Take the tablets

The first generation of stylus-based computers flopped but, as George Cole finds out, the new breed of tablet PCs have much more to offer

Ten years ago, pen computing was all the rage. It seemed that everyone and their dog was launching pen-based computers that replaced a keyboard and mouse with a stylus and handwriting recognition software. But in this case, the mouse proved to be mightier than the pen, because pen-based computers were a big flop. The handwriting recognition software offered by these devices was at best poor and at worst, unusable. Although some handheld computers and personal digital assistants (PDAs) offer some form of pen interface, for the vast majority of computer users, the keyboard and mouse dominate.

But if you thought that was the end of pen computing, then think again, because this autumn sees the launch of a new generation of computers that aim to combine pen, paper and PC.

The "tablet" PC is a concept being championed by Microsoft, and the company describes it as the next step for laptop computers. Put simply, a tablet PC is a laptop without a keyboard. That said, there will be different types of tablet PCs, from clam-shell devices to A4-sized tablets. Tablet PCs use an operating system called Windows XP Tablet Edition, which Microsoft describes as a superset of Windows XP. Many handheld PCs use the Windows CE operating system, which is a cut-down version of Windows. This means you can't run full-blown Windows programs and applications on a Windows CE device. But Windows XP Tablet Edition offers all the features you would expect on a Windows desktop or laptop computer, plus a few extra bells and whistles.

The latter includes Ink, a handwriting recognition system. Traditionally, using a handwriting recognition system has meant teaching a computer to learn your handwriting (tedious), using special characters instead of normal letters (confusing) or writing very slowly in block characters (frustrating). But Ink works in a different way. It allows you to write normally and uses a built-in library of hand movements or gestures to recognise the letters you're writing.

I tested the system on a prototype tablet PC from RM (Viglen and TIME have versions too). This product, due out around November, is an A4-sized device with a large LCD screen. Writing "hello Dave and Fiona" produced "Cora Flora" on the tablet PC, but anyone who has the misfortune of deciphering my left-handed scrawl will testify that I have the world's worst handwriting.

Other people using RM's tablet PC had a much better response. Microsoft claims that its handwriting recognition system is around 95 per cent accurate. I'm not sure I'd agree with that figure, but the Ink system is the best handwriting recognition system I've seen. For example, you can rest your hand on the screen while writing (as you would on an ordinary paper pad) and the system is unaffected. And there's more. You can also use Ink to make annotations, draw maps or make sketches, all of which can be emailed or saved. You can even search for saved Ink documents by entering a key word too. The tablet PC can also be used in landscape or portrait mode, and the "paper" can be blank, lined or square.

Dave Leach, head of RM's emerging technologies team, says that beneath his company's tablet PC is a machine with a fast processor, 128Mb of RAM memory and a 10Gb hard drive. The tablet PC also has the usual PC connecting sockets and can include wireless technology.

Leach has produced a list of 10 possible uses for a tablet PC and while some of them are questionable (I can't see tablet PCs replacing books or desktop PCs for example) several are compelling. One is using a tablet PC for whole class teaching and replacing an interactive white board with a tablet PC and projector. Not only is this likely to be cheaper (RM says its first tablet PC will cost around pound;700-pound;800), but teachers will be able to face the class when writing notes, and the tablet PC could be passed around the class, allowing students to make their own annotations. Tablet PCs would also be great for fieldwork, registration and administration tasks, and even marking homework, provided it was supplied by pupils in electronic form.

Using a tablet PC raises questions about robustness and battery life. The RM prototype I used felt rugged and the large LCD screen seemed tough. That said, like any computer, it's not a good idea to drop a tablet PC. Battery life will depend on the applications you're using, but RM says it will typically be around three to four hours. In the 10 years since pen-based computers arrived, computer technology has moved on significantly and so have the things we want and expect our computers to be able to do. On the evidence so far, the tablet PC stands a good chance of finding a place in the increasingly crowded PC market.

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