Tablet PCs - Is anyone listening?

Written by Chris Caines

February 3, 2004 | 00:00

Tags: #tablet #tablet-pc

Companies: #toshiba

This weekend I had the opportunity to play with a Toshiba Portégé 3500 Tablet PC and (like many people I have talked to) I was a little sceptical about how my experience would pan out.

Tablet PC’s have been around for some time - they first mass emerged onto the market in late 2001/2002. At the time, people were unsure as to how the application of such a device could be harnessed; PDAs still had a degree of uncertainty as a serious business tool, which led to a sour taste in the mouth of users who found themselves needing the portability of the device but were left wanting in terms of power and functionality. Over the last year, however, PDAs and Smartphones have finally decided that maybe they're not up to the job of being a laptop after all and have settled down into being a portable communications device.

"Believe me, you'll be the envy of those around you in a meeting when you click the screen back on itself and sit down"

I've never really felt aware of where the Tablet PC range has been positioned into the market, and I daresay this is a consequence of the manufacturers having the same problem. To this end there seem to be two main types of Tablet available; Slate and Convertible.

Slate PC’s are primarily pen-based: they are designed to be light, portable and are not really intended to be a replacement for laptops. Convertible Tablets however, are much more like a laptop with the addition of a rotating, electrostatic screen, instead of a standard TFT. Believe me, you'll be the envy of those around you in a meeting when you click the screen back on itself and sit down, wondering why the other people are staring at you in awe.

So what of their application? Firstly, in my opinion there really is little use for Slate PC’s and can see why these devices might be making people have second thoughts about the flexibility of Tablet PC technology. Having next to no 'on demand' keyboard access is utterly impractical for anything except software which relies heavily on written input. Picking an example, maybe doctors could use the Slate to make notes in real time on patient records etc. However without superbly accurate handwriting recognition (especially given the legendary illegibility of GPs), a keyboard is always going to be a necessity to ensure that they don’t advise 100mg of a potentially fatal drug instead of 10mg.

However, having used a convertible tablet - even for a couple of hours - I am suddenly struck with the usefulness of the device and am utterly shocked that these units aren’t replacing laptops in the hundreds like CD’s replaced Vinyl!

Without delving too much into the specifics of the Toshiba, this P3500 has built in wireless, Bluetooth, modem and Network card. Coupled with onboard USB, VGA out and support for multiple card types, there really is nothing a normal laptop has that this can’t match (unless, obviously, you're after a hardcore gaming laptop). The only real missing item is a CD-ROM drive; however you can add a third-party slimline device to plug into the USB for less than £80. However, the screen is what makes this device really come into its own.


Before we even get into the handwriting input or convertible aspect of the device, I have to mention the efficiency of using the pen instead of a mouse. For years now, I have always been disappointed that no-one has made a touch screen TFT (either for PC’s or Laptops) which is in the reach of the home user. Scrolling web-pages, opening icons, moving windows; these are all things which are controlled far more intuitively by your fingers than an input device. Whilst films like Johnny Mnemonic or Minority Report may make the Technophiles chortle with their views on futuristic computer technology, you can’t deny how much easier it would be if you could physically manipulate your desktop. As already mentioned, the Toshiba uses an electrostatic input pen (much like a graphics tablet) meaning your hand will not activate any screen areas, it can only be done by the pen.

"I can honestly say using the touchpad or mouse with this device is a burden."

Even writing this article now, I find myself flicking between applications using the pen without even thinking. I can scroll down to a specific section of a web page as if I’m running my finger down an article in a magazine and application windows are thrown around exactly where I want them. I can honestly say using the touchpad or mouse with this device is a burden.

Rotate the screen round, and you have the perfect device for reading web sites or documentation. Given that the Toshiba is quite small, it becomes simply a weighty notepad, comparable to something like the hardback Lord of the Rings - no problem to read on your lap.

Finally with the ink and handwriting input with Microsoft Office 2003 (or XP with an addon plugin) and Microsoft Journal, the Tablet becomes more than a pad. Wil Harris intimated that all a Journalist needs is a pen and paper, but with the Tablet PC you’ve got a pen and paper which you can play Solitaire on as well. MSJournal is a fantastic note-taking application, which will really aid those constantly collecting data on the fly.

It’s going to be a real shame giving my Tablet PC up, I can honestly say I would swap my laptop for one in a second, because it does everything I need it to - as well as having one of the most intuitive and natural input systems I’ve ever used. If you’ve ever been unsure as to whether a Tablet PC is for you or not, I can only recommend you try one out now, because it will be a complete waste of technology if these are not the future of portable PC’s.
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