In-Depth

My First 150 Days With a Tablet PC

Is a powerful, lightweight, pen-enabled computer too much to ask for these days? Four contenders are put through their paces in search for the ultimate in mobile computing.

I recently bought a Tablet PC running Windows XP Tablet PC Edition. Many of my friends think it was the “cool” factor, but I’ve found it to be an indispensable tool in my day-to-day business practices.

Why I Was Looking
The whole process started when—after two years of almost weekly trips to client sites, conferences and teaching engagements—my shoulder cried out for a lighter laptop.

Each laptop I’ve purchased has become progressively lighter. I’ve moved from various Dell and Compaq laptops to a Toshiba Tecra 8000 to, finally, an IBM ThinkPad T22. Although the ThinkPad weighs in at more than five pounds, I still found it too large for travel. I started to research ultralight laptops to determine which ones had the basic capabilities I desired, while not giving up too much power.

While at the Microsoft campus last October, I started to hear about these new Tablet PCs. At first, I was skeptical as to what benefit a Tablet PC would have over my current laptop or the ultralights I was investigating. To make my decision, I started an exhaustive research project.

So What Is a Tablet PC?
A Tablet PC provides the use of digital ink, allowing a user to write information on the computer’s screen. The difference between digital ink and previous, pen-based computing solutions is that the ink can be left as ink. Rather than immediately converting the ink to text, as with a Personal Data Assistant (PDA), you can leave the ink in its written format as shown in Figure 1.

Click here for My First 150 Days With a Tablet PC  slide show!

This doesn’t mean you must leave it as ink, as the handwriting recognition is much easier to work with than a PDA. Rather than converting each individual character, words and phrases are recognized and confirmed, as shown in Figure 2.

To be officially considered a Tablet PC, a hardware device must meet Microsoft’s Windows XP Tablet PC Edition hardware requirements. These requirements are the minimum feature set and functionality required by Microsoft for Tablet PCs. They include the following:

Support for Landscape and Portrait Display Modes
Most applications are intended to operate in landscape mode, but when you start taking notes with a Tablet PC, you may be inclined to hold the Tablet PC in portrait mode, like a journal. Therefore, applications intended to operate on the Tablet PC should run in both landscape and portrait modes. For example, when I edit Word documents or read Acrobat files, I find it more comfortable to operate the Tablet PC in portrait mode.

Ctrl-Alt-Delete Replacement
If a Tablet PC operates without a keyboard, the Tablet PC must provide a hardware solution for generating the Ctrl-Alt-Delete combination. This is also required for convertible Tablet PCs when the screen is configured to operate in a slate mode.

Stylus Accuracy
When the stylus tip is held within 5 millimeters of the writing surface, the location of the stylus in relation to the display must be reported accurately. To ensure accurate coordinate information, the stylus location should be updated at least 100 times per second and use a resolution that’s at least five times greater than the pixel density of the screen. If the stylus touches the screen, the cursor must be placed within 3 millimeters of the point of contact.

Power Management
The Tablet PC must be able to recover from standby mode in five seconds or less. In addition, a fully charged computer in standby mode must be able to remain in standby mode without recharging for at least 72 hours.

Interaction With a Docking Station
If a Tablet PC provides a docking station, the Tablet PC must allow for docking and undocking with notification. In addition, enumeration of devices must take place automatically and not cause system instability.

No Dependencies on Legacy Hardware
You won’t find a keyboard or mouse port on a Tablet PC. These are now considered legacy hardware. Instead, you’ll find USB 1.1, USB 2.0, FireWire and Bluetooth support.

Reviewed Products

Acer TravelMate C100
$1,899 to $2,199
Acer Inc.
408-432-6200
www.acer.com

Compaq TC1000
From $1,699
Compaq (Hewlett-Packard)
650-857-1501
www.compaq.com

Fujitsu Stylistic ST4000
Starting at $2,099
Fujitsu
408-982-9500
www.fujitsu.com

Toshiba Portégé 3500
$2,299 to $2,499
Toshiba
949-583-3000
www.toshiba.com

Types of Tablet PCs
There are two general categories of Tablet PCs: convertibles and slates.

 A convertible Tablet PC looks like a standard notebook, until you swivel the screen, converting the computer into a Tablet PC. The convertible provides you the best of both worlds: You can use the computer like a standard laptop for writing reports and performing day-to-day work and, by rotating the screen, you can use the Tablet PC as an ink-based device.

