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January 20, 2010
11 Min Read
Dell's XT2 XFR Tablet PC (click for image gallery)
I was in the New York City audience in November 2002 when Bill Gates strode onto the stage and introduced the world to the modern version of the tablet computer. With him were celebrities, including Rob Lowe and Amy Tan, and the CEOs of a handful of manufacturing partners, such as HP and Panasonic. Gates and Co. talked about tablet PCs as the future of computing.
Windows XP Tablet Edition, as it was called, relied on an active digitizer that interacted with a pen-sensitive screen to provide input. This hardware was combined with a suite of software so the digitizer -- a fancy name for a mouse in the shape of a pen -- could interact with on-screen buttons, as well as write text. Windows XP Tablet Edition was updated in 2005, but the revisions were minor.
More than seven years since that launch, Windows-based tablet computers haven't evolved into much. The form factors are mostly the same, even though touch technology has leapt forward in capabilities. The new paradigm of computing that Gates spoke of never unfolded. At least, not yet.
For some, several features missing from the iPad's first iteration, call into question its future in an enterprise environment.
For others, the device is "naturally corporate." Its most fundamental design element -- that it can be held with one hand -- signals to one analyst, the iPad's potential to be a great business device. For the enterprise that wants to deploy tablet PCs today, the point is moot. The iPad is months away from shipping.
For enterprises that need tablet power today, out in the real, rough-and-tumble world (including out in the elements), the usual list of suspects has your back. Here are some examples of tablet PCs that are available today from Dell, HP, Lenovo, Motion Computing, Panasonic, and Xplore Technologies. We'll also take a peek at what's on the horizon from Dell, Lenovo, and HP.
Dell XT2 XFR
Price: $3,599 -- $3,935
Dell describes the XT2 XFR as the "first rugged tablet PC featuring capacitive multitouch technology." That means it has the same gee-whiz appeal of the iPhone, but in a form factor that's built to withstand the toughest working environments. On the toughness scale, it rates military standard MIL-STD 810G for three-foot drops, rain, blowing dust, vibration, shock, humidity, altitude, and temperature extremes. Its ingress protection rating is IP-54, meaning it offers protection against dust and splashing water (not submersion).
It comes with Windows XP Tablet Edition installed and refutes the active digitizer for the user's finger instead. This allows people to use natural gestures, such as pinches or taps for scrolling, panning, rotating, and zooming. For those who can't do without the digitizer, it will also work with a special capacitive-compatible pen. Dell notes that a version of the XT2 XFR with a resistive screen is in the works. This will allow it to be used while wearing gloves.
Under its tough-as-nails exterior hides a capable computer. It has a 12.1-inch WXGA DLV, outdoor-readable, 1280x800 display and a full-sized keyboard for typing. Powering the XT2 XFR is an Intel Core Duo ULV processor clocking in at 1.6 GHz. It comes with 1 GB of memory, and storage comes in three flavors: 64-GB SSD; 128-GB SSD with full encryption; and 160-GB 5400-rpm SATA.
On the connectivity side of things, it has an Ethernet port, a number of Wi-Fi options (including 802.11n), Bluetooth, and either a Sprint/Verizon-compatible or AT&T-compatible wireless modem inside. The XT2 XFR also has hot-swappable bays for a camera or GPS unit, external DVD drives, and so on.
It may not be pretty, but it's going to get the job done in hostile work environments.
HP EliteBook 2730p Notebook
Price: $1,549 -- $2,149
HP's lone enterprise tablet is a convertible that offers regular laptop functionality and a swivel screen that folds flat for clipboard-style use. HP was sure to talk up the 2730p's weight, which measures only 3.7 pounds. That's a very respectable weight for a semi-rugged convertible, considering such a device will often be held. The 2730p meets military standard MIL-STD 810F for altitude, high temperatures, and dust. It's not as tough as Dell's XT2 XFR, but using it in the desert isn't out of the question. HP calls the 2730p slim, and its dimensions measure 11.24 x 8.35 x 1.11 inches.
The 2730p has a 12.1-inch Illumi-Lite WXGA, ultra-wide viewing angle, anti-glare display. It uses the standard Windows XP Tablet Edition technology for input, completely eschewing any sort of whiz-bang features and instead favoring the system that HP knows works for enterprise users. The 2730p offers both a touchpad and pointstick, with scroll zone, jog dial, and touch-sensitive controls.
Available processors range from Intel's Core 2 Duo ULV running at 1.2 GHz, up to Intel's Core 2 Duo LV 2.13-GHz chipset. It supports between 1 GB and 8 GB of memory, and storage options include an 80-GB, 5400-rpm, 1.8-inch SATA II; 120-GB, 5400-rpm, 1.8-inch SATA II; or an 80-GB, 1.8-inch SSD.
Connectivity features include Gigabit Ethernet, a 56k V.92 modem (really?), and Qualcomm's Gobi mobile broadband chip, which can be configured to support 3G data from AT&T, Sprint, or Verizon Wireless. Bluetooth 2.0 and 802.11a/b/g/draft-n Wi-Fi are also included.
Battery life ranges from 6 hours 15 minutes to 6 hours 30 minutes, depending on processor configuration.
Lenovo ThinkPad X200 Series
Price: $1,509 -- $1,749
Lenovo's entry in the tablet market is also a convertible. Lenovo doesn't use the words "tough" or "rugged" anywhere in its marketing lingo. No MIL-STD or IP specs are listed, either. That means it is a bit daintier when compared to the Dell and HP, but it's no less capable. The X200 series starts at a wee 3.57 pounds, making it easy to carry around for a day.
