Mobile Computing: Tablet PC Tales

Feature: Tablet PC Tales

Microsoft introduced the Tablet PC platform in November 2002 to much fanfare and boasting. Nearly a year and a half later, Tablet PC sales have yet to set the world aflame.

But make no mistake: Tablet PCs have their devotees, frequent travelers who swear by the notebook alternative's flexibility, light weight, long battery life, and cool features like the ability to scrawl handwritten notes directly on the screen.

In a recent newsletter, I invited you to send me your Tablet PC stories. I wanted to know which models you're using and why. Your responses were full of effusive praise for the Tablet PC and how much easier it's made your lives. And one reader's description of how he used his Tablet PC to help a client sign and submit a legal form--from inside a parked car--is sure to be catnip to any road warrior.

But first, some background. There are two types of Tablet PCs: slates and convertibles. A slate-style device is in essence an LCD with a built-in PC motherboard and hard drive. This type of Tablet PC is most frequently used by health-care workers and others in specialized fields. A convertible device can be used like a slate or, when the screen is swiveled and raised, like a traditional notebook with a keyboard. (The display lays on top of the keyboard when it is used in slate mode.)

Home Inspector Loses 4 Pounds, Gains Flexibility

"I replaced a 7-pound Dell laptop with a 3-pound Motion Computing 1300 Tablet PC," writes Mark Cramer, a home inspector in Indian Rocks Beach, Florida. "I take the thing all over the place almost every day."

While Cramer appreciates the 4-pound weight loss, it's the slate-style Tablet PC's software that really makes the difference.

"The handwriting recognition is very impressive, even with no training," Cramer continues. "And my handwriting isn't that great."

Being able to write on the Tablet PC's screen with a stylus--which works like the Graffiti handwriting recognition on a Palm OS device--makes "all the difference in the world," Cramer adds. "I do a lot of training using PowerPoint. Being able to draw on the screen during a presentation is really useful."

While at a home site, Cramer uses the Tablet PC's pen-based input to fill in forms and add drawings to digital photographs that he takes during inspections. At the office, Cramer plugs the Tablet PC into its docking station, which connects it to an external monitor and keyboard. That lets him use the computer as he would a desktop PC, he says.

For more information about the Motion Computing 1300 ($1600 and up, depending on configuration), go to the Motion Computing Web site.

The Freedom of Convertibles

"I'm on my third Tablet PC and I love them," confesses Bob Trammell, director of information technology for the City of Bakersfield, California. Trammell tests Tablet PCs and other devices for possible use by the staff he supports. All the tablets he's used so far have been convertibles, Trammell says.

Trammell prefers convertibles because "it's often easier to type than to write on the screen." But he prefers using the slate mode when in meetings.

"I can take notes on the tablet instead of on paper or on my IPaq," he explains. "It's not distracting to others like typing on a keyboard would be." The slate style is also ideal on a plane or in the car, when "I'm in a cramped environment and don't have room to use it as a laptop."

Trammell's first tablet was the Hewlett-Packard Compaq Tablet TC1000 (since discontinued), which he sent back after a 30-day trial period. "Having the screen in the middle of the base unit bothered me and made it difficult to use," he explains.

Next he tried the Acer TravelMate C100. It was a "great machine," Trammell says, except that the screen was "a little hard to read in bright areas." He gave the TravelMate to his secretary.

Currently, Trammell uses a Toshiba Portege M200. "I really like it, but they don't make a dock for it, which is a disadvantage," he adds. One feature he loves is the Portege's Secure Digital card slot, which he uses to shuttle data to and from his HP IPaq. "It's much faster than connecting the two devices using Wi-Fi or by plugging the IPaq into the USB port," he explains.

Go to Acer's site to learn more about the Acer TravelMate C100 (about $1600 and up) and for purchasing information.

For more information on the Portege M200, go to Toshiba's site. Check the PC World Product Finder for the latest prices (about $2100 and up at press time).

Roadside Assistance

Chris Sterns, a realtor in Irvine, California, is on his second Tablet PC. His first, the HP Compaq Tablet TC1000, proved too slow for his needs, so he upgraded to a HP Compaq Tablet TC1100 with 1GB of memory. Sterns uses the convertible Tablet PC with a wireless modem that connects him to AT&T Wireless's third-generation, high-speed Edge network.

"I'll never go back to a notebook," Sterns declares. "This baby gets a workout and gives in return."

Sterns says a Tablet PC has made his dealings as a realtor "almost paperless." Using the tablet, he makes appointments, annotates documents (such as offers and counteroffers) using digital ink, shows photos of properties to clients, and sends and receive faxes from almost anywhere.

As an example, Sterns cites an incident in which he met with a client to review a counteroffer from the property seller's agent.

"While we were driving away from the property, my client and I began discussing the terms. Once we settled on the terms and conditions, I pulled off the road, pulled out my Tablet PC, and wrote up a counteroffer on the spot."

Sterns filled out a form, which the client initialed and signed using a stylus on the Tablet PC's screen. From there, Sterns wirelessly e-mailed the signed form as a PDF attachment to the seller's agent. The result? Sterns' client got the property--and successfully negotiated $3000 off the asking price.

"Needless to say, my client was impressed and grateful," Sterns adds.

For more information on the Tablet TC1100 ($1849 and up), go to HP's Web site. For pricing, check our Product Finder.

What's Not to Love?

Success stories aside, Tablet PCs aren't for everyone. For a different take, read about PC World Senior Associate Editor Richard Baguley's experience in "Review: Tablet PCs Not Ready to Replace Notebooks."

Meanwhile, a couple of new Tablet PCs recently earned fairly high marks from PC World Senior Editor Anush Yegyazarian. For details, see "Review: Tablet PCs from Gateway and Electrovaya."

Other Notebook Alternatives?

I'm always eager to hear from readers who've found a way to stay connected and productive on the road--without having to lug a notebook along. If you fit that description, please drop me a note.

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