Tablet PCs: More punch in round 2

We've all heard campaigns promoting the next big thing, from Studebakers to smart cards. Some catch on, some don't.

Tablet PCs were touted as a hot new trend at last year's Comdex trade show in Las Vegas. Filling the space between personal digital assistants and notebooks, tablets combine the mobility of PDAs — you can use them while walking or standing — with the functionality of notebooks.

Since 2001, however, there hasn't been much activity in the tablet market — until now. Microsoft's November release of its new operating system designed for tablet PCs — Windows XP Tablet PC Edition — is ushering in a new generation of tablets that take advantage of the software.

One key difference between the new tablets and previous versions is that the new tablets use digital pens instead of styluses. The displays on these devices are not touch screens; instead, they contain digitizers.

Digital pens facilitate smoother movement, especially for handwriting, and allow for sturdier screens because they don't operate based on pressure, as do touch screens. Indeed, the pens do not have to touch the screen to move the pointer as long as they are held within half an inch of the surface. To right click, users press a button on the pen while touching the item with the pen's tip.

Although some vendors tout their tablet PCs as viable notebook replacements, we feel tablets will occupy a niche market, though one with a good deal of potential growth. Aside from the handwriting capabilities and the ability to work while standing, tablets don't offer many advantages over ultralight notebooks, many of which weigh as little as — or even less than — tablets.

However, for "corridor warriors" who dash from meeting to meeting within an office and need (or prefer) to take handwritten notes or make drawings, the new digitized tablets offer an unsurpassed level of convenience and functionality. This also holds true for workers such as inspectors who must compute while standing, or those who regularly fill out forms with checkboxes or other pen-based interfaces. The idea is to literally replace paper notepads, marrying handwriting with computing.

And it works.

We reviewed two tablet PCs released Nov. 7, the same day as Microsoft's announcement: the Compaq Tablet PC TC1000 from Hewlett-Packard Co. and the Tablet PC V1100 from ViewSonic Corp.

Thanks to the Microsoft Journal application, we could write and draw on the tablets as though they were pieces of paper. Because the screen is digitized, writing requires only a light touch. The Journal tool also performs handwriting recognition with amazing accuracy.

Interestingly, the Compaq's digital pen requires an AAAA battery, while the ViewSonic's pen does not use a battery at all.

Handwritten notes can be saved in a format called "digital ink" or converted to text. Digital ink allows you to send handwritten e-mail messages via Microsoft Outlook as well as annotate Word documents and PowerPoint presentations. And vendors predict more applications will include digital ink capabilities in the future.

The tablets also come with full PC functionality, including fast processors, large hard drives, Ethernet networking, a lot of memory, 802.11b wireless connectivity and an array of ports. The biggest sacrifices are the lack of integrated keyboards (in most cases) and drive bays, for which you'll need a docking station or an external drive.

Perhaps best of all, these tablets are surprisingly reasonably priced: Without docks, each costs less than $2,000. With docks, they run about $2,300 to $2,500 each, prices comparable to many similarly equipped notebooks.

Compaq Tablet PC TC1000

The Compaq TC1000 is one of the most amazing design accomplishments we've seen.

First and foremost, HP finally has solved the keyboard problem that has plagued PDAs and tablets since their introduction. Namely, most people still need to perform keyboard-based data entry for tasks such as e-mail, but keyboards take up a lot of real estate. The best options we've seen until now include thumb-sized micro keyboards on PDAs and fold-up keyboards you carry separately.

When we first unpacked the Compaq, we thought the keyboard was missing. The approximately 1.25-inch-thick tablet is slightly smaller than a standard sheet of paper: 8.5 inches wide by 10.8 inches long. The 10.4-inch display is covered with sturdy, tempered glass.

We were wrong about the keyboard. It was attached to the tablet but camouflaged so well it was nearly invisible. It comes in the form of a thin slice attached to the back of the tablet. For use, the tablet flips open like a book to expose the keys and then rotates so the screen is facing the keys. Thus configured, the unit looks like a small notebook.

