Two and a half years after Microsoft and its hardware partners launched the innovative Tablet PC platform, sales have been less than spectacular. Several factors have contributed to this lack of mainstream success. First, the initial generation of Tablet PC hardware was overpriced, often far above that of equivalent notebook computers. Second, the initial generation of Tablet PC hardware was lackluster: Predating the mobile-savvy Pentium M processor and Centrino chipset, the first Tablet PCs used underpowered Pentium III processors and didn't get great battery life. Third, the first generation Tablet PCs only tackled the thin and light market: Users wanting beefier or more powerful machines were out of luck. And finally, Microsoft's hardware partners didn't exactly do a great job of promoting Tablet PCs: Only 1 million units were sold in the first two years of the devices' existence.

New, less expensive Tablet PCs that first began appearing in 2004 fixed the price issue, and you can now find Tablet PCs in the critical $1000 price range. With the second generation of Tablet PC hardware, featuring Pentium M and Centrino technologies, Microsoft's partners fixed the performance and battery life issues as well. There are also many more Tablet PC choices out there, including high performance units with high resolution screens. And it seems now that Microsoft's hardware partners are even plying more mainstream markets with new Tablet PCs aimed not at niche markets but at normal consumers and business users. A revolution, perhaps.

Curiously--and I write this knowing full well the ignominious reputation of Microsoft software--the one aspect of the Tablet PC platform that has never suffered has been the software. Microsoft's Tablet PC operating system, most notably the most recent version, Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005 (see my review), is excellent and has been since day one. I find it curious that virtually all of the ills associated with the Tablet PC have come not from Microsoft, but from its partners.

Note the word "virtually." Microsoft isn't totally blameless here: According to Acer executives, who have been particularly blunt in their assertions about Microsoft's pricing policies, the software giant priced XP Tablet PC Edition too expensively for PC makers. That drove the cost of Tablet PCs higher and prevented them from moving more quickly into new markets. In mid-2004, just before the release of XP Tablet PC Edition 2005, Microsoft announced that it would lower the cost of the software, as it would later do successfully with XP Media Edition 2005 (see my review), it's other market-specific XP version. Lower prices, coupled with the new OS version, and a new range of more mainstream Tablet PCs, will likely lead to greater penetration of these wonderful devices.

But more is needed. Microsoft--like its partners--needs to work harder to promote the benefits of the Tablet PC to end users. Part of what they need to do includes making the Tablet PC more interesting to mainstream users. On the business side, Microsoft has shipped a Tablet PC-compliant Office 2003 application called OneNote (see my preview), which integrates with the Tablet's pen and digital ink features. And XP Tablet PC Edition, itself, is of course a full-featured superset of XP Professional. For the most part, the enterprise end is covered.

The consumer side, of course, has been lacking. So Microsoft is now shipping a fun and free add-on for Tablet PC users that adds a number of consumer-friendly features and applications to XP Tablet PC Edition 2005. Dubbed the Experience Pack for Tablet PC, this 13.8 MB download is, in many ways, essentially a Plus! Pack focused directly at consumers with Tablet PCs. And from my testing of this package over the past several days, it's pretty clear that this is something all Tablet PC owners are going to want to check out. Here's what you get.

New system features

Some of the features included in the Experience Pack are similar to the Tablet Input Panel (TIP) in that they enhance the base Tablet PC experience and make it more pleasing or useful in some way. I think of these add-ons as system features, because you won't typically run them--or think of them--as standalone applications.

Energy Blue theme

When it first debuted in Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 in October 2005, the Energy Blue user interface theme (Figure) was lauded for its clean, professional look and vibrant colors. Microsoft previously provided this theme to Tablet PC users as a separate download, but it you haven't snagged it yet, it's definitely worth a try. I find this visual style to be more modern looking and cleaner than the default XP style. I just wish it were available for all XP users.

