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 (www.hwinfo.com) 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.
Acer got an early start in the Tablet space; we evaluated a fully functioning Acer prototype months ago (see review). The shipping TravelMate C102Ti clamshell unit is about the size of a small notebook and is indistinguishable from a notebook in appearance.
Many people will like the Acer units compact design and the fact that it is fully equipped, including an extra battery and an external CD-ROM. However, at $2,399, the Acer TravelMate is also the most expensive unit we tested.
eWeek Labs found the Acer device to be perfectly average in every way, which makes it a somewhat compelling machine because it has no notable flaws. The problems associated with the Acer are the same ones that other Tablet PCs have—notably, the fact that theyre Tablets.
The Acer we tested was equipped with an Intel Corp. 800MHz Pentium III-M. This is the minimum Intel processor needed for a usable Tablet experience.
The Acer performed well in usability testing, exhibiting only minor pen lag. Pen lag in Tablet systems is created by the processing power it takes to calculate the motion of the pen. Dragging a mouse, which has a typical resolution of 400 dpi (dots per inch), across a traditional screen produces virtually no lag. The Tablet digitizers have resolutions of at least 1,000 dpi. A simple drag across a Tablet can consume as much as 15 percent of processor resources.
The Acer also performs well as a functional notebook. Flip the 10.4-inch digitizer screen and twist it, and the Acer cannot be distinguished from a subnotebook. The Acer keyboard is small and the casing has a slightly cheap feel, but, overall, the Acers size and capability will make it a good choice for those who want a convertible Tablet PC.
One of the more anticipated Tablet designs is from Fujitsu, which has had a strong penetration in health care with pen-based computers based on more proprietary operating systems and applications.
The Fujitsu device that we evaluated will have strong consumer and enterprise appeal, and if there is a crossover hit, it will be the $2,199 Fujitsu Stylistic ST4110.
Fujitsu has been in the tablet business for more than 10 years, and its expertise shows with the Stylistic ST4110. This slate model is not only nice to look at but also comfortable to hold, thanks to a soft-covered back. This backing also helps to dissipate some heat, which with most Tablet systems becomes noticeable after a few hours of use.
In tests, the Stylistics 10.4-inch screen was clear. The placement of ports on the top of the unit (or, in display mode, on the units right side) made it functional as both a Tablet and as a subnotebook with external keyboard or Tablet dock. Two of the ports—the network and modem—are placed on the left side of the screen in portrait mode and might be a hindrance to left-handed users.
The main problem with the Stylistic is the same problem that all the slates except the Compaq have: They become clunky when the keyboard is attached. With cables protruding out of the unit and ultralight keyboards, theyre functional but downright hard to work with as a notebook replacement.
The Stylistic is powered by an 800MHz PIII-M with the Intel 830 MG chip set—the most common among the Tablet systems we tested. Performance was good: There was no notable lag on the pen, and applications ran quickly. Disk performance was outstanding, so large applications that are commonly used in the health care, CAD and legal industries should run without problems.
HP Compaq TC1000
HP Compaq TC1000
The HP Compaq TC1000 shows how engineering and design considerations can transform a normal notebook into something special. We were both impressed and discouraged by this hybrid design, but HP clearly believes that there will be a flood of similar Tablet PC designs and that styling will be a major selling point.
At first glance, the TC1000 is the best-looking Tablet PC we tested. At its roots, the TC1000 is a slate model that comes with a futuristic base station and a detachable keyboard that can be used to convert the slate into a clamshell device. Everything is interlocked—its the Transformer of the PC world.
But the design became somewhat tiresome during testing. We frequently wanted to use the systems we tested both as subnotebooks and as slates. The Compaq TC1000 design slowed us down, although we came to greatly appreciate its small keyboard. The system will work extremely well for CEOs, professionals who travel frequently and consumers. It will not work well for most vertical industries.
On a positive note, because the device can be configured as a Tablet, a subnotebook or a desktop replacement, the TC1000 will be compelling for many different users and applications. And at $1,799, the TC1000 is also about $500 less expensive than some of its competitors.
The Compaq TC1000 was the only unit we tested that was based on the Transmeta Corp. Crusoe processor (the 5800). The system shipped to the Labs was running a pre-release version of Windows XP Tablet Edition (Build 2600).
HP is also the first Tablet vendor not to use the Wacom digitizer technology. Although Wacom has a good feel and good performance without the need for powered pens, the Compaq TravelMates pen simply feels better on the screen. However, the pen does require a battery.
The Tablet PC device from startup Motion Computing, a company founded by former Dell Computer Corp. executives, also looks promising. The most notable aspect of the Motion device is its large (12.1-inch) screen, which is clear, bright and highly suitable to Tablet design.
Motion officials, who are aiming the M1200 Tablet PC at verticals such as retail and health care, said they believe they can bring Dell-style, just-in-time manufacturing to the Tablet industry. In fact, Motion makes no unit until an order is placed. Units are manufactured in Asia and shipped directly to customers.
As expected, the M1200 turned out to be excellent for anything graphically oriented. The resolution of the screen made even X-ray images clear.