The TC1000 is not only snazzy but also functional. And the entire conversion takes only seconds. To top it off, the keyboard easily snaps off, leaving the tablet less than an inch thick and weighing only three pounds.

But the "wow" factor doesn't end there. The tablet snaps on to the optional dock with or without the keyboard. You can rotate the tablet while docked and the screen's orientation automatically changes. Thanks to an adjustable viewing arm, you can view the tablet from many different angles, including nearly flat on your desk so you can write on it. A large pull-up handle undocks the tablet in one quick motion.

All of this adds up to an extremely versatile product that is always ready to go, however you're using it. It feels like a Tinker Toy for adults, with easily interchangeable parts you can switch around to meet your needs in a flash.

The tablet itself is also designed well. Instead of conventional buttons, the front of the unit features pen-activated "buttons," which are symbols located on the border of the tablet's display and require only a pen touch instead of pressure.

The three pen-activated, user-programmable buttons are initially set to rotate the screen, launch the Microsoft Tablet PC Input Panel (a window that offers both an on-screen keyboard and handwriting recognition) and launch the Windows Journal application. Three other symbols on the front of the tablet are indicator lights for AC power, battery life and wireless local-area network activity.

A nice jog dial on the tablet's side makes navigation more convenient, and three buttons above it are by default programmed as Tab, Escape and Q Menu launch buttons. The fully customizable Q Menu is a quick-access on-screen menu for a host of common functions such as display brightness, wireless on/off and sending video to a projector. There is also a dedicated e-mail launch button on the tablet's side.

Two USB 2.0 ports as well as LAN, modem (integrated MiniPCI Type III 56 kilobits/sec V.92) and VGA ports are located at the top of the unit along with one Type II PC Card slot and one Type II CompactFlash card slot. Microphone, headphone and audio-in jacks are located on the bottom.

If you buy the $299 optional dock, you'll get a network pass-through port, VGA port, audio line-in and line-out ports, and four USB 2.0 ports. One of the USB ports is located on the side of the dock (the rest are in the back) for more convenient access.

The docking station's catch is that the price does not include a disk drive. Our review unit came with an 8x DVD-ROM in the integrated multibay, which cost an extra $219, bringing the dock's total price to $518. Prices for other drives are as follows: floppy, $69; 24x CD-ROM, $99; 16x, 18x or 24x CD-RW, $249; and 24x CD-RW combo drive, $299. Remember, these prices are in addition to the dock's $299 base price. The multibay also accepts an additional hard drive.

For flexibility, the dock's multibay is compatible with drives used by most Compaq Evo notebooks and some Evo desktop PCs. In addition, an optional external multibay is available for people who need an optical drive while on the road.

The Compaq tablet doesn't skimp on computing features, either. It packs in a 1 GHz Transmeta Corp. Crusoe processor, 256M of memory expandable to 768M, a 30G hard drive (you can order a 40G or 60G drive instead), 1,024 x 768 resolution and an nVidia GeForce2 Go 100 graphics controller with 16M of video memory.

Speaking of graphics, this tablet comes with an impressive extended desktop management feature. You can connect an external monitor to either the tablet or the dock and then use both surfaces for your work. An automated utility supports different profiles for various docked or undocked configurations so your preferred profile is automatically invoked when you dock, undock or use a secondary monitor with the tablet.

If you're afraid to think about how much this tablet will set back your agency's budget, don't be. With optional 802.11b wireless connectivity and a three-year warranty, the price tag is only $1,999. Even with the dock and most expensive optical drive option — the 24x CD-RW — the total price comes to $2,597, comparable to notebooks with similar specifications. You can also order the tablet with a one-year warranty or without 802.11b, which knocks a few hundred dollars off the price.

Tablet PC V1100

ViewSonic's Tablet PC V1100 is a nice machine, but it faces an uphill battle against the Compaq device. Most of the core features and functionality are the same, but the Compaq's design is far more innovative and flexible and its specifications are generally more sophisticated.

