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Review: Tablet PCs

Do you need a $2,000 writing pad? InformationWeek's John Foley says tablet PCs are worth the money for those who do a lot of note-taking.

Who needs a $2,000 writing pad? As Microsoft's Tablet PC operating system hits the nine-month-old mark, with new applications and second-generation devices coming to market, it's a question a growing number of people are asking. I decided to see how a Tablet PC meets the needs of a heavy-duty note taker who uses both a laptop and spiral notebook to do my job. My assessment: The sooner I get a Tablet PC, the better.

The Acer TravelMate C100 that Microsoft loaned me for a few weeks proved to be a better way of taking notes during meetings, but even more important, it promised to vastly improve the way I organize those notes when I get back to my desk. No longer would hand-written pages stack up in my office, with only a chance of being found later. Using a Tablet PC, I could store everything as electronic files, arranged by subject or date, for easy retrieval. For a journalist whose notes are often part of the information-gathering process, this goes beyond being a nifty convenience.

In particular, I tested two Tablet PC applications from Microsoft, both of which are used by applying a pen device to the tablet's screen for writing in digital ink. Windows Journal is the more stable and easy-to-use of the two, having shipped as a standard utility with Windows XP Tablet PC edition from the time the operating system was released last November. With Journal, you can take notes and make sketches. The other app, OneNote, goes further, making it possible to create multimedia documents that include notes and sketches, plus typewritten text, audio clips, graphics, and digital photos. However, OneNote is still in beta testing--and it's trickier to master.

The applications have a few things in common. Both have the appearance of a legal pad on the display screen, use Microsoft's ClearType handwriting-recognition engine, and have a good-but-not-perfect tool for converting handwriting to type. (In once instance, "this is a test" was converted to "this is a NITA patsy.") Since Journal is the easier to learn, it's where I started. Relying mainly on three simple functions--ink, eraser, and highlighter--I took 14 pages of notes in a meeting that lasted several hours. The overall experience was good, as I was able to switch among those functions and scroll through the pages handily. A nice surprise was the tactile quality of the pen-to-screen input--it's something like using a roller-ball pen on a smooth surface.

While Journal's design metaphor is a legal pad with endless pages, OneNote is more like a binder with tabs that organize pages into different sections. I imagine OneNote's multimedia capabilities to be a more useful tool in my work--for example, interview notes could include an impromptu audio clip, technical sketch, or signature--but I didn't get beyond the basics in this test. One of the first things I tried was the audio-recording feature. It was easy enough to make a voice recording during a meeting, but it was hard to hear the playback. Microsoft explains the feature works best with a microphone attachment for recording and external speaker for listening.

Because OneNote is a more feature-rich application than Journal, it's also more complex. I was left scratching my head over how to insert new data exactly where intended in a OneNote document using a utility called the Input Panel that lets you quickly add words, either in ink or type. Sometimes I got the placement right; other times I didn't. Separately, a feature that lets you insert extra writing space in a document worked fine when the targeted area involved type, but not as well with ink.

Inexperience was at least partly to blame for my problems, but OneNote did display error messages several times, and the whole system locked up once trying to close the app. A Microsoft troubleshooter says some of my issues have been addressed in the latest beta code, which wasn't loaded on the Tablet PC I used. OneNote is scheduled for release later this year as a separately priced application that's part of the Office 2003 suite.

To be sure, Tablet PCs take some getting used, and I found some of the features less than intuitive, which led to mistakes. I was confused to find only one Close button (represented by an "X") in the upper right-hand corner of a Journal document and wrongly closed a work-in-progress document, losing two pages of data. (Microsoft Word, by comparison, has two Close buttons-one for the document and, above that, one for the application.) I struggled to get the eraser on the back of the pen device to work every time, finding it easier to use a button on the toolbar, a more time-consuming approach. And touching the pen to the screen didn't always lead to the desired result, whether I was launching an application or navigating within one.

The learning curve was steep enough that I let the Acer sit in a corner for several weeks before using it. Among other things, I couldn't figure out how to switch the screen from its horizontal mode, used when the computer is positioned as a standard laptop, to vertical mode, which is what you want when the screen is pivoted and flipped for use with a pen. It's the type of glitch that could be avoided with a training session or help-desk support, neither of which I had. Switching screen formats, it turns out, involves just knowing which two buttons to push. With so-called "slate" Tablet PCs, which don't convert into laptops, that's not an issue.

A disclaimer is probably in order at about this point. I don't typically borrow, test, or review PC products, which may explain some of my fumbling around with the device. Other reviews and more information about Tablet PCs are available at

The value of the Tablet PC's pen-based capabilities will depend in part on how often a person takes notes by hand. In my own work, I take notes mostly using a keyboard and Microsoft Word, especially during interviews for news stories, because it's faster. But there are other times when a pen and paper are just as good if not better, such as during hallway interviews or internal meetings, and I have dozens of notebooks and legal pads of accumulated material. That's where Journal and OneNote have potential, with the added advantage that the resulting documents can be shared via E-mail.

The note-taking applications alone make the Tablet PC worthy of consideration for anyone who has reason to save and organize hand-written paper records, but there are other reasons to like it. The Acer TravelMate C100 was smaller (10.4-inch screen) and lighter (less than 4 pounds.) than my company-issued IBM ThinkPad. The diminutive size and built-in Wi-Fi capability make the Acer a portable I'd actually tote along to the local Starbuck's with wireless hotspot.

What's more, applications such as Silicon Graphics' Alias SketchBook and Corel's Grafigo can be used to create pen-to-screen sketches. The artists in InformationWeek's design department gave the Tablet PC a thumbs-up after toying with one for just a few minutes. Kids like it, too.

So far, only 16 applications are available for Tablet PCs, but there's enough there, including Microsoft Office, to satisfy most people. When Office 2003 ships later this year, all of the applications will support digital ink. In addition to personal-productivity tools, a growing number of business applications are being tuned to the Tablet PC specs. SAP, for example, is tweaking its customer-relationship management application for Tablets. Special-purpose apps for healthcare, retail, and other industries also in the works.

For anyone thinking about buying a Tablet PC, a key question is whether to buy one of the many early models that are available, some of which are being discounted now, or pay a premium for a next-generation device that comes with the latest hardware, such as Intel's Centrino wireless chip, and software. A new version of the Tablet PC operating system is due sometime in the next 12 months. Competition among manufacturers is driving prices down, with listing an Acer with a 900-MHz Pentium III and 40-Gbyte hard drive for $1,550. At prices like that, it's easy to see why more people are picking up these switch-hitting devices.

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