Tablet PCs - 13 Sep 2006

Tremendous computing power and dynamic interaction methods are a dream come true for busy IT pros

In your job, you’re probably always on the move, on your way to user desktops, in the field investigating hardware snafus, shuttling between branch offices, or commuting. The desktop computer has become your albatross, and you increasingly value mobile devices that simplify your day. The Tablet PC might be a dream come true, offering tremendous computing power and dynamic interaction methods. The Tablet PC—typically powered by Windows XP Tablet PC Edition—will fit into your environment like any other computer: You get Active Directory (AD) services, remote assistance, and the networking support of XP Professional, all in a format that offers extreme portability and the benefit of pen-based note-taking.

Form Factor

When you research Tablet PCs, you’ll find that you have three form-factor choices. Each has distinct benefits, depending on your needs.

Slate. The slate is the smallest, lightest—and, typically, most rugged—Tablet PC. Its active-digitizer screen lets users quickly input data. Hardware is minimized in the interest of portability; items such as a keyboard and optical drives will be strictly external. These types of Tablet PCs do, however, typically offer generous docking and connectivity options for external displays and input devices. Slate PCs are popular in such markets as healthcare and education.

Convertible. The convertible Tablet PC looks like a notebook PC, but thanks to a central, pivoting hinge, the device becomes a Tablet PC with a mere flick of the wrist. You simply rotate the display and lay it flat over the built-in keyboard. This form factor is the most popular—possibly because it appeals to those who are reluctant to commit to pen-based input—but some consider the hinged design and the inevitable bulkiness to be weaknesses.

Hybrid. The hybrid design gives you the best of both worlds by essentially adding a detachable keyboard to the slate. When the keyboard is attached, this device functions similarly to the convertible device.

Input Methods

A primary selling point of these devices is their ability to accept pen-based input. All types of tablet PCs include a digital stylus pen or similar pointing device. (On some displays, you can even use your finger as your input device.) And handwriting recognition has improved over the years, deciphering even the sloppiest penmanship.

You can use the pen device for more than just handwriting. With certain gestures, you can point and click, select and drag, highlight, and draw. Some applications are pen-enabled to take full advantage of the alternative input method. (For a list of applications, see Microsoft’s Tablet PC Partners site at

Many Tablet PCs also accept voice-based input. The notion of speaking an email message might seem farfetched, but it’s a reality thanks to internal speech-recognition capabilities.

Important Considerations

As you’ll see in our Buyer’s Guide, you have many Tablet PC models to choose from. To find the one that’s right for you, you’ll want to weigh processor speed, hard-disk speed and size, and the amount of RAM, as well as the device’s weight. Another important consideration is wireless connectivity. Although most Tablet PCs include built-in wireless functionality, the protocols they support vary.

Do you anticipate lots of fieldwork in which you’re away from primary power sources? If so, you need a model that offers maximum battery life (four to five hours is typical), and you might want to purchase an additional longer-life battery.

Support for external keyboards and other peripheral devices (e.g., monitors, speakers, multimedia devices) is another important consideration. How many USB 2.0 ports does the device offer? Does it have a FireWire port? Is the device’s docking bay easy to use or more complicated than it’s worth? Does the Tablet PC offer biometric fingerprint-reading functionality?

Ready for Your Attention

Increasingly, business users are finding the notion of “pen computing” compelling. It’s been a hit-and-miss technology for several years, but recently—with the introduction of XP Tablet PC Edition—it’s finally establishing a foothold in the office environment. Make no mistake: Tablet PCs still feel like a young technology, struggling to master such concerns as battery life, but they’ve definitely achieved that level of market saturation at which they’re worth your attention.

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