 A slate Tablet PC doesn’t have an attached keyboard. Instead, pen-based input is the default method for the computer. A keyboard may be used by docking the Tablet PC into a docking station or keyboard attachment.

Note: In some cases, it’s difficult to categorize a Tablet PC. For example, the Compaq T1000 is a convertible PC, in that it ships with a keyboard; but it also can be considered a slate, because you can detach the monitor from the keyboard and use it as a pen-based device.

What’s out There?
At the time I was looking into purchasing a new laptop, there were four Tablet PCs available:

 Acer TravelMate C100

 Compaq TC1000

 Fujitsu Stylistic ST4000

 Toshiba Portégé 3500

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to test each of these Tablet PCs before making my purchase, and I’m extremely grateful to Jeff Lowe of Microsoft Malaysia for giving me the opportunity.

Note: This article doesn’t cover some of the newer Tablet PCs available on the market. These include the ViewSonic Tablet PC V1100, the Motion M1200 and the Gateway Tablet PC.

Acer TravelMate C100
This was the first Tablet PC I used. The convertible TravelMate provides the ability to type on a normal laptop keyboard or to flip the screen and use it in slate mode. (See Figure 3 for model.)

The TravelMate had several features going for it. Among the best was the inclusion of a smart-card slot, the low weight of the unit and two batteries included in the higher-end offering. Although the keyboard was a bit smaller than my ThinkPad’s, it didn’t take long to adjust to the new layout.

Compaq TC1000
The Compaq TC1000 is the best of both worlds. It comes with a keyboard to which the monitor can attach, providing a laptop-like setup. Alternatively, the monitor can be detached from the keyboard and used as a slate PC.

At first, I was impressed with the Compaq PC, especially with the ability to detach the screen from the keyboard. The screen was extremely light and still included all the necessary ports for me to present my materials at seminars. It wasn’t until I started to use the computer as a normal laptop that I was disappointed.

I found that the placement of the keyboard so close to the edge of the unit made it uncomfortable to type. With the amount of work I do on airplanes, this was a huge deficiency. Another issue with the Compaq is that the stylus requires a AAAA battery. (See Figure 4 for model.)

Fujitsu Stylistic ST4000
The slate-style Fujitsu Stylistic ST4000 is intended for pen-based computing, rather than standard computer input. The graphics of the Fujitsu were the best of the evaluated PCs.

If you’re looking to acquire a Tablet PC for pen-based input, the Fujitsu is your best choice. If you want to use the Fujitsu as a standard computer, you can purchase the optional docking bay and USB keyboard.

For myself, the thought of having to haul around a docking station and USB keyboard to get work done wasn’t a feature but a detriment. Remember that my goal was to reduce the weight of computing equipment I had to take on the road. (See Figure 5 for model.)

Toshiba Portégé 3500
The Toshiba Tablet PC is the closest thing to a regular laptop. The Portégé 3500 is a full-size laptop whose screen you can flip, providing a slate device for ink input. The Portégé is the most powerful of this bunch. With this computer, I could meet all of my goals except for one: It weighs as much as my ThinkPad. If I was in the market to replace my ThinkPad, I’d have considered the Toshiba; in my case, I was looking for a lightweight traveling computer, and the weight was just too much. (See Figure 6 for model.)

Tablet PC Comparison

Acer TravelMate C100 Compaq TC 1000

Memory

128MB-256MB 256MB-768MB

CPU

Mobile Pentium III, 800MHz Transmeta Crusoe 5800, 1GHz
Display 10.4-inch, TFT LCD, 1024x768 10.4-inch color TFT XGA, 1024x768
Hard disk space 20GB-30GB 30GB-60GB
Type Convertible Convertible/Slate
Weight 3.1 lbs. 3 lbs.
Integrated WLAN Yes Yes
Ports 2 x USB 1.1 and 1 FireWire 6 x USB 2.0
Additional features Built-in smart-card readers; good typing ergonomics. Can handle wireless. Can do smart-card logon. Tablet Mode ink input. Detachable screen. Can handle wireless. Can run VMware. Tablet Mode ink input.

Tablet PC Comparison

Fujitsu Stylistic Toshiba Portégé
Memory
256MB-768MB
256MB-1GB
CPU
Mobile Pentium III, 800MHz
Mobile Pentium III, 1.3GHz
Display
10.4-inch XGA TFT, 1024x768
12.1-inch XGA TFT, 1024x768
Hard disk space
20GB-40GB
20GB-60GB
Type
Slate
Convertible
Weight
3.2 lbs.
4.1 lbs.
Integrated WLAN
Yes
Yes
Ports
2 x USB 1.1 and 1 FireWire
2 x USB 2.0
Additional features
Cool pen mounting on screen; best display of the bunch. Can handle wireless. Tablet Mode ink input.
Cool pen mounting on screen; good typing ergonomics. Best processor of the bunch. Can handle wireless; can run VMware. Tablet Mode ink input.