Like all slate models, however, the M1200 is clunky to use with a keyboard. Motion includes a stand and a keyboard, but theres no getting around the fact that users who want a notebook and a slate have to carry separate hunks of plastic, silicon and glass.
The M1200 has one significant flaw: It runs so hot as to be uncomfortable, especially just beneath the processor. The Motion unit uses the same processor and chip set as the ViewSonic Tablet PC, which does not run hot, so the only conclusion we can draw is that Motion placed the processor too close to the casing or did not provide adequate shielding.
In eWeek Labs benchmark tests, the Motion unit was an above-average performer, a fact carried through to our usability testing. Overall performance came in just behind the ViewSonic.
With its large screen, the M1200 will have instant appeal. We hope that Motion can tweak its design to fix the heat problem and offer additional designs based on the larger display. Once it does, the company has the capability to take on established vendors, such as Fujitsu, in the vertical space.
Of the six systems evaluated here, eWeek Labs Analysts Choice award goes to the Toshiba Portégé 3500. Toshiba has experimented and prototyped Tablet-style devices for two years, and it has paid off in the new Portégé.
The $2,299 Portégé 3500 is a clamshell device (Toshiba officials said research showed little interest in the slate form factor), and the Portégés main differentiators include a strong hinge to support the screen and a PIII-M running at 1.33GHz. The next-fastest processor in the Tablet PC systems we tested was running at 866MHz. When in Tablet mode, the Portégés fast processor minimized any pen lag.
The Portégé 3500 is the perfect Tablet-enabled replacement to a subnotebook. The unit functions exactly like a subnotebook without compromise on screen quality. The 12.1-inch screen was bright and was of similar quality to the Motion M1200s.
Processor performance tests show the Toshiba Portégé 3500 blowing away the competition. We expect that other Tablets will eventually gain faster processors, but the Toshiba system has one now.
The Portégés disk performance score was somewhat disappointing, although still good. We suspect that the Trident Microsystems Inc. CyberAladdin-T chip set the system uses had some disk or driver issues or was simply slower than some of the competitors chip sets.
The one flaw in the Portégé is its weight. While Toshiba is targeting a broad range of users who want some Tablet functionality without compromising on notebook capabilities, at 4.1 pounds, the Portégé is almost a pound heavier than other systems we tested. This will affect how it can be used in tablet mode. The Toshiba device, for example, may not be a good fit in health care and other vertical markets because users will simply get too tired of lugging the unit around.
ViewSonic has a great deal of consumer expertise and is attempting to carry it to the Tablet PC platform with the Tablet PC V1100. eWeek Labs tests show that the company, for the most part, has succeeded.
The V1100 is stylish and usable, but it is also not the companys first foray into Tablet computing. In fact, ViewSonic has a wide assortment of pen-enabled devices, ranging from the PocketPC V35 to the Airpanel to the Viewpad to the V1100—the highest-end tablet the company carries.
The V1100 is powered by an 866MHz PIII-M processor, and the ViewSonic Tablet performed well in tests.
The ViewSonic system has a bright 10.4-inch screen, but the unit itself is nearly as large as the 12.1-inch screens of the Portégé and Motion devices. The reason for this size disconnect is the extraordinarily large bezel ViewSonic uses—one that makes the system easy to hold but more difficult to transport than it should be.
The ViewSonic PC V100 opened applications quickly and had minimal pen lag. In addition, the arrangement of buttons was good, although the placement of some of the interfaces on the bottom of the screen became problematic in tests. For example, the power adapter plugs in at the bottom of the device, which made it hard to use the system as a Tablet while on AC power. We strongly recommend getting the base station for this device.
Overall, the V1100 is an excellent choice, and at less than $2,000, the unit is well-priced compared with the competition. The V1100 should appeal to the education market and to consumers in general.
Labs Director John Taschek can be reached at [email protected]
: Tablet PC Platform”>
Executive Summary: Tablet PC Platform
Tablet PCs come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but they all run Microsofts Windows XP Tablet Edition operating system. eWeek Labs tests show that the platform, which Microsoft calls the third generation of pen-enabled devices, still has some kinks that need to be worked out. A significant percentage of future notebook sales will be made up of pen-enabled devices, however. XP Tablet Edition supports all applications that run on Windows XP, plus pen-enabled applications that will eventually be the ultimate factor in whether corporations decide to move to the device.
Tablet PCs cost about 10 percent more than ultraportable notebooks—expect to pay between $1,900 and $2,400 for each unit. Support policies and the recommended extended warranties will cost slightly more than those for traditional notebooks. The costs are in line with expectations, but most vendors expect dramatic price decreases during the next two years.
(+) Inherent usability of the stylus; runs all Windows XP applications; excellent for form-intensive operations; graphic artists will appreciate the Tablets flexibility; ultraportable design.
(-) Provides only fair integration with Microsoft Office; poor integration with other third-party applications, except those that take specific advantage of the Tablet Edition operating system; some units have little protective coating over glass; high relative cost; some units have awkward cable and interface placement.