Despite having reached the ripe, old age of 5, very few people are aware of the Tablet PC. This surprises me, because I think it’s the very best form factor for mobile computing.
However, thanks to Microsoft’s new Windows Vista, the Tablet PC may yet receive its due.
The Tablet PC is, basically, a laptop computer. However, in the spirit of the Transformers, the tablet must perform some mechanical gymnastics to achieve its namesake.
Essentially, the display part of the computer turns right around then lays down flat on top of the keyboard. There’s usually a plastic, inkless pen (a “stylus”) tucked into the unit somewhere. This is used to control the mouse pointer by physically pointing, dragging, and clicking with its tip. It’s also used to write and draw on the screen of the tablet.
When it was first released in 2002, Microsoft’s Bill Gates estimated that the Tablet PC would dominate computing by now. Clearly he miscalculated, because other than myself, I’ve never seen anyone who uses one of these things.
That’s too bad, however, because the experience of using a tablet is vastly superior to a regular laptop. Not only can you use the computer in a traditional fashion by typing on its keyboard, you can swing the screen around and perform acts that are normally limited to pen and paper.
What’s more, the Tablet PC can be used sideways, in portrait mode. This is an orientation that much better suits the reading of documents and digital magazines.
I picked up my first Tablet PC (a Lenovo ThinkPad X60) just a couple of months ago. Without a doubt, as a geek, I was interested in trying some different technology. But there was also method behind my madness.
Primarily, I was feeling constrained by the keyboard-and-mouse paradigm, which didn’t permit me to express my ideas as easily as do a pen and paper.
I was also interested in reducing my reliance on environmentally-harmful paper products such as magazines and newspapers. I wanted to explore using digital alternatives, but I also wanted to try and preserve the experience of reading a printed publication.
Finally, as a graduate student, I needed a computing environment that could more effectively enable me to read academic articles and then manage my associated notes and notations without ever leaving the digital environment.
These are all areas that a Tablet PC excels at: reading, note-taking, and sketching.
In reading documents and magazines digitally, I can more easily sit back in a chair and hold the tablet as I would a book. I recently converted my Macleans subscription to digital and much prefer it to print (as does the environment).
While reading, I can highlight passages, jot notes, and make notations, just as I would paper. What’s more, the notes I make are recognized as text by Windows and can be searched.
In a meeting I can take notes as I would with a paper notebook. If I want to share the notes with others, I can have Windows convert my chicken-scratches to text.
And I must say that Windows does a near-flawless job of comprehending handwriting. Sometimes I’ll scrawl out a string of characters that are near-incomprehensible even to myself and Windows will convert it to text with nary an error. We’ve come a long way from the Newton, baby.
Tablet PCs to date have been a niche product and currently enjoy little more than cult status in the geek universe. However, recent developments should help change that.
Most importantly, Tablet PCs aren’t as expensive as they used to be. Some even cost less than $2000 now.
Early Tablet PC models suffered from reports of poor quality and didn’t operate dependably, but most manufacturers have learned from past mistakes. Contemporary models are built to last.
The best come from Toshiba, Lenovo, and Fujitsu.
And remarkably, as a tablet computing platform, only the most recent version of Windows XP made the grade. Microsoft’s new Vista, on the other hand, is tablet nirvana.
It’s almost a shame to use Vista without a tablet computer, in fact, so integrated is the functionality. And if you pair up a Tablet PC with Microsoft’s amazing OneNote 2007 notebook software, pen and paper just don’t cut it any more.
(On a side note, be sure to buy a tablet — or any new PC — with Windows Vista pre-installed. Upgrading a computer from XP to Vista is a torture I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.)
Unfortunately, as killer as the Tablet PC is, the greatest hurdle to buying one is just getting your hands on one. I comparison-shopped for months and never once had the opportunity to try one out. Because of the Tablet PC’s rather lacklustre first generation, retailers are loathe to stock them.
If Bill Gates is really interested in converting the world to tabletism, he’s going to have to make Tablet PCs a lot easier to buy. On paper, the Tablet PC doesn’t really seem much better than your average, cheaper laptop. It’s only when you gain the opportunity to use a Tablet PC that you actually learn the distinct benefits. (And, yes, Gates does use a Tablet PC as his computer of choice.)
Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, June 22, 2007.