Pen tablets show impressive tech gains

Somewhere between notebook computers and personal digital assistants lies the pen-based computer, which allow users to run applications and enter information using a pen-like stylus and a touch screen instead of a traditional keyboard.

While passed over in the past by some IT managers because of a lack of expandability and poor handwriting recognition, the latest technologically advanced pen-based computers coming from leaders such as Fujitsu Personal Systems Inc. are causing some IT managers to take notice. Pen tablets, with cellular modem and wireless local-area network technology, can now be classified beyond what some consider a "toy" computer to a true productivity enhancer within your agency.

Fujitsu recently introduced two new pen-based computers, the Stylistic 2300 and the Point 1600, both of which offer exceptional expandability and communication as well as functional docking options. In addition, the performance numbers were quite good, given their midrange processor technology. We also took notice of these machines' great handwriting recognition.

Fujitsu Stylistic 2300

The Stylistic 2300, the flagship of Fujitsu's pen computing line, provides the ultimate in true mobile pen computing, supporting three operating systems: Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 95, Windows 98 and Windows NT Workstation. The Stylistic 2300 ships with Computer Intelligence Corp.'s 32-bit/16-bit Handwriting Recognition System software. Although the CIC software doesn't provide support for cursive writing, you can replace it with software that does.

The Stylistic 2300 we tested included an 8.4-inch TFT SVGA display offering up to 800-by-600 pixel resolution and up to 262,144 colors. The 2300 also is available with an indoor/outdoor color transflective (CTF) SVGA display supporting up to 4,096 colors. The CTF display works by using natural sunlight to increase effective color contrast when used outdoors. For indoor use or in dim lighting, the CTF display also includes a backlight.

The Stylistic 2300 we reviewed was powered by an Intel Corp. 233 MHz Pentium MMX processor, 64M of SDRAM (standard is 32M), expandable to 96M, and a 4.1G Ultra ATA shock-mounted hard disk drive. The shock-mounted drive extends its resistance of shock and vibration up to six times that of normal notebook hard disk drives.

The Stylistic 2300 performed as expected for a midrange mobile computer, with an overall Business Applications Performance Corp. SYSmark/98 score of 73. Thanks to the lithium-ion battery, the battery life score was exceptional, with an overall Battmark rating of 2.96 and a battery life of 4 hours and 29 minutes.

The Stylistic 2300 weighs in at 3.9 pounds with the battery installed, and its dimensions are 11.1 inches by 7.4 inches by 1.6 inches. The system was relatively comfortable to hold and use while standing. However, the unit does get very warm, which could be a blessing or curse—depending on the environment in which you are working.

An LCD status panel in the upper left corner features icons for battery charge, hard disk access, PC Card access, power indication and DC power input. Hot pad keys along the lower portion of the display are pen-active buttons that allow you to change display and speaker volume settings with a tap of the pen.The combination of the 2300's active digitizer and CIC handwriting recognition software provided very good text recognition, even while quickly jotting down notes on the run. To configure the unit to recognize handwriting, we launched the installed training wizard, which asked a series of questions regarding the writing style of someone in our test center. While writing in applications, we could choose to launch the installed screen keyboard, which can be minimized to the tool tray after use.

We also could launch a floating editing palette, which provides easy access to common editing functions such as backspace, space and punctuation marks. Furthermore, we could program our own gesture macros to perform common keyboard functions. These gesture macros are performed by writing the corresponding letter inside a circle. For example, an encircled "D" would delete a portion of highlighted text. The software also supports standard editing symbols commonly used by publication editors when editing printed text.

The only complaint we had about the Stylistic 2300 was the placement of the floppy drive connection port. The port is located inside the battery compartment, so in order to have floppy disk functionality, you must plug in the external AC adapter, remove the battery and then connect the floppy drive. This means the unit is not portable when using the floppy drive because it must be connected to an AC outlet.

The Stylistic 2300 provided a number of on-board port connections, including USB, IrDA 1.1 infrared, RS-232C serial, parallel, monitor, PS/2 keyboard/mouse, microphone jack, headphone jack and an integrated RJ-11 port for connection to the built-in 56 kilobits/sec V.90 modem/14.4 kilobits/sec fax. The unit also includes a user-accessible port that supports either two Type II PC Cards or one Type III PC Card.

