Five Tablet PCs, arrayed across the table from each other: A Toshiba Porteg? 3500, a Compaq TC1000, an Electrovaya Scribbler, an Acer TravelMate C100, and a Fujitsu Stylistic ST4000. It's an awesome sight, for a geek anyway, and one I don't expect to see repeated again within my home. But they're here for now, anyway, and thanks to my seven-week adventure on the Microsoft Mobility Tour, I have this unique opportunity to provide an overview and comparison of these interesting mobile devices. And then I have to send them back. Sigh.

Types of Tablets

Tablet PCs ship in two basic form factors, slates and convertibles. Slates are exactly what they sound like: A slab-like notebook computer that basically just looks like a screen and includes no integrated keyboard or pointing device (they do, of course, include styli). Convertible laptops resemble "normal" notebook computers, but they feature screens that can be rotated around and locked back on top of the keyboard, presenting the user with a second, slate-like, form.

Slates

When most people think "Tablet PC," they probably picture a slate-like design. The very first Tablet PC prototypes were slates (or "slabs" as they were known then), and my immediate reaction was, who really needs a PC like this? The answer, however, is that certain types of computing scenarios almost demand a slate form factor. Consider people, like doctors or factory workers, who spend the day on their feet, but need to access networked data or input their own data. As computing moves away from the desk and into ever-more mobile (and yet connected) places, slate-style Tablet PCs are ready.


Slates: Fujitsu Stylistic ST4000, Electrovaya Scribbler, Compaq TC1000

In the slate category, I tested the Fujitsu Stylistic ST4000, the Electrovaya Scribbler, and the Compaq TC1000. The Compaq was my favorite, though it was a bit underpowered, because it features the nicest design, a clip-on keyboard that lets it emulate a convertible laptop design, and a cool docking station that, while I didn't test this, lets you use the device with a second monitor, and a full-sized keyboard and mouse, giving you the ability to use one machine in virtually any situation. The Fujitsu and Electrovaya weren't without their charms however: I did test the Fujitsu's docking station, which works well, and the Electrovaya features almost surreal battery life. We'll look at all of these devices in more detail below.

Convertible laptops

However, most people today still need a more traditional computing platform, even if they occasionally need to access a system via the stylus. For those people--which I think comprise a far larger market segment, frankly--Microsoft's hardware partners came up with the convertible laptop design. This innovative type of system can be used like a regular notebook computer forever if need be. But if you ever do need to access the screen via the stylus, you can flip the screen around and--voila!--it's a slate, albeit a slightly thicker and heavier slate. However, I think the tradeoff makes sense for most people--and after all, most of these devices still barely weigh 4 pounds--especially business travelers. And as a typical business traveler who often gets stuck in steerage while flying, I appreciate the fact that a convertible laptop is suddenly useful as a slate in the cramped conditions that so often render notebooks unusable while flying.


Convertible laptops: Acer TravelMate C100, Toshiba Portege 3500

In this category, I tested the Acer TravelMate C100 and Toshiba Portege 3500. I had already spent several weeks with the Acer in mid-2002, but the heavier and more powerful Toshiba was my favorite convertible laptop and, not coincidentally, my favorite Tablet PC overall. However, both machines are quite useable, and the Acer includes a bunch of little extras that really add up. Either would be an excellent choice for most business travelers. We'll examine these devices in more detail below.

On the road with the Tablet PC

After seven straight weeks on the road with four of the Tablet PCs, I feel reasonably comfortable summarizing my experience with the devices and how they reacted to the typical grind of business travel. During this time, I took the devices from Boston to San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles, Dallas, Atlanta, New York, and Chicago (I missed the Miami trip because of the worst snowstorm in Boston's history), all via plane, except for New York when I went by train, and Seattle, when I drove from Portland. Exciting, eh?

Anyway... During these trips, I carted along the Toshiba, Compaq, Electrovaya, and Acer tablets; the Fujitsu device was unrelated to the tour and I evaluated that separately. One thing that impressed me during this time was the beating these devices were able to withstand. Despite being cramped together in my suddenly massive and heavy carry-on luggage, dished out at every conceivable security check possible (Typical question: "Sir, is there some reason you're traveling with so many computers?"), dragged out for recharging in hotel rooms across America (where there can never be enough power plugs), numerous configuration changes and application installs, and, perhaps most egregiously, having survived the dirty hands of my four year old son, I'm surprised to say that most of the devices survived without a scratch, or at least any appreciable damage. (Speaking of my son, one of the weird things about the Tablet PCs is how quickly children take to stylus input. Children clearly aren't a huge market for these devices, but maybe they should be: Writing with a stylus is far more natural than a mouse for small hands.)

