A beta preview of the Tablet PC
I recently attended a briefing at Microsoft's Silicon Valley conference center. Many of my fellow attendees carried notebooks, so nobody paid any attention as I opened mine up. However, what I did next drew stares: I pressed the hinges at either end of the display to unlock it, then turned the display 180 degrees and folded it down to cover the keyboard. I was using Acer's TravelMate 100 Tablet PC.
Inside and Out
The TravelMate measures 8.5" * 10.1" * 1.1" (closed) and weighs approximately 2.5 pounds. Inside, Acer has packed an 800MHz Pentium III Processor-M processor, 256MB of RAM, and a 30GB hard disk. The unit features a PC Card slot, two USB ports, a serial port, a 56Kbps modem, 10/100Base-T Ethernet, audio in and out jacks, and a VGA connector for an external monitor. The unit I tested came with a USB CD-ROM drive. An external 3.5" disk drive and other external devices will be available as options.
In notebook mode, the TravelMate offers few surprises. Its keyboard is set back from the front of the unit to make room for a Synaptics TouchPad. The relatively small 10.4" display operates at an unusually high 1024 * 768 resolution.
To use the TravelMate as a Tablet PC, you must unlock, twist, and fold down the display, giving you a device that looks and feels like an electronic Etch A Sketch. As far as I know, this "convertible" design is unique. Other Tablet PC prototypes I've seen have separate keyboards that either connect through a USB port or communicate wirelessly with the Tablet PC.
Unlike earlier pen-based devices, the TravelMate doesn't have a touch screen. Instead, the display is equipped with an active digitizer—an array of fine wires beneath the LCD display that interacts with an electronically active stylus that's specific to each manufacturer's device. One problem with this approach is that losing the stylus can spell disaster. (Acer provides a small backup stylus that fits into a slot in the side of the TravelMate.)
The advantage of an active digitizer is that it provides extremely high resolution—about four times higher than that of the display—which permits impressive handwriting recognition and extremely smooth electronic ink. Tapping the stylus on the display has the same effect as clicking the left mouse button, and double-tapping is equivalent to a double-click. The Acer's primary and backup styluses include an optional button that performs the equivalent of right-clicking a mouse. (You can also generate a right-click by tapping the stylus and holding it over an icon or menu item.) These actions are easy to learn and become quite natural. You can operate in Tablet PC configuration with the display set to either Portrait or Landscape mode.
Because the keyboard is hidden in Tablet mode, you must use the stylus for data entry. Using a new application called Windows Journal, which lets you write on the display in electronic ink, I took some 20 pages of notes during the aforementioned briefing. The notes resembled the handwritten scrawls that I might commit to a pad of paper. However, as I wrote, a text recognizer was executing in a background thread. As a result, I can now use text keywords to search the notes I took. I can also copy text from those notes and paste it into Notepad or Microsoft Word—though as Figure 1, page 36, shows, the results are variable. The device had much more success with my wife's neat handwriting than with my scrawls. I have trouble reading my own notes, so I'm not surprised that the computer's results aren't exactly precise.
I spent a lot of time using Windows Journal, which has a simple UI that resembles a piece of notepaper. You simply use the stylus to write (or draw) on the digital paper. When you fill a page, you tap the "page down" icon below the vertical scrollbar on the right side of Windows Journal's window for a fresh page. A toolbar provides pen, highlighter, eraser, selection, white-space, and flag tools. You can use the pen tool to select the color and weight of the "ink," and you can use the white-space tool to "push" ink down on a page—or off to another page.
The good news about Windows Journal is that it's truly usable for note-taking. The bad news is that getting text out of Windows Journal can be frustrating. Windows Journal can save text only in its unique .jbt file format. To retrieve text, you must select the text you're interested in—no more than one page at a time—and use the Edit menu's Copy as Text option. A dialog box appears, showing what Windows Journal thinks you wrote. (Windows Journal highlights words it's unsure about.) At this point, you can make corrections to the text. To place the text on the Windows clipboard, you click Copy. You can then paste the text into any Windows application and begin the formatting process, which can be extremely time-consuming if you're dealing with anything more than a paragraph's worth of text.
If you don't need the system to recognize your text, or if you want to extract a diagram or sketch, you simply select what you're interested in, tap the Edit menu's Copy option, and paste the resulting ink in Windows metafile format. You can use this procedure to good effect in email, though your coworkers might be surprised to see your handwritten notes on their screens.
Windows Journal provides a File/Export As option that lets you export text in two formats: Web archive (.mht) and .tif. Unfortunately, Eastman Kodak's Windows Imaging application doesn't recognize the .tif format that Windows Journal emits, and although Adobe's Photoshop Elements will at least open a Windows Journal .tif file, the results are unreadable. Fortunately, I found that I could use Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) 5.5 to open Windows Journal files exported in .mht format.
Other Data Entry
You can also use the TravelMate's Input Panel for data entry. To access the Input Panel, which Figure 2 shows, you click the icon next to the Start button. The Input Panel offers three operating modes: onscreen keyboard, free-form text input (script or printed), and voice input. The onscreen keyboard is slow because you have to use the stylus to tap one letter at a time, but it's typically more accurate than handwrit-ing recognition. The onscreen keyboard is ideal for entering passwords and filenames.
Plug a headset into the Tablet PC's audio ports, and you can access Windows XP's built-in speech recognizer through the Input Panel's Dictation icon and Speech Tools menu. Although the same speech-recognition engine is available in XP Professional, I've rarely seen it used on conventional notebooks or desktop PCs. However, in the tablet form factor, it's a surprisingly user-friendly feature—provided, of course, that you have a quiet place to work. Dictating through the built-in microphone leaves one hand free to steady the tablet while you edit with the stylus. Speech input requires some setup time: The Voice Training item in the Speech Tools menu takes about 10 minutes to work through.
