From the September 2003 issue of Entrepreneur

Mobile computing has gotten flatter-and more flexible-since the tablet PC came onto the scene earlier this year. We took a look at a host of first-generation machines to see if their capabilities live up to their promises.

Whether buying for yourself or for your employees, what you should look for in a tablet PC is a lot like what you would look for in a regular laptop. While the operating system is the same, there are two hardware forms that tablets take. The first form (notebook-style convertible) looks like a laptop, but the screen swivels around and folds down on top of the keyboard to create a tablet look. The second form (slate tablet style) comes as a flat tablet but has a separate keyboard that works either wirelessly or through a USB cable. The convenience of a built-in keyboard is nice, but the slate tablet forms weigh less (a plus for mobile warriors).

Tablets are more than glorified laptops or PDAs. They all come with the Microsoft XP Tablet PC Edition operating system and lots of special software. The highlight application is Journal, a program that mimics a writing pad, allowing you to scribble over the screen with the included digital pen. Notes can be left just as you wrote them, or your handwriting can be converted to text. The handwriting-recognition software is good but runs into trouble with sloppy penmanship. Look for this to improve as future generations of tablet software arrive.

Acer's TravelMate C110 comes equipped with a built-in keyboard and a touch pad. It looks like a small laptop, but the 10.4-inch display can rotate 180 degrees and fold back. Fujitsu's Stylistic ST4000, on the other hand, resembles a steroid-injected PDA. Most tablets start at two grand but can quickly escalate in price once you start adding peripherals. To install software, you'll have to connect your tablet to a network or buy an external drive. That reality alone will put a docking station or CD and DVD drive on your must-have extras list.

The Toshiba Portege 3500, which features a three-year warranty, is another convertible-style tablet with a comfortable keyboard and rotating screen. Switching between forms is simple, and the display automatically re-orients itself. Printed documentation is a bit slim, but the built-in tutorials that come with every tablet OS will get you started with the software. This computer holds up well as both a laptop and a tablet, but you won't want to carry it around for extended periods of time.

Lightweight-portable experts, Motion Computing, designed the Gateway Tablet PC. The detached feather of a keyboard hooks up via USB. The slim, light design makes this device ideal for carrying around your work site. Also check into its $229 docking station and $309 external CD-RW/DVD drive.

Starting at $1,799 (all prices street), the Hewlett-Packard Compaq TC1000 looks like a PDA/notebook crossbreed, a slim take on the convertible style with an unusual T-shape look. The removable keyboard is reduced, and the design is compact with a 10.4-inch display. Extending the one-year warranty to three years bumps the price up a couple hundred dollars, but it may be worth it. The optional docking station lets you hook up a larger monitor and peripherals.

Keep an eye on the market for the newer Centrino-powered tablets that are optimized for wireless networks. Prices will come down as well: TDV Vison (www.tdvvison.com), for instance, is releasing a few tablets under $1,000 for budget-conscious buyers. They should be out by the time you read this.

Shopping List
If you're shopping for a laptop anyway, check out the tablet PCs. You just might find a useful new business tool.

MANUFACTURER/
MODEL
FORM FACTORPROCESSORFEATURESSTREET
PRICE
Acer
Travelmate C110
(800) 733-2237
www.acer.com
Notebook-Style
Convertible
900MHz Intel Pentium M3.2 Pounds,
10.4-Inch Display,
512MB Ram,
30GB Hard Drive
$1,899
Fujitsu
Stylistic ST4000
(800) 831-3183
www.fujitsu.com
Slate Tablet
With No Keyboard
933MHz Intel Pentium 3-M3.2 Pounds,
10.4-Inch Display,
256MB Ram,
30GB Hard Drive
$1,999
Gateway
Tablet PC
(877)487-1129
www.gateway.com
Slate Tablet
With USB Keyboard
933MHz Intel Pentium M3 Pounds,
12.1-Inch Display,
256MB Ram,
40GB Hard Drive
$1,899
Hewlett-Packard
Compaq TC1000
(800) AT-COMPAQ
www.hp.com
Convertible
Detachable Keyboard
1GHz Transmeta Crusoe3 Pounds,
10.4-Inch Display,
256MB Ram,
30GB Hard Drive
$1,799
Toshiba
Portege 3500
(800) TOSHIBA
www.csd.toshiba.com
Notebook-Style
Convertible
133GHz Intel Pentium 3-M4.1 Pounds,
12.1-Inch Display,
256MB Ram,
40GB Hard Drive
$2,299

Steve Cooper contributed to this article.