Tablet PC Review
I recently had the opportunity to evaluate a Tablet PC. As a long time Newton user and a more recent Pocket PC user, I was very interested in actually using this latest offering of pen-based computing. This review is focused on use of the Tablet PC with the pen; the Tablet can be used with a keyboard, but in that mode the PC is simply a normal laptop and the advertised advantage of pen-based computing is not being utilised.
The specific device I used was an HP/Compaq TC1000. I found it to be a little heavier than I had expected, but it was not unduly weighty. The screen was very readable and I had no trouble using it in a variety of lighting conditions.
The Compaq TC1000 uses a Transmeta Crusoe processor, and I found applications like Excel to be a little sluggish; although the response of Tablet PC Input pad was always snappy.
I am left handed, and when using the Tablet in landscape mode for extended periods of time I found that the air coming from the exhaust port next to the processor heat sink was uncomfortably hot. As a result, I mostly used the Tablet PC in Portrait orientation. This is a design flaw that HP should correct.
The overall design of the Compaq is a little odd: the keyboard attaches to the Tablet about two-fifths of the way from the back of the keyboard panel. This appears to have been done to enable the PC to sit open without toppling over. While this is admirable, the net result is that the keyboard is quite small and there is no room for a touch pad; only a touch stick is provided. I consider the lack of a touch pad to be a failure.
The Pen input panel is obviously bolted on, and is not well integrated into either Windows XP or MS Office. Correction of text is particularly clumsy, although recognition out of the box was excellent. It is very puzzling that gestures are limited to 4: backspace, enter, tab, & space.
Logging in using the pen was made difficult by the fact that the only text entry mechanism available during log on is the on screen keyboard---and a secure password (upper and lower case characters plus digits and punctuation) is a hassle to enter. I found logging in to be enough of a hassle that I quickly turned of the requirement to enter my password from both the screen saver and a suspend. Microsoft must address this if they expect Tablet PCs to be secure devices. This feature also causes me to not recommend the device for any use where proprietary or sensitive personal information will reside on the Tablet PC.
I found the experience of writing with the pen to be reminiscent of writing with a technical pen. This is not a criticism, it is simply an observation. I found the pen and screen comfortable to use, even for extended periods of time.
Text can be entered using either an input panel at the bottom of the screen or in a region that encompasses most of the screen (Write Anywhere mode). I tried using both modes and eventually settled on only using the input panel with 2 input lines. In Write Anywhere mode there were often conflicts between the pen input application and the other Windows applications. This meant that I often had to attempt to enter gestures and press buttons three or four times before they would "take". In input panel mode such conflicts rarely occurred.
Microsoft would be well served to have their Tablet PC design team spend a few weeks making extensive use of Apple Newtons; in order to experience first hand a pen-based user interface that is fully integrated with applications and OS. A particular annoyance was the fact that the corrector and the MS Office dictionaries are not integrated together: when correcting an unusual word that was not properly recognized it would have been helpful if the word could also have been added to the MS Office dictionary too.
I encountered a couple of small problems:
The overall physical form factor of the Tablet PC is a success, but the accompanying software isn't yet ready for any except early adopters and die hard pen computing boffins. Handwriting recognition is better than the Newton offer(ed), but handwriting recognition is only one component in the overall system.
There is no compelling reason to recommend wide scale deployment for general purpose use of Tablet PCs; however, where a specific application warrants use of a Tablet PC then there is no reason to not use Tablet PCs as long as the login security issue is addressed prior to deploying the solution.