Arming the 'corridor warrior'

Review: ViewSonic's tablet computer combines PDA mobility with desktop functionality

As workers demand more mobility from their computing products, vendors are answering the call with products that fit ever more niches. One of the latest trends is the tablet PC.

Tablets combine the mobility of a personal digital assistant with the functionality of a notebook. As with PDAs, tablets can be used anywhere, including while standing or walking. But thanks to their larger size, they can incorporate many more features; some even offer full PC functionality. However, they are still lighter than most notebooks.

One of the current tablet PC offerings is the ViewPad 1000 from ViewSonic Corp. With an 800 MHz Intel Corp. Mobile Celeron processor, Microsoft Corp. Windows 2000 and a 10.4-inch full-color thin-film transistor display with 800 x 600 resolution, this tablet offers PC functionality in a highly portable design measuring 12.2 inches by 8.9 inches by 1.4 inches.

Several connectivity options add to the system's versatility, including built-in 802.11b MiniPCI wireless local-area network capability, Fast Ethernet and a built-in 56 kilobits/sec modem.

ViewSonic uses the term "corridor warrior" to describe its target market for this product. A sample job description for one of these workers includes working at a desk, taking notes at meetings, giving presentations, accessing network services and traveling to customer sites.

Weighing just 4.3 pounds and featuring a touch screen and stylus, the ViewPad 1000 is indeed easy to use on the go. The lithium-ion battery provides approximately four hours of life, according to ViewSonic.

One problem with touch screens, however, is their high level of glare, and this screen is no exception. Fluorescent lighting is especially problematic.

The Desktop Isn't Forgotten

For stationary use when typing is required, ViewSonic bundles a full-size wireless keyboard with the tablet. The only drawback to the keyboard is the mouse controller, a large rubber rocker button at the top right. Buttons for clicking are on the top left, allowing convenient two-handed operation. The rocker button is difficult to use for precision operations, such as stretching a window. The stylus allows a much greater level of cursor control. ViewSonic also sells a USB optical mini-mouse for $39.

Another handy feature for desktop use is the fold-out arm that enables you to prop the ViewPad either vertically or horizontally on a flat surface. Rubber feet on the stand and on two sides of the unit add traction.

A signature feature of the ViewPad 1000 is the built-in digital CCD camera. You can take snapshots or videoclips and add them to e-mail messages, presentations or other documents. We found the camera quite easy to use, although saving an image requires a two-step process of capturing it with the camera utility software and then transferring it to the Microsoft Imaging program. However, the process is intuitive and the transfer rate is extremely fast, even when transferring multiple images.

The camera's streaming video rate is 15 frames per second. The still photos are not the clearest we've seen, but details show up well and the quality seems good for such a small camera.

The ViewPad 1000 comes with Pivot software from Portrait Displays Inc. that allows both horizontal and vertical screen viewing. You can switch the orientation on the fly with a simple tap of the taskbar icon. Just be aware that when switching from landscape to portrait you may have to adjust some window sizes.

Input Options

For entering text without the keyboard, ViewSonic offers two choices. One is a generously sized on-screen keyboard, and the other is a handwriting-recognition software package called PenOffice, made by PhatWare Corp.

We were impressed by PenOffice's capabilities. In contrast to the well-known Graffiti software used with the Palm Inc. OS, PenOffice requires no training, and a novice user can even get started without reading the manual. The program does well at recognizing handwriting, but you need to write neatly for accuracy.

PenOffice also includes several other useful features. You can mark up Microsoft Word documents and then forward your edits to someone else. A "scratch pad" function acts like real paper: You can draw or write on it and save the document as is, then convert the writing to typed text at a later time.

PenCommander, a new feature with PenOffice Version 2.0, increases usability by allowing you to use pre-recorded, user-defined commands, or macros, for actions such as opening applications or automatically inserting text. There is also a handwriting calculator that provides solutions to handwritten mathematical equations.

ViewSonic also includes two other software packages. One is Citrix ICA Client 6.0 from Citrix Systems Inc. It enables the ViewPad 1000 to function as a terminal when connected to a server running Citrix MetaFrame software.

The other included program is Microsoft's NetMeeting, which allows you to use the ViewPad as a videoconferencing device — thanks to the camera — when connected to the Internet.

Ports on the unit include two USB ports, one VGA for connecting an external monitor, a modem, Fast Ethernet, infrared, and microphone and audio out jacks. The front of the unit features handy e-mail and Internet shortcut buttons, and one Type I or Type II PC Card slot is also included.

Unless you plan to load software onto the unit via download only, you should probably buy the optional docking station, which will add $299 to the $1,995 price tag. Without it, no drive bay is available. The docking station includes a built-in CD-ROM drive, Fast Ethernet and modem ports, two PS/2 ports, serial, parallel and VGA ports, four USB ports, and microphone, speaker and headphone jacks. Conveniently, you can undock the ViewPad 1000 while the power is on.

The primary advantage of a tablet over, say, an ultra-light notebook is the ability to use it while standing or walking. The ViewPad 1000 offers the additional feature of a built-in camera, making it an excellent tool for tasks such as videoconferencing, insurance assessments or any other situation that requires taking snapshots or video clips. Just remember that you'll need to buy the docking station if you want to have CD-ROM capability, and a floppy drive is not available at all.

REPORT CARD

ViewPad 1000

Score: A-

ViewSonic Corp.
(800) 888-8583
www.viewsonic.com

The ViewPad 1000 is available for $1,995. Visit ViewSonic's Web site for reseller information.

The ViewPad 1000 offers PC functionality in a tablet design. Fast Ethernet and modem ports, along with 802.11b wireless local-area network capability and a built-in digital camera, make this a highly portable, versatile device.

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