Lenovo goes for the throat by touting the X200's multitouch display. The display measures 12.1 inches and has an enhanced multitouch WXGA LED panel with wide viewing angle. It is also anti-reflective (SuperBright option), allowing only 1.2% of the sun's beams to bounce off into your eyes. Lenovo says the multitouch features will allow users to interact with applications with either fingers or pen. Two-finger gestures will allow users to pan, zoom, rotate, and right-click.
Powering the X200 are Intel's Core 2 Duo chips in either 1.4-GHz or 1.86-GHz options. Memory is available in 2 GB, 3 GB, or 4 GB. Lenovo offers an extensive array of storage options, ranging from a 128-GB SSD (for $380) to standard laptop optical platters spanning 160 GB to 320 GB at 5400-rpm and 7200-rpm speeds.
Bluetooth is optional, but there are two 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi selections to pick from. Mobile broadband can be added from either AT&T or Verizon Wireless at an extra cost. A WiMax option from Sprint/Clear is in the works.
Perhaps where the X200 really makes its mark is battery life. Lenovo claims it can last up to 10.3 hours on a single charge.
Panasonic ToughBook 19
Panasonic has long offered a range of semi-rugged to fully rugged laptops and convertible tablets. Its ToughBooks are some of the toughest notebooks around. I've seen one survive the weight of an ambulance running over it at high speed. The ToughBook 19 meets MIL-STD-810G for abuse (three-foot drops, rain, blowing dust, vibration, shock, humidity, altitude, and temperature extremes). Panasonic takes things a step further than Dell's XT2 XFR, and has tested the ToughBook 19 for drops from six feet. Its ingress protection rating also measures a healthy IP-65, providing a tougher barrier against moisture and dust.
The ToughBook doesn't go for fancy anything. It's all about business. That means it offers Windows XP Tablet Edition and requires the active digitizer for screen-based input. The display measures 10.4 inches, which is a bit tight, and it has 1024x768 XGA resolution. It can be viewed in direct sunlight and can support external monitors, among included display options.
The Intel inside is a Core 2 Duo chip clocked at 1.2 GHz. Panasonic doesn't mess around with the storage. It is offering a 160-GB HDD that is shock-mounted and fastened with a quick release. That makes it easily swappable for a new one if damaged. The ToughBook 19 comes with 2 GB of memory standard, and that can be expanded to 4 GB.
The ToughBook series has always led the way when it comes to wireless communication, and the 19 is no different. Qualcomm's Gobi chip is your option for mobile broadband and can be configured for either AT&T or Verizon Wireless. 802.11a/b/g/draft-n Wi-Fi is on board, as is Bluetooth 2.0+EDR and GPS. An Ethernet port and a 56k modem are crammed in there, as well.
All this ruggedness comes at a price. The ToughBook 19 is one of the heavier tablets, weighing in at 5.1 pounds. Exact pricing wasn't provided, but these things aren't cheap. Expect to pay more than $3,000.
Not interested in a convertible? Motion Computing offers several enterprise-grade, true tablet devices. Motion's tablets have only a screen. There's no physical keyboard. The trade-offs are you get a lighter, easier-to-carry-around machine, but less overall functionality if you need typing when on the go. Motion does offer docks and other accessories to enable full computing power on its devices.
Motion's J3400 tablet (starts at $2,299) is a rugged device that has a 12.1-inch display, meets MIL-STD 810F and IP-52 toughness ratings, and weighs just 3.6 pounds.
The Motion F5 (starts at $2,448) and C5 (starts at $2,199) computers are somewhat unique. They are targeted at specific verticals and usage scenarios. Both include a built-in handle to make them easier to carry around during the work day.
The F5's display is made from Gorilla Glass and is hella tough. It'll survive serious impacts and is highly resistant to scratches. It also comes with Motion's ViewAnywhere LED technology. It rates MIL-STD 810F and IP-54 on the toughness scale, and it weighs 3.0 pounds. The C5 has the same features, but adds options for medical professionals such as a digital camera, scanner, RFID reader, and barcode reader.
Another option is the ultra-rugged iX104C4 from Xplore Technologies. This device is housed in an extremely durable casing that meets MIL-STD 810F and IP-65 ratings for abuse. It has a 10.4-inch screen that comes in several options, including dual-mode finger- or pen-based input or better performance in sunlight. It is powered by an Intel Core 2 Duo processor, and has a range of options for connectivity.
While we'll have to wait a bit longer to see what (if anything) Apple has up its sleeve, Dell has introduced a concept for tablet PCs of the future. The device was shown at the recent Consumer Electronics Show, and features a five-inch screen. Dell calls it a companion device to a full PC. Pricing and availability weren't provided.
Lenovo also showed off an interesting hybrid device called the IdeaPad U1. It combines both a standard laptop and a touch-based tablet. It has an 11.6-inch display and weighs in at about 3.8 pounds. The display is removable, which lets it act like a normal laptop when attached to the keyboard or a true tablet when detached. It will be available in June and will cost about $999.
HP garnered some of the spotlight during CES, with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer talking up HP's latest tablet idea. The HP TouchSmart 2 will let users interact with their computer directly on the screen in ways that it calls "intuitive" and "fun." Pricing and availability weren't announced, and other details were slim.
Finally, there's Apple's iPad. Shipments are slated to begin in late March.
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