Disclosure: HP and Microsoft are currently clients of mine, and Toshiba and Apple have been clients in the past.
There is a growing belief that by the end of 2006 all laptops will have digitizers and the name, “Tablet Computer” may only apply to the slate designs. But we arent there yet and, currently, very few computers, notebooks or otherwise, have screens you can write on. Microsofts Windows XP for Tablet PC, and the tablet PC hardware were born in November 2002. The devices fall into two design categories, clamshell, and slate.
The slate design is basically a writable screen, with the guts of a notebook behind it, lacking a keyboard. The clam shell design is similar to a regular notebook but you can rotate the screen and lower it over the keyboard to create a slate like product.
Slate designs are popular with vertical markets and tend to be largely used for forms processing. Increasingly, they are also used in other applications, like design and architecture, where the ability to draw is valued. Clam Shell designs are vastly more popular but, in practice they are often just heavier notebooks – with the writing part used mostly for inserting signatures into email. The clam shell design doesnt force the user to abandon the keyboard– so most dont.
Battle of the Slate Tablets: The Toshiba M200 is considered the best of the clamshell products. Its a strong improvement over their market leading 3500 which was released in late 2002. Its built around a 1.5 GHz Pentium M processor, with a 40GB hard drive and 512M of memory. The battery lasts between 3 and 4 hours.
The unique docking solution sets it apart from competitors. Much like Apples dock, its both practical and artistic. However, the dock alone costs nearly $400, which is a lot– even if it is desktop art.
HP Enters the Fray: HP took a clean slate, no pun intended, in designing its new tablet. It is as if the HP designers sat back and thought “if there was a perfect tablet, what would it look like?” and went from there. It is a slate design that has a keyboard component that attaches to it (but could be left at the desk to save a pound).
The pound makes a huge difference if you are carrying it on your arm and taking notes with the stylus.
You can add 802.11 a/b/g wireless, which is important for a device designed to be used mostly away from the office. The HP is built around a slower 1 GHz Pentium M (or Celeron Mobile, basically a Pentium M without as much on chip cache), can be had with a 30GB drive. Alas, the battery life is less than steller – only about two to three hours.
It comes with its own desktop dock, which while not as flashy as the Toshiba, does the job. The dock can also remain attached to the laptop for mobile use. You can see how the two match up when docked in the picture below (note how the Toshiba Screen has glared out but the HP screen remains readable).
User experience and recommendations
User Experience: In use, I found I really missed having an optical drive in the Toshiba but, strangely enough, not with the HP. The Toshiba is a little larger and weighed about a pound more than the IBM X40 that leads in the Ultra-Light category. However, I actually prefer the ultra light Sony 505 because I can watch movies with the integrated DVD drive. Thats not possible with either the Toshiba, IBM or HP. I continue to use the Toshiba more as a laptop than as a tablet and almost never flip the screen except to show it off.
Initially I was aggravated by the HPs tendency to force me to use the tablet features. Over time, though, I found I was using and liking them more and more often. Eventually I started leaving the keyboard behind entirely–and I loved the carry weight. In short, for tablet specific features this is the better box. If you want to watch movies fly Jet Blue. One thing that stood out between the products was the display. The Toshibas appeared more colorful (though in a kind of washed out way) and it was larger (12″ vs. 10″) while the HP was almost black and white but very crisp. Taking the Toshiba outside rendered it near useless, although better than many, it wasnt good enough for me. While the HP wasnt as good outside as the black and white transflective screens Ive seen, it remained useful outside. Trade offs were certainly made for the two products. Toshibas favor the laptop mode, while the HP is more tablet-oriented.
Finally, to me the little things make a big difference. Consider the stylus. The Toshiba one looks like a cheap ball point, made of hard plastic and clearly intended for occasional use The HP pen is larger, padded and more robust. Its clearly something you could live with for a long time.
Bottom Line: The HP design is better as a pure tablet. It will force users to actually use the tablet features and, with the exception of the anemic battery life, sets the standard against which all tablets should be measured.
The Toshiba delivers the best Clam Shell tablet experience, but I am increasingly questioning this form until the market transitions. It is too easy to use it just as a laptop, and while the Toshiba design may be closer to what well have in a few years, its not right if you want to embrace new tablet features. I personally prefer a number of the other small laptops, including Toshibas own Protégé M100, as a general use laptop. Of course I continue to think the Apple PowerBook with the 15.4″ wide screen comes the closest to my ideal (no one has effectively matched the way Apple mounts the screen to create an acceptable height for airplane use). Unfortunately I have yet to see a 15.4″ laptop computer touch screen.