Review: PC tablet not a cure-all

Aqcess Technologies Inc.'s Qbe (pronounced "cube") offers a wonderful glimpse into the future of personal computing. However, the unit's limitations clearly demonstrate that the future isn't here.

The advantages of Qbe are obvious: Its form factor makes it handier than a notebook for mobile workers. At 14 inches long, 10 inches wide and a little over an inch-and-a-half thick, the Qbe is slightly larger than a legal-size notepad. Most of that real estate is covered by the display. The Qbe's 13.3-inch display (measured diagonally) is far larger than those sported by most handheld units.

The Qbe Personal Computing Tablet is packed with peripherals and plug-in ports, including a 24x CD-ROM drive, a built-in 56K modem, a 10/100BaseT Ethernet network card, a magnetic card reader (which doubles as a smart card reader/writer), two PC Card slots, an infrared device port, a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, a USB port and a keyboard port. A digital camera capable of still and motion photography is mounted above the screen to support videoconferencing. And the Qbe is rugged, with a magnesium-and-rubber shell and shock-resistant internal components.

Unlike the myriad handheld PCs on the market, the Qbe runs Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 98 or Windows 2000 and supports any application that runs on those operating systems.

I tested the Qbe Cirrus, the mid-range of the three Qbe PCTs produced by Aqcess Technologies. This unit carried a 400MHz Pentium II processor with 128M of RAM. All Qbe models feature a rechargeable lithium-ion battery that provides approximately 2.5 hours of power.

In addition, the Qbe comes with a convenient and compact Porticle device that plugs into a SCSI slot on the rear of the Qbe. The Porticle contains parallel, serial, USB and game ports. It also can be used to stand the unit upright when it is in use on the desktop.

Aqcess Technologies earns kudos for combining so many devices and ports into a transportable, flat, 6-pound unit. But this design has advantages and disadvantages.

On the positive side, it's easy to see how information technology managers could, for example, carry the Qbe throughout an office to record an inventory of equipment. And government workers could have individuals fill out forms directly on the screen, eliminating time-consuming data entry following the use of paper forms.

The Qbe has several input options: Users can point and click with the attachable stylus, they can touch the screen itself, or they can type by using the on-screen keyboard simulation program, My-T-Touch. I preferred the stylus and touch-screen methods and found the My-T-Touch interface awkward, but it is available for keyboard-savvy users who may miss the physical keyboard of a laptop or desktop PC.

On the design downside, I found the Qbe sometimes difficult to manage with just one hand. Two hands seemed best while transporting the unit, but when working, one hand must be dedicated to using the touch screen or stylus. The sturdy outer shell of the unit needs a handle or strap on it, perhaps at the top or on the back, to help stabilize the unit when it is being used.

Also, although remarkably lightweight, the Qbe started feeling noticeably heavier after I toted it around for a while. Obviously, even the most mobile users of the Qbe will set it down from time to time as they do their work, but in this age of increasingly ultra-light computer equipment, one wonders if the Qbe could be made even lighter and still retain its tremendous durability.

No matter how mobile the users of the Qbe plan to be, there will be times when they will want to use it like a desktop PC. With the Porticle for support, and with the unit chock-full of processing power, it is no problem to convert the Qbe to desktop mode, and it is more than adequate for use as a desktop machine. It comes with its own keyboard (which is the size of a standard laptop keyboard) and mouse.

However, problems occur when you connect all of the Qbe's additional components (keyboard, stylus, power adapter, USB mouse) at once. The result is a nightmarish mess of cables and connectors strewn across your desktop. Throw in a printer, a cable modem and perhaps a network connector and external monitor, and you are suddenly drowning in a sea of wires, struggling for a clear place to set your mouse.

Wireless infrared devices or a docking station are obvious solutions to this dilemma, but the IR port is not 100 percent functional at present and the Qbeicle, an optional Qbe docking station accessory, is still in production. According to Aqcess customer service, the problem with the IR port, as well as a similar one with the game port on the Qbe porticle, is being addressed, and users can expect to have full functionality on these features soon.

I found the Qbe's large, rectangular, active-matrix color screen — which can be configured to display in landscape or portrait modes — a pleasure to work with. The Qbe software and interface were quite intuitive; Qbe definitely gets an "A" for ease of use.

On the downside, with the Qbe's battery providing only 2.5 hours of power, any really mobile user will need to have an AC adapter ready to recharge the Qbe. This makes the Qbe's true mobility questionable, especially for a user planning to use the Qbe extensively in the field (e.g., going door-to-door or traveling long distances from site-to-site).

Additionally, users who do not plan to attach the Qbe to a network to transfer their work files should note that the unit has no built-in floppy disk drive. External drives are available, but at the price of added cost and added desktop clutter.

I also experienced a few inexplicable errors when performing the most basic tasks, such as closing out of MS Paint and the Qbe's Q-Shot photo program. Another knock is that no internal Qbe components are user-upgradeable and there is currently no provision for adding RAM to the unit, though Aqcess Technologies says upgrade capabilities are planned for the future.

Although the problems we experienced with the Qbe may encourage some agencies to look elsewhere for a solution to their mobile computing needs, we believe that, ultimately, Aqcess Technologies is on to a good thing. And agencies opting to look elsewhere may find that there are no other products with the unique blend of raw processing power, transportability and ease-of-use that the Qbe offers.

Overall, the Qbe is innovative and fun enough to make you want to stick around and see what future incarnations will bring.

Gray is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at edgray2000@yahoo.com.

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