The Liberation of Laptop Design?

Tablet innovations may goose the long-stagnant look of standard notebooks

Since the notebook computer evolved into its present form about a decade ago, its design has remained fundamentally unchanged. Laptops have packed a lot more capability into smaller and lighter packages, but the basic layout--display in the lid, a keyboard with a pointing device in the base--hasn't changed.

Now, at a time when a tough market has made most hardware manufacturers more conservative, the coming of the Tablet PC is forcing a rethinking of the notebook. Whatever the shortcomings of the Microsoft Tablet PC software (Tech & You, Nov. 18), the liberation of laptop design could be a lasting contribution.

Although Microsoft (MSFT ) set specific hardware requirements for the tablets, it gave manufacturers considerable design freedom. So, unlike the lookalike, work-alike Pocket PCs, there's a lot of variation among tablets. I took a look at four of the initial products, representing three different approaches: modified clamshell notebooks from Toshiba (TOSBF ) and Acer, a pure, no-keyboard tablet from Fujitsu (FJTSY ), and a unique hybrid with a detachable keyboard from Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ).

The Toshiba Portégé 3500 ($2,299) and Acer TravelMate C102Ti ($2,199) have similar designs. Each looks like a standard ultralight notebook, but the screen pivots 180 degrees and folds flat over the keyboard to form a tablet. The Toshiba is the speediest of all the tablets, with a 1.3-GHz Pentium III-M, and it features a 12.1-inch display rather than the 10.4-in. screens found on other tablets. There's a price for those goodies: It's nearly a pound heavier than the others and runs just over three hours on a charge--about an hour less than the competition. The Acer goes with an 800 MHz ultra-low-voltage Pentium III-M. All of the tablets come with 20- or 30-gigabyte hard drives and 256 megabytes of memory.

The Liberation of Laptop Design?
Each also has a big problem when working as a tablet. The Acer comes with a tiny pen, about the size of a Palm stylus, that quickly becomes uncomfortable. A larger pen is also supplied, but there's no way to store it in the notebook. And the Toshiba is much worse than the others at emulating the feel of a pen on paper when writing on the tablet. The screen is too slick, which makes it hard to write accurately and legibly. Another concern is the durability of the complex screen hinges. A standard laptop hinge has to move on only one axis, yet it is the largest source of mechanical failures. The tablet design multiplies the chances of trouble.

The Fujitsu Stylistic ST 4110 is probably the tablet most likely to succeed because it has a small but solid built-in market. Fujitsu has been selling tablets for years, using cobbled-together software to handle pen entry. They are used mainly in specialized markets, such as insurance, largely for filling out electronic forms. For these uses, the Tablet PC software is a vast improvement.

The Stylistic is a bit like an electronic clipboard. There's no mechanical keyboard, and data entry is done by writing with the special pen or tapping a virtual keyboard on the screen. (A caveat: You don't want to lose the pen with any tablet--unlike touch screens, you can't substitute another stylus, a regular pen, or a finger.)

In many ways, the HP Compaq Tablet PC TC1000 is the most interesting of the bunch. The basic unit, powered by a power-thrifty 1-GHz Transmeta Crusoe processor, resembles the Fujitsu. But it attaches to a clever keyboard that can serve as a base, somewhat like a standard notebook, and can fold behind the tablet, like the Toshiba and Acer. The Compaq slides into a docking stand with or without the keyboard attached. And with prices starting at $1,699, the Compaq is the most aggressively priced tablet.

At this early stage, it's difficult to tell how the tablet PCs will evolve or what impact these novel products will have on laptop design. The fact that two of the three largest laptop makers, Dell Computer (DELL ) and IBM (IBM ), aren't making tablets reveals deep industry skepticism. Still, I think that as the software gets better and the hardware--especially the relatively expensive radio-frequency pens and digitizers--get cheaper, pen entry and maybe even pivoting screens will become options on many standard laptops. The more radical HP Compaq might even inspire a jolt of design innovation in a notebook market increasingly dominated by all-but-indistinguishable PCs.

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