HP Slate 500: Interesting, After All?

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At first, HP's Windows 7 slate was going to be a big deal. Then HP stopped talking about it and I declared it dead. Then it came back, but in a form that left me wondering if it was cursed. What a saga!

On Thursday afternoon, I saw the gadget-now known as the HP Slate 500, and aimed at business types rather than consumers-up close and in person. I tried it a bit. And while it may still turn out to be a train wreck, I'm now thinking it might at least be an interesting train wreck. Or even-just maybe-an interesting machine, period. (The 500 went on sale a few weeks ago, but is apparently a rare, back-ordered commodity.)

The slate I tried in a hotel lobby was shown to me not by HP but by Gary Baum, associate vice president of product marketing for N-Trig, an Israel-based company that makes touchscreen technology used in Tablet PCs and other devices. In the case of the Slate 500, it's providing HP with a projective capacitive display that does both iPad-style multitouch and pressure-sensitive pen input of the sort used by Tablet PCs.

(Baum, by the way, has an impressive history in the computer business going all the way back to the original IBM PC, which he worked on as an employee of Intel.)

N-Trig's system involves a digitizing layer that works both with fingers and pen, saving cost, weight, and battery life. The company also supplies PC manufacturers with a software layer that adds additional gestures, larger buttons, and other touch-friendly features that Microsoft hasn't built into Windows itself.

The slate that Baum let me try was not in any shape to let me form firm conclusions about the final version of HP's device-it was a well-traveled prototype running prerelease software, with a skimpy 1GB of RAM. (The shipping version will start at 2GB.) But it left me wondering whether devices such as HP's Windows slate might be less iPad rivals than a second pass at making Tablet PCs that large numbers of people might actually want.

When Microsoft launched the Tablet PC a decade ago, Bill Gates made a famous, famously inaccurate prediction that they'd overtake traditional notebooks by 2005 or so. I was dubious about the platform's prospects from the start, and kind of thought that people might be less interested in the whole idea of handwritten notes than Gates and company believe. (Lord knows that I did try to give the Tablet PC a chance: I bought one with my own dough and used it for a while.)

But perhaps handwritten input was fatally hobbled from the start by the fact that most Tablet PCs were large, heavy, and expensive. The Slate 500 has Tablet PC features like Microsoft's handwriting-recognition engine, but it has an 8.9″ screen, weighs 1.5 pounds, and will start at a semi-reasonable $799-unlike most Tablets, it's not a laptop in disguise. It feels more like an electronic notepad you might tote just about everywhere, which is what the Tablet PC was aiming for all along.

When I spoke to Baum, he advocated for handwriting as a superior alternative to iPad-style keyboards-one that's more natural, more personal, and maybe even more likely to help your brain remember things as you jot notes about them. "The iPad keyboard is by far the best on-screen keyboard ever invented," he told me, "and it sucks."

As I've often said, I have crummy handwriting and therefore don't have much interest in digital ink; the last thing I want to do with notes in my own hand is to save them for posterity. But I really liked sketching with the Slate 500′s pen. Some amazingly clever artwork has been created on the iPad using apps such as Brushes, but the N-Trig pen/touch technology could make for tablets that were far more interesting art implements than the touch-only iPad could ever be.

There are still lots of reasons to be skeptical about the Slate 500, ranging from odd design decisions (there's no place to store the pen) to reasonable fears about its likely battery life. And while N-Trig's extra touch features (which won't come standard on the 500, but will be available as a download) should make for a more usable device than stock Windows 7 does, Windows isn't going to be a truly serious tablet operating system until Microsoft puts far more effort into its touch interface and convinces third-party developers to design apps with touch in mind.

But maybe there's more potential in Apple's competitors trying to build tablets that are productivity-oriented Tablet PC offspring than there is in them tackling the near-impossible challenge of building a better entertainment device than the iPad. Baum told me that N-Trig's technology should show up in machines from multiple companies-including at least one Android-powered tablet by the end of the first half of 2011.

The Slate 500 is unlikely to be a breakthrough. But if HP perseveres and Microsoft cooperates, a Slate 700, 800, or 900 could finally be the device that Bill Gates was envisioning back at the turn of the century...

This story, "HP Slate 500: Interesting, After All?" was originally published by Technologizer.

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