My First 150 Days With a Tablet PC
Is a powerful, lightweight, pen-enabled computer too much to ask for these days? Four contenders are put through their paces in search for the ultimate in mobile computing.
- By Brian Komar
- May 01, 2003
I recently bought a Tablet PC running Windows XP Tablet PC Edition. Many
of my friends think it was the “cool” factor, but I’ve found it to be
an indispensable tool in my day-to-day business practices.
Why I Was Looking
The whole process started when—after two years of almost weekly trips to
client sites, conferences and teaching engagements—my shoulder cried out
for a lighter laptop.
Each laptop I’ve purchased has become progressively
lighter. I’ve moved from various Dell and Compaq laptops to a Toshiba
Tecra 8000 to, finally, an IBM ThinkPad T22. Although the ThinkPad weighs
in at more than five pounds, I still found it too large for travel. I
started to research ultralight laptops to determine which ones had the
basic capabilities I desired, while not giving up too much power.
While at the Microsoft campus last October, I started to hear about these
new Tablet PCs. At first, I was skeptical as to what benefit a Tablet
PC would have over my current laptop or the ultralights I was investigating.
To make my decision, I started an exhaustive research project.
So What Is a Tablet PC?
A Tablet PC provides the use of digital ink, allowing a user to write
information on the computer’s screen. The difference between digital ink
and previous, pen-based computing solutions is that the ink can be left
as ink. Rather than immediately converting the ink to text, as with a
Personal Data Assistant (PDA), you can leave the ink in its written format
as shown in Figure 1.
This doesn’t mean you must leave it as ink, as the handwriting recognition
is much easier to work with than a PDA. Rather than converting each individual
character, words and phrases are recognized and confirmed, as shown in
To be officially considered a Tablet PC, a hardware device must meet
Microsoft’s Windows XP Tablet PC Edition hardware requirements. These
requirements are the minimum feature set and functionality required by
Microsoft for Tablet PCs. They include the following:
Support for Landscape and Portrait Display Modes
Most applications are intended to operate in landscape mode, but when you
start taking notes with a Tablet PC, you may be inclined to hold the Tablet
PC in portrait mode, like a journal. Therefore, applications intended to
operate on the Tablet PC should run in both landscape and portrait modes.
For example, when I edit Word documents or read Acrobat files, I find it
more comfortable to operate the Tablet PC in portrait mode.
If a Tablet PC operates without a keyboard, the Tablet PC must provide a
hardware solution for generating the Ctrl-Alt-Delete combination. This is
also required for convertible Tablet PCs when the screen is configured to
operate in a slate mode.
When the stylus tip is held within 5 millimeters of the writing surface,
the location of the stylus in relation to the display must be reported accurately.
To ensure accurate coordinate information, the stylus location should be
updated at least 100 times per second and use a resolution that’s at least
five times greater than the pixel density of the screen. If the stylus touches
the screen, the cursor must be placed within 3 millimeters of the point
The Tablet PC must be able to recover from standby mode in five seconds
or less. In addition, a fully charged computer in standby mode must be
able to remain in standby mode without recharging for at least 72 hours.
Interaction With a Docking Station
If a Tablet PC provides a docking station, the Tablet PC must allow for
docking and undocking with notification. In addition, enumeration of devices
must take place automatically and not cause system instability.
No Dependencies on Legacy Hardware
You won’t find a keyboard or mouse port on a Tablet PC. These are now
considered legacy hardware. Instead, you’ll find USB 1.1, USB 2.0, FireWire
and Bluetooth support.
$1,899 to $2,199
Fujitsu Stylistic ST4000
Starting at $2,099
$2,299 to $2,499
Types of Tablet PCs
There are two general categories of Tablet PCs: convertibles and slates.
A convertible Tablet PC looks like a standard notebook, until you swivel
the screen, converting the computer into a Tablet PC. The convertible
provides you the best of both worlds: You can use the computer like a
standard laptop for writing reports and performing day-to-day work and,
by rotating the screen, you can use the Tablet PC as an ink-based device.
A slate Tablet PC doesn’t have an attached keyboard. Instead, pen-based
input is the default method for the computer. A keyboard may be used by
docking the Tablet PC into a docking station or keyboard attachment.
