) without an external monitor; nicely balanced and comfortable for use with either hand
Cons: Doesn't convert to a notebook—requires a stand (included) or optional docking station to hold the unit upright for use with an external keyboard

Portégé 3500
Other tablet PC vendors focus on reducing size and weight; Toshiba opted for maximizing performance: The Portégé 3500 has the fastest processor of the devices that I tested for this review—it's also the largest and heaviest (by about a pound). Like the C102Ti, the Portégé 3500 has a convertible design and can't be vertically oriented when used with its keyboard. It looks like a fairly conventional notebook PC, but rotate the display 180 degrees horizontally around its oversized central pivot, and you can fold the display down to cover the keyboard. The result is a large, heavy tablet—too heavy to hold for long in one hand. Using the Portégé 3500 in tablet mode is further compromised by the stylus, which is full-sized but square and uncomfortable to hold. The Portégé 3500 provides a small on/off switch for the built-in 802.11b wireless network card.

In notebook mode, the Portégé 3500 offers a nearly full-sized keyboard, an excellent display, and outstanding performance. Toshiba has also customized XP Tablet PC Edition with some options to extend battery life—a Super Long Life option is available that automatically dims the display and disables unused devices. Toshiba offers a standard 3-year parts and labor warranty on the Portégé 3500. I think the Portégé 3500 will appeal mainly to power users who want a conventional notebook PC that they can occasionally convert and use with a stylus. The Portégé 3500 comes with Adobe Acrobat Reader, Sensiva's Symbol Commander, Zinio Systems' Zinio Reader, and Toshiba Custom Utilities.

Contact: Toshiba America Information Systems * 949-583-3000 or 800-867-4422
Price: $2299
Decision Summary
With a 12.1" display, a nearly full-sized keyboard, and a fast processor in a heavy case, the Portégé 3500 best suits power notebook users who want occasional tablet PC use.
Pros: Fast processor; near—full-sized keyboard; excellent display
Cons: Heavy; no docking station; no option for desktop use in portrait orientation; clumsy stylus

ViewSonic Tablet PC V1100
ViewSonic is a name that most readers will probably associate more with monitors than with PCs, but the company has been making mobile computers for several years now, focusing on vertical markets. The ViewSonic Tablet PC V1100 is an excellent, pure tablet design that slides into a docking station for use as a desktop replacement. Although the unit works well when hand-held, I found the display too small for comfortable viewing in the docking station—even with the dock directly in front of me on the edge of the desk and with Extra Large Fonts selected. You can plug an external monitor into the docking station and configure it as either a primary or secondary display.

ViewSonic provides a small USB travel keyboard with the V1100 but no pointing device, unless you purchase the docking station—a $299 option—which comes with a full-sized mouse. The docking station also includes a CD-ROM drive.

Besides XP Tablet PC Edition, the V1100 comes with Microsoft Reader, Office XP Pack for Tablet PC; a 30-day trial version of TabletPlanner; Citrix Systems' Citrix ICA Client; and by the time you read this article, a Voice over IP (VoIP) application that will let you make telephone calls over the Internet.

ViewSonic uses a smaller standard battery (4-cell, 30 watt-hour) than other tablet PC vendors, and the V1100 has a shorter battery life as a direct result. However, the company offers a high-capacity battery (8-cell, 60 watt-hour) that widens the unit by 0.75" inch, increases the weight by half a pound, and doubles the battery life. Other options include an external charger that will charge two batteries at once and an auto/airplane adapter that will power the V1100 from a 12-volt cigarette lighter. The V1100 has a standard 1-year parts-and-labor warranty; ViewSonic also offers a 3-year extended warranty option.

Contact: ViewSonic * 909-444-8888 or (888) 881-8781
Price: $1999 with dock and stylus
Decision Summary
The ViewSonic Tablet PC V1100 works well as a tablet in the hand or (with an optional docking station and external keyboard, mouse, and monitor) on your desk.
Pros: Good display and stylus; unit is comfortable to use and works well as a tablet PC
Cons: Display is too small for desktop use when docked; shorter battery life than competing units with standard battery (a high-capacity battery is an option)

Preliminary Conclusions
I used the tablet PCs for several weeks. During this time, I came to some conclusions as I compared the different tablet approaches.

  • XP Tablet PC Edition has some stability problems. While I was attending the Microsoft Research (MSR) Roadshow in Mountain View, California, Windows Journal refused to respond when I activated the TC1000 from standby. Eventually, I had to do a complete shutdown and restart, and when the unit restarted, I had lost about a page of notes.
  • As soon as I got back to my office, I called Microsoft. As this article goes to press (almost a month later), the problem has been acknowledged but not resolved. Microsoft has confirmed that other users have experienced similar problems, and once I knew what to look for, an examination of error logs on the other tablet PCs showed that every one had experienced at least one application crash. The crashes mainly occurred in Microsoft Word 2002 and in Windows Journal—probably because they're the two applications I use most often.