Fujitsu offers a number of optional accessories for the Stylistic 2300, ranging from a rugged outdoor case to an optical bar code scanner. Fujitsu sent the unit with an attractive charcoal metal desk stand and a port replicator that features the following ports: monitor, keyboard, mouse, headphone, microphone, audio in, audio out, external floppy, parallel, two RS-232C serial ports, two USB ports and power connection. Fujitsu also included an external floppy drive and a low-power 86-key keyboard.

Fujitsu also sent two types of cases for the Stylistic 2300: the standard case and the harsh-environment case. The standard slip case is made from nylon and includes a shoulder strap. It features a flip cover over the display and allows quick access to all the ports except the USB and floppy ports.

The harsh-environment case is a sealed, laminated foam case that provides protection from dust, moisture, shock and vibration. It features a clear, lexan window that allows use of the LCD display, status LCD and hot pads.

Overall, we thought the 2300 was a very solid unit. With the number of on-board ports and available expansion options, the 2300 could easily propel your agency into the pen computing realm. For increased usefulness while outdoors, look for the 2300 with the optional CTF-based display.

Fujitsu Point 1600

The Point 1600 is a cost-competitive, rugged pen tablet offering the same great text recognition software as the Stylistic 2300 but with many different features and options. The rugged design allows for high-usage docking in environments such as health care or laboratory settings, where multiple shifts of workers are docking and undocking throughout the day.

The Point 1600 is equipped with a 166 MHz Pentium MMX processor and comes standard with 32M of SDRAM, expandable to 96M. The unit also is equipped with a 4.1G shock-mounted hard disk drive. The Point 1600 has a 10.4-inch display, which is slightly larger than the Stylistic 2300 display, but it is only available in DSTN, an old display technology that is not as good as TFT.

However, it has a resolution capability of up to 800-by-600 pixels and can display up to 65,536 colors.The case design is slightly larger than that of the Stylistic 2300, with overall dimensions of 11.7 inches by 8.7 inches by 1.4 inches. The weight comes in at approximately 4 pounds, including the battery. The 1600 also was equipped with hot pads located below the screen for adjusting contrast, brightness and volume, and switching between internal and external video sources. There also is a hot pad for right mouse button functionality because, unlike the Stylistic 2300, the included pen didn't feature a button for this function.

The port options also differed slightly on the Point 1600. The on-board connections include a combo PS/2 keyboard/mouse port, an RS-232C serial port, an IrDA 1.1 infrared port, a USB port, a microphone and headphone port and one user-accessible Type-II/Type-III Personal Computer Memory Card International Association slot. The second PCMCIA slot, which users cannot access, can be equipped at the factory with an optional 3Com Corp. embedded 56 kilobits/sec V.90/14.4 kilobits/sec fax modem or a Proxim Inc. RangeLAN2 Wireless LAN card. The Point 1600's floppy drive port did not require removal of the lithium-ion battery pack.

We were impressed with the multiple docking accessories available for the Point 1600. Docking options included the standard port replicator, a portable replicator, a high-connectivity cradle for users who need to access a wide variety of ports, a high-usage cradle and a wall-mountable cradle with a flip-down keyboard.

A host of optional accessories are available for the Point 1600, but the only one included with the review unit was the standard slipcase. The harsh-environment case is not available for the Point 1600.

The Point 1600 definitely delivers on expandability and accessories options. In fact, we liked the lineup of docking options better than those included with the Stylistic 2300.

This unit is geared to be a heavy-use, multiperson machine. Because it's every bit as rugged as the Stylistic 2300 but sells at a lower price, the Point 1600 would be an excellent fit in environments such as laboratories or hospitals.

-- Marshall is the information systems manager for FCW Media Group. He can be reached at john_marshall@fcw.com.

***

Stylistic 2300—A

Fujitsu Personal Systems Inc.(408) 982-9500www.fpsi.fujitsu.com

Final Score: Excellent

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