Tapping the perfect tablet

Six points to consider when shopping for pen-based computers

Tablet PCs aren’t just for delivery truck drivers anymore.

A growing number of government agencies and public institutions are replacing clipboard and paper with the portable computing devices, which use a pen-like writing instrument, handwriting recognition technology and software to handle chores such as organizing notes and completing forms.

Pen-based computing products have been around for more than 15 years, but the advent of Microsoft’s Windows XP Tablet Edition in 2002 helped broaden the market. Shipments for tablet PCs in the United States will approach 1 million units this year and grow to 3.5 million units by 2010, according to IDC.

In the government sector, the tablet computer has won over academic centers and hospitals, among other customers. The Air Force Academy, for example, will offer tablet PCs to incoming students starting this fall. The Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Executive Education plans to introduce tablet PCs to save money on paper handouts. And New Jersey’s Hackensack University Medical Center has deployed hundreds of tablet PCs as a point-of-care device.

In addition, tablet PCs let police officers and social workers electronically file field reports, eliminating handwritten reports and subsequent data entry. In general, forms-intensive applications are ripe for tablet computing, according to industry executives.

Do you think tablet PCs can help your organization? Consider the following six decision points when shopping for a device.

1. Form factor: Straight up or with a twist?
Tablet PCs come in two primary forms: slate and convertible. The slate’s main components consist of a display and a stylus. Users write on the display with a stylus, and handwriting recognition software converts longhand to typewritten text. The stylus also functions as a pointing device with software applications, replacing the mouse. Slates equipped with touch-screen displays let people use their fingers and a stylus.

Slim slates, which weigh 2 pounds to 3.5 pounds, cater to users on the go.

“The slate is for those who want to walk,” said Debbie Crosek, director of marketing at slate maker Motion Computing. Field workers are typical users. The low weight also appeals to users who do stand-up presentations, Crosek added.

“The slate is designed for ergonomics,” said Don Richards, senior sales consultant for mobility solutions at GTSI. He called the slate a pure mobility solution.

Convertible tablet PCs resemble conventional notebook computers because they include a keyboard. The display on a convertible pivots 180 degrees to cover the keyboard when the device enters tablet mode. Because the keyboard adds some bulk, convertibles generally weigh about 4 pounds.

Customers who must have a keyboard opt for convertibles, Richards said. “A lot of people who need the convertible type faster than they write,” he said. Those customers tend to use the pen capability for signing and marking documents, he added.

Convertibles represent a weight-vs.-features balancing act. Mike Hagerty, Lenovo’s worldwide segment manager for the ThinkPad X41 convertible, said the goal is making a product as light as possible while still offering the comfortable familiarity of a keyboard.

He said some users become dissatisfied with a tablet’s weight once it goes beyond the 4-pound threshold.

Some people are buying convertibles today in anticipation of deploying pen-based applications in the future, said Kevin Shabow, director of field sales at Gateway. That way they can invest in tablet PC technology without “losing anything in the functionality of a full laptop,” he said. The Air Force academy opted for Gateway tablet PCs, which GTSI will supply.

2. Display size: Differing views
Some users cite display size as a reason for selecting a tablet PC instead of personal digital assistants and other smaller computing devices. Indeed, tablets offer more screen space, but each increase in size comes at the expense of mobility.

Motion Computing’s LS800 slate tablet PC is equipped with an 8.4-inch display and weighs 2.2 pounds. The company’s LE1600 slate, with a 12.1-inch display, weighs a bit more than 3 pounds. Lenovo’s ThinkPad X41 convertible has a 12.1-inch display and weighs 3.5 pounds. For buyers seeking still more screen space, Gateway offers its M285-E Convertible Notebook, which sports a 14-inch display. The product weighs more than 6 pounds.

The Naval Postgraduate School’s New Technology and Innovation Center (NTIC) evaluated the M285-E and wasn’t put off by its weight. “We wanted to go as large as possible [with the display] just because the more writing surface you have, the more comfortable you are taking notes,” said Jon Russell, lead technologist at NTIC.

