Ask the Expert

Choosing Tablet PCs

I'm a manager at a large financial services company, in meetings much of the day, and I'm sick of hauling my laptop around, waiting for it to boot up, worrying about battery life, etc. I'm interested to know your thoughts about the advisability of trading it in for a tablet pc. How well do tablets work in real world situations? What should I be considering in terms of features and functions? Thanks.

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The decision to move from a laptop to a Tablet PC should be made because of the expanded usage model that the tablet form factor allows, not because you are looking for a faster system with longer battery life. In fact, the performance of most Tablet PCs is actually on par, if not slightly inferior to many laptop models on the market, which has been one of the main barriers to the Tablet's acceptance and adoption. Intel's Centrino and Pentium M processors will help negate many of the short-term performance issues, but since tablets and laptops use the same 6-cell lithium ion battery technology, there is not much to gain by making the switch. As portable technologies evolve to allow thinner, lighter, more powerful, and longer running portable PC designs (eg. more energy efficient processors, lithium polymer batteries, fuel cells, OLED displays, etc.) tablets and laptops alike will equally take advantage of new technologies.

What you do gain with a Tablet PC is the convertible design, which allows you choose between the keyboard or pen input depending on which is most appropriate for the particular circumstance or application. If you take handwritten notes in meeting because the of annoying sound of tapping keys, a tablet will allows you to handwrite your notes -- directly into your computer with digital ink.

Tablet PCs are gaining acceptance in vertical industries, such as logistics and healthcare, because of the well defined benefits of pen-input with forms-based processing applications. But the usage model for horizontal users beyond digital note taking and annotations of Microsoft Office applications are still unclear, which makes the several hundred dollar prices difference between Tablet PCs and notebooks very apparent.

If the added expense over a laptop is not an issue, look for tablet models powered by Intel's Centrino or Pentium M processors, which deliver better performance than Transmetta's current, power saving, processor line (realize that its the screen more than the processor that eats the majority of the battery life). Also look for models that include docking stations or port replicators as options, particularly if you plan to use it as your primary work system. Another feature to look at is the digitizer technology. Models that use Finepoint's technology use pens powered by AAA batteries. While this method saves battery life, since its not drawing power directly from the tablet itself, it lacks pressure capabilities that provide a variety of inking textures when using graphic applications. Many of the other features to evaluate are not that different from those you would consider when buying a laptop eg. screen size, capacity, expansion options, etc.

Looking forward, we will see new Table PC designs in the second half of 2003, along with refinements to current models such as larger displays, additional drive spindles and common port replicating solutions. Microsoft will continue to enhance the Tablet PC OS, and it's not out of the realm of possibility that its handwriting recognition technology could become 100% accurate over the next five years.

This was first published in April 2003

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