Turbocharging The Tablet

Now the handwriting recognition really works


Since its much hyped release more than four years ago, the Tablet PC has been mainly a curiosity, popular on some college campuses and in a few industries and ignored everywhere else. The software, Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005, wasn't very good, and the Tablets themselves were short on performance. Windows Vista has changed that in a big way.

The Tablet software, which lets you replace the mouse and keyboard with a pen and allows you to write or draw directly on the screen, gets two critical improvements in Vista. First, handwriting recognition actually works, meaning that you rarely have to resort to the clunky on-screen keyboard. Second, Microsoft (MSFT ) has finally realized that a pen is different from a mouse. When you're working with the pen, a little dot on the screen tells you where the pen is pointing, rather than a big mouse arrow that gets in the way. And you can use pen-stroke gestures—Microsoft calls them flicks—for common navigation and editing moves. For example, a quick upward flick on a long Web page moves it up, as though you had spun the wheel on a scroll mouse. A flick to the upper left will delete a selection.

Computer makers are responding to the improved software with some interesting hardware. I tried out three new and very different "convertibles," or Tablet laptops that can be used in either the conventional clamshell mode or with the screen folded over the keyboard to form a slate. All of them are very compact and weigh in at just under 4 lbs.

THE TOSHIBA PORTEGE R400 IS A CLASSIC example of a Japanese executive prestige PC. With a starting price of $2,599, it features an array of bells and whistles, including a screen on the edge of the case that can display new e-mails or calendar items while the laptop is closed and what Toshiba (TOSBF ) bills as the first wireless docking station using a new radio technology called ultrawideband. The Portégé's main display is a 12.1-in. widescreen. The screen is very bright, but for typical Tablet use, I think an anti-reflective coating would be better than its polished finish. The computer should get about 5 hours of battery life, and twice that with an auxiliary battery that adds 15 oz. Both in laptop and slate mode, the Portégé is a nice piece of work.

The Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ) Pavilion TX1000 Entertainment Notebook is something completely new: a Tablet, starting at $1,299, aimed at consumers. Its dimensions are similar to the Toshiba, and while it lacks frills like the Portégé's external display, it has one feature the R400 lacks, a DVD drive.

All Tablets that I have seen to date employ radio technology to determine the location of the pen. The HP uses a touch-sensitive screen, which means you are not limited to using its special pen. But there are a couple of significant drawbacks. The actual touch screen is a layer of plastic over the display that reduces the sharpness of images. And touch is much slower and less accurate than the radio technology, so handwriting recognition suffers.

My favorite device is actually the plain-Jane Lenovo ThinkPad X60 Tablet (from $1,823). This modified version of the workhorse ThinkPad X60 notebook lacks glitzy features and seems a bit old-fashioned with a squarish 12.1-in. display. But it is simply a pleasure to use, in tablet or clamshell mode. Some battery configurations give it 10 hours of running time. And at purchase, you can choose among display options, including a touch screen and a more rugged one for outdoor use. Like the Toshiba, it can be equipped to work with Verizon Wireless' high-speed mobile data service.

I find that I mostly use these convertible notebooks with the keyboard, but there are chores—photo editing, to pick one—that are a lot easier to do with a pen. Now that pen support is built into Windows, I suspect a lot of laptops will become more useful by gaining Tablet features.

For past columns and online-only reviews, go to Tech Maven at www.businessweek.com/technology/wildstrom.htm

By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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