New Tablet PCs demand attention

Many of us have long been interested in the Tablet PC concept, but it has been hard to justify the added expense no matter how welcome the extra functionality could be. That said, Tablet PC sales have increased slowly and there's been some inroads made into certain areas such as the education, finance and healthcare industries.

Microsoft has also made it easier to develop applications for the Tablet PC because to date, the platform is missing a must-have application to capture people's imagination. Microsoft's own OneNote 2003 note-taking program (bundled with the Tecra M4) and recent free download (see "free Experience Pack for Tablet PCs") are arguably the closest to this goal.

Poking around

Last year, the software giant also released the significant Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005 update.

New features include improved handwriting-to-text conversion (ink) and better integration with its Office suite.

Existing utilities include Sticky Notes (save both handwritten and voice-recorded notes) and Windows Journal (print, convert handwriting to text, insert images, edit notes, highlight and save).

In use, the Tablet PC Input Panel icon (just to the right of the Start button) brings up the on-screen keyboard and more text and speech recognition options. At a minimum, you'll need to set up speech recognition (used for voice commands or text conversion) with an initial training run taking about 10 minutes. Further training sessions will sharpen accuracy.

Use of the stylus was straight­forward - double-tap the screen for a double-click, tap and hold or press the button on the stylus for a right-click. Overall stylus response was a bit finicky. Good points were that the cursor would move about as the stylus hovered over the display and that right-click menus could be tailored to not pop-up underneath left-handed users' wrists.

There are two types of Tablet PCs: pure tablet devices and convertible models, such as these two, that can also function just like a normal (or "clamshell") notebook, complete with keyboard and touch pads.

Tecra M4

Toshiba's 2.8kg Tecra M4 is the com-pany's third Tablet PC offering and is the most powerful Tablet we've seen to date.

A Wacom designed pressure-sensitive digitiser is built-in behind the machine's 14.1in shock-protected display to provide a more accurate response. The display itself is protected by a thin protective polycarbonate panel and natively supports a resolution of 1400x1050 pixels, driven by a 128MB NVIDIA GeForce FX Go 6600 PCI Express graphics controller.

The Tecra M4 features all the latest generation Centrino technologies. For our test machine, Toshiba opted for an Intel Pentium M 770 (2.13GHz) processor combined with 1GB of PC4200 DDR2 memory, an 80GB 5400rpm hard disk and a double-layer DVD burner that's swappable with a second battery or hard disk.

Networking is delivered via built-in Gigabit Ethernet, 56Kbps modem, Infrared and 802.11a/b/g wireless networking. Bluetooth remains optional. The Tecra M4 supports one Type II PC Card, includes an SD card reader and is also equipped with three USB 2.0 ports, plus single FireWire, S-Video TV-out and VGA-out ports.

In addition to using magnesium alloy and ABS polycarbonate case materials, Toshiba has also shock-protected the Tecra M4's hard disk and employed a motion sensor to temporarily halt the hard disk to prevent damage if dropped.

For security, Toshiba has also incorporated its Trusted Platform Module and allowed for hard disk, BIOS and program user/admin passwords. A variety of useful Toshiba Tablet PC, configuration and recovery utilities are also included.

For safe keeping, the Tecra M4's stylus slides away into the machine just next to the DVD drive.

The machine has just one built-in microphone near at the front, near the keyboard, for speech recognition. Plus, there's , and buttons on the bezel. The button also doubles as a display rotation button.

There's also a depressible iNav touch stick that brings up a unique "cross menu" with categorised icons for programs and settings. A six-cell battery, rated for 3-4 hours, is bundled as standard, along with a one-year warranty (although you can optionally extend this).

ThinkPad X41 Tablet

Since the launch of the Tablet PC concept, IBM had always maintained a wait-and-see approach. However, the company was working on its first Tablet PC long before selling its PC Division to Chinese company, Lenovo, this year.

PC World asked Lenovo what had changed and was advised that Lenovo was responding to current and predicted future demand for Tablet PCs.

Apart from the swivelling 12.1in digitiser display (that's quite viewable from side angles and has 1024x768 pixel resolution), the X41 Tablet uses the same bottom shell as the ThinkPad X41 series costing roughly $400 less for a similarly configured unit, without Tablet PC functionality.

At 1.8kg, the ThinkPad X41 Tablet is more compact and less costly than Toshiba's Tecra M4, but also less powerful.

Our test unit made the most of Intel's latest Centrino technology by featuring an Intel Pentium M 758 (1.5GHz) low-voltage processor and 512MB of DDR2 memory - up to 128MB of which is used by the Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 900 integrated graphics controller.

Of course, 802.11a/b/g wireless networking is standard, but so is Bluetooth, Infrared, Gigabit Ethernet and 56Kbps modem communications.

Our X41 Tablet was also equipped with a 60GB 4200rpm hard drive, one standard and one powered USB 2.0 slot (for connecting external devices such as DVD drives) plus a VGA-out port. The X41 Tablet supports one Type II PC Card and has a built-in SD card reader.

Lenovo's Tablet PC has a great keyboard for typing, complete with extras such as dedicated back and forward browser buttons above the arrow keys. We just wish there was a Windows button! The and keys combine to display a wireless control menu with which you can search for networks, manage location profiles and turn off wireless networking. The latter is also available by pressing the blue "Access" button - a "nerve centre" where you can learn about using the machine, configure the system and password settings, and use the "Protect & Recover" tool set.

Lenovo has included a biometric fingerprint reader and hard disk and power-on password protection, plus an embedded security subsystem to encrypt and protect your data on-the-fly.

The X41 Tablet boasts active hard disk protection, similar to the Toshiba. When a sudden change in motion is detected, the hard disk is quickly stopped, as it effectively braces for impact. The magnesium-covered chassis should be able to take a few knocks, too.

The X41 Tablet's display bezel features a power switch and, moving right, you'll find the , , , and buttons. The unit's stylus slots neatly away at front-left.

The X41 Tablet ships with a large eight-cell battery (rated for about six hours). This extends outward for use as a rubberised grip when in tablet mode. A smaller four-cell battery is also available. A three-year parts and labour warranty is included as standard.

Verdict These are two very different Tablet PCs for two very different types of user. The Tecra M4 is a top performer, scoring a feisty 82 in PC WorldBench 5 and 12,468 in 3DMark 2001. Alternatively, the ThinkPad X41 Tablet has excellent security and battery life, and is much more mobile. It achieved 59 in PC WorldBench 5 and 3632 in 3DMark 2001. Both machines are great options, but which is best for you will depend on your needs - if you're willing to pay the premium for a tablet PC in the first place.

Toshiba Tecra M4

Price: $4950 Vendor: Toshiba Phone: 13 3070 URL: Specifications: 14.1in display, Intel Pentium M 770, 1G DDR2 memory, 12MB NVIDIA GeForce FX GO 6600 graphics, 80 GB hard disk, dual layer DVD writer, 802.11a/b/g Wi-Fi, Gigabit Ethernet, 2.8kg

Features 9 Value 7 Overall 8

Lenovo Thinkpad X41 Tablet (18666SM)

Price: $43999 Vendor: Lenovo Phone: 1300 557 073 URL: Specifications: 12.1in display, Intel Pentium M 758 low voltage, 512MB DDR2 memory, Intel Graphic Media Accelerator 900 graphics, 60 GB hard disk, dual layer DVD writer, 802.11a/b/g Wi-Fi, Bluetooth Gigabit Ethernet, 1.8kg

Features 8 Value 7 Overall 7

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Danny Allen

PC World
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