3. Durability: Tough enough?
Diminutive tablet PCs aren’t necessarily designed to withstand abuse. Durability was one issue NTIC considered when it evaluated tablets for the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Executive Education.

“I have seen other tablets in the market — they’re thin and lightweight and appear to be somewhat fragile,” said Joe LoPiccolo, director of NTIC and Academic Computing Services. NTIC chose the larger M285-E for the Center for Executive Education, but LoPiccolo said NTIC will also evaluate smaller tablets.

Ruggedized tablet PCs let customers take durability a step further. Itronix, a General Dynamics company, introduced its current ruggedized tablet, the Duo-Touch, a year ago. The slate-style tablet is designed to withstand the “type of use a field worker puts a device through,” said Tim Talda, director of product line management for tablets and handhelds at Itronix.

The Duo-Touch meets the military’s Mil-Std 810F for repeated three-foot drops, blowing rain/water resistance and vibration, according to Itronix. It also resists dusts in accordance with Ingress Protection rating 54, an international standard.

In the convertible class, Panasonic makes the water-, dust- and knock-resistant Toughbook-18. The product features hard drives mounted in shock-absorbing material, which the company says protects data from vibration.

Richards said GTSI has seen strong demand for the ruggedized Toughbook-18 among Defense Department customers.

But with the hardened features comes an increase in weight. Talda said ruggedized products weight 30 percent to 40 percent more than typical tablet PCs. Duo-Touch weighs about 4 pounds. Panasonic’s Toughbook-18 weighs 4.5 pounds.

Buyers should also expect to pay a premium for ruggedization. Rugged models cost as much as $800 more than nonrugged products.

4. Input devices: Beyond the mouse
A tablet PC display dictates the input approach. Many displays employ an active digitizer, which requires a stylus designed to interact with it.

The active digitizer only reacts to the stylus, so touching the screen or resting one’s palm or wrist on it will have no effect. This feature helps users who plan to write extensively on a tablet.

Other tablet PCs come equipped with touch screens, which use passive digitizers. Users can operate such tablets with fingers or a plastic stylus, as they would a PDA. Touch-screen tablets are geared toward applications that are light on handwriting but heavy on repetitive data entry.

Motion Computing’s product line spans active digitizer and touch-screen products.

Handwriting recognition is not as precise in the company’s LE1600TS touch-screen product as it is in the company’s other tablet PCs, a Motion Computing spokeswoman said.

The LE1600TS, she added, is specific to vertical markets such as retail and hospitality that have “high use of touch-input software.”

Panasonic, for its part, provides a touch screen with its Toughbook, but it also makes a pen-only screen available. Itronix offers active digitizer and passive touch features with its Duo-Touch tablet. Depressing two buttons on the device toggles it between active and passive modes.

In addition, a number of tablets offer built-in microphones that, coupled with speech-recognition software, enable voice dictation and transcription. Users can also control applications via voice.

Users who don’t want to forgo a keyboard can avail themselves of convertibles or buy a detachable keyboard that some slate vendors offer. Itronix, for example, provides a desk mount with a USB port that can accommodate a keyboard.

Motion Computing provides a device that functions as a docking stand and mobile keyboard. The keyboard device also charges the tablet’s battery while connected.

5. Processor, memory and storage: Future proofing
Dual-core CPUs have made their way from desktop to notebook PCs and now appear in tablets. Dual-core technology uses two independent processors to boost a computer’s ability to perform multiple tasks simultaneously.

“We’re going to start seeing the trend of going to the dual core,” Richards said. “It’s already there in the bigger tablets.”

Tablets featuring Intel’s Core Duo processor include Hewlett-Packard’s Compaq tc4400, Toshiba’s Tecra M7 series and some of Gateway’s M285 models. Intel’s Pentium M processor family also figures prominently in tablets. Expect to pay about $100 more for a tablet model with dual-core technology vs. Pentium M.