I used the tablets to write WinInfo, update my Web sites, browse the Web, and answer email. As a typical business traveler--that is, someone who requires typing over handwriting--I leaned toward the convertible laptop designs such as the Toshiba and the Acer, as well as the Compaq, which is a slate device that includes a mobile keyboard. To my large hands, the Toshiba's full-sized keyboard felt the best, and it was certainly the most powerful Tablet PC device. However, the Toshiba was also a bit heavier than most of the other devices, though I don't consider this a problem, given the performance and capability trade-offs. This might be an issue for women and some men, however.

Because most of these devices use low-voltage Pentium III-M processors or the underwhelming Transmeta Crusoe, performance was an issue for most. The Compaq, which features a wonderful design, was the most problematic, and the device actually had problems keeping up with my handwriting on occasion, which is unacceptable in a Tablet PC for obvious reasons. I blame the Crusoe for this. Another issue was memory: In my opinion, 256 MB of RAM is the bare minimum for any Windows XP machine, but 512 MB should be the bare minimum for a Tablet PC. To their credit, some of the manufacturers did ship their devices with 512 MB of RAM, and that was appreciated. But the devices with just 256 MB frequently lagged behind as the system wrote and retrieved information from the slow hard drive. Yuck.

Battery life, as you might expect, is also a concern. I was surprised to see that most of the tablets (the Electrovaya being the obvious exception) had just average battery life, in the 2 to 3 hour range. After using the devices for an extended period of time, I'm convinced that all of the advantages of the ultra-mobile notebook form factor used by these devices are compromised by the demands of their screens' active digitizer, which must track the stylus from as far as an inch away from the screen. Future Tablet PCs, based on the awesome Centrino platform--which includes the Pentium M processor, a new chipset, and integrated wireless capabilities--should alleviate this problem. I've tested three Centrino-based notebook computers, and battery life is phenomenal. But at the time of this writing, Centrino-based Tablet PCs are still some months away.

Related to the battery life issue is the fact that none of today's Tablet PC designs include an integrated optical drive. This means that none of the tablets can be used to, say, watch a DVD movie while flying. That's because few of them would have enough battery life to make it through a two-hour movie, however. One of the devices I tested did include a separate USB-based CD-ROM drive, and most do offer at least the option of getting some type of optical drive either externally or through a docking solution. This could be a problem for many users and, combined with the general battery life issues, a good reason to wait for the second generation devices due later this year.

Let's take a quick look at the individual tablets.

Toshiba Porteg? 3500

As noted previously, the Toshiba was my favorite Tablet PC, as it was the closest to a normal notebook in functionality, performance, and versatility. That said, it was still fairly anemic compared to most of the laptops I review each month for the magazine, but then this is a more obvious problem with the other tablets, most of which are even worse off performance-wise. The Toshiba has the biggest screen, the best keyboard, the fastest processor, and the most impressive expansion possibilities of any of the tablets, and it's the only one I would consider using regularly. Its processor speed, RAM allotment, and hard drive size are all top-notch in this category.

Of course, the Toshiba is also bigger and heavier than most of the other tablets. This could be a problem for some people, though it's certainly on the small and light size compared to mid-level notebook computers. Highly recommended.

I've written more about the Toshiba here.

Details specifications

Model tested: PP350U-002LX4
Processor: Pentium III-M @ 1.33 GHz
RAM: 512 MB
Hard drive: 40 GB
Optical drive: None
LCD: 12-inch XGA (1024 x 768)
Weight: 4.1 pounds
Battery life: 2.5 hours average
Integrated networking: 802.11b, Bluetooth, Ethernet, Modem
Notable additions: 2 USB 2.0 ports, integrated CompactFlash & SD-RAM slots
Tablet PC style: Convertible laptop
Retail price: $2500
More information (manufacturer)

Compaq TC1000

When Microsoft launched the Tablet PC in November 2002, I ambled over to the Hewlett-Packard/Compaq booth at the product pavilion and instantly fell in love with the Compaq TC1000, a beautiful slate design that can also double as a convertible laptop thanks to its unique clip-on keyboard. However, when I finally received a unit in early 2003, my enthusiasm was somewhat dampened. First, the Compaq uses a non-standard glass screen, which means that it is incompatible with the styli used by every other tablet on the market. Second, this screen is also less natural feeling than the other screens, and it doesn't support pressure sensitivity or a true stylus eraser, two features that make other tablets more usable. And finally, the unit is bogged down by an underpowered Transmeta Crusoe processor that is so slow it can't even keep up with my handwriting on occasion.