My Tablet PC in the Real World
There are several ways the Tablet PC has increased my productivity:

 Note taking

 Document review

 Contract signing

 Presentations

Note Taking
As a consultant, I’m in many client meetings. Microsoft’s Windows Journal application (see “Tablet PC Free Tools”) lets me use the Tablet PC as a writing pad for notes during those meetings.

Rather than use notepads, binders and so on, I use the Journal application to record all meeting notes, writing directly on the screen. While note taking isn’t the sexiest feature, what I can do with the notes is very cool. First, I find that documents can get quite large if I’m in an all-day meeting, like a recent design meeting in which I ended up with more than 16 pages of documentation.

The big benefit is that I can easily search through the text. Now, this may sound like the same thing you can do in a Word document, but the bonus is that I can search for specific words without converting the digital ink to text. For example, in the design meeting, I recorded the design requirements for where to publish Certificate Revocation Lists (CRLs). As shown in Figure 7, I was able to search my notes for the word “Web” to find the notes referencing the Web publication point.

I can also convert the ink to text, but sometimes my handwriting leaves much to be desired. The good news is that I normally use my notes for reference as I work on other documents. I do occasionally convert the ink to text, but I’ve found those occasions few and far between—and that’s when the Text Correction feature comes in handy.

Document Review
A second usage is reviewing other consultants’ work or reviewing white papers as I research client solutions. There are two ways to insert comments for future research with digital ink.

The first is putting ink comments into the document. An ink comment looks much like a normal typed comment, except that the text of the message is saved in a digital ink format.

As you can see to the right side of Figure 8, the problem is that the comment is always in the margin; if I’m reviewing a document with tracked changes, the ink comments gets lost within the other text in the margin.

What I find more useful is to import the document into the Journal. The importing process actually prints the Word document (or any other document, for that matter) to the Journal Note Writer. This produces a journal page that uses the previous document as the background image. This allows me to make changes directly on the page, much like writing on a piece of paper. As shown in Figure 9, I can then use the Journal application to write comments and highlight important text during my review.

In many ways, I prefer this method, as it’s just like working with a printed copy of the document. If I want to send my work to non-Tablet PC users for review, they can simply download the Windows Journal Viewer at www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?FamilyID=fad44098-8b73-4e06-96d4-d1eb70eacb44&DisplayLang=en.

Note: Wait until you see Microsoft Office 2003. I loaded beta 2 recently, and the new version of Office is extremely Tablet PC-friendly. I no longer have to import a Word document into the Journal to use digital ink. I only have to switch to the Ink Annotation tool, and I can write my comments directly into the Word document.

Contract Signing
When I speak at conferences or arrange consulting engagements, contracts are sent to me by fax or in an Adobe Acrobat file. With my Tablet PC, I can sign the contracts in my version of Adobe Acrobat and send the completed documents to the booking company. Via this method, I can then e-mail or fax the completed contract back to the requestor without having to print out versions of the contract.

Presentations
Some of you may have caught one of my technical presentations at Microsoft’s Tech Ed or MCP Magazine’s TechMentor conference. Previously, I’d always ask for a whiteboard or flip chart to diagram answers to audience questions.

With the Tablet PC and PowerPoint, I’m able to directly write my comments into the PowerPoint presentation. As seen in Figure 10, I was able to stress which Certification Authorities (CAs) should be removed from the network (offline) and which CAs should remain connected to the network at all times (online).

Not only can I record notes directly into the presentation, I can also save the notes into the PowerPoint presentation for future conferences.

Tablet PC Free Tools

To increase the acceptance and use of Tablet PCs, Microsoft provides several free downloads for Tablet PC-aware applications. These tools allow applications to take advantage of Tablet PC features such as digital ink and the stylus. The downloads for the Tablet PC are available at www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/tabletpc/downloads/ default.asp.

Windows Journal
Microsoft’s Windows Journal is included in the base install of Windows Tablet PC version. The Journal is the most-used application when in writing in digital ink. It allows you to take notes, draw diagrams and write information directly into the Tablet PC.