Note: In some cases, it’s difficult
to categorize a Tablet PC. For example, the Compaq T1000 is a convertible
PC, in that it ships with a keyboard; but it also can be considered a
slate, because you can detach the monitor from the keyboard and use it
as a pen-based device.
What’s out There?
At the time I was looking into purchasing a new laptop, there were four
Tablet PCs available:
Acer TravelMate C100
Fujitsu Stylistic ST4000
Toshiba Portégé 3500
I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to test each of these Tablet
PCs before making my purchase, and I’m extremely grateful to Jeff Lowe of
Microsoft Malaysia for giving me the opportunity.
Note: This article doesn’t cover
some of the newer Tablet PCs available on the market. These include the
ViewSonic Tablet PC V1100, the Motion M1200 and the Gateway Tablet PC.
Acer TravelMate C100
This was the first Tablet PC I used. The convertible TravelMate provides
the ability to type on a normal laptop keyboard or to flip the screen and
use it in slate mode. (See Figure 3 for model.)
The TravelMate had several features going for it. Among the best was
the inclusion of a smart-card slot, the low weight of the unit and two
batteries included in the higher-end offering. Although the keyboard was
a bit smaller than my ThinkPad’s, it didn’t take long to adjust to the
The Compaq TC1000 is the best of both worlds. It comes with a keyboard
to which the monitor can attach, providing a laptop-like setup. Alternatively,
the monitor can be detached from the keyboard and used as a slate PC.
At first, I was impressed with the Compaq PC, especially with the ability
to detach the screen from the keyboard. The screen was extremely light
and still included all the necessary ports for me to present my materials
at seminars. It wasn’t until I started to use the computer as a normal
laptop that I was disappointed.
I found that the placement of the keyboard so close to the edge of the
unit made it uncomfortable to type. With the amount of work I do on airplanes,
this was a huge deficiency. Another issue with the Compaq is that the
stylus requires a AAAA battery. (See Figure 4 for model.)
Fujitsu Stylistic ST4000
The slate-style Fujitsu Stylistic ST4000 is intended for pen-based computing,
rather than standard computer input. The graphics of the Fujitsu were
the best of the evaluated PCs.
If you’re looking to acquire a Tablet PC for pen-based input, the Fujitsu
is your best choice. If you want to use the Fujitsu as a standard computer,
you can purchase the optional docking bay and USB keyboard.
For myself, the thought of having to haul around a docking station and
USB keyboard to get work done wasn’t a feature but a detriment. Remember
that my goal was to reduce the weight of computing equipment I had to
take on the road. (See Figure 5 for model.)
Toshiba Portégé 3500
The Toshiba Tablet PC is the closest thing to a regular laptop. The Portégé
3500 is a full-size laptop whose screen you can flip, providing a slate
device for ink input. The Portégé is the most powerful of this bunch.
With this computer, I could meet all of my goals except for one: It weighs
as much as my ThinkPad. If I was in the market to replace my ThinkPad,
I’d have considered the Toshiba; in my case, I was looking for a lightweight
traveling computer, and the weight was just too much. (See Figure 6 for
Tablet PC Comparison
|Mobile Pentium III, 800MHz
||Transmeta Crusoe 5800, 1GHz
||10.4-inch, TFT LCD, 1024x768
||10.4-inch color TFT XGA, 1024x768
|Hard disk space
||2 x USB 1.1 and 1 FireWire
||6 x USB 2.0
||Built-in smart-card readers;
good typing ergonomics. Can handle wireless. Can do smart-card
logon. Tablet Mode ink input.
||Detachable screen. Can handle
wireless. Can run VMware. Tablet Mode ink input.
Tablet PC Comparison
10.4-inch XGA TFT, 1024x768
12.1-inch XGA TFT, 1024x768
Hard disk space
2 x USB 1.1 and 1 FireWire
2 x USB 2.0
Cool pen mounting
on screen; best display of the bunch. Can handle wireless.
Tablet Mode ink input.
Cool pen mounting
on screen; good typing ergonomics. Best processor of
the bunch. Can handle wireless; can run VMware. Tablet
Mode ink input.
