Tablet PC FAQ
- What is a Tablet PC?
- What’s so great about digital ink?
- Digital ink seems nice, but I need text to insert into emails, letters, etc.
- Digital ink seems nice, but I need to be able to search the text in my notes
- Shouldn’t I then buy a Tablet PC instead of a laptop which lacks digital ink?
- Your LS800 is missing a keyboard. What’s up with that?
- How does a convertible Tablet PC work?
- Which is better, a convertible or a slate?
- What is a UMPC?
- What is the best size?
- Active vs. Passive Digitizer?
- Best of both worlds?
- Where can I go for more information?
Motion Computing LS800
Here are the "his and hers" Tablet PCs in the Kent family. I use the LS800, Devvie the P1510 (the lookalike immediate predecessor to the P1610 shown).
Tablet PC describes both an operating system and a device. The Tablet PC enables you to input using a digital pen or stylus in addition to a keyboard or mouse. You can use the pen or stylus as a mouse to select, click, double click or right click. You also can use the pen or stylus as an extension of your fingers to type on an on screen (virtual) keyboard. But best of all, you can use the pen or stylus to write or draw (so-called "digital ink") in applications that are enabled for that purpose.
Picture yourself in class or in a meeting. You can take notes, and even highlight the important parts. Additionally, you can mark up electronic copies of documents, either to prepare for the meeting or to take notes directly on meeting handouts. For students, if you have an electronic copy of the book, you can take notes directly on the book without ruining it as you would with a hard copy. You also can fill out electronic forms, draw pictures … the uses are limited only by your needs and imagination!
Not a problem. First, you can always use a keyboard to type as you would with a laptop. Second, you can use digital ink as text! The Tablet PC has a built-in converter of handwriting to text. Its handwriting recognition is surprisingly accurate. Third, you can insert (as a picture) your handwriting into an email message!
Again not a problem. While you can convert your handwriting to text, you may not have to do so as often as you think. You can search your handwritten notes without converting them to text because the Tablet PC behind the scenes automatically creates a searchable text version of your handwriting. You can’t see that text (unless you explicitly convert) but the text search engine can.
A Tablet PC can do everything a laptop can do, and more (digital ink). But, as in most things in life, there are trade-offs for the ability to use digital ink:
- Tablet PCs are more expensive. The current premium is about $200, though I expect that amount to decrease with time.
- Tablet PCs are more delicate. Laptop screens should not be touched, whereas Tablet PC screens are by the pen and stylus. Also, as discussed below, a convertible Tablet PC has only one hinge hinge, not two, between the screen and keyboard, which makes the connection weaker and more subject to failure. (This is not an issue with a slate).
- Tablet PCs give you less choices, perhaps because, due to the lesser (for now) market for Tablet PCs, there are fewer models than for laptops.
To me, the trade-offs are well worth it for being able to use digital ink. I don’t anticipate buying another laptop in the near future.
The slate type of Tablet PC does not have a dedicated keyboard. The idea is the keyboard makes the device heavier and thicker, and you don’t normally need a keyboard because you can write with your pen or stylus instead of type. Also, you can type with your stylus on an on screen keyboard. But what if you need to type a lot? Using a pen or stylus with the virtual on screen keyboard then would be too slow. Not to worry. You can use a foldable keyboard that connects via Bluetooth or USB. These keyboards are as large as a laptop keyboard when expanded but only pocket-size when folded. See this illustrated JkOnTheRun review and this video GottaBeMobile review.
Take a look above at the picture of my wife’s Fujitsu. See how the screen is at an angle from the keyboard? If you swivel the screen slightly counter-clockwise, aligning the screen with the keyboard, you have a standard laptop configuration. If you keep swiveling the screen clockwise, the screen will rest, face-up, on the keyboard. Now you have a slate configuration, like my LS 800 pictured above. Both the laptop and slate configurations lock in place so are stable.