Ink Desktop

Ink Desktop provides a virtual sheet of paper on your XP desktop on which you can write notes or draw sketches (Figure). A small pop-up button slides out to reveal a toolbar with options such as Pen (colors, not styles), Eraser, Delete All, Copy, Settings, and Close (Figure). The Settings option reveals the Ink Desktop Settings dialog, from which you can configure how the Ink Desktop appears (transparent, faded, or styled using a template; the default is Memo) and displays. Some of the templates are quite useful: You can style Ink Desktop as a daily or monthly calendar, a grid, a to-do list, and more (Figure). And if you set the Ink Desktop to appear as transparent, it looks like you're writing directly on the desktop itself, and not inside an Active Desktop-type window.

Overall, Ink Desktop is quite cool, but it could be improved in numerous ways. For example: If you're going to offer calendar and to-do views, how about some integration with Outlook? Wouldn't it be cool to add a calendar item by clicking directly on the calendar on your desktop?

Snipping Tool 2.0

Originally released as a PowerToy for the Tablet PC, the original Snipping Tool was a big hit with users, letting you circle any area of the screen and then copy the encircled image to the clipboard. You could then paste the image into email messages, Word documents, or other documents, and annotate it with your own handwritten notes.

Snipping Tool 2.0 is even more powerful than its predecessor and it features a brand new user interface that places an expanding circular user interface element at the bottom of your screen by default (Figure). By default, Snipping Tool 2.0 works like the original: You enable it, draw a shape over an area of the screen (say a portion of an IE window display a Web page), and then copy that portion of the screen to the clipboard. However, the new version provides additional functionality. If you hover over the Snip icon on the gadget, a new circular area appears on the gadget, providing you with additional choices (Figure). The default snip style is freeform, as before. But you can also snip rectangular areas for a cleaner look, an entire window, or the entire screen. Neat.

Once you've made a selection, you can annotate it with the Snipping Tool's Mark Up tool, which offers various pens, highlighters, and erasers (Figure). Then, you can use a handy Send To option to forward your snip to email, the clipboard, a file, or an editor window (Figure). The latter is interesting: The Snipping Tool actually includes a dedicated editor that provides Tablet PC-friendly tools with which you can edit the snip before sending it along or saving it. As before, snips appear in email or other locations along with the URL from which you snipped, if you used a Web page.

Like the Ink Desktop, the Snipping Tool includes an Options dialog through which you can configure its behavior. Overall, it's an impressive tool that really highlights (no pun intended) some of the unique functionality of a Tablet PC.

New Tablet PC applications

In addition to the aforementioned system features, the Experience Pack for Tablet PC also includes three traditional standalone applications. These applications, as you might expect, largely take advantage of the pen and digital ink features of your Tablet PC in fun ways.

Ink Art

Originally called Art Rage and developed by Ambient Design, Ink Art is a natural paint program that lets you use your Tablet PC and pen as if you were painting on real paper with a brush, pen, pencil, crayon, or other tool. Art Rage was the Grand Prize winner in Microsoft's "Does Your App Think In Ink?" Contest, which concluded in late 2004: The new version features tools so realistic that you'll think you're damaging the screen of your Tablet PC (Figure) with paint or crayons.

I'm no artist, but I could picture people wasting hours of time experimenting with different media, colors, and effects. One of the coolest features is the tracing paper: Import a photograph and then draw or paint "over" it, creating a stunningly artistic creation (Figure). Ink Art is a wonderful and magical application, whether you've explored your artist side or not.

Ink Crossword

Sounding exactly like what it is, Ink Crossword (Figure) provides 12 crossword puzzles and then lets you download more (in packs or individually) if you're a crossword puzzle addict. Some of the downloads are free, while others, like those from Universal Crosswords or USA Today, are fee-based (typically $9.95 to $14.95 for 60 to 100 puzzles).

The individual puzzles (Figure) look exactly like you'd want them to and optionally includes a timer countdown and even a "reveal letter" cheating feature if you're stuck. I won't embarrass myself by explaining how bad I am at these things, but this is certainly a great way to pass time with your Tablet (and yeah, I'm talking to those PC-based Solitaire players I see in airports all the time). In fact, while reviewing the Experience Pack, I lost an hour just completing one of the puzzles (Figure).

