Tablet PC Finding Its Stroke

eWEEK Labs finds the Acer Travelmate 100's pen interface satisfactory, but more improvements are necessary.

The PC industrys woes may be cured by taking two tablets and calling your local laptop vendor in the morning. Beware, however. The side effects of these tablets may still give some users bad headaches.

Tablet PCs, subnotebooks running Microsoft Corp.s Windows XP Tablet Edition, are best defined by their pen interfaces. Users experiences with the pen are what will determine the Tablet PCs success. In eWEEK Labs tests, we found the experience to be satisfactory, although many improvements are necessary before Tablet PCs become a full-fledged success across the board.

eWEEK Labs evaluated a prototype Acer Inc. Travelmate 100, one of several designs running the XP tablet interface. Its important to note that, like the Pocket PC industry, notebook vendors have wide discretion as to how their tablets are designed and implemented. All of them, however, require a reasonably strong processor, such as an Intel Corp. mobile 600MHz chip set; a pen interface; and adequate memory to run Windows XP (128MB minimum RAM). In addition, Microsoft recommends 802.11b wireless support, USB expansion slots and a video-out connection.

The Travelmate that we tested, configured with a 700MHz processor and 256MB of RAM, performed well—about the same as an equivalently equipped notebook running Windows XP.

The Travelmate is a convertible notebook, meaning that its both a traditional subnotebook and a pen device. The screen flips around and folds down flat over the keyboard to become a pen tablet (click here to see the screen in action).

We tested in both configurations; however, its the tablet interface thats most interesting.

Microsoft is trying extremely hard to legitimize the Tablet PC. Theres no question as to why: Microsoft is treating Tablet Edition as a premium operating system that sells for more than regular Windows XP. Microsoft will not sell Tablet Edition as a separate installable operating system at this time, so the cost is passed on to vendors that are already dealing with low margins. As a result, some officials at notebook manufacturers think there will be premium cost over subnotebooks. Microsoft officials believe the Tablet PC will cost the same as a high-end subnotebook—roughly $2,200.

Whether the Tablet is worth the money or not is a highly subjective question. If the Acer unit is typical, then the device is extremely comfortable to use in pen mode. On airplane trips, we could lean back in the chair and write away. The pen feels comfortable, although it slides across the screen a little too easily, like signing your name on the credit card scanner at Macys.

The pen input device is impressive: The Acer features a tablet developed by Wacom Technology Co. that is pressure-sensitive (and thus writes darker when users press harder) and it produces fluid anti-aliased text.

After entering text in block form or cursive, most users will want to test the device to see how well it can read handwriting. For most people, its a good experience—but for some, its abysmal, recognizing only 70 percent or so of the characters entered. Optimally, with good handwriting, the recognizer should correctly transform 95 percent of all text—less than OCR, but still excellent considering the wide variations in handwriting.

There is no reason, however, for users to run the character recognition, since ink is an acceptable input, as long as its universally recognized. For example, what happens to documents in ink when shared by users not running Tablet Edition? Answer: The ink becomes a bit-map graphic.

Because there are few Digital Ink-capable applications (click here for a Digital Ink walkthrough), Microsoft has tossed in the Windows Journal—a slim but elegant notepad. Most users will wind up using this for the bulk of their notes until something better comes along. In addition, there are Office XP extensions that support Tablet Edition. These are less elegant and more clunky to use, but they provide an alternative way to enter text directly into Word documents.

Journal can integrate with Office applications, but it is awkward: Users must go through a hokey export or import process. We expect this to be one of the first things Microsoft cleans up, although smoother integration will probably come after the first Tablet PCs ship, sometime in the fall.

eWEEK Labs Director John Taschek can be reached at

Related stories: