When the Tablet PC was launched three years ago, it was with great fanfare and predictions of world domination.It hasn’t quite happened that way. In 2004, sales of the units (defined as those running Windows XP Tablet Edition) hit only about $US1.2 billion worldwide, according to Scottsdale, Ariz.-based research firm In-Stat.
Those sales were driven mainly by verticals such as healthcare, real estate, insurance and sales force automation.
However, In-Stat sees improvements on the horizon, predicting a worldwide market of $US5.4 billion by 2009, with corporate acceptance growing as prices fall below $US2,000 and the number of pen applications increases.
That said, from a user point of view, Tablet PCs are definitely an acquired taste. After all, why revert to handwriting when typing is so much faster?
The above-mentioned verticals have found good reasons to do so, and chances are some general users will too, for at least some of their computing tasks.
Drawing sketches and scribbling quick margin notes in documents, for example, are two functions that are virtually impossible with a normal PC. And it’s tricky balancing a standard laptop on your arm and trying to type.
Yet users still need the convenience of a keyboard much of the time, so manufacturers have designed Tablet PCs that double as standard laptops. Their screens swivel to lie flat, covering the keyboard, when Tablet functionality is needed.
We tested five machines – one primarily a slate, and the rest true convertibles – and were pleasantly surprised by what we saw.
We tested both by simply using the machines with a variety of applications and with FutureMark’s PCMark04 benchmarking software, which scores the system’s overall performance, plus CPU, RAM, graphics and hard drive individually.
All testing was conducted with the machine running on battery, and with wireless networking enabled, since that is the usual operating environment for a Tablet PC.
Note that there was sometimes a large discrepency between rated battery life and what we actually got.
Prices are manufacturer’s list, in Canadian dollars.
Lenovo ThinkPad X41 Tablet
Lenovo has had such demand for these babies that we ended up receiving a pre-production model, but it still performed respectably. Like its non-tablet sibling the X41, is a small and light ThinkPad with 12.1-inch screen, trackstick only, 802.11 b/g and Gigabit Ethernet connectivity. It has two USB ports (one powered), PC Card and SD Card slots, and the usual other amenities, plus a fingerprint reader to enhance security. The keyboard is IBM – great touch and pleasant to use – and the pointing device in laptop mode is a trackstick. There is no optical drive, keeping the weight down to 3.5 lb.
Battery life was almost four hours, second only to Electrovaya, and performance was fourth of the five (but remember, this is not a production model).
Electrovaya Scribbler 3000 Premium
Electrovaya is a Canadian company that builds electric cars, high-capacity batteries and Tablet PCs. It’s no surprise, then, that the Scribbler aced the battery tests, getting almost four and a half hours computing from a charge. That’s half an hour longer than its closest competitor in our round-up.
This unit’s soul is a slate, not a true convertible laptop, but the premium unit we tried has a cover on the screen that turns over to become a stand, complete with keyboard and a cunningly integrated touchpad. It’s not something you’d want to balance on your knee in its convertible configuration, but it works fine, and the keyboard’s touch is quite acceptable.
The feature set is respectable: 12.1 inch screen with light sensor to keep brightness optimal, 802.11 a/b/g wireless, Gigabit Ethernet, modem, PC Card slot and the usual complement of ports. A handy trackstick on the bezel acts as a scroll and enter control. It has four buttons to launch frequently used applications. For security, there’s even a fingerprint reader.
Performance felt OK, even though the PCMark total score was the lowest in the roundup. Without the keyboard, the Scribbler tied for lightest unit at 3.5 lb. The keyboard adds a pound.
This was the second lightest unit, at 4.3 lb, and that’s including an integrated optical drive – quite respectable. It had the perkiest CPU, too, though its overall performance rating was dragged down by its poor graphics score. It is wireless to the max, offering both 802.11 a/b/g and Bluetooth. It has slots for both a PC Card and SD card, plus a dedicated SmartCard reader. Standard ports are easily accessible, and those used less often (external video and Gigabit Ethernet) are protected by plastic covers.
Battery life was just over three hours.
Toshiba Satellite R10
The R10 is the heftiest of the group, at 6.3 lb, which makes it a brute to hold for any amount of time, but it also has the biggest screen, at 14.1 inches. Part of the weight is thanks to its integrated DVD drive. The unit also boasts three USB ports, both PC Card and SD card slots, IEEE1394 port, 802.11a/b/g wireless, modem and a 100 MB Ethernet port.
In performance it was middle of the road, but its hard drive was the fastest in the roundup. Battery life was almost three and a half hours – not bad for such a large screen.
The Bottom LineThe biggest surprise for me, and others who have tried Tablet PCs, is the accuracy of the handwriting recognition. It ranges from pretty good to downright amazing, and even comprehends both printing and cursive writing.
It could even usually make sense of my scribble, which sometimes I can’t even interpret.
Warranties are important in machines that get carried around as much as Tablet PCs do. Buy an extended warranty if available.
None of our machines was a dud, by any stretch. Although Tablet PCs may not be mainstream yet, they’ve improved to the point that a convertible machine makes a perfectly serviceable laptop.
Toshiba’s big screen makes it a great choice for someone who doesn’t need to carry the unit around a lot, but it’s too heavy for the extremely mobile. The optical drive means it’s a decent all-round laptop that happens to be a Tablet.
Fujitsu’s little guy suffered because of its short warranty and lacklustre battery life, but I liked the fact that the company managed to integrate an optical drive without doing horrible things to the weight. They even figured out how to lock the drive when the machine is in Tablet mode, so it won’t open unexpectedly and suffer damage. And wirelessly, this machine is loaded for bear.
Electrovaya’s slate is a sweet machine for someone who wants to use the pen most of the time. Its stellar battery life and light weight compensate for slightly sub-par performance on benchmarks; in operation, it was perky enough. The Premium model’s easel/keyboard will work fine if the setup is stable, but dont try to balance it on your lap.
Hewlett-Packard and Lenovo tied for top spot in points, but only by a sniffle, for different reasons.
HP’s performance and warranty offset shorter battery life and heavier weight, while Lenovo’s lightness and battery life – and its three-year warranty- compensated for its lesser performance.