Take Two Tablets, Call Microsoft in Morning

Tablets could be just the thing to energize the lethargic PC industry.

Tablets could be just the thing to energize the lethargic PC industry. But beware: The side effects of this technology could 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 pens are what will determine the Tablet PCs success. In eWeek Labs tests, we found the experience satisfactory, although many improvements are necessary.

We evaluated a prototype of Acer Inc.s TravelMate 100, one of several designs running the XP tablet interface. Its important to note that notebook vendors have wide discretion as to how their tablets are designed. 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 (at least 128MB). In addition, Microsoft recommends 802.11b wireless support, Universal Serial Bus expansion slots and a video-out connection.

The TravelMate we tested, configured with a 700MHz processor and 256MB of RAM, performed well—about the same as a comparably equipped notebook running Windows XP. The TravelMate is both a traditional subnotebook and a pen device. The screen flips around and folds down flat over the keyboard to become a pen tablet. We tested both configurations; however, its the tablet interface thats most interesting.

Microsoft officials said they believe the Tablet PC will cost the same as a high-end subnotebook—roughly $2,200. Whether the Tablet PC is worth the money or not is a highly subjective question. If the Acer unit we tested is typical, the device is extremely comfortable to use in pen mode, although the pen slides across the screen a little too easily.

The success of the Tablet PC will depend on the applications available. Microsoft offers a software development kit, but so far there are few enterprise-capable applications. We expect a flurry of activity from ISVs to focus specific applications at the vertical market. We also expect the forms-processing ISVs to jump in quickly by the November launch time.

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 or cursive form, 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.

Because there are few digital-ink-capable applications, Microsoft has tossed in the Windows Journal—a slim but elegant notepad. In addition, there are Office XP extensions that support Tablet Edition. These are more clunky to use, but they provide an alternative way to enter text directly into Microsoft Word documents.

Journal can integrate with Microsoft Office applications, but it is awkward: Users must go through a hokey export or import process.

eWeek Labs Director John Taschek can be reached at john_taschek@ziffdavis.com.