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Taking note of the Tablet PC

The small but heavy gadget is an appealing replacement for pen and paper, a team of reviewers say, but don't expect it to take off just yet.

By Times staff
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 17, 2003

An author and editor playing with a new Tablet PC saw it as a potential electronic replacement for pen and paper. The bright screen caught the eye of a tech columnist. And for a high school student, it was just a cool way to take notes in class.

The Tablet PC is a different kind of notebook computer. In addition to the traditional functions of a Windows PC, users can write on its screen with a special electronic stylus.

This handwriting feature has received the bulk of the publicity since the Microsoft-developed Tablet PC hit the market in November. And it was the function that attracted the most curiosity from some product testers eager to try it out.

Hewlett Packard lent a Compaq TC1000 (which starts at $1,699). It has a 1-gigahertz processor, 256 megabytes of random access memory and a 10.4-inch LCD screen.

It can be used flat, like a writing pad, or it can swivel around on its base to reveal a keyboard and a more traditional notebook look.

The handwriting recognition that translates scribbles into text wasn't perfect, but many people confess to having lousy handwriting once they try it. Here are their reviews:

* * *

My first thought when the Tablet PC arrived: Where was this when I was writing books? It could be such a helpful tool when interviewing people, compared with a pen and pad.

But I doubted that it could really translate my physician-like handwriting into text. The results were mixed. The Penn State cheer for our beloved coach Joe Paterno -- "I say Joe Pa, You say terno" -- was read as "( say Joe Pa, You say terns."

It did better with other sentences, such as confessions about my chocolate Labrador retrievers. "Cocoa and Casey eat $20 bills" appeared perfectly translated into text.

The screen is relatively small compared with my home Compaq laptop, but it's remarkably vibrant. The pinball game made me feel like I was in an arcade.

I stumbled into the Sticky Notes voice feature unaware of its power. When we discovered that it recorded my cackling laugh, my colleagues plotted some pranks.

Some downsides from my short test drive: The stylus used to write on the notepad is a bit jumpy, so you have to repeatedly click on the toolbars to complete a single task.

The battery doesn't seem to last long, and it crashed without warning. And I wonder how it would handle wear and tear, given the rather flimsy plastic swivel that connects the screen to the keyboard.

I doubt that I'll rush out and buy one. But I did score 1,222,500 in pinball.

-- Alecia Swasy, Times assistant managing editor/business

* * *

My first impression of Tablet PC was the brilliant LCD screen, which can be rotated to a portrait or landscape position. The Tablet PC automatically adjusted the screen contents based on the screen's orientation.

I connected it to my home network hub with a network cable and had instant Internet access -- always a good sign.

After using the pen to write some notes on the digital notepad, I tried to convert the script to character text. This proved to be about 80 percent accurate. Considering my atrocious penmanship, I thought this was a pretty good percentage.

Even at 80 percent accuracy, I soon learned that leaving the notes as handwriting was the best way to go and is more in line with what the Tablet PC was intended for.

The stylus was relatively easy to use and became comfortable after a few minutes of use. I needed to check the manual just once, to find out how to simulate a right-click (holding the pen's button before touching the screen).

I found the Tablet PC surprisingly heavy, much heavier than my own laptop. (The Web site lists it at 3 pounds.) The keyboard, which is normally folded underneath the Tablet, can be swung open and is very usable, almost the size of a normal laptop keyboard.

There is also a virtual keyboard that you can pop up from the taskbar, then use the pen to tap virtual keys on the screen as you would a normal keyboard. This took a little getting used to. While you probably wouldn't use this to do any text entry of more than a few words, it was an effective way to type in Web addresses in Internet Explorer.

My overall impression of the Tablet PC was good, and the ability to write onscreen with the stylus appealed to me the most. But considering its high cost, I suspect its niche may be a little too narrow to be a viable laptop replacement soon.

-- JOHN TORRO, Times Solutions columnist

* * *

Now, this is the way to go to class.

There's nothing like a new gadget to grab the attention of teenagers. And the Tablet PC certainly had a cool factor with my fellow students at Palm Harbor University High School.

It has a sleek design, about the size and weight of a textbook, crystal-clear screen resolution and the appeal of replacing pen and paper with stylus and screen.

I got permission from my teachers to bring the Tablet PC to class. I took notes with the stylus and found writing on screen to be as easy as writing on paper. The Tablet made a little noise, such as when the cooling fan came on, though my teacher and nearby students said they didn't hear it.

But I couldn't print out the notes later because the Tablet PC version of Windows did not include a driver for my printer, and I didn't have a way to load the necessary software. One reason the Tablet is so small is that it doesn't have a built-in CD-ROM. So in a sense, I can say my notes truly were history.

The Tablet's potential at school is substantial. One day a campus full of youths will carry around a Tablet PC instead of a notebook.

That day is not likely to be soon, however. While some students said they wanted to buy one, they backtracked as soon as they found out how much it costs.

-- JEFF GUSSOW, high school student

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