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.
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.