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Jury is out on Tablet PCs

Microsoft’s new Tablet PCs can do what they say they can, but a nagging question remains: Does anybody really need one? By Gary Krakow, MSNBC.
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I’m not sure about Tablet PCs. I’ve played with them on and off for the past six months and I’m just not sure. The devices can do what they say they can, but a nagging question remains: Does anybody really need one?

InsertArt(1688321)PERSONALLY, I DON’T THINK SO. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. To generalize, Tablet PCs are really specially designed notebook computers, running a special set of software on top of Microsoft’s Windows XP operating system. This special software allows you to write in longhand on the screen or input information by typing on some sort of keyboard — either a software keyboard on the screen or on an attached device.

(MSNBC is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.)

The main idea behind the Tablet PC is that inputting information with a stylus on a screen is equivalent to writing on a yellow pad. And that’s easier than typing.

Taking notes at a meeting. Adding ideas to a presentation or project. Creating electronic medical records for a doctor making their rounds. Sketching a map for directions or doodling your next big invention. These are all things that a Tablet PC is perfect for. I get that.

Past attempts at creating pen-based computers have not been so successful. Remember Grid’s GRiDPAD in the 80s? Or Apple’s Newton a decade ago? Or Microsoft’s Windows for Pen?

Newton was the best known of the bunch — and by the time Apple pulled the plug in 1997 it was a terrific device. The Palm Pilot, also a miniature tablet of sorts, is the only device which made it — and it’s still in production.

So, why now? Why is Microsoft pushing the Tablet PC? Because despite what I think they feel there is a market for this device. And they do have advantages over previous devices: Screen quality and resolution are now much better, software more sophisticated, processors exponentially faster and memory cheaper. Better battery technology allows for much longer stretches between charging sessions.

Tablet PCs fall into two categories, a notebook computer where the screen swivels from laptop to writing pad and the pure tablet which docks with a keyboard and other peripherals. All have touch-screens and have built-in 802.11b wireless Ethernet.

I’ve played with three different devices. I reported on the Acer back when Microsoft rolled out the Tablet PC to journalists in the spring; it was an early beta device and needed more work. I’ve also spent some time with the Fujitsu and H-P/Compaq offerings.

They’re all pretty nifty, but for the way I use a computer: word processing (for writing this column), browsing the Web (to read my column) and e-mail (for answering angry letters from people who read the column), I don’t need a tablet.

According to the e-mail I’ve received in the past few months on the subject there are people who agree and others who are looking forward to a device just like this. One writer told me of a child with severe learning disabilities. The idea of a notebook computer with touch-screen input was welcomed. And many people in the medical profession agreed on how wonderful a portable medical chart with wireless access would be in their profession.

Some said Tablet PCs are just over-sized Newtons, and we all know where they wound up.

The best note came from Matt Gowen, head of information and communication technology at the Ash Manor School in Surrey, England:

“I teach Mathematics and ICT to 11-16 y.o. children in England and I’ve been using portable devices for my entire teaching career so far (eight years) to keep records, write reports etc.

I started with EPOC-based devices (Psion Series 5, Series 7), had an intermediate phase using a UK-government-supplied Laptop PC (which nearly broke by arm carrying it around the classroom!) and a year ago bought a Compaq IPAQ with Pocket PC 2002. Two other teachers have bought Pocket PCs in the last year at my school. My students even email their homework and assignments to me so I can assess it on the IPAQ (if I’m away from my home PC)! The screen on the IPAQ is a little small to do a lot of this, so I burn the childrens’ work down onto CD to take it all home to assess on my desktop PC...

However, the prospect of Tablet PCs in education has me excited. I really could use our wireless network to take the work in, then use digital ink to correct the work, ready to return. My assessment registers would allow me to display the entire class rather than seven pupils at a time!”

Gowen adds that Britain’s main educational-technology supplier, Research Machines, is making a Tablet PC just for teachers — with prices starting at £799 (approx. $1,250 US). If Tablet PCs sell for this price here, they might catch on. But with computer makers saying tablets will cost a few hundred dollars more than equivalent notebooks, I expect prices to be in the $2,000 range, or more. This won’t help to get Tablet PCs flying off the shelves.

Neither will the fact that two major computer manufacturers, Dell and IBM, have yet to jump on Microsoft’s bandwagon. They’re waiting to see what happens in the marketplace before releasing their own tablets.

For now, I’ll stick with a small laptop for my portable computing. I currently tote a lightweight IBM X30 notebook with me when I travel, and think it’s a fantastic machine. I’ve always been a fan of the IBM laptop keyboard. But I promise to keep an open mind. I’ll try some post-release models — and see if they can make me switch.