Compromises aside, Compaq tablet dazzles

January 16, 2003|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

OVER THE years, I've tried out plenty of technological breakthroughs. Most wind up on my forget-it list because they don't work or aren't useful enough to justify their cost in dollars or effort.

Pen-based computers are a case in point. With the exception of small, handheld personal organizers such as the Palm Pilot and its successors, nobody has been able to do this right - until now.

The Compaq Tablet PC TC1000 from Hewlett Packard comes remarkably close to living up to the hype for a new generation of lightweight computers built around Microsoft's Tablet version of Windows XP.

In fact, I've never heard so many exclamations of "cool" and "amazing," and "slick" as I did when I invited friends, colleagues and relatives to try their hand at scribbling on the screen.

In addition to Compaq's offering, tablet PCs from Toshiba, Fujitsu, Motion Computing and ViewSonic have made their way to market since November. Each has a different emphasis.

The ultra-slim TC1000's selling point is versatility. It can function as a standard laptop with its keyboard attached or as a magic slate on steroids without it. It also snaps into an optional (and expensive) docking station for use with a standard keyboard, mouse and monitor.

Which goes to show what good engineers can do when they put their minds to it. Traditional laptops are designed with the computer and keyboard in the base and a screen that folds face down. Compaq came up with a two-piece, snap-together system that turns traditional design on its head.

The three-pound, 8 1/2 -by-11-inch tablet unit is less than an inch thick, but it contains the entire computer. That includes a 10.4-inch LCD screen, 30-gigabyte hard drive and ports for a phone, network cable, outside monitor and two USB devices, a standard PC accessory card and a compact flash memory module. Our review model also had a built-in wireless network adapter. That's a lot of stuff in a small package.

The tablet can be used with a stylus as a standalone computer when you want to travel ultra-light. But even with the keyboard attached and folded, the scratch-resistant glass screen remains face up for note-taking.

In that configuration, you can flip the display up and rotate it 180 degrees on a cleverly designed swivel, which turns the TC1000 into a standard laptop PC. The price for keeping the keyboard attached is an extra pound of weight.

As a laptop machine, the TC1000 won't win any standing ovations. The screen, although bright and sharp, is 30 percent smaller than the 12-inch displays on standard lightweights. It's too close to the front of the keyboard, and the keys are a bit too small and cramped for long hours of typing. The mouse controller, a pill-shaped button in the center of the keyboard, is also awkward. On the plus side, this may be the only notebook computer that's actually usable on an economy-class airliner tray.

The real return on the TC1000's compromises is its capability as a tablet PC. In this mode, you control the computer with a thick, comfortable pen-like stylus that pops out of a spring-loaded slot in the case.

As you move the stylus close to the screen, the Windows mouse pointer senses it and responds to your hand motion. Tapping on objects replaces clicking the mouse button.

Unlike some other tablet PCs, neither the screen nor the stylus of the TC1000 is truly pressure-sensitive. The tip of the stylus acts like the switch inside a mouse button. So the Compaq is not a good choice for artists and others who use graphics software designed for a pressure-sensitive drawing tablet.

Also, if you lose the stylus or its AAAA battery dies (it's an uncommon size), you're stuck in standard laptop mode - assuming you have the keyboard attached. If you don't, you're completely out of luck. That makes a spare stylus ($49) and extra battery a must.

Those caveats aside, the TC1000 is a pleasure to use. When you start it, the computer does its best to figure out whether you're in landscape or portrait mode and adjusts the Windows desktop accordingly. If it guesses wrong, tapping on a system tray icon changes the orientation.

A jog dial on the edge of the tablet helps scroll through screens and menus that may be awkward to navigate with a stylus. It's flanked by buttons that simulate the Tab and Escape keys. A third button brings up QMenu, a Compaq program that makes it easy to change settings such as brightness, speaker volume and so on.

When you put the tablet on a desk or table in front of you and run Windows Journal or use the computer's built-in handwriting recognition, it comes remarkably close to the feel of writing on a standard legal pad. (Windows for Tablet PCs deserves its own review, so I'll deal with it in a future column.)

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