Living With ... a Tablet PC

At the launch of the Tablet PC at the Comdex computer show in 2001, Microsoft head honcho Bill Gates proclaimed that "a lot of people in the audience will be taking notes with those Tablet PCs" by the time the next Comdex show came around. His prediction fell somewhat short of the mark: Only a handful of devices running Windows XP Tablet PC edition were available by the end of 2002, and an even smaller number of applications had been released for the new Windows XP variant. But Microsoft is not put off by short-term problems. Despite disappointing sales, the company has pockets deep enough to let it keep promoting Tablet PCs as the notebooks of the future.

So I decided to try one out. For the past couple of months, I've been using a Motion Computing M1300, a svelte 3-pound device based on Centrino technology with a 1-GHz Pentium-M processor. This $2000 computer is a slate-style Tablet PC, meaning it has no built-in keyboard. Motion Computing offers a $99 USB keyboard that doubles as a cover. As I'll explain later, this is a very useful option.

It's tempting to think of a Tablet PC as a notebook without a keyboard, but this would be missing the point. The idea is not to simply write on the screen using the stylus and then immediately convert handwriting to text: Instead, you write on the screen and work with the handwritten text, which Microsoft refers to as "Ink." For example, you use a program (such as the Windows Journal that's bundled with XP Tablet PC Edition) that is designed to accommodate documents containing Ink (Microsoft refers to these programs as being "Ink-enabled") to write your notes, then work with them as handwritten text or convert them into text at a later date.

Microsoft's OneNote 2003 program--part of the recently launched Office 2003 suite--provides a more sophisticated approach than Journal for note taking, including the ability to organize, e-mail, and integrate handwritten notes into Microsoft Office documents.

What's That Word?

However, very few other applications are Ink enabled. Microsoft provides a program for viewing Journal entries on a conventional PC; but you can't edit the documents, and any handwriting recognition has to be done on the Tablet PC. I found the OS's built-in handwriting recognition to be rather inaccurate; my handwriting is scrawly, and it got the right word only around half the time. Editing text after it has been recognized is also awkward, making the conversion process difficult and time consuming.

For purposes of comparison, I also tried the stand-alone handwriting recognition program RitePen from Pen & Internet, which had more success, recognizing common words correctly around 80 percent of the time. This works slightly differently than the built-in handwriting recognition, though: You write anywhere on the screen and the program immediately converts the handwriting to text and inserts it wherever the cursor is.

Although I persevered with trying to take notes in my handwriting, eventually I found it easier to use the USB keyboard. And this is where the Tablet PC fails for me. If I'm going to end up using a keyboard most of the time, I'd rather use a notebook with a built-in keyboard. If I need to take brief notes in a meeting, it's easier to use a PDA. I don't need Windows to jot down notes: A Palm or Pocket PC is more than adequate. If I need to edit a document on the go, I'll use a notebook with a proper keyboard and mouse that works like my desktop PC. The slate-style Tablet PC falls somewhere between the two, not being as convenient as a PDA or as flexible as a conventional notebook.

Tablet Notebooks

Of course, there are Tablet PCs that are styled more like conventional notebooks, with cases that open and built-in keyboards that swivel around and shut backwards when you want to use them as slates. But these devices are significantly more expensive than notebooks: Gateway sells its M275X convertible Tablet PC for $1699, while the 200X (a similarly equipped Windows XP notebook) sells for $1499.

In the end, I decided not to keep using the Tablet PC. I work with words for a living, and the Tablet PC's handwriting features didn't make manipulating these words any more convenient. The ability of the Tablet PC to work with both handwriting and drawings was useful on occasion, though: There are plenty of situations where it is easier to sketch something than spell it out, and having a record of the sketches that you can e-mail to others is useful.

I can also see how a Tablet PC would have advantages for certain users, particularly people who spend much time inputting information into specialized software (for health care or education, for example) or those who attend meetings where typing is not allowed. But overall, the Tablet PC just didn't make my job easier.

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