THE first portable PCs revolutionised the use of computers in schools. The devices were no longer tied to the desktop but could be used almost anywhere around school - you could even go outdoors. Now, supporters of a new type of portable computer - the Tablet PC - believe that it will make a similar impact on teaching and learning. A Tablet PC not only looks different from a laptop, but it's also operated differently.Instead of a keyboard or mouse, Tablet PCs users have a digital stylus or electronic pen, so that writing or drawing replaces typing as a means to enter text, data and graphics.
This is a boon for anyone with poor or moderate typing skills, and allows people to operate computers in a more natural way.
Tablet PCs come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from clamshell designs to hybrid models that can also double up as laptop computers. But the most common type is the size of an A4 writing pad with a large LCD screen that acts as a display device and "electronic paper", which you can write on.
Inside, the Tablet PC is similar to a conventional computer. It has a fast processor, large hard drive and lots of memory. It also uses a special version of the Windows XP operating system, Windows XP Tablet Edition. Many hand-held PCs use a cut-down version of Windows, so you cannot use standard programs. But Windows XP Tablet Edition allows standard Windows programs to run on Tablet PCs. It is also possible to connect a mouse, keyboard, CDDVD-ROM drive and other add-ons if you wish.
Most models are also designed to connect to a school network either by a standard high-speed Ethernet wired connection, a dial-up modem or a wireless system called WiFi. Tablet PCs use mains or battery power, with batteries lasting four to six hours.
One of the smartest features on the Tablet PC is digital ink. This lets users write on an LCD screen in the same way they would write on paper.
There's no need to train a Tablet PC to "learn" your handwriting style, nor do you have to write slowly or in block capitals. A clever handwriting recognition system "understands" what you are writing or drawing and displays it on-screen.
The system is not 100 per cent perfect, but it is highly accurate. The digital ink stores all text or graphics as data, which can be saved as a normal file and searched for when stored on the hard drive. Text or graphics can also be pasted into other programs.
It all sounds impressive, but what would you want to use a Tablet PC for? As described earlier, it makes computing less threatening and so could encourage more pupils (and some teachers) to use ICT in the lessons.
A Tablet PC could be used with a data projector and form a low-cost alternative to an interactive whiteboard. It could also be used as a device for collecting data on a field trip, as an electronic registration system, and for individual, group or whole class teaching - it's a versatile beast.
David Leach, Research Machines' business manager for emerging technology, says: "There's a lot of interest in the special-needs sector because touch-screen devices can be expensive. We're working with Inclusive Technology on a number of Tablet PC applications for special needs."
Prices vary from around pound;800-pound;1,300, depending on the model type and specification, so shop around. The good news is that more manufacturers now market Tablet PCs (see box) so prices are becoming even more competitive.
Investing in any new technology is always a risk, but there is much to be optimistic about in the prospects for the Tablet PC. Furthermore, as David Leach explains: "It's low-risk because you can simply add a keyboard and mouse, and you've got yourself a laptop."
TABLET PC SELLERS INCLUDE
Acer Travel Mate C100
ST4110: www.fujitsu-siemens. co.uk
Time Education Tablet PC
Toshiba Portaege 3500
Stand K30 U54