The Journal provides several abilities beyond just recording written input, including:

  • Converting ink to text
  • Converting graphics to common shapes such as circles, rectangles and lines
  • Selecting background “paper” such as lined paper, graph paper and task pads

Unlike previous PDA devices, you’re not forced to convert digital ink into text. In fact, I prefer leaving my meeting notes in ink format. That way I can review them during consulting engagements for later reports. I don’t have to wait for a handwriting-recognition process to determine what the heck I was trying to write.

Note: The download site also provides Windows Journal Viewer 1.5, allowing non-Tablet PC computers to read journal files.

Office XP Pack for Tablet PC
The Office XP Pack for Tablet PC provides Office XP functionality, allowing digital ink usage with Office XP applications. In Word, you can use ink comments. You can also write notes or comments, as well as highlight and edit text.

When I’m speaking at conferences, I can take advantage of digital ink to modify slides as I speak. For example, if someone asks me how a network diagram may differ if design requirements are modified, I can quickly sketch the changes to the network on the PowerPoint slide. I also have the option saving the digital ink in the PowerPoint presentation for future presentations.

As with Word, I can add ink comments to Excel spreadsheets. I find this most useful when reviewing spreadsheets or documents using the Tablet PC as a slate. I can simply write my comments on the screen, rather than having to switch to the keyboard to input a comment.

Outlook really takes advantage of digital ink. I can write an entire message in my own handwriting and send it to a recipient. The actual e-mail message is saved as a JPG and sent to the recipient, preserving my actual handwriting rather than an impersonal, typed message.

Corel Grafigo
Corel Grafigo is the digital equivalent of a whiteboard, but it’s a whiteboard that makes your circles rounder and your squares squarer. When creating graphics or illustrations in Grafigo, each drawn item is treated as an object. This allows you to drag the object to another location on the screen. In addition, if you want to add annotations, Grafigo can convert your digital ink writing into text, allowing you to review the translation in a text box.

One of the great features of Grafigo is the ability to import an existing file as an underlay. Much like adding a graphic file as a watermark to a page, you can add an existing document as an underlay and then add comments and modification with digital ink over the original document.

Franklin Covey TabletPlanner
While I do use the Outlook Calendar feature to manage meetings, appointments and travel schedules, the Franklin Covey TabletPlanner integrates with Exchange and allows me to do stylus-based schedule modification.

The TabletPlanner fully integrates with your Outlook schedule, as long as Exchange provides Outlook Web Access to your e-mail store. HTTP is used to sync any changes between the two systems.

Adobe Acrobat
This was an unexpected bonus with my Tablet PC. I found that—while working on Microsoft’s Windows Security Resource Kit—I could insert pen-based comments and notations directly into an Adobe PDF file. This allowed me to address any final comments from my editor directly in the PDF file, rather than having to maintain a separate document of additional revisions before sending the book to press.

—Brian Komar

So, Happy Together?
You bet. I find that even though I didn’t intend the Tablet PC to replace my ThinkPad as my workhorse laptop, it has. Every week, I find new ways to use it. I’m glad I purchased a hybrid Tablet PC, as I still use the normal laptop input more than 50 percent of the time. The Acer TravelMate has become my primary laptop, and I’m planning to look into the voice input features.

The only TravelMate issue I had was the insufficient memory to run VMware. I solved this problem in two ways. First, I run virtual machines by running them on a separate computer, my Cappuccino TX3 PC, www. cappuccinopc.com, one of the smallest computers on the market. By connecting my Tablet PC to the Cappuccino with a FireWire cable, I’m able to view and work with the virtual machines through the Remote Desktop Client. This configuration doesn’t require a monitor, keyboard or mouse for the Cappuccino PC.

I’ve also upgraded my home server to run VMware GSX server. This allows me to connect remotely to my home server for more extensive VMware simulation networks by using the VMware Remote Console client. The virtual machines all execute on my dual 933Mhz computer at home, and only the screen and response information is sent to my laptop on the road.

You’d have quite a fight on your hands if you attempted to take away my Tablet PC. The biggest change from previous attempts to create pen-based computing is the ability to just leave ink well enough alone. By not having allwritten input converted into typed text, the Tablet PC makes writing on the computer a breeze—and my back is a lot happier with the lighter load.

About the Author

Brian Komar is the owner and principal consultant for Komar Consulting Inc., a consulting firm specializing in network security and Public Key Infrastructure design. He’s a frequent speaker at Microsoft TechEd and Microsoft Certified Professional Magazine’s TechMentor conferences. His latest book is Microsoft Windows Security Resource Kit (Microsoft Press).

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