Now, these may seem like fatal flaws, and in some ways, of course, they are. However, there is a certain elegance and beauty to the Compaq device that is sorely lacking in other tablets. Wrapped in curved silver and black, the Compaq is a stunning piece of hardware, and a conversation piece when brought out in airports or on a plane. Its clip-on keyboard is a bit small, but usable, though you'll need a flat surface on which to rest it: You can't balance it on your lap as you can with true convertible laptops and normal notebook computers. Even the Compaq's stylus is nicer to the touch than the others, it's big and curvaceous, and feels like the type of quality pen you might find in a high-end stationary store. Though it doesn't resemble an Apple product per se, it has the feel of an Apple product, and it's made with obviously high-quality materials.

So the Compaq comes recommended for its design, but with a caveat for its performance. It was the slowest performer in a group of slow performers, and I can only hope that the next version fixes this (preferably with an Intel Pentium-M processor). If they can get the performance bumped up, this will be the machine to beat.

I've written more about the Compaq here.

Details specifications

Model tested: TC1000/256
Processor: Transmeta Crusoe 5800 @ 1 GHz
RAM: 256 MB
Hard drive: 30 GB
Optical drive: None
LCD: 10.4-inch XGA (1024 x 768)
Weight: 3 pounds/4.1 pounds with mobile keyboard
Battery life: 2.5 hours average
Integrated networking: 802.11b, Ethernet, Modem
Notable additions: Includes mobile keyboard
Tablet PC style: Combination Slate/Convertible laptop, 2 USB 2.0 ports
Retail price: $1700
More information (manufacturer)

Electrovaya Scribbler

A bizarre, boxy slate design, the Electrovaya Scribbler may seem like the ugly duckling of the group, but it's got one huge positive going for it: Battery life. Unlike the others in this group, the Electrovaya gets positively stunning battery life--think 10 hours on average or up to 14-16 hours if you're thrifty with screen brightness--making this unit the one true all-day-capable Tablet PC on the market. And that, folks, is the reason the Scribbler exists, though the battery capacity will cost you a bit in the weight department.

The design weirdness carries over into just about every aspect of this machine. The various ports are all buried under weird rubber covers that extend across the top and side panels, and those covers are incredibly hard to remove. And the power switch is recessed inside a tiny hole in the front of the unit which you must press with the stylus, if you can believe that. In other words, you can't even turn on the device without a stylus. The front panel sports other functional holes as well, for common key presses. Like I said, it's really weird.

Beyond that, the Scribbler is standard fare, a slate-only design that shipped with a weird little USB keyboard that would have been more useful if the unit itself shipped with a stand of some sort, so it could be propped up. But if you need a tablet that lasts all day, the Scribbler is a great choice.

I've written more about the Electrovaya here.

Details specifications

Model tested: SC800
Processor: Pentium III-M @ 866 MHz
RAM: 512 MB
Hard drive: 30 GB
Optical drive: None
LCD: 10.4-inch XGA (1024 x 768)
Weight: ~6 pounds
Battery life: 10 hours average
Integrated networking: 802.11b, Ethernet, Modem
Notable additions: True 8-to-16 hour battery life, USB keyboard, Fingerprint authentication system, Firewire port
Tablet PC style: Slate
Retail price: $2900
More information (manufacturer)

Acer TravelMate C100

The Acer TravelMate was the first Tablet PC I ever used and reviewed, so it has a bit of a special place in my heart. But the Acer has held up well in the face of much competition, and as a complete package, you get more in the box with the Acer than you do with the other tablets. This includes an external optical drive with power supply, an extra stylus, and an extra battery, which is a nice (and unique) touch.

Though the Acer is smallish and has a small (though slightly curved and ergonomic) keyboard, I still had no problem using it with my huge hands. Some of the other small keyboards--like the ones that came with the Compaq and Electrovaya--didn't fare as well, but I was able to maintain a good accuracy level typing away on the Acer. And though the two latches that secure the sides of the screen look kludgy, you get used them very quickly. Less ideal was the center latch that secures the top of the screen; it pops out on either side of the screen so that it can latch in both slate and laptop modes, but it often got stuck in the middle and had to be cajoled out of its hole.