My Tablet PC in the Real World
There are several ways the Tablet PC has increased my productivity:
As a consultant, I’m in many client meetings. Microsoft’s Windows Journal
application (see “Tablet PC Free Tools”) lets me use the Tablet PC as
a writing pad for notes during those meetings.
Rather than use notepads, binders and so on, I use the Journal application
to record all meeting notes, writing directly on the screen. While note
taking isn’t the sexiest feature, what I can do with the notes is very
cool. First, I find that documents can get quite large if I’m in an all-day
meeting, like a recent design meeting in which I ended up with more than
16 pages of documentation.
The big benefit is that I can easily search through the text. Now, this
may sound like the same thing you can do in a Word document, but the bonus
is that I can search for specific words without converting the digital
ink to text. For example, in the design meeting, I recorded the design
requirements for where to publish Certificate Revocation Lists (CRLs).
As shown in Figure 7, I was able to search my notes for the word “Web”
to find the notes referencing the Web publication point.
I can also convert the ink to text, but sometimes my handwriting leaves
much to be desired. The good news is that I normally use my notes for
reference as I work on other documents. I do occasionally convert the
ink to text, but I’ve found those occasions few and far between—and that’s
when the Text Correction feature comes in handy.
A second usage is reviewing other consultants’ work or reviewing white
papers as I research client solutions. There are two ways to insert comments
for future research with digital ink.
The first is putting ink comments into the document. An ink comment looks
much like a normal typed comment, except that the text of the message
is saved in a digital ink format.
As you can see to the right side of Figure 8, the problem is that the
comment is always in the margin; if I’m reviewing a document with tracked
changes, the ink comments gets lost within the other text in the margin.
What I find more useful is to import the document into the Journal. The
importing process actually prints the Word document (or any other document,
for that matter) to the Journal Note Writer. This produces a journal page
that uses the previous document as the background image. This allows me
to make changes directly on the page, much like writing on a piece of
paper. As shown in Figure 9, I can then use the Journal application to
write comments and highlight important text during my review.
In many ways, I prefer this method, as it’s just like working with a
printed copy of the document. If I want to send my work to non-Tablet
PC users for review, they can simply download the Windows Journal Viewer
Note: Wait until you see Microsoft
Office 2003. I loaded beta 2 recently, and the new version of Office is
extremely Tablet PC-friendly. I no longer have to import a Word document
into the Journal to use digital ink. I only have to switch to the Ink
Annotation tool, and I can write my comments directly into the Word document.
When I speak at conferences or arrange consulting engagements, contracts
are sent to me by fax or in an Adobe Acrobat file. With my Tablet PC,
I can sign the contracts in my version of Adobe Acrobat and send the completed
documents to the booking company. Via this method, I can then e-mail or
fax the completed contract back to the requestor without having to print
out versions of the contract.
Some of you may have caught one of my technical presentations at Microsoft’s
Tech Ed or MCP Magazine’s TechMentor conference. Previously, I’d always
ask for a whiteboard or flip chart to diagram answers to audience questions.
With the Tablet PC and PowerPoint, I’m able to directly write my comments
into the PowerPoint presentation. As seen in Figure 10, I was able to
stress which Certification Authorities (CAs) should be removed from the
network (offline) and which CAs should remain connected to the network
at all times (online).
Not only can I record notes directly into the presentation, I can also
save the notes into the PowerPoint presentation for future conferences.
PC Free Tools
To increase the acceptance and use of
Tablet PCs, Microsoft provides several free downloads
for Tablet PC-aware applications. These tools allow
applications to take advantage of Tablet PC features
such as digital ink and the stylus. The downloads for
the Tablet PC are available at www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/tabletpc/downloads/
Journal is included in the base install of Windows
Tablet PC version. The Journal is the most-used application
when in writing in digital ink. It allows you to take
notes, draw diagrams and write information directly
into the Tablet PC.
The Journal provides several abilities beyond just
recording written input, including:
- Converting ink to text
- Converting graphics to common shapes such as circles,
rectangles and lines
- Selecting background “paper” such as lined paper,
graph paper and task pads
Unlike previous PDA devices, you’re not forced to convert
digital ink into text. In fact, I prefer leaving my
meeting notes in ink format. That way I can review them
during consulting engagements for later reports. I don’t
have to wait for a handwriting-recognition process to
determine what the heck I was trying to write.
