I love the concept of tablet PCs. To me, the medium-sized handheld form factor seems like the natural next step in the evolution of notebook PCs. I can envision all kinds of uses for tablets, from applications for vertical businesses, to education, to e-book reading, to casual Web surfing on the couch.
So why don't I own a tablet PC? For the same reasons you don't, most likely. Past tablets have seemed to want to be all things to all people -- which meant they were too heavy, too bulky, too underpowered, and worst of all, too expensive. That's why I was excited to learn that an upcoming entry in Asus' popular Eee PC netbook line will take the form of a convertible tablet.
In true netbook form, the Eee PC T91 will be smaller and lighter than your typical full-function tablet. Weighing about two pounds and only an inch thick in tablet mode, with an 8.9-inch LED backlit screen, the T91 will be about the size of a hardcover book -- perhaps the ideal dimensions for the tablet format.
In addition, where many earlier tablets have relied on pen-based input, the T91 will instead use a touchscreen. This is sure to be controversial to some; pen input would allow handwriting recognition, for example, which Microsoft has long touted as a top tablet feature. And who wants to get fingerprints all over their screen? But there's no denying that the touch screen will make the T91 much easier to use on the go and for basic applications like Web browsing, where a pen can be cumbersome.
This won't be the first Eee PC to feature a touchscreen, in fact. Asus debuted the Eee Top 1602 desktop model late last year, which featured a 15.6 inch all-in-one touchscreen form factor. Some analysts predict that touch-based computing will be a major trend in coming years, particularly since Microsoft's upcoming Windows 7 will include a touch-based UI.
It's hard to tell what operating system the Eee PC T91 will ship with. Early demo videos show off what appears to be a unique, Linux-based UI that borrows liberally from Apple's iPod and Mac OS X interfaces. Whether it will also ship with a Microsoft OS, such as Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, remains to be seen -- although current Eee PC models are generally available with Windows pre-installed.
I've gotten a ton of use out of my Eee PC 901. For me, the small form factor and long battery life are real winners. If the T91 delivers everything it promises, however -- and if the price is right -- Asus might just get another sale out of me.
What about you? Has Asus finally hit the sweet spot for the tablet PC concept, or are tablets targeting a market that doesn't really exist? And will touch-based computing make our PCs more productive -- or just messier? Sound off in the PC World community forums.
Neil McAllister is a freelance technology writer based in San Francisco.