Tablet Tussle

Toshiba's Portégé 3500 tops field in eWEEK Labs' comparison of six systems running Microsoft's Tablet Edition.

The idea of the Tablet PC has been received with everything from mild enthusiasm to wild derision. The reality, of course, is somewhere in between—with more to like than would appear at first glance.

eWeek Labs recently put six Tablet PC systems to the enterprise test and found that at least some Tablet PCs are worth considering as notebook replacements. We dont think the first systems in this current generation of pen-enabled notebooks are going to cause a procurement stampede, but we do believe theyll make up a significant chunk of sales in the near future, despite an economy that causes people to eschew anything viewed as a luxury.

To be clear, this generation of Tablet PCs is all about Microsoft Corp.s Windows XP operating system. While manufacturers have free rein in how the systems look and what processors theyll run, all Tablet PCs run Windows XP Tablet Edition.

In contrast to every other major Microsoft operating system release, Tablet Edition wont be sold separately. Instead, the Tablet PC operating system is licensed solely to platform vendors. In addition, a software development kit has been available for nearly a year that allows third-party software vendors to provide supporting applications.

eWeek Labs tests show that the devices and related applications generally work well, but whether Microsoft can sell a million units in a year, as it estimates it can, remains a big question.

One of the challenges to the Tablets success is price. To get costs down on a machine that includes such things as a digitizer, Microsoft has lowered the cost of the Tablet Edition operating system so that its only marginally more expensive than Windows XP.

In addition, digitizing companies such as Wacom Technology Co. and the notebook vendors are taking an initial hit to spur sales.

Still, the cheapest Tablet design costs about $1,600, with the average price coming in at about $2,200. These prices are more or less in line with premium ultraportable notebooks.

The second challenge to the Tablet PC platform is general practicality. Theres no compelling reason for most consumers to move toward the Tablet design— pen input is a luxury, perhaps even a frustrating luxury.

On the other hand, Microsoft and its partners have eliminated most of the technical challenges that killed early pen-based designs. And industry verticals, such as health care, may develop specific applications that take advantage of the Tablet design.

There are two general kinds of Tablet PCs: the slate model, which has no built-in keyboard, and a clamshell design (also called a convertible), which is more of a notebook replacement. All the slate devices we looked at include USB (Universal Serial Bus) keyboards, and most feature a stand so that the Tablet can be viewed in traditional monitor form.

The Tablet PC operating system itself is simply Windows XP plus some additional capabilities—notably, the ability to capture pen input, including pressure, stroke and other geometry functions, at a high resolution. This allows Microsofts Digital Ink recognizer to translate input into text.

The process is technically sophisticated but error-prone; it will both amaze people with its accuracy and frustrate them with its inability to translate simple words.

All Tablets also have a speech input capability, making the Tablet PC a very versatile platform.

Enterprises concerned about rampant ink use should think twice about deploying Tablet PCs, however. Ink takes up 10 times more space than text, which could create bloated Outlook files and bog down Exchange servers.

For example, a two-line text message comes in at about 4KB—itself bloated—when using Outlook with rich text format. That same message, in scrawl, comes in at 40KB. Drawings and more lengthy notes will obviously increase the message size.

Although benchmarks are useful only for relative comparison information, eWeek Labs found that Tablet PC systems processor performance directly equated with pen performance.

The slowest machines, according to our benchmarks, exhibited notable lag on many pen functions. The lag may make users lean toward getting a machine with a faster processor. Unfortunately, processor performance tends to be hinged to battery life—the faster the system, the faster the battery will drain.

eWeek Labs ran benchmark tests using Realixs popular HWinfo32 ( benchmark on six units: Acer Inc.s TravelMate C102Ti, Fujitsu PC Corp.s Stylistic ST4110, Hewlett-Packard Co.s Compaq TC1000, Motion Computing Inc.s Motion M1200, Toshiba America Information Systems Inc.s Portégé 3500 and ViewSonic Corp.s Tablet PC V1100.

In addition, we ran some base-line comparisons on an IBM X30—a traditional subnotebook system thats in the same ballpark as the Tablets as far as cost.