Far more convertibles than slates are sold. Perhaps this is because many users feel uncomfortable with a device with no keyboard. Also, a convertible may be viewed as the best of both worlds, enabling the user to use the device both as a Tablet PC and as a traditional notebook.
Yet, most Tablet PC "purists" prefer the slate. The slate is more mobile because, due to the lack of a keyboard, it is lighter and thinner. The foldable keyboard is small to carry around and easy to use when a keyboard is needed. Also, the convertible’s hinge is a worrisome point of potential failure.
UMPC is an acronym for Ultra-Mobile PC. UMPC is a Tablet PC. However, it differs from mainstream Tablet PCs in several respects:
- UMPCs tend to be less expensive, "affordable" Tablet PCs. Of course, you get what you pay for, so they tend to be a bit stripped down compared to mainstream Tablet PCs.
- UMPCs are slates. I am unaware of any convertible UMPCs.
- UMPCs are smaller. Their screen size is 7". By contrast, the Tablet PCs Devvie and I use, while quite small for mainstream Tablet PCs, have screen sizes between 8" and 9".
- UMPCs use a passive rather than active digitizer.
To paraphrase Yoda, there is no best; how do you plan to use the device? Also, when considering size and weight, don’t just focus on having to carry the device around, as you would with a laptop. It is a Tablet PC, so think also about holding the device in your hand while writing on it or otherwise using it in slate mode. Some devices may be too heavy or too large to comfortably hold. But that doesn’t mean smaller (which usually also means lighter) is better. Size is usually measured by screen size, so smaller also may mean a screen that is hard to read without reading glasses, or may not display well web pages formatted for a larger screen. Smaller also may mean lesser processor power and RAM, and less peripherals (such as PC Card slots). Like choices in life, the choices among sizes involve trade-offs. Now that you’re totally confused …
5″ – There are a few devices in this range, such as the OQO model 02, the Fujitsu U810, and the Sony UX series. The obvious advantage is portability. Some are even pocketable, at least in large jacket or coat pockets. Some disadvantages are likewise obvious; the small screen may be hard to read and typing on the small keyboard may be difficult for all but short text or email messages. Additionally, performance may be anemic due to processor and RAM limitations. My take is these are good companion devices, if your eyesight is good enough for the small screen. Though if you’re using it as a companion device, I’m not convinced why you should use an XP or Vista device as opposed to a Windows Mobile device like the HTC Advantage? The latter will have snappier performance (due to the “lighter” OS) and better screen display (Windows Mobile is designed for small screens, Vista and XP are not), and equivalents like Pocket Word, Excel and Outlook for most of your commonly-used Windows applications.
7″ – Many UMPCs are in this range. I’m not convinced about this size. It’s too big for your pocket, and the 8+” devices discussed next are almost as portable and offer a larger screen and keyboard and other extra features. The advantage of the UMPCs is a comparatively lower price.
8+” – My LS 800 and the Fujitsu P1620 are in this class, as is the rumored HP 2133. The P1620 has features often seen only in larger devices, such as a powerful Core 2 Duo processor and a PC Card slot which is useful for a data card for high speed access to the Internet. I like this size for portability. But you do pay a price premium for the compact size. Also, when you’re writing, the page size is significantly smaller than the standard 8.5″ x 11″. I’ve found this OK for short notes, but difficult for a lot of writing, such as taking notes during a long meeting.
10+” – Not too many devices at this size. I’ve never played with a 10+” device so I’m not sure if this is a good size or, like the 7″, stuck in between better sizes.
12″ – Lots of devices at this size, both slate and convertible. The Motion LE1700 and the Sahara TabletKiosk i440d are recent slates. The Lenovo ThinkPad X61, Toshiba Portégé M700, Dell Latitude XT, HP 2710 and the Fujitsu T2010 and T4220 are recent convertibles. The comparative (to the 8") disadvantages are the obvious ones of size and weight, though the 12" devices are not that large and relatively light. In return, the screen size is quite similar to the standard 8.5″ x 11″ paper size, which makes for an excellent writing experience. These devices also are very full featured, with powerful processors, lots of RAM, PC slots, etc. These devices likely will be the first to incorporate the dual touch and active digitizer technologies like N-Trig.
