Vote Still Out on Tablet PCs

eWEEK Labs' preliminary look finds the devices and apps work well, but price and practicality remain as challenges.

Despite a huge campaign by Microsoft, most voters remain undecided about the Tablet PC, and turnout appears to be light. That may change today when Microsoft officially launches Windows XP Tablet Edition to the masses. Dozens of hardware and software providers are lining up to support the new operating system that promises to bring a new mobile computing paradigm to the general public and, in particular, vertical markets.

In contrast to every other major Microsoft operating system release, the Tablet Edition wont be sold separately. This unfortunately places the operating system in the same category as the Xbox, though the Tablet Edition is clearly geared toward business professionals.

Instead, it is licensed solely to platform vendors, including Toshiba, Hewlett-Packard, Acer and NEC. In addition, an SDK has been available for nearly a year that allows third-party software vendors to provide supporting applications. eWEEK Labs has taken a preliminary look at several of the devices and applications and found they work fairly well. However, 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. The cheapest Tablet design will be about $1,600, with the average price coming in at about $2,200. These prices more or less are in line with premium ultraportable notebooks. To get the costs down on a machine that includes things such as a digitizer, Microsoft has lowered the cost of Tablet Edition operating system to the vendors so that its only marginally more than Windows XP. In addition, the digitizing companies, such as Wacom, and the notebook vendors are taking a hit to spur on sales.

The second challenge 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 vertical organizations, such as hospitals, may develop specific applications that take advantage of the Tablet design. Those who prefer to write in Cyrillic and Kanji may prefer pen input over keyboards.

There are two general kinds of Tablets: the slate model, which has no built-in keyboard, and a clamshell design that is more or less a notebook replacement. However, all the slate devices we looked at include USB keyboards and usually feature a stand so that the Tablet can be viewed as if it were a monitor.

The first unit eWEEK Labs looked at was the Acer Travelmate 100—a clamshell design. Acer appears to be the most committed vendor in the Tablet space, sending Chairman Stan Shih to New York for the launch and putting its manufacturing power to work months ahead of time. In fact, Acer had full functioning prototypes months ago. The Travelmate is about the size of a small notebook and is indistinguishable from one in appearance.

HP (the division that was Compaq) has a more unique design with its slate-based Tablet design. Clearly, HP believes that there will be a flood of similar Tablet PC designs and styling will be a major selling point. Because of its design, the HP device also appears to be targeting consumers and not the potentially more lucrative enterprise vertical market.

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 looked at will have strong consumer and enterprise appeal, and if there is a crossover hit, it will be the Fujitsu device.

A device from startup Motion Computing also looks promising. The most notable aspect of the Motion device is its larger screen, which is highly suitable to Tablet designs.

One unit that looks to be promising is Toshibas Portege 3500—a clamshell device. Toshiba officials said that the company has spent 24 months working on prototypes and that the companys research showed little interest in the slate form factor. The Porteges main differentiators include a strong hinge to support the screen and an Intel Pentium IIIm running at 1.33MHz. Most Tablets are running at slightly slower speeds. Toshiba officials boasted that the company will sell more units than any other vendor, but those numbers will probably be only in the tens of thousands through the end of the year. eWEEK Labs looked at prototypes of a pen-based computer (based on Linux) back in January and even then felt they were nearly ready for prime time, but Toshiba said its sticking with Windows XP for the time being.

The 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. Its technically sophisticated but error-prone. It will both amaze people with its accuracy and frustrate the same people with its inability to translate simple words.

All Tablets also have a speech input capability, making the Tablet PC a versatile device. However, enterprises concerned about rampant ink use should think twice about deploying them. Ink takes up 10 times more space than text, which could create bloated Outlook files and bog down Exchange servers.

Meanwhile, on the software front, dozens of new applications will be released at the launch, including Tablet editions of SAP, Siebel, Quicken and Franklin Coveys popular task management software. In addition, vertical solutions—especially those targeting financial, health care and legal firms—will be announced soon after the Tablet PC launch.

(Editors Note: This story has been updated since its original posting to include more pricing information and more details on Toshibas Tablet PC.)