Take one tablet

Once again, Microsoft's groundbreaking pen-based format is on centre stage, but should you rush to swap your keyboard for a stylus?

Computing, like fashion and home renovation, is all about the Next Big Thing. One minute you're in your flares, sitting on a shag throw rug, pounding away on your 16KB Spectrum; the next, you're in your flares, sitting on a shag throw rug, pounding away on your 1GB laptop. Okay, perhaps some of the Next Big Things have been recycled once or twice. But what about the Next Big Thing That Never Was?

Ta-daah!

It was way back in 2000 that Bill Gates first unveiled the tablet PC. Since then, there have been plenty of breathless predictions of how we were all going to rush to embrace this revolutionary form factor. Microsoft's operating system, Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, was initially greeted with enthusiasm - drawings and scrawls could finally be quickly and easily converted to digital format! Brilliant!

Unfortunately, its promise was undermined by disappointing hardware. This let down the software side with dreadful battery life and poor processor speed. Tablet PCs were far more expensive than conventional laptops and their digital ink technology worked with only a few software applications. Why pay more to get little - or less - in return?

Niche work if you can get it

Over the next few years, Gates continued to tell us that the tablet's day would come - but sales could only limp along. Microsoft kept improving the operating system, but tablet hardware was stuck squarely in a niche market, appealing only to a few demographics: mobile business professionals, retail staff, healthcare providers and field engineers.

Recently Microsoft has been working with hardware manufacturers to reduce the price tag. We've started to see systems that look like regular notebooks, with the features of a tablet PC thrown in. And they don't cost much more than a normal laptop.

At this year's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference in Seattle, Mr Gates once again pushed the tablet PC to centre stage. He previewed a prototype codenamed Haiku: an A5-size device with an eight-hour battery life and a 6in screen. It weighed under a kilo and was thinner than 10 sheets of paper - perfect for the lucrative education market, everyone thought.

Microsoft hopes the Haiku will ship in 2007, but it's still trying to find a manufacturer who can make and sell the device for between $500 and $1000. It's becoming clear that the company wants to get the tablet PC out there in a variety of forms, from full-featured notebooks to pared-down digital scratchpads - and everything in between.

But what exactly do you get? My husband, sick of lugging a heavy notebook around on business trips, finally succumbed to the lure of a slim tablet. So in addition to inheriting our household's superior laptop, I've also had a chance to play around with its shiny replacement. Ah, happy days.

TIP dancing

The latest OS - Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005 - is not merely more usable than its predecessors. The digital ink concept is now an integral part of the design, leading to a more natural writing experience. For instance, the Tablet Input Panel (TIP) used to be pinned to the bottom of the screen, making it irritating to enter handwritten data into fields at the top of the page. Now it can be shifted wherever you like, so you don't have to keep moving your hand back and forth across the screen to jump between panel and application.

The TIP also provides real-time handwriting character recognition. This allows you to fix mistakes and choose the correct word before your phrase is inserted into the application.

Microsoft has stated that users shouldn't bother trying to translate every single instance of handwriting into text. That would be tedious and time-consuming, defeating the whole point of the tablet, which is to make your life easier.

However, I found the handwriting recognition was impressive enough to make translating a far from onerous task. Its context awareness gives you far more accurate results for e-mail and Web site addresses, as well as filling in forms.

Office help

Version 2005 also offers you built-in integration with Office 2003. The digital ink features for OneNote, in particular, are really impressive. Windows Journal is also a great, straightforward note-taking program with a lot of flexibility. Voice-recognition software is included, making this pretty much the perfect OS for my husband, who prefers never to type. I find that I work faster when I type than when I write by hand or speak so, despite the tablet's charms, I won't be rushing to pick one up - at least until the price comes down a bit further.

There are also rumours that Microsoft may try to squeeze tablet PC functionality into Vista (Longhorn) - its much-anticipated, much-delayed next-generation Windows OS, now scheduled for late whenever. If the software giant can hit that deadline, it will move the tablet PC into the mainstream market. Then it just might become the Next Big Thing after all. Finally.

PICS: Microsoft has made major improvements to the Text Input Panel and it's now a breeze to use. Click here to view image

Save all your important notes and doodles with Windows Journal. Click here to view image

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Susan Pederson-Bradbury

PC Advisor (UK)
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