Note: The download site also
provides Windows Journal Viewer 1.5, allowing non-Tablet
PC computers to read journal files.
Office XP Pack for Tablet PC
XP Pack for Tablet PC provides Office XP functionality,
allowing digital ink usage with Office XP applications.
In Word, you can use ink comments. You can also write
notes or comments, as well as highlight and edit text.
When I’m speaking at conferences, I can take advantage
of digital ink to modify slides as I speak. For example,
if someone asks me how a network diagram may differ
if design requirements are modified, I can quickly sketch
the changes to the network on the PowerPoint slide.
I also have the option saving the digital ink in the
PowerPoint presentation for future presentations.
As with Word, I can add ink comments to Excel spreadsheets.
I find this most useful when reviewing spreadsheets
or documents using the Tablet PC as a slate. I can simply
write my comments on the screen, rather than having
to switch to the keyboard to input a comment.
Outlook really takes advantage of digital ink. I can
write an entire message in my own handwriting and send
it to a recipient. The actual e-mail message is saved
as a JPG and sent to the recipient, preserving my actual
handwriting rather than an impersonal, typed message.
Grafigo is the digital equivalent of a whiteboard,
but it’s a whiteboard that makes your circles rounder
and your squares squarer. When creating graphics or
illustrations in Grafigo, each drawn item is treated
as an object. This allows you to drag the object to
another location on the screen. In addition, if you
want to add annotations, Grafigo can convert your digital
ink writing into text, allowing you to review the translation
in a text box.
One of the great features of Grafigo is the ability
to import an existing file as an underlay. Much like
adding a graphic file as a watermark to a page, you
can add an existing document as an underlay and then
add comments and modification with digital ink over
the original document.
Franklin Covey TabletPlanner
While I do use the Outlook Calendar feature to manage
meetings, appointments and travel schedules, the Franklin
Covey TabletPlanner integrates with Exchange and
allows me to do stylus-based schedule modification.
The TabletPlanner fully integrates with your Outlook
schedule, as long as Exchange provides Outlook Web Access
to your e-mail store. HTTP is used to sync any changes
between the two systems.
This was an unexpected bonus with my Tablet PC. I found
that—while working on Microsoft’s Windows
Security Resource Kit—I could insert pen-based
comments and notations directly into an Adobe
PDF file. This allowed me to address any final comments
from my editor directly in the PDF file, rather than
having to maintain a separate document of additional
revisions before sending the book to press.
So, Happy Together?
You bet. I find that even though I didn’t intend the Tablet PC to replace
my ThinkPad as my workhorse laptop, it has. Every week, I find new ways
to use it. I’m glad I purchased a hybrid Tablet PC, as I still use the
normal laptop input more than 50 percent of the time. The Acer TravelMate
has become my primary laptop, and I’m planning to look into the voice
The only TravelMate issue I had was the insufficient memory to run VMware.
I solved this problem in two ways. First, I run virtual machines by running
them on a separate computer, my Cappuccino TX3 PC, www. cappuccinopc.com,
one of the smallest computers on the market. By connecting my Tablet PC
to the Cappuccino with a FireWire cable, I’m able to view and work with
the virtual machines through the Remote Desktop Client. This configuration
doesn’t require a monitor, keyboard or mouse for the Cappuccino PC.
I’ve also upgraded my home server to run VMware GSX server. This allows
me to connect remotely to my home server for more extensive VMware simulation
networks by using the VMware Remote Console client. The virtual machines
all execute on my dual 933Mhz computer at home, and only the screen and
response information is sent to my laptop on the road.
You’d have quite a fight on your hands if you attempted to take away
my Tablet PC. The biggest change from previous attempts to create pen-based
computing is the ability to just leave ink well enough alone. By not having
allwritten input converted into typed text, the Tablet PC makes writing
on the computer a breeze—and my back is a lot happier with the lighter
Brian Komar is the owner and principal consultant for Komar Consulting Inc., a consulting firm specializing in network security and Public Key Infrastructure design. He’s a frequent speaker at Microsoft TechEd and Microsoft Certified Professional Magazine’s TechMentor conferences. His latest book is Microsoft Windows Security Resource Kit (Microsoft Press).