Spot the difference

2nd January 2004 at 00:00
Is reviewing Tablet PCs like reviewing ballpoint pens - undistinguished and indistinguishable? Not according to Jack Kenny and Merlin John

Microsoft has set down the basic outline of the Tablet PC platform and developers are free to come up with variations. The operating system for them all is Windows XP Professional Tablet Edition, a superset of the standard XP Pro. One part of this is a section called Microsoft Journal, which is for note taking. Everything you write in Journal is stored as graphics - called digital ink - unless you ask the machine to convert what you have written into text. This works well. You cannot train the machine to recognise your writing, but what the program does is encourage you to be neater when you write, so that the recognition improves. Teachers have already reported that some children improve their handwriting in order to please the machine!

The first thing that you notice when you look at a few Tablet PCs is not the similarities, but the differences. You start to admire the ingenuity of designers who can get so many variations on the same theme. All these machines have extras that you can add, such as docking stations, extra drives and carry cases.

Fujitsu-Siemens Lifebook T Series

The Fujitsu-Siemens Lifebook T Series calls itself a Convertible Notebook.

It looks like a notebook when you open it up. It has a lid and screen that swings back. In front of you is the keyboard. What is not immediately apparent is that you can swivel the lidscreen and then lie it back over the keyboard to make the Tablet. The best of both worlds? There are disadvantages. This is heavier than some and is bulkier when it is acting as a tablet.

The screen is good and there is a large writing area. Writing on the surface of the screen is pleasant - the stylus glides smoothly across the surface. The plus is that you can turn it into a notebook with ease and back into a Tablet without adding bits on to it. For some, the weight will be a deterrent. Many are still wedded to the lightness of a paper notebook and I think that the perfect Tablet is going to have to move in that direction.

Many teachers will find this attractive. As a laptop, it is good for preparing work. It could, as a Tablet, be used in conjunction with a projector in the lesson. That is if you want to hand your precious machine around so pupils can scrawl comments and interact.

RM Tablet PC

RM has taken these seriously from the start. And the RM Tablet PC has to be taken seriously. RM's basic model for students was one of the first on the market. The new Intel Centrino-based machine aimed at teachers captivates right from the start. It is stylish, light and with a good screen size. It is a machine that you want to use and want to be seen with. I can safely say that I have never thought any RM product was cool - worthy, robust, well thought out, perhaps, but definitely not cool. However, this is so cool it is almost sub-zero.

The screen size has been increased so that you have almost 12 inches of writeable space. It also comes with a separate keyboard. This Tablet PC turns into a desktop with the free desk stand that inclines it for use with the keyboard or as a writing easel.

One criticism of tablets is that the screens are often difficult to read.

To address this issue, this model has a low-reflection screen coating to reduce glare. There is also a sensor to reduce brightness indoors that turns the screen up to full power when outside to make it more readable.

This also conserves battery life.

A very attractive and unusual feature is the internal tri-mode wireless connection which enables the machine to deal with all the wireless specifications.

Viglen Exaro Tablet PC

Viglen's machine looks good and comes with the smaller 10.4-inch screen. At pound;499, making it the cheapest tablet for schools, it is bound to attract attention. At that price people will be looking for snags. The main one is the processor, the Transmeta, which is not as new as the Centrino.

Viglen claims that battery life is around three hours, that probably means that a re-charge will be necessary to get it through the day.

The stylus is important and this one has a very small diameter, rather like one of those pencils that slips into the spine of a small notebook. It is OK for writing a sentence, but you would not want to use it for any length of time. This is a pity because in all other respects this is a very good machine at a very good price.

I did have problems with a rather convoluted registration process. The machine does not recognise the stylus immediately and I had to ring Viglen support to get through the process. They assured me that this was the first call on that subject, obviously implying that it was my ineptitude.

By going into the extras you will be able to build up a docking station with CD drive (pound;75), superior stylus (pound;15) and a mini keyboard (pound;12). You will, of course, need software! With all that you have a workstation that you can lift off and take anywhere. And at a great price!