Richards said 1G of memory is becoming the standard for tablet PCs, but he added that he still sees a mix of 512M and 1G of memory in the market.

Kelly Logan, a system engineer at CDW, cited a tablet memory range of 512M to 2G, depending on the customer.

Hard-drive capacities of 30G to 60G are considered typical, although individual tablet models offer as much as 100G of storage.

Hagerty said customers are pushing hard drives into the 60G range and higher. He said interest is growing in 1G of memory as a future-proofing measure.

6. Software: Putting tablets to work
Microsoft provides much of the software that powers a tablet PC, at least at the operating-system level. The company’s Windows XP Tablet PC Edition provides the functionality of Windows XP Professional with handwriting recognition.

Logan said most customers request Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, although CDW also has seen some interest in Linux, she added.

In applications, buyers might find note-taking utilities worth considering, particularly in medical and education settings. Microsoft’s OneNote lets users take notes and organize them. The company DyKnow provides collaborative note-taking tools for the education sector. Instructors can transmit content to tablets via DyKnow and students can add their own notes.

Organizations can also build forms-specific custom applications for their tablet PCs.

A vanishing category

The tablet PC may disappear.

It’s not that tablet PC users are comprehensively rejecting pen-based technology. Instead, tablet functionality may work its way into conventional devices through Microsoft’s upcoming Vista operating system.

Vista will incorporate tablet features such as handwriting recognition, a move that could eliminate market segment distinctions.

The tablet numbers will soon be obscured by Microsoft’s decision to put tablet functionality in all business operating systems except Vista basic, said Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technology Associates.

“Microsoft in Vista doesn’t differentiate between a tablet PC OS and a notebook OS,” said Tim Talda, director of product line management for tablets and handhelds at Itronix.

Tablet capability will become a standard laptop PC feature in two to four years, said Don Richards, senior sales consultant for mobility solutions at GTSI.

— John Moore

Wireless options

Tablet PCs have a range of communications options as integrated features or field upgrades.

Options for Itronix’s Duo-Touch, for example, include 802.11b/g wireless local-area network connectivity, Bluetooth wireless technology, and wireless wide-area network technologies such as Evolution-Data Optimized and Enhanced Data GSM Environment.

Some Lenovo ThinkPad X41 models ship with integrated Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity. A wireless WAN card is an optional feature.

Mike Hagerty, Lenovo’s worldwide segment manager for the ThinkPad X41, cited wireless LAN as a must-have feature of a tablet PC, but he noted that users have not embraced wireless WAN as quickly.

A Global Positioning System receiver is available as a field upgrade for some tablets, such as the Duo-Touch. Kelly Logan, a system engineer at reseller CDW, said customers are asking for GPS a little more often. Logan said the GPS upgrade can cost $200 to $300.

— John Moore

Smart Shopper Tip #1: Worth another lookIn past years, tablet PCs cost several hundred dollars more than conventional notebook PCs, pricing some potential buyers out of the market. Don Richards, senior sales consultant for mobility solutions at GTSI, said that delta has now narrowed to $100 to $200. “The price point keeps coming down,” he said. Tablet PCs generally range from $1,700 to $2,400. Ruggedized models range from $2,600 to $3,400.
Smart Shopper Tip #2: Consider training

Use of a tablet PC’s pen is fairly intuitive, but the new business processes enabled by tablet computing may not be. “People think…it’s obvious how to use them and just hand them out,” said Bob Cannan, president and chief executive officer of Eagle Productivity Solutions, an information technology training firm. Insufficient training translates into low technology adoption rates, he said.

Cannan said six hours of training will get users up to speed on tablet capabilities.

Smart Shopper Tip #3: Don’t forget securityTablets, being small and mobile, are tempting targets for thieves. Kevin Shabow, director of field sales at Gateway, said he sees strong demand for Absolute Software’s theft protection products. The company’s Computrace technology helps locate stolen computers and lets users remotely delete sensitive data. A three-year license for Computrace costs about $100.

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