Living with a Tablet PC

The advantages and shortcomings of a true slate-style design

For the past few months, I've been using a Motion Computing Tablet PC as my primary computer. I first tested the Motion M1200 as part of my Tablet PC review, "Tablet PCs," August 2003, InstantDoc ID 39524, and it worked well enough that I purchased the system. Let me share some of my experiences using this device on a day-to-day basis.

Features That Work
I'll begin with what works. For starters, when paired with Windows Journal, Tablet PCs are perfect for taking notes. In my case, I can simply turn on the M1200, remove the stylus from its slot, and take notes on the display as if it were a piece of paper. The device faithfully records handwritten notes in both printed and cursive script, as well as diagrams. The Windows XP handwriting recognition system runs invisibly in the background and automatically indexes any text that I enter, thereby letting me search on any notes I've recorded. One problem with Journal is that it lacks a Save as Text function. Journal does have a Copy as Text function that extracts one page of text at a time, but it's inconvenient when working with several pages of notes. The Copy as Text feature does, however, force me to review what the handwriting recognizer thinks I wrote before I save the results.

The M1200 is also ideal for Web surfing. Indeed, one pleasant surprise was how quickly my wife, Kate, a pediatrician, took to the device. She has poor distance vision and doesn't touch-type, so she's never been entirely comfortable with a traditional desktop PC. My evaluation of Tablet PCs for Windows & .NET Magazine just happened to coincide with Kate's Web-based pediatric recertification. When she expressed frustration after spending several hours attempting to complete the recertification on her desktop PC, I had her try the Tablet PC, which worked out well. Using the stylus was easier for her than using a conventional mouse and keyboard, and she could hold the display as close to her eye as she wanted.

Tablet PCs are ideal for editing text. In fact, I edited one chapter of a book on each of the Tablet PCs that I tested while writing "Tablet PCs." As a writing tool, however, these devices are problematic (more on that later).

I chose the true slate-style design because of its smaller size and lighter weight—these considerations were important to me because I planned to use the device in the cockpit of a small airplane. Specialized aviation software used in conjunction with a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver turns the Tablet PC into a moving-map display and has the potential to eliminate several large books of printed charts. Although this implementation hasn't worked as well as I'd hoped (in part because the display washes out in direct sunlight and in part because of problems connecting the device to my airplane's electrical system), the M1200 worked well enough to earn a permanent place in my flight bag.

Features That Need Improving
Although I'm happy with my M1200, I've had some problems with the device, the most intractable of which has been attempting to use it for presentations. Unlike a traditional notebook PC, the M1200 and many (if not all) slate-style design Tablet PCs don't provide a video output that duplicates the built-in LCD. Instead, the M1200 provides a dual-view capability similar to the multimonitor feature on desktop computers with multiple video adapters. This feature lets you use an external video display as an additional display surface but doesn't give you the option to duplicate what appears on the device's LCD. Tablet PCs that use the Intel 82830M Graphics Controller, including the M1200, let you work around this problem by performing the following steps:

  1. Right-click the Intel Extreme Graphics icon, which resembles a multicolored monitor, in the taskbar.
  2. From the context menu, select Graphics Options, Output To, Intel Dual Display Clone.

At this point, you should see the same image on the external display that appears on the built-in LCD. If your Tablet PC uses the 82830M controller but doesn't display the Intel Extreme Graphics icon in the taskbar, try looking in the Control Panel for the display settings.

Users with Tablet PCs that don't have the 82830M controller might want to check out Microsoft's Extended Desktop for Tablet PC PowerToy, which Figure 1 shows; it displays a duplicate image of the desktop on an external monitor. Extended Desktop for Tablet PC is available from Microsoft at The utility takes a bit of practice to use well, but it gets the job done.

