Tablet PCs: Redefining Portable Computing

A new mobile product promises users unprecedented versatility.

November 1, 2002

After years of promise and speculation, the tablet PC has finally and officially arrived. This new device, a cross between a notebook computer and an electronic legal pad, gives real estate professionals looking for the ultimate convenience in portable computing a new hardware option. Roughly the size of a portfolio folder, this versatile new breed of mobile technology easily adapts to how and where the owner wants to use it. On the lap or desktop, it can function as a traditional notebook computer. It can also transform itself into an electronic writing tablet, able to read and record your handwriting.

As a product concept, the Tablet PC marks both an evolutionary progression of notebook computing and a break with previous generations of portables. The core of its functionality and appeal is a touch-sensitive LCD screen and new operating system software from Microsoft. With these, users can control all application features and enter text or graphics with an electronic stylus.

Although touch screens and handwriting recognition software have always been selling points of PDAs, Microsoft’s release of a specialized version of Windows, Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, makes these features practical in a full-powered computer for the first time.

The Microsoft operating system includes Windows Journal, a note-taking utility for organizing and searching notes entered on screen in the user’s handwriting. The software also lets you convert written notes into text for exporting to other applications. The OS incorporates voice-recognition software that can respond to spoken commands and convert dictated notes into text.

Microsoft’s release of the Tablet PC operating system has given hardware makers the operating system they need to empower a new class of portable computers. At this early juncture, two design concepts for Tablet PCs have emerged. One combines a touch-sensitive screen with a keyboard in a folding clamshell design reminiscent of a traditional notebook. In the other approach, dubbed the “slate” form, the Tablet PC is a self-contained electronic notepad/computer that can be plugged into a docking station or connected to a detachable keyboard for use on the desktop. Initial pricing ranges from $1,800 for the slate design to $2,500 for a high-end convertible notebook/Table PC. Such prices put Tablet PCs at the mid- to upper range of portable PC options.

Acer was the first company to showcase a prototype Tablet PC earlier this year. At fist glance, the basic configuration of its TravelMate C 100, the C102T, resembles a traditional laptop, with built–in keyboard. With a twist of the screen, however, the keyboard disappears beneath the screen, and the unit switches to its Tablet PC mode. This model weighs only 3.1 pounds and features a 10.4-inch LCD screen, an 800 MHz processor, 256MB SDRAM, a 20GB hard drive, and support for Ethernet and the wireless 802.11b networking standard. Prices start at $1,999.

Hewlett Packard’s Compaq Tablet PC TC1000, priced at $1,699, is the least expensive Tablet PC currently available. Out of the box, this slate model weighs about three pounds and measures less than an inch thick, with a 10.2-inch screen, 1GHZ processor, 256MB SDRAM, wireless networking, and Ethernet. When users tire of writing on the screen, they can snap on a $129 accessory keyboard to convert it into a traditional notebook. The company also offers an optional docking station with monitor and keyboard that lets users convert the unit into a desktop system with two monitors. The docking station also gives you the option of using either the keyboard or the touch screen to control applications and enter data.

Debuting at the high end of the Tablet PC rollout is Toshiba’s Dynabook SS 3500, a portable PC that combines the performance of both the Tablet PC and notebook in one mobile package. The screen swivels 180 degrees, so it’s relatively ease to switch from standard notebook to tablet use on the fly. The model can also be set to display information in a horizontal landscape or vertical portrait mode for easier viewing. For $2,499, this unit features a 1.33 GHz Mobile Pentium processor; 256MB RAM; a 40GB hard drive; a 12.1-inch LCD screen; and support for Bluetooth, wireless networking, and Ethernet.

In addition to these models, Fujitsu PC, Panasonic Matsushita, Motion Computing, and Viewsonic have all announced Tablet PC products. And it’s safe to assume many more Windows vendors will be offering a Tablet PCs within the next few months.

Should you make one of these new devices your next portable computing solution? It may be too soon to tell. At the very least, you may not want to jump in and grab a first-generation product until it’s been tested in the field a while. And, although a Tablet PC may be more compact than a traditional notebook, at 3 pounds or better it’s still a lot more to carry than a PDA.

If you’re already perfected the art of typing on a tiny PDA keyboard and don’t need full versions of your Windows’ applications in the field, the Tablet PC may not offer any real advantages. Conversely, if you could use a full-powered mobile computer that easily adapts to a variety of computing needs, the Table PC is now an option worth investigating.

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