> 12″ – Not much here. With 13″ screens and up, size and weight can become a major negative factor in trying to use the device as a Tablet PC.
My conclusion is that the best sizes, for me anyway, are 8+” and 12″. Like choices in life, the choice between these two sizes involves trade-offs. I am not the only geek vacillating between these two sizes. James of jkOnTheRun has written on how he plans to go back and forth between his 12″ HP 2710 and the 8+" Fujitsu P1620.
You may have used touch screen devices such as a Pocket PC (or a cell phone). A touch screen is a passive digitizer. Passive refers to the fact that a touch screen only knows the position of the stylus (or finger) when the touch screen is pressed by the stylus (or finger). This pressure causes the pointer on the screen to jump to the location of the press and instantly "click".
By contrast, with most mainstream Tablet PCs, touching the screen does nothing (except perhaps smudge the screen). The reason is that these Tablet PCs don’t use touch screens. Rather, the screen includes an active digitizer. This active digitizer emits signals which are reflected by a special pen when that pen is close to the digitizer. This feature enables the user to "hover" over items on the screen and, for example, navigate through menus without accidentally activating an item.
What’s so great about an active digitizer? You need a special (and more expensive) pen. You’re also out of luck (temporarily) if you lose it since you can’t use your finger.
Picture yourself writing with digital ink. While writing, your palm accidentally may contact the screen. If so, a touch screen would register that contact as writing or a click. This so-called "vectoring" would disrupt your writing. By contract, an active digitizer would ignore your palm.
This distinction between active and passive digitizer may become less important as technology advances. The Fujitsu P1610 has a passive digitizer, but also a "palm rejection technology" that apparently can distinguish between your writing and your palm. Nevertheless, writing on a touch screen is not as smooth as with an active digitizer.
It would be ideal to be able to use your Tablet PC both with an active digitizer and as a touch screen. This is now becoming possible. Much of the following in this section is subject to change (and correction) because this area is relatively new and evolving rapidly.
The Sahara TabletKiosk i440d permits you to toggle (using a hardware button) between two modes, using an active digitizer and a touch screen.
The Lenovo ThinkPad X61 is similar, though it confusingly calls this feature MultiTouch. This name is confusing because the similarly spelled term Multi-touch refers to the ability to make gestures with more than one finger (such as to zoom in or out). The an iPhone implements this feature.
The Toshiba Portégé M700 also is similar. I *think* that it and the X61 are supposed to be able to distinguish between a finger and a stylus, rather than requiring you to toggle as does the i440d. I have seen criticisms of how well this is implemented, in particular the amount of pressure required for the finger touch to work. But I really haven’t yet seen much written about this, and haven’t yet had the chance to try it myself.
The latest and greatest (as of February 2008 anyway) is the Dell Latitude XT. It uses a N-Trig screen. This screen definitely is supposed to be able to distinguish (sense) between your active digitizer and your finger, and therefore is referred to as "DuoSense." DuoSense is discussed in this FAQ. It includes support for Multi-touch. However, to date Multi-touch has not yet been implemented in the XT, though this may only require a firmware update.
An important technology difference is that the, i440d, X61 and M700 use resistive touch, whereas the XT uses capacitive touch. Capacitive touch is supposed to be more accurate but also is more expensive, and not yet fully implemented by existing technology. However, it may be the wave of the future.
JkOnTheRun Blog – This scope of this excellent blog concerns mobile technology generally, but there are many excellent posts concerning the Tablet PC.
Student Tablet PC – As the name suggests, this website concerns the Tablet PC from the student’s point of view.
GottaBeMobile – This site also concerns technology generally. However, it has a number of very interesting "ink shows" (videos) concerning the Tablet PC.
Microsoft Tablet PC – This is Microsoft’s official site on the Tablet PC. Disregard the propaganda and go for the free downloads!
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