At Last, The Laptop Mold Is Broken

IBM's soon-to-be-announced TransNote will find a ready market among prodigious scribblers

Since making its debut in the early 1990s, the basic design of clamshell-style notebook computers has barely changed. Sure, they have gotten vastly more powerful, lost pounds of weight and inches of bulk, and sport screen sizes triple earlier models. But about the most important design change is that the keyboard has moved back on the base.

IBM is breaking the mold. Its soon-to-be-announced ThinkPad TransNote dramatically changes both the design and the use of a portable computer. Closed, the TransNote, which will go on sale later this quarter for around $3,000, looks like a letter-size portfolio. When you open the fake leather case (real leather is optional), the left side holds a 10.4-in. touch-screen display connected to a keyboard. The right side holds an ordinary legal pad. But when you write on the pad using a special pen, every stroke is recorded on a sensor under the pad and automatically transferred to the computer. Because the computer can interfere with writing, the TransNote is the first computer in right- and left-handed versions.

The handwriting-capture tablet was developed about three years ago by IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center and was briefly marketed as the CrossPad by A.T. Cross Co., the pen folks. A major drawback of the original Crosspad was the lack of a seamless way of getting the "ink," as the digitized image of handwriting is known, into a computer. IBM's Personal Systems Group has been working ever since on a way to integrate the tablet with a ThinkPad. The result is the TransNote, which was designed by IBM engineer John Karidis, who also gave us the tiny "butterfly" ThinkPad, which had a keyboard that expanded when the case was opened.

The TransNote's integration succeeds. It's a full-powered ThinkPad with a 600-MHz Pentium III, 64 megabytes of memory, and a 10-gigabyte hard drive. Because of tight space, the PC uses a small battery that only runs for about 2 hours, but you can swap another battery in without powering down. You can write on the pad for hours, however, with the computer part turned off, and the information will be saved, then transferred when the laptop powers up.

DULY NOTED. The TransNote wisely makes no promise of handwriting recognition--the goal is saving and organizing handwritten documents, not converting them to computer text. You can select keywords and index them for later searches. Less usefully, you can identify bits of text as appointments or tasks and transfer them to lists.

As with the CrossPad, you have to click a button to tell the pad you need a fresh page so you don't superimpose new notes on the electronic image of the old one. If you forget, however, the software lets you unscramble the results, separating the entries based on when they were made. Each page is also stamped with the time and date it was recorded.

A clever mechanical design adds to the TransNote's versatility. The portfolio can be folded so that either the laptop or the pad is on top. The pad-up configuration should make the TransNote acceptable at meetings where opening a laptop would be a serious faux pas. With the computer side up, the TransNote performs still more tricks. You can work as on a conventional laptop, or you can swing the screen over top of the keyboard to lie flat. With just the screen showing, you can use it tablet-style with a stylus to take handwritten notes or tap out words on an on-screen keyboard. Finally, for presentations, you can position the screen to face your audience; one mouse click inverts the contents so that viewers see a right-side-up display.

The TransNote is not intended to appeal to everyone. The keyboard, taken from a ThinkPad 240, is adequate but undersize. There's no docking station for desktop use. And while the unit is reasonably thin and light at 5 1/2 pounds, it's a bit big to fit comfortably in many briefcases. But if you take a lot of handwritten notes and need a way to preserve, classify, and search what you've written, there's nothing else quite like it. I suspect lawyers will probably be the biggest market.

In today's PC world, desktops have become commodities, and laptop design has settled into a dull sameness. A radical design experiment like the TransNote is refreshing, all the more so because it promises to be truly useful.

IBM's soon-to-be-announced TransNote will find a ready market among prodigious scribblers