By Stephen H. Wildstrom I have been a fan of Microsoft's (MSFT) Tablet PC since its debut in 2002. But the truth is, I liked the concept of a PC that could be run with a pen instead of a mouse and keyboard a lot better than any of the actual tablets brought out by a variety of hardware makers. The IBM (IBM) ThinkPad X41 Tablet changes all that. It's the first model with a real shot at becoming my everyday laptop.
Tablets have found a market with people in specialized jobs who use them as electronic clipboards for filling out forms and other tasks. But that's not where the mass market lies. For most people, these devices will serve mainly as conventional laptops. Only when specific tasks demand it will users swivel the screens around and write on them with a stylus. I have tried several of these "convertible" tablets, and the problem they all share is their mediocrity as notebooks. The value added by the tablet features isn't enough to justify the purchase.
The difference in the $1,899 ThinkPad X41 Tablet is that it began life as the ThinkPad X41, which I regard as the best notebook in its class by far. And interestingly, while it was developed at IBM and carries the IBM brand, the X41 Tablet is in fact the first ThinkPad to hit the market since Lenovo Group acquired IBM's PC division in May.
LONGER LIFE. As a laptop, the tablet resembles the standard X41. The biggest visible difference is the hinge that lets the display rotate and fold flat over the keyboard to create a slate. At its thickest point, the slightly wedge-shaped tablet is about 1.2 in. thick, vs. 0.8 in. for the regular X41. The tablet is also about 13 ounces heavier, bringing the weight to 3.5 lbs.
Those are astonishing specs for this type of product. Both Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) and Fujitsu offer Tablet PCs built around similar 12.1-inch displays and using Intel Pentium M processors, like IBM/Lenovo. Both are significantly thicker than the ThinkPad and weigh about a pound more (though the Fujitsu includes a DVD drive that is missing in the others). That extra pound makes a huge difference if you're spending the better part of a day carrying the tablet around.
Two other features add to the attractiveness of the ThinkPad Tablet. The standard battery is rated at a respectable 3.5 hours, but an optional high-capacity battery runs for nearly 6.5 hours at a cost of $159 and about an extra half-pound. This brings the tablet close to the important goal of getting through an entire workday on a single charge.
SOFTWARE PROBLEMS. An integrated fingerprint reader is also a plus. Without it, you must tap out a password with a pen on the clumsy onscreen keyboard to wake a sleeping Tablet in slate mode. The fingerprint reader can be used whether the ThinkPad is in slate or notebook mode. That's a huge help.
Now that the hardware has taken a big leap forward, it's time for Microsoft to do something about the Windows XP Tablet Edition software. I love the ability to scribble notes on the screen and save them or to enter complex formulas that would be difficult to type. But the tablet could be so much more.
RISING POPULARITY. To come anywhere close to fulfilling its potential, the tablet needs a user interface that knows a pen isn't just a different kind of mouse. It should understand that you don't need a big arrow following you around to tell you what you're pointing at. PenCommander, a $30 program from PhatWare, lets you control a tablet by creating your own shorthand commands. It's way too geeky for most users, but it hints at what Microsoft could do with the operating system to make it more useful.
Tablet sales have been growing slowly but steadily. Manufacturers report that the product's appeal is spreading from such niches as insurance adjusters and health-care workers to a broader market in higher education, where teachers and students value its freehand data-entry abilities. With some help from Microsoft, which hasn't matched its verbal enthusiasm for the platform with a commitment to improving the software, the tablet could really take off. Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org