Looking at RM's Tablet PC, we have the most striking - and soon to be much-discussed - computer for schools. It's a take-anywhere, use-anywhere laptop that, by ditching keyboard and mouse, offers an eminently more natural way to use a machine - you write on its screen and tap buttons with a pen-like stylus.
In the few days I've had this tablet PC, it has proved to be quite a conversation piece.
People ask: "What's that?"
And I reply: "It's a computer with a wireless internet connection. You don't have to type. See."
To demonstrate, I write in Windows Journal, a word processor derivative that even has blue feint lines to write on. In a click or two I've converted my scrawl to "proper" text and the show's over. My audience is usually surprised if not extremely impressed.
Having done this many times, my performance is now really slick. A colleague who wrote more neatly than I had even better results. A sceptic who cared not one jot, did much worse. "Ha, there you are," he said. We did, however, agree to prefer a Montblanc pen and paper, but for a similar price it could not highlight grammatical errors, suggest other words or, for that matter, do email.
The Tablet PC may divide the world into youthful, screen-tapping computer users and old boys and girls who can't get away from the mouse and keyboard. On the other hand, picture yourself holding this like a clipboard, deleting emails, marking a register or reading off a list. And connected to a projector (Toshiba now have a wireless one) you're facing the class, demonstrating software and performing on the big screen.
This model came with Easiteach Studio, RM's whiteboard software, so you could make nice, visual exercises with on-screen sorting and animating. If you've a wireless access point - an inexpensive box that plugs into your network - you're on the internet at school in a way that teachers need to be.
The possible scenarios are endless. In one you're recording things in fieldwork or PE and in another you've wheeled a set of tablet PCs into class and set the pupils to work. Unusually for computer work, they can write and store their unconverted script. In return you can mark your pupils' work in your best, red-ink style thanks to a feature that allows you to add highlighting and handwritten comment. This also works well to personalise emails and do much more.
Inside the unit is not ersatz software like Windows CE, but fully fledged Windows XP in a special Tablet Edition. There's an Intel chip, a 20 gigabyte or so hard disk and Office. In short, it runs anything you are used to on a laptop - and although there's a Celeron processor inside, it was as nippy as anything.
At pound;799 the RM Tablet PC is a close match for a regular laptop. Both break when dropped, but then so has my phone and MiniDisk. And since the tablet unit has an integral screen without hinge or catch, I'd wager more on this surviving. A pre-production unit is all we had, so battery life is an estimated three hours. Like any laptop it gets pretty warm over time, which in this huggable form, you do notice.
As a presenter's PC, it offers serious competition to electronic whiteboards that tie teachers to the wall, throw shadows on a screen and are, frankly, fussed with idiosyncrasy. Here the tablet PC really shines through, making it an every-teacher tool.
If anything's amiss it's that this is only Microsoft's second stab at pen-based computing, so it's feeling part done - when a minor system hiccup asks for an F1 key you may puzzle over what to do. What slows progress is that some tap areas are so tiny they're hard to hit, windows land over crucial buttons and much in Windows XP is a tiring extra click away. Some "really" made-for tablet PC software would make the difference, but as this is no hard-coded pocket organiser, much could change with a helpful download patch. You will, however, see trained users fly through this.
Time and persistence will surely make converts and the day when people stop saying: "What's that?" is nigh.
RM Tablet PC
Fitness for purpose ****
Ease of use ****
Value for money ****
RM, New Mill House, 183 Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxfordshire OX14 4SE
Tel: 08709 086700
Student Tablet PC
Price: pound;799 with 733MHz mobile Celeron, 15 pin mini-VGA out
Teacher Tablet PC
Price: pound;929 with 866MHz Pentium III processor.
Ports: PC card, compact flash, IEE1394, fingerprint ID, VGA out
Other features include: 10.1" XGA screen (1024 x 768 TFT), lithium battery, wireless, ethernet, modem, 256Mb memory, 20Gb hard disk, MS Windows XP Pro Tablet Edition, integral speakers and microphone, 2 x USB ports, sound inout
Available from November 7