Overall, the Acer was extremely capable and would probably work well as an ultra-portable laptop for many people. I prefer beefier hardware, frankly, and it could use more RAM, but the Acer is still one of the better Tablet PCs.

I've written more about the Acer here.

Details specifications

Model tested: TMC102Ti
Processor: Pentium III-M @ 800 MHz
RAM: 256 MB
Hard drive: 30 GB
Optical drive: USB CD-ROM
LCD: 10.4-inch XGA (1024 x 768)
Weight: 3.2 pounds
Battery life: 3 hours average
Integrated networking: Ethernet, Modem, 802.11b
Notable additions: Smart Card slot, extra battery included, second full-sized pen
Tablet PC style: Convertible laptop
Retail price: $1999
More information (manufacturer)

Fujitsu Stylistic ST4000

In many ways, the Fujitsu Stylistic ST4000 was odd man out because the company didn't participate in the Mobility Tour, so I didn't bring it on the road with me. However, I did get to use it at home, and I have a few relevant observations. First, the slate model Stylistic is flat. Really flat. Like less than an inch thick. This, combined with a pleasing felt-like padded back, makes the Stylistic a joy to hold. The unit I reviewed included a nice docking station, though the bundled keyboard is sort of a joke, and I recommend replacing it with a nice Microsoft keyboard and mouse combination. The docking station includes a CD-RW/DVD combo drive, which is very much appreciated.

The layout of buttons on the face of the Stylistic is also unique and arguably the nicest allotment of controls found on any of the tablets I reviewed. On the upper right side, there are buttons for the ALT key, mail, display orientation, the ESC key, and an Fn button, which triggers a secondary function for each of the aforementioned buttons (There is also a separate power button). On the bottom right are an IR port and two toggle switches for navigating on-screen without a stylus, keyboard or mouse. The other expansion ports are all on the left and top side of the unit, and most are conveniently left uncovered, which is less cluttered in my opinion.

Attached to the convenient dock, the Fujitsu can be used as your main desktop in either landscape or portrait mode. Flip a large, handy switch on the right side and the slate comes right off, ready for mobile use. Of all the tablets, the Fujitsu feels most comfortable to the touch, and it's the easiest to hold. I'm not a big fan of the slate-style models, but there is something unique about the shape and size of this device. If you're looking into slate tablets, this is worth considering.

Details specifications

Model tested: ST4110
Processor: Pentium III-M @ 800 MHz
RAM: 256 MB
Hard drive: 40 GB
Optical drive: Combo drive in Dock only
LCD: 10.4-inch XGA (1024 x 768)
Weight: 3.2 pounds
Battery life: 3 hours average
Integrated networking: 802.11b, Ethernet, Modem
Notable additions: Includes Tablet Dock with DVD/CD-RW combo drive
Tablet PC style: Convertible laptop
Retail price: $2700
More information (manufacturer)

Recommendations

Today, most Tablet PCs are not viable alternatives for the typical business traveler, but it's equally clear that these machines were designed with other needs in mind. If you're a typical PC user--that is, someone who generally uses a PC at a desk, or can type proficiently on a notebook computer--a Tablet PC might not be the best choice right now, primarily because most of these devices compromise on performance and battery life. I expect this situation to change dramatically when Centrino-based Tablet PCs appear later this year, so it might be advisable to wait if you're on the fence.

However, if you need to use real Windows applications in a non-traditional computing environment (perhaps you're standing all day), and would be able to take advantage of the unique features and capabilities in a Tablet PC, there are a number of worthy solutions to consider. For convertible laptop designs, I prefer the Toshiba Porteg?, which is less of a compromise than the other tablets. For the slate-style designs, it's sort of a toss-up, but I'm leaning toward the Compaq because of its unique design and keyboard add-on. However, the slates are less appealing to me overall, because I need a decent keyboard, and I need it all the time. Your needs may differ.

In any event, Tablet PCs are priced in line with comparable ultra-mobile notebook computers, so price won't generally be the deciding factor. But I can say that the allure of handwriting wears off quickly, especially if it's a feature you don't actually need. It's like the old adage: I can't explain why you might need it, but if you do need it, you'll know. And none of the products here will disappoint once you understand their various abilities and limitations.