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Double trouble?

With the unveiling of Toshiba's prototype notebooktablet PC. George Cole wonders whether multi-function products are all they're cracked up to be?

I own a very nice Swiss Army knife, but do you know what? The only time I ever take it out of the drawer is to show my friends its impressive array of blades, scissors and corkscrew. But if I want to cut something, I use a pair of scissors; if I want to open a bottle of wine, I reach for a proper corkscrew. I suppose if I went camping I might take along my Swiss Army knife, but I somehow doubt it. We now live in a multi-function product age, where devices can often do more than one thing. Mobile phones, for example, can double up as digital cameras or digital music players, but still most people prefer to use a dedicated digital camera for taking snaps or a portable music player for listening to music on the move.

It's no surprise to find that in the ICT world, multi-function devices are on offer. Toshiba, for example, developed the Portege 3500, which on the face of it looked like a standard notebook computer. But by rotating the 12-inch screen on a special hinge, it transformed into a tablet PC.

Impressive stuff, but I wonder how many people took advantage of this two-in-one PC? Whatever the answer, Toshiba now plans to go one step further following the display of an intriguing prototype recently unveiled by the company.

At first glance, the prototype looked like a standard Toshiba Dynabook laptop, but that's where the similarity ended, because on this model the screen detached from the main unit and could be used independently like a Tablet PC. The prototype 12.1-inch LCD display was just 18mm thick and weighed 530 grams and could be operated with a stylus. It communicated with the main "base station" via a wireless 802.11b link. However, don't rush out to try and buy one yet, because Toshiba admits that further work needs to be done before we see a commercial product. For example, the company wants to make the screen thinner and lighter and is considering offering a range of screen sizes.

Battery life is also an issue. The prototype uses lithium-ion batteries which only provide one hour's operating time and Toshiba wants to extend this to two or three hours. The company adds that, in addition to a stylus, the portable screen can also be operated by a wireless keyboard. There are also plans to incorporate more advanced wireless technologies into the computer, such as the faster 802.11g and Ultra Wide Band technology, which could offer even faster data transfer speeds. Toshiba says it will be several years before a commercial product appears on the market.

On the face of it, this could be a great development for schools, with one machine able to do the job of two computers. But while there is much to get excited about, the idea of a combined notebook computer and wireless tablet PC, there is also room for caution. The first question for schools will be the price - very often multi-function products come with a hefty price premium and it may be more cost-effective and flexible to buy a dedicated laptop and a separate tablet PC. The second question is about compromise.

All too often, multi-function products involve compromising on features and flexibility. For example, in addition to offering much higher picture quality, my digital camera has many more features than the digital camera on my mobile phone.

What most of us want from a product is versatility and that is why the computer has become such a popular device in homes, schools and offices. A computer lets you word-process documents, access databases, explore the internet, send and receive emails, store digital images, play digital music, run DVDs, edit digital video, play games and much more. But even then, I would still rather use a dedicated fax machine to send a document than scan it first and then send it from my computer.

Over the next few years, we'll see more and more prototypes like Toshiba's combined notebook and wireless tablet PC and many of them will doubtless receive lots of news coverage. But the secret is to look beyond the hype.

Just because technology lets you do things, doesn't mean you'd want to do them in everyday life. To take another example, some years back Sony launched a digital camera with a built-in printer. The concept sounded great - you could take your digital camera out in the field, shoot some images and get instant print-outs. But this digital version of the Polaroid camera flopped because the camera was bulky and the print-outs were not as good as those you got from a dedicated printer. Whether Toshiba's notebooktablet PC product suffers the same fate (assuming we ever see it launched), remains to be seen, but before most schools part with any cash, it's going to have to deliver all it promises, and probably a bit more as well.

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