Motion M1200

Motion Computing's M1200 Tablet PC is an upmarket machine that the company sells into education through Ergo Computing. It is aimed at higher education rather than schools but it could interest teachers and anyone who does demanding video work because of its expandability (memory can be increased up to 1Gb). It is extremely well designed, has a large (12.1-inch) screen and is robust (with a magnesium alloy case and frame) which means that it is also heavyish weighing in at 3lb. Its Centrino technology (Pentium 900MHz processor), coupled with the 504Mb of memory of the review machine, meant that it could handle most tasks with ease and speed. It connects to networks via its modem, ethernet and wireless.

However, there is no infrared or bluetooth capability. In fact, its key features of screen size and durable frame have now been matched by RM's latest offering which also features infrared connectivity for users who want to synch palmtop devices and phones.

Altogether the Motion is enjoyable to use, a class act in fact, particularly the accessories, which include a lightweight clip-on cover (pound;80) that doubles as stand and keyboard, and a desktop docking station that swivels from horizontal to vertical viewing modes.

NEC T400

For anyone happy to compromise performance and functions for size and weight - namely mobility - the NEC T400 is an extremely tempting proposition. Weighing in at 2.24lb (1.015kg) and just over half an inch (15mm) thick, with a 10.4-inch screen it really is a tremendous design achievement. Your briefcase or rucksack certainly doesn't become unbearable with the T400 unless you make up for what you have gained with extra paperwork or books - in fact there were a few panicky moments when I was not sure it had been packed away. And while it may not be as nippy as its rivals, it did most of the things you would expect from a Tablet PC.

The only downsides for a user on the move is the lack of an on-board modem for telephone connection and the small size of the pen - just a little too small for me, although a larger one came with it. The lack of a firewire connector rules out serious digital video editing. Wireless networking was straightforward and worked well, helped by the presence of a useful onoff switch to save battery life which worked out at around two hours.

The T400 comes with a slight but useful stand for quick connection to a keyboard for desktop use. Its own add-on keyboard is well designed and includes built-in trackerball, and there is also a sleek, compact CD-Rom drive. More appealing for a teacher or educationist than for classroom use, the T400 is attractive for someone with a keen yearning for mobility.

Fujitsu-Siemens Lifebook T 3010

Convertible notebookTablet PC with 40 or 60Gb hard disk, 12.1 inch TFT,

USB 2, external CD-Rom or DVDCD-RW, Centrino processor (1.4GHz), modem and

wireless networking.

Weight: 4lb 1oz

Battery running time: up to 4 hours.

Price: pound;1,469 (60Gb), pound;1,339 (40Gb)

Fujitsu-Siemens Stand C46

Links Education

Tel: 01908 646337

Fitness for purpose *****

Ease of use ****

Design ****

Value for money ***

RM Tablet PC

Tablet PC with 30 or 60Gb hard drive, 12.1-inch TFT screen, USB 2,

firewire, external CD Rom or DVDCD-RW, 900MHz processor with Centrino

Modem and wireless networking.

Weight: 3lb 4oz

Battery running time: up to 4 hours.

Price: pound;999

RM X10

Tel:08709 086969 (primary)

Tel: 08709 086868 (secondary)

Fitness for purpose *****

Ease of use ****

Design *****

Value for money *****

Viglen Exaro Tablet PC

Tablet PC with 20Gb, 10.4-inch TFT screen, USB 2, Firewire, Transmeta

Crusoe processor (929MHz), modem and wireless networking.

Weight: 3lb 3oz

Battery running time up to 3 hours

Price: pound;799 (pound;499 for BETT only)

Viglen F60

Tel: 020 8758 7000

Fitness for purpose ****

Ease of use ****

Design ***

Value for money *****

Motion M1200

Tablet PC with Pentium M processor (Centrino, 1Ghz), 256MB of memory, 20GB

hard disc, with clip-on cover, stand and keyboard.

Price: pound;1,195 (model with Pentium III processor, 933Mhz, pound;


Ergo Computing H30

Tel: 0115 914 4144

Fitness for purpose ****

Ease of use ****

Design *****

Value for money ****

NEC T400

Tablet PC with Pentium III processor (933MHz), 256Mb memory, 20Gb hard

disc, 10.4-inch screen, Ethernet, wireless networking, no modem, 3 USB (2)

connections, CompactFlash card slot (no PC card slot), desktop stand and

USB keyboard.

Price: pound;1,099

NEC (not at BETT this year)

Tel: 0870 010 6322

Fitness for purpose ****

Ease of use ****

Design *****

Value for money ****

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