When the Tablet PC was launched, three years ago, it was with great fanfare and predictions of world domination.It hasn’t quite happened that way. In 2004, Tablets hit about $US1.2 billion worldwide, according to Scottsdale, Arizona-based research firm In-Stat, driven mainly by verticals such as healthcare, real estate, insurance and sales force automation.
However, In-Stat sees improvements on the horizon, predicting a worldwide market of $US5.4 billion by 2009, with corporate acceptance growing as prices fall below $US2000 and the number of pen applications increases.
That said, from a user’s point of view, Tablet PCs are definitely an acquired taste. After all, why revert to handwriting when typing is so much faster?
The above-mentioned verticals have found good reasons to do so, and chances are some general users will too, for at least some of their computing tasks. Drawing sketches and scribbling quick margin notes in documents, for example, are two functions that are virtually impossible with a normal PC. And it’s tricky balancing a standard laptop on your arm and trying to type.
Yet users still need the convenience of a keyboard much of the time, so manufacturers have designed Tablet PCs that double as standard laptops. Their screens swivel to lie flat, covering the keyboard, when Tablet functionality is needed.
Prices are manufacturer’s list, in Canadian dollars.
HP/Compaq tc4200

The tc4200 borrows the programmable jog dial from Compaq PDAs (and even puts a “Q” menu in the taskbar) to make its pen operation easier. Both 802.11 b/g and Bluetooth wireless keep you connected, and Gigabit Ethernet and modem complete the communications offerings. You get three USB ports, slots for PC and SD Cards, a standard set of audio and video ports — but no optical drive.
The machine is quite thick, at 1.35-in., and tips the scales at 4.5 lbs. The warranty is excellent, even offering onsite service for an additional $209.
Performance was top of the heap, although battery life was a virtual tie with Toshiba’s unit at just under three and a half hours.

Lenovo Thinkpad x41 Tablet

Lenovo has had such demand for these babies that we ended up receiving a pre-production model, but it still performed respectably. It, like its non-tablet sibling the X41, is a small-and-light ThinkPad with 12.1-in. screen, trackstick only, 802.11 b/g and Gigabit Ethernet connectivity. It has two USB ports (one powered), PC Card and SD Card slots, and the usual other amenities, plus a fingerprint reader to enhance security. The keyboard is IBM — great touch and pleasant to use — and the pointing device in laptop mode is a trackstick. There is no optical drive, keeping the weight down to 3.5 lbs.
Battery life was almost four hours, second only to Electrovaya, and performance was fourth of the five (but remember, this is not a production model).

Toshiba Satellite R 10

The R10 is the heftiest of the group, at 6.3 lbs., which makes it a brute to hold for any amount of time, but it also has the biggest screen, at 14.1 inches. Part of the weight is thanks to its integrated DVD drive, and the unit also boasts three USB ports, both PC Card and SD card slots, IEEE1394 port, 802.11a/b/g wireless, modem and 100Mbps Ethernet port.
Performance-wise, it was middle of the road, but its hard drive was the fastest in the roundup. Battery life was almost three and a half hours — not bad for such a large screen.

Fujitsu T4010DC

This was the second lightest unit, at 4.3 lbs., and that’s including an integrated optical drive — quite respectable. It had the perkiest CPU, too, though its overall performance rating was dragged down by its poor graphics score.
It is wireless to the max, offering both 802.11 a/b/g and Bluetooth. It has slots for both a PC Card and SD card, plus a dedicated SmartCard reader. Standard ports are easily accessible, and those used less often (external video and Gigabit Ethernet) are protected by plastic covers.
Battery life was just over three hours.

This was the second lightest unit, at 4.3 lbs., and that’s including an integrated optical drive — quite respectable. It had the perkiest CPU, too, though its overall performance rating was dragged down by its poor graphics score.
It is wireless to the max, offering both 802.11 a/b/g and Bluetooth. It has slots for both a PC Card and SD card, plus a dedicated SmartCard reader. Standard ports are easily accessible, and those used less often (external video and Gigabit Ethernet) are protected by plastic covers.
Battery life was just over three hours.

Electrovaya Scribbler 3000 Premium

Electrovaya is a Canadian company that builds electric cars, high capacity batteries and Tablet PCs, an eclectic mix whose common denominator is the need for power. It’s no surprise, then, that the Scribbler aced the battery tests, getting almost four and a half hours computing from a charge. That’s half an hour longer than its closest competitor in our roundup.
This unit’s soul is a slate, not a true convertible laptop, but the premium unit we tried has a cover on the screen that turns over to become a stand, complete with keyboard and a cunningly integrated touchpad. It’s not something you’d want to balance on your knee in its convertible configuration — the tablet is too heavy for that, and topples off the relatively flimsy stand if the angle is wrong — but it works fine, and the keyboard’s touch is quite acceptable.
The feature set is respectable: 12.1-in. screen with light sensor to keep brightness optimal, 802.11 a/b/g wireless, Gigabit Ethernet, modem, PC Card slot, the usual complement of ports (2 USB, external video, IEEE 1394, mic and speakers, IrDA). A handy trackstick on the bezel acts as a scroll and enter control, and as well as the standard Tablet buttons, the Scribbler has four buttons to launch frequently used applications. To enhance security, there’s even a fingerprint reader.
The biggest surprise for me, and others who have tried Tablet PCs, is the accuracy of the handwriting recognition. It ranges from pretty good to downright amazing, and even comprehends both printing and cursive writing. It could even make sense of my scribble, which sometimes I can’t even interpret.
If you read published specs, you will notice a discrepancy — sometimes a rather large one — between rated battery life and what we actually got. Bear in mind that vendors don’t test in real world conditions, nor do they add the burden of things like wireless. Their figures are best case.
Warranties are important in machines that get carried around as much as Tablets do. When shopping, it’s a good idea to check for an “oops” option — an extra-charge warranty that covers accidental damage. A cracked screen can easily cost you $1,000, so it’s worth the replacement insurance.
None of our machines was a dud, by any stretch. Although Tablets may not be mainstream yet, they’ve improved to the point that a convertible machine makes a perfectly serviceable laptop.
HP and Lenovo tie for top spot in points. HP’s performance and warranty offset shorter battery life and heavier weight, while Lenovo’s lightness and battery life compensated for its lesser performance.

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