As I mentioned earlier, writing with Tablet PCs tends to be problematic. The M1200 is a true slate-style design with no internal keyboard—it comes with a small but reasonably effective USB keyboard that plugs into the unit, and you can either prop up the display on an easel or plug it into a base station. Although I can use the Tablet PC in portrait mode, which is how I prefer to view the screen while writing, the need to prop up the unit on a stand and plug in the keyboard makes the M1200 less convenient for writing on the fly, as I do with a conventional notebook PC. If I had this buying decision to do over, I'd take another look at convertible Tablet PCs such as the Acer TravelMate C102 or the Toshiba Portégé 3500, both of which have built-in keyboards and can be used like a traditional notebook PC. (At press time, I learned that Motion Computing now offers an optional add-on, hinged keyboard that serves as a lid for the Tablet PC and might fill this need—for more information about the keyboard, visit Motion Computing's Web site.)

Another problem that I've encountered applies to every Tablet PC and legacy-free notebook PC, all of which lack traditional serial and parallel ports. One key application for which I purchased the Tablet PC requires input from an external GPS receiver. To connect the GPS receiver, I purchased a Prolific Technology USB PDA Adapter (branded as Belkin), which solved the problem after I addressed some configuration concerns. (For more information about how to configure the adapter, see my Mobile & Wireless UPDATE tip "Use a USB-Serial Adapter Cable," InstantDoc ID 39083.)

I've run into similar problems with the lack of a parallel port. In my home office, I can use network printers and the M1200's built-in 802.11b wireless network card to do all my printing. However, on a recent trip, I anticipated the need to do some printing on local printers and brought along a Belkin USB Parallel Printer Adapter. As of this writing, however, I haven't been able to get the adapter to work.

Finally, like many IT professionals, I'm guilty of a prejudice: Never buy version 1.0 of anything. I made an exception in this case because the device's usefulness justified the risk and because I had a unique opportunity to purchase the M1200 below list price. Motion Computing has since upgraded the M1200 processor speed from 866MHz to 933MHz and has introduced a model with a 1GHz processor that uses Intel's Centrino chipset. Although Motion Computing was the first to introduce such a unit, most other Tablet PC vendors have since announced Centrino-based models. Had I waited, it's possible I might have gotten longer battery life than the 2 to 3 hours I get from the M1200 (the company claims that the Centrino-based Motion M1300 offers 30 percent faster performance while increasing battery life by 15 percent). For my purposes, however, the 866MHz processor has been fast enough for every application I've tried to run, and I run the unit on AC power whenever I can.

Since I started carrying the M1200, I've used my PDAs less and less. I still carry a Palm VIIx wireless handheld device when traveling—it offers simple text-only email and news, supports nationwide wireless coverage, and includes some unique aviation functions. My NEC Solutions' MobilePro 770 handheld PC, which I've carried for the past 4 years, is now gathering dust—it was light (about 1 pound) and ran for more than 6 hours on a battery charge, but it couldn't run off-the-shelf Windows applications.

For those who use a Tablet PC outdoors, Fujitsu has introduced an indoor and outdoor display option for its Stylistic ST4000 Tablet PC. TacTronix, a company specializing in making electronic devices for military and industrial use, has developed an aftermarket display treatment for the M1200 and M1300 devices that, while not as effective as the reflective technology that Fujitsu offers, approximately doubles the apparent display brightness while improving the viewing angle.

Is a Tablet PC in Your Future?
Although I haven't started using a Tablet PC all the time (e.g., I still access email on my desktop PC), I find myself using the M1200 more and more and using my other systems less. What does this mean to you and your organization? Based on my experience during the past few months, I'm hesitant to generalize. Tablet PCs remain expensive, with list prices in the $1500 to $2000 range (more if you include optional hardware and essential applications such as Microsoft Office XP), but prices continue to drop as second-generation Tablet PCs begin to emerge. In my opinion, the additional marginal cost is justified for workers who truly need a mobile computer but not for office workers who perform most of their work at their desks. However, for many workers who—like me—take one or two long business-related trips each year, a Tablet PC offers advantages over traditional desktop and notebook PCs. Less money will buy a desktop PC with equivalent CPU speed, memory, and disk capacity, but it's not portable. And although traditional notebook PCs are portable, they're typically not well suited for desktop use. Tablet PC users can usually do away with carrying PDAs, which eliminates both direct costs and support costs associated with having a separate mobile device.

As the saying goes, "your mileage may vary." However, I'm satisfied that I made a good decision purchasing the M1200, and I'm prepared to tell other IT professionals that Tablet PCs are a technology you simply can't afford to ignore.

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