Blue Notes

Tablet PCs: What's the Big Deal?

Q: Could you explain the upside of those pricey tablet PCs? I get how you can write on the screens, but I figure there's got to be something else going on here.

Um, no, not really. All the tablet PC hoopla has to do with the fact that you can scribble on the screens, à la Palms. It's a pretty convenient plus if you're in a line of work that requires lots of note-taking on the fly—you know, like factory foreman or private eye. But the trade-off is that tablets aren't quite up to snuff for more basic computing tasks. So before you plunk down $2,000 for the latest Fujitsu marvel, think long and hard about whether your profession really requires a glorified notepad.

There are two basic flavors of tablets: slates and convertibles. Slates are the simpler option, just rectangular screens you tote around and scrawl on; if you'd prefer to type on occasion, you can usually connect the screen to a USB keyboard. Convertibles, on the other hand, come packaged with keyboards. Some models have twist-off screens, while others fold up like sofa beds, with the keyboard concealed behind the screen for easier carrying.

In general, the design trends favor convertibles like the Fujitsu LifeBook T3010 and the Toshiba Portégé M200. Makes sense, as slates suffice for handwriting, but underwhelming when you hook 'em up to a keyboard. They're very flimsy, and the screen resolutions disappoint from angles other than straight-on. The convertibles retail for more than double what a slate will run you, but if you must tablet, Mr. Roboto recommends going with the flow and choosing a convertible—you'll be much happier should you ever need to indulge in a quick game of Max Payne.

If your raison d'être is to slaughter imaginary gangsters, of course, then a tablet's definitely not up your alley. These babies are made for more serious pursuits, like business and education, and the focus is definitely on applications that take advantage of handwriting recognition. Most models run a special version of Windows XP that'll convert your scribbles into text. But that conversion needn't be automatic—tablets can also let you work with your cursive, which Microsoft refers to as "ink."

This is a great feature for folks who don't have the time or space to pop open a laptop every time they need to jot. The question is whether those jottings get lost in the technological shuffle. Tablets have yet to perfect the art of handwriting recognition, so users with halfway lousy penmanship may be utterly flummoxed. Mr. Roboto, who's got metal pincers in lieu of hands, guesses that the tablet he most recently tested, Acer's TMC110, batted about .700 on deciphering his words correctly. And that was under controlled lab conditions, not hastily writing bons mots on the run. Granted, Mr. Roboto always got C's in elementary-school penmanship, and that's when teacher was being nice. But if you're not blessed with a steady hand, you're bound to gnash your teeth in frustration pretty frequently.

Another issue to consider is whether you're prone to losing things. It's pretty easy to imagine a tablet stylus getting misplaced or falling out of a storage slot in transit. Alas, you can't simply use a Palm stylus or a pointy stick, and replacements can cost up to $50 each. Do the math over a couple of years, and you forgetful types can end up paying a fortune.

A new version of Windows XP for tablets is scheduled to come out this summer, and it supposedly fixes some of the handwriting recognition foibles. (The operating system, code-named Lonestar, will be a free upgrade for current tablet owners.) At these prices, though, it's probably best to wait a few generations, until laptops and tablets cross-pollinate a lot more smoothly.


Mr. Roboto was terribly remiss in failing to mention last November's "State of Play" conference at New York Law School. Amends will now be made by giving a shout-out to the shindig's still developing website, nyls.edu/pages/777.asp. Check out the Conference Papers section when you have a minute, especially the always excellent Doug Rushkoff's Renaissance Now! The Gamer's Perspective.


Input questions at bkoerner@villagevoice.com.

 
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