That's why it's so puzzling that the ViewSonic is actually more expensive than the Compaq. Without docks, the ViewSonic tablet with 802.11b and a one-year warranty costs $1,995 ($39 for the optional USB keyboard brings the price to $2,034), while the Compaq with those features — and a faster processor, larger hard drive, more memory expansion and higher-end graphics — costs $1,799.

Even though Compaq's dock is more expensive, the total price is still lower: ViewSonic's $299 dock, which includes a CD-ROM, brings the total price (with keyboard) to $2,333. Compaq's dock, which costs $398 with a CD-ROM, brings its total price to $2,197.

Of course, the keyboard is the most striking difference between the tablets. The ViewSonic tablet's optional keyboard offers more real estate than the Compaq's and features a USB port, but it's not portable. However, you can use this keyboard while the tablet is docked, which is not the case with the Compaq keyboard. With the Compaq, you'll have to buy a USB keyboard if you want to type while docked.

We did not have the ViewSonic dock to review firsthand, but we do know the dock doesn't rotate. Unlike the Compaq dock, however, the $299 price includes a CD-ROM drive — although you can't order it with any other type of drive. The dock also features three USB 1.1 ports, a VGA port and a 10/100 Ethernet port.

The ViewSonic's 10.4-inch screen is the same size as the Compaq's, but the unit is slightly larger, measuring 11.3 x 9.9 x 1.1 inches. It's slightly thinner than the Compaq with its keyboard slice and slightly thicker than the Compaq without its keyboard.

The unit weighs 3.4 pounds, just slightly heavier than the Compaq tablet without its keyboard, and comes with a portfolio carrying case.

The one-touch access buttons on the unit are conventional instead of pen-based and perform most of the same functions as the Compaq's buttons: launching the Microsoft Tablet PC Input Panel, launching Windows Journal and rotating the screen. The ViewSonic also includes a button that launches the Windows Start Menu.

Instead of a jog dial for navigation, the ViewSonic has a large, round navigation button on its front that is easy to use. It also features Escape, Function and Enter keys.

The tablet contains an 866 MHz Mobile Intel Corp. Pentium III Processor-M, 256M of memory expandable to 512M, a 20G hard drive (larger drives are not available, unlike the Compaq) and an embedded Intel Acclerated Graphics Port 4X.

Ports include 10/100 Ethernet LAN, integrated 56 kilobits/sec V.90 modem, headphone and microphone, two USB and FireWire. Like the Compaq, it comes with one Type II PC Card slot and one Type II CompactFlash card slot. The VGA port is "mini VGA," which is a small port that can be converted to a regular VGA port with the included adapter cable.

Again, the ViewSonic tablet is a good, user-friendly machine. But considering the competition it has from the Compaq tablet, the company might want to think about lowering the price to make it more attractive to buyers.

We don't see tablet PCs replacing notebooks anytime soon, but this latest generation comes close — especially the Compaq with its clever portable keyboard slice. Still, the best candidates for tablets instead of ultralight notebooks are workers who need to take handwritten notes, fill in forms, draw, annotate documents or work while standing.


Features chart:
How they stack up (PDF)


Compaq Tablet PC TC1000
Grade: N/A (preproduction unit)
Hewlett-Packard Co.
(800) 727-5472

The Compaq Tablet PC TC1000 is available directly from Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Web site for $1,699 with a 30G hard drive, one-year warranty and no 802.11b wireless capability. The same configuration with 802.11b, or Wi-Fi, costs $1,799. With 802.11b and a three-year warranty, the price is $1,999.

This tablet knocked our socks off. We've never seen such an innovative design, with an integrated keyboard slice and highly adjustable dock.


Tablet PC V1100
Grade: B+
ViewSonic Corp.
(800) 888-8583

The Tablet PC V1100 is available directly from ViewSonic Corp.'s Web site for $1,995.

This tablet is a nice machine overall, with a full feature set and user-friendly design. But the price seems high next to that of its more innovative competition, the Compaq Tablet PC TC1000.


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