Overall, Ink Crossword is a fantastic Tablet PC application, but it has a few problems: The version I tested crashed a few times, and letter recognition could use some work: If you don't add horizontal lines to the tops and bottoms of I's, for example, they're misread as "L's" or even "T's". But not always. And sometimes correct characters are flagged as incorrect, and therefore marked in red. For the most part, however, Ink Crossword is very similar to the paper-based version, though it prompts you when you enter incorrect letters. These are all minor quibbles, assuming they get fixed.

Media Transfer

During the XP Reloaded marketing push of late 2004, Microsoft issued an amazing number of digital media-related upgrades for XP users, including a little understood technology called Windows Media Connect. Essentially a standardized way of communicating the presence of digital media files to non-Windows devices like digital media receivers, Windows Media Connect is an optional software add-on that helps you play PC-based music, photo slideshows, and videos on devices in other rooms in your house.

However, Windows Media Connect could theoretically be used to automatically discover digital media files on other PCs using a Windows-based PC. All you'd need is a software-based Windows Media Connect client. That's what Media Transfer is: A software-based way of finding digital media files and the streaming them or copying them to your Tablet PC. My first complaint about this application is that it "requires" a Tablet PC. There's nothing inherently Tablet PC-specific about this application, aside from the large, pen-friendly buttons, in my opinion. But Microsoft says that Media Transfer came about because of user feedback: Apparently, most Tablet PC users don't use a Tablet PC as their main computer and were asking for some way to automate the process of copying music and other digital media files from their PCs to their Tablet PCs.

The Media Transfer user interface (Figure) is pretty simple, though there's an immediate gotcha: In order to connect with digital media files on another PC, that other computer needs to be running the Media Connect software, which is an optional download for XP users on Windows Update. Then, they'll need to start up the Media Connect client. Only then, will those PCs show up in the list of computers from which to choose.

Once you do make the connection, you can choose which type of media to browse--music, pictures, or video (Figure)--and then narrow the field down somewhat. For example, if you choose music, you'll be presented with a menu that includes Album, All Music, Artist, Genre, and Play Lists (sic) (Figure). If you choose Album, You'll see a list of albums, arranged alphabetically. And when you can select an album, you can choose which songs to copy to the Tablet PC, or simply stream them across the network (Figure). When you select the download option, what you're really doing is building a queue: Once you've selected all the songs you want, you can download them all at once.

Here, we run into another complaint: Media Transfer doesn't let you easily select all of the music from a single artist, or an entire album. It'd be nice if the selection boxes existed at each level of the UI, so you could select these larger entities more easily. As it is, you have to navigate deep into the list and then select individual songs (or "Select All" from within an album).

When you select to download songs, Media Transfer betrays a third major issue: It doesn't respect the folder hierarchy you've created on the host PCs. All of the songs you download, for example, are downloaded directly to the same folder, creating a mess of files. And Media Transfer doesn't actually play the media: Windows Media Player 10 is loaded instead (or, presumably, your media player of choice).

Despite its flaws and limitations, Media Transfer does work, and it may be acceptable for less demanding users. But I hope to see this application significantly updated in the future and made available to other XP users. It's so close to being a great, great solution. It's just not there yet.

Availability

By the time you read this, the Experience Pack for Tablet PC should be available as a free download from Microsoft.com. The product works only on Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005 and is marketed as one of the benefits of upgrading to the latest version of Microsoft's operating system for Tablet PCs. For the most part, I don't have a problem with that requirement. The sole exceptions are the Energy Blue theme and Media Transfer, which should both be made available to all XP users.

Conclusions

For the most part, the Experience Pack for Tablet PC is a wonderful collection of utilities and add-ons for Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005, and one that all Tablet PC owners should grab immediately. Like the PowerToy add-ons that Microsoft has released for the Tablet PC, most of the Experience Pack tools are fun and entertaining, and make the Tablet PC experience better as a result. Highly recommended.