Microsoft is also offering a plugin for Microsoft Office 2002 that will let you enter text anywhere on the display, eliminating the need to use the Input Panel. I didn't have a chance to test this plugin or the new Tablet PC version of Microsoft Reader eBook viewer. Several third-party vendors are working on applications for Tablet PCs—notably Corel, which is developing a completely new drawing program for graphic artists.
Tablet PCs in IT Departments
IT departments will be happy to discover that although Microsoft hasn't enhanced XP Tablet PC Edition's network features, the Tablet PC retains all the good features of XP Pro. A highlight is the wireless-aware network stack that provides a proper UI for identifying and connecting to available wireless networks. I found the TravelMate to be quite useful as a portable 802.11 tester: It's easy to carry, and the Wireless Network Connection dialog box, which Figure 3 shows, lets you easily determine what networks are available at different locations. The Tablet PC also retains XP's Network Bridge feature, which automatically takes advantage of whatever network connections—wired or wireless—are available.
Open a command prompt and you can use the stylus and Input Panel to ping other computers on your network. Of course, you can use the keyboard on a conventional notebook PC (or the TravelMate in its notebook configuration) to perform the same function, but the ability to hold the Tablet PC in one hand feels more natural, particularly in cramped locations.
Tablet PCs run only XP Tablet PC Edition—you can't use any older Windows versions. This requirement might introduce training concerns in organizations that haven't yet migrated to XP on the client. In particular, Microsoft has made some changes to the XP UI that I found confusing at first (my regular desktop is Windows 2000). Tablet PC Product Manager Kelly Berschauer points out that you can change many aspects of the XP display to make it look and feel more like Win2K. (See the Appearance tab of the XP Control Panel Display applet.)
Users will also require some training time to get accustomed to the stylus—and to know when to use a keyboard. As I was completing this column, In-Stat/MDR issued a report titled "PC Tablets, Internet Terminals & Mira Displays: Beyond the Traditional PC," which says in part, "the Tablet PC will require the user to transition from keyboarding to pen input, a radical change in the way people work." In fact, using the stylus instead of a physical keyboard for high-volume text input is a mistake. Microsoft has repeatedly said that all Tablet PCs will have a keyboard of some sort available—the trick is knowing when to use it and when to use the stylus.
IT teams will have other considerations to ponder as they begin evaluating Tablet PCs. The devices are truly mobile in a way that notebook PCs aren't—the form factor lends itself to use while moving, as well as in nontraditional locations such as cafeterias and conference rooms. Organizations with wireless networks might need to verify that they have full-building (or full-campus) coverage. XP Tablet PC Edition is a superset of XP Pro and will require a new system image. (Berschauer told me that existing deployment tools should work fine with it.)
Another concern is the need to synchronize information—particularly email and PIM data—between a user's Tablet PC and desktop PC. Microsoft's intent is that a Tablet PC should be powerful enough to function as a user's only PC; but Berschauer concedes this probably won't be the case for early adopters transitioning from an existing desktop or notebook PC. When Bill Gates spoke at the Tablet PC Reviewer's Workshop in Seattle earlier this year, he said that he personally had resorted to sending duplicate email messages from his Tablet PC to his desktop, and vice versa. You can also use XP's Synchronized Files feature (which works only if the user shuts down Microsoft Outlook on the computer that's not in use at a given time), store messages only on a server, or use Terminal Services.
The Bottom Line
While testing the TravelMate, I experienced a few difficulties that are probably specific to the preproduction unit I used. The battery wouldn't hold a charge in Standby mode, so I resorted to using Hibernate mode (which is a bit slower). The active digitizer required frequent recalibration when I used it in Portrait mode. The unit became uncomfortably hot after an extended period of use. Finally, I found that I had to shut down and restart the unit to enable the built-in wireless network card after disabling it (which saves battery life when you use the unit away from a wireless LAN—WLAN).
At the very least, the TravelMate provides all the features of a typical XP-based notebook PC. The ability to use the device in Tablet PC mode improves mobility and makes it useful in situations for which a conventional notebook PC form factor isn't well suited. I didn't perform any formal performance benchmarks, but the device was more than adequately fast for all the applications I tested, and I experienced about 4 hours of continuous use on a battery charge. Although the unit and software aren't perfect—in particular, I think Windows Journal needs more work—they're still quite useful. I didn't want to give the unit back—and I believe many people will feel the same way after they've had a chance to try one.
I think Tablet PCs will take off—given time. Considering the state of the economy and the slow pace of corporate technology sales, Microsoft couldn't have picked a worse time to introduce a new category of device. The long-term success of the Tablet PC depends in large part on the willingness of manufacturers—which include Acer, Hewlett-Packard (HP), Toshiba, Fujitsu, and Motion Computing—to set reasonable prices and the effectiveness of the marketing campaign. As we go to press, Microsoft hasn't announced specific pricing and release dates—but I expect the first wave of devices to ship this fall at prices comparable to those of high-end notebook PCs.
Microsoft's vision is that Tablet PC features will ultimately be built into all notebook PCs. The only additional hardware required is the active digitizer and stylus, which should cost no more than $100 when produced in quantity. I think the features are useful enough that this will happen—eventually. For another opinion of the Tablet PC, check out Paul Thurrott's coverage in his articles "Windows XP Tablet PC Edition reviewed" (http://www.winsupersite.com/reviews/windowsxp_tabletpc.asp) and "Tablet PC Preview: Photo Gallery" (http://www.winsupersite.com/showcase/tabletpc_preview.asp).