Had your eye on a tablet PC? Prices are sliding, and functionality is rising. But are they ready for prime time yet? What can they do for you-really? We gave Entrepreneur's vice president of Web development, Chuck Fuller, a Fujitsu Stylistic ST4000 for a long-term look. To be honest, given this category's checkered past, we thought we'd get the tablet back quickly with a list of the real-life usability nits. But over the past several months, the Stylistic ST4000 has become Fuller's favorite productivity tool, trumping his Palm handheld, his notebook and even his desktop.
Enthusiastic feedback began to pour forth immediately. Says Fuller, "The tablet is great. The touch screen and stylus allow me to use it like I would my Palm, but it has more features. I've composed presentations and large spreadsheets without loss of performance over my desktop. The resolution of the screen is fantastic."
Vendors are now releasing second-generation tablets, but Fujitsu has been delivering vertical solutions for years. Rather than offering only convertible notebooks, Fujitsu has a broad line that includes no-compromise slates like its new ST5010D. If anyone can find a place for tablet computing, it'll be Fujitsu.
Why did we pick Fuller? Tablets speak to a particular work style-all-day meetings and the need for productivity afoot. Outbound salespeople and field engineers fit the profile; so do most executives and business owners. They need to collect, organize and analyze volumes of information; use lots of applications; and send and receive e-mail and IM, whether or not a desk is available. That's Fuller, the executive for which this tool was designed.
What's to Like?
Like any 21st century executive, Fuller isn't exactly a computing novice. He's used about every office product to come down the pike, making him a better judge of what entrepreneurs really need than the average technology reviewer.
Fuller quickly became proficient at note-taking and chart-making on the ST4000, the results of which easily transfer to his desktop, thanks to Microsoft Office 2003. It took him next to no time to make LAN and Internet connections and sync his data/software image among the tablet and other computing devices. Fuller likes the address book, scheduler and task planner bundled with Windows XP Tablet PC Edition: "While [it's] larger than my Palm, I found the tablet to be more flexible for personal information management and for quick entry of expense items while on the road."
The ST4000's ability to switch between portrait and landscape views makes it easier to read long documents, odd-size presentations and wide spreadsheets. Fuller was also surprised at the ST4000's battery life: "I've been able to get through PowerPoint drafts and a few spreadsheets without recharging."
As for drawbacks, Fuller didn't care for the onscreen keyboard, and the stylus took some getting used to because the executable button isn't convenient to his way of holding a pen. In its docking station, the ST4000 was as functional as any desktop.
He estimates the tablet saves 30 minutes per day in duplicative data entry and syncing things like written notes among different devices. Multiplied by a pro rata share of his salary, that savings means this tablet would pay for itself in three months. That doesn't count productivity improvements realized from the tablet's unique tools or money saved on hardware and ancillary services Fuller no longer needs.
The Next Generation
New tablets take graphics-intensive computing to the next level by adding faster, low-voltage processors, more onboard cache and/or advanced graphics components like NVIDIA's GeForce co-processors. Microsoft's new Office OneNote 2003 adds better ways to organize, search and share graphic notes and charts, and handwriting recognition should get another boost from Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2004 this summer.
The new generation has better displays and more powerful batteries that deliver four to seven hours of operation, depending on battery weight. Naturally, the full range of wired and wireless connectivity options-from Ethernet and modems to Bluetooth and Wi-Fi-are now standard equipment.
One surprising thing about this category, says IDC research analyst Alan Promisel, is that none of the original tablet pioneers have dropped out despite low sales. So many new low-priced providers are rushing in that Promisel expects last year's sales of 400,000 units to more than triple this year.
While that's still just a fraction of portable sales, from a productivity standpoint, tablets have found a place in the business world, with the promise of more good things to come.
Mike Hogan is Entrepreneur's technology editor. Write to him at email@example.com.