    The errors I've experienced seem to have a common signature—they always seem to happen when I reactivate a tablet PC that I've placed in stand-by mode with the battery less than half-charged—but not every time; in over a month's use of the five tablet PCs tested, I saw just half a dozen errors. I now save whatever document I'm working on before putting a unit in standby, which doesn't prevent an application from hanging but does at least ensure that no data is lost as a result. I also perform at least one complete shutdown and restart sequence per day.

    These steps seem to alleviate the problem, and although I find the lack of stability extremely annoying, in my opinion, the functionality of the tablet PC form factor more than offsets the instability, and I'm extremely reluctant to give all the review units back.

  • Office XP is, for all practical purposes, required to take full advantage of a tablet PC and isn't included in the price of any of the units I tested. Although you can theoretically run earlier versions, Office XP Pack for Tablet PC provides significant enhancements, including "write anywhere" support for Word 2002, handwritten notes for Microsoft Excel 2002, handwritten comments for Microsoft PowerPoint 2002, and handwritten email messages for Microsoft Outlook 2002. And the only way to add words to the handwriting recognition dictionary that XP Tablet PC Edition uses is to add Word 2002's optional speech support feature.

  • Windows Journal, although usable for note-taking, has serious limitations. In particular, the copy-as-text feature lets you select only one page of notes at a time for conversion to text, which can be clumsy and time-consuming when you're dealing with a long document.

  • The performance of all the tablet PCs I tested was more than adequate. All were fast enough for heavy users of Office and built-in Windows applications. Users of performance-intensive applications such as CAD, computer-aided manufacturing (CAM), or presentation graphics applications might prefer a faster than average processor; but most business users will be pleased with the performance of any of the units in this review.

  • The units tested all delivered the manufacturer's advertised battery life, but in my opinion, that life is barely adequate. By coincidence, while reviewing these units, I received a freelance assignment to edit chapters for a programming book. I took the opportunity to perform an informal editor's test, using each tablet PC to edit at least one complete chapter. The chapters were quite large (i.e., 400KB to 500KB Word documents), requiring 4 to 5 hours of continuous editing. In every case, I received a low-battery warning before completing the chapter. Battery life for these units is sufficient for a brief meeting while away from your desk, but if you plan to use a tablet PC on a transcontinental airline flight, take a spare battery (all the units in this review have removable batteries; most vendors offer chargers and automobile adapters at additional cost).

  • All the units get quite warm when used for long periods. As an example, the M1200 has a 40 watt-hour battery, which runs continuously for fewer than 4 hours; thus, the unit consumes more than 10 watts of power. Imagine sitting for several hours with a 10-watt light bulb in your lap, and you'll begin to see the problem! You can minimize the heat (and extend the battery life) by using the notebook or laptop (or equivalent vendor-specific) power scheme and turning the backlight to the lowest setting appropriate for ambient light. The TC1000, which uses the supposedly low—power-consuming Transmeta chip, got just as warm as the others.

  • The M1200 and Portégé 3500 have 12.1" displays; the others have 10.4" displays. The smaller displays are adequate when you hold a tablet in your hand or set it on your lap; but I found them small for desktop use. Using Extra Large Fonts helped this bifocals wearer.

  • All the units have a security button to use in place of Ctrl+Alt+Del when a physical keyboard isn't available. On the TC1000, it's a recessed red button hidden between the Esc and Tab buttons on one side of the unit; you use the stylus to press it. On all the other units, it's a more obvious button denoted by a key symbol. The C102Ti also has a built-in smart card reader that you can use instead of typing in a username and password.

  • The Portégé 3500 and C102Ti have an on/off button to enable and disable the built-in 802.11b wireless network cards, which helps extend battery life when you don't need the wireless network. The C102Ti's button is fairly obvious (above the keyboard) but a bit inconvenient when the display is covering the keyboard. The Portégé 3500 has a less-than-obvious slide switch on one side of the unit. The other tablet PCs don't have buttons dedicated to this purpose. You can still disable an 802.11 card by right-clicking the icon and selecting Disable from the pop-up menu, but then you must go through a shutdown-and-restart cycle to reenable the card.

  • The advertised size and weight of these units can be misleading. If you're going to a brief meeting, you might carry just the tablet PC, but when traveling for a longer period, you'll certainly carry the AC adapter and probably a keyboard for the devices that don't have one built in.

  • The advertised prices of these units are also misleading. They don't include optional desktop docking stations or any removable media (disk, CD-ROM, or DVD) drives.

So, what's the verdict? As I said earlier, after testing these units, I'd be comfortable with any of them as my primary PC for full-time use. However, I'm not going to run out and buy one just yet (although I must admit that I'm tempted to). When you add in the price of Office XP, an external CD-ROM drive, a spare battery and charger, and in some cases, a docking station, the cost is more than $3000 for any of these units—and that's a little too high for me.

In a year or so, though, it will be time to replace my current desktop PC, and at that point, I might decide on a tablet PC. The ability to take the unit with me to meetings and when traveling and to use the device as a portrait-mode display on my desk might well justify the added cost. In the meantime, I'll be watching the development of this market segment with great personal interest.

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