Microsoft's long-awaited operating system for tablet PCs is making its debut at the PC Expo/TechXNY show here this week. It's a new Windows XP variant designed to help a PC stand in for pen and paper, and it's scheduled to ship this fall with a fleet of the first tablet PCs.
Windows XP Tablet PC Edition is basically Windows XP Professional with extensions for PCs that have a touch screen and a stylus. The OS will appear only on PCs with the necessary hardware--Microsoft won't sell it separately. Hewlett-Packard Co., Toshiba Corp., Fujitsu Ltd., and ViewSonic Corp., which have already announced their intention to release tablet PC systems, plus newcomers Paceblade Technology and Motion Computing Inc. are among those planning to offer such tablet PCs. Several vendors are showing prototypes at TechXNY. Don't take the term "tablet" too literally. Designs that Microsoft previewed at a recent reviewers' workshop range from Etch-A-Sketch look-alikes to slates that slip into a desktop-style docking station. All tablet PCs include a keyboard or offer one as an option.
For example, the preproduction Acer Inc. TravelMate 100 is a subnotebook that can be converted into a slate by swiveling its 10.4-inch active-matrix LCD touch screen 180 degrees and folding it back over the keyboard. The display operates either in landscape or portrait mode, and the OS can be calibrated for right- or left-handed use (so that, for example, pop-up menus aren't concealed by the hand holding the pen).
The linchpins of Tablet PC Edition are the Tablet PC Input Panel, which allows you to enter text using a stylus by handwriting or a touch-screen keyboard; and the Journal utility, which lets you create and manage handwritten notes on a paper-like background.
The Input Panel is a rectangle that pops up when you click on a small icon next to the Start button. It sits at the bottom of the screen and provides tabs to select Keyboard mode or Writing Pad mode, which converts handwriting to editable text on the fly. You point and tap on the screen with a supplied stylus, much as you would on a Palm or Pocket PC. When you need to input text--say, a URL in Internet Explorer or a memo in Word (using a free Office XP Pack for Tablet PC download)--you use the Input Panel.
If its rectangle feels a bit cramped, you can use the Write Anywhere option, which lets you write within a rectangle covering most of the screen. Early tests by PC World found the handwriting recognition accuracy to be spotty. But if writing and keeping handwritten notes is more important to you than turning them into editable text, Journal might be Windows XP Tablet PC Edition's most compelling feature. When you launch the application, you see what looks like a blank sheet of lined notepaper. You can start writing immediately with the default black ink pen, or you may choose another pen with a different point size or different color ink, or a transparent marker.
A selection tool lets you highlight what you've written to easily cut, paste, or change its appearance, or even convert it to text (though with no greater accuracy than Input Panel). Unlike the Input Panel, however, Journal won't convert handwriting to text on the fly.
How well does it all work? An early look at Journal's digital ink finds it impressive in its capability to mimic the look and feel of handwriting. The app could help people who take notes in meetings and then can't find them weeks later, or anybody who wants to mix drawings with their handwriting.
Alexandra Loeb, Microsoft's vice president for Tablet PC, says handwriting recognition is not intended to be the primary function of the OS, but simply "the icing on the cake."
Pricing is another important clue to the devices' chance of success. If the extra cost for a convertible subnotebook such as Acer's isn't high, the tablet features might well be worthwhile even if you use them only for keeping your valuable meeting notes. Most vendors say they will announce pricing upon release.