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If you're at war in the unfriendly skies of Afghanistan, you definitely want one of these. The Air Force has made good use of Fujitsu's predecessor to the coming cadre of Windows XP Tablet PCs. Fastened with Velcro to cockpit consoles, they help with navigation and targeting. Other pre-XP tablets from Fujitsu and ViewSonic have also fared well among health-care workers and field engineers-anyone who fills out forms away from a desk.
But will you use a tablet if you fight most of your battles in office corridors and airports? More precisely, will people who rely on e-mail and Word documents go for the Windows XP Tablet?
A decade of failures says no. But after three years of planning, the Eisenhower of product launches says this new generation of tablets will land in force within the next 45 days. They're intended for you corridor warriors who spend all day shuttling between meetings. You need to take notes and make presentations. You also have to create those presentations, read and write 100 e-mails per day, and keep up with whatever you call "work."
The Order of Battle
The work-style differences are subtle but important, as are the variations between vertical and horizontal tablets. Vertical touchscreens are tuned to forms, while horizontal tablets are calibrated to capture handwriting.
XP Tablets will come in two formats, the most common being the traditional slate like Fujitsu's Stylistic ST4000 and ViewSonic's Tablet PC V1100. Expect a 10.4-inch active-matrix touchscreen measuring an inch in thickness. Options include docking stations that use the slate as a desktop display.
Convertibles like the Acer TravelMate 100 resemble the classic clamshell notebook. But you can fold the touchscreen over its keyboard and get a slate. Arif Maskatia, chief technology officer at Acer, admits he's hedging his bets by selling a notebook you can write on. Fujitsu and ViewSonic hope to expand their vertical customer bases.
Microsoft bills XP Tablets as the evolution of a portable whose pen and eventual speech interfaces extend your range and productivity. Tablet PCs are also a technological tour de force with that hard-to-define cachet usually found in Apple products.
But can Microsoft's digitizer read your writing? No one knows. Acer and Microsoft have seeded the clouds prior to launch and are getting good reviews. "Compared to what it used to be, it's great," says Rob Enderle, research fellow at Giga Information Group. "But it still isn't as good as people expect."
To take off, XP Tablets need to read the handwriting of all people, all the time. But active digitizer screens aren't suited to outdoor light, and you must write carefully even indoors, warns Steve Andler, founder of Steve Andler & Associates and former head of Toshiba's portable operation.
You can write in most applications, but true note-taking is meant for the new Windows Journal function. Instead of converting handwriting to text immediately, it's saved as graphics. The stylus acts as a mouse when it's hovering over the screen and acts as a pen when it touches down.
Even if that works, price is still a problem, say both analysts. While price tags under $2,500 are $1,000 cheaper than vertical models and only $150 more than a notebook, that's still twice what "most people" are willing to pay.
What's Your Hurry?
Does that mean XP Tablets are another flash in the pan? No, they're a long-term investment for all. Think of them as a test bed for PCs that emphasize natural interfaces, says Andler.
You're unlikely to be left two years out with hardware that lacks support, software and connectivity to other devices. But, as with anything new, "it takes the industry a couple of versions to get it right," notes Enderle.
Should you buy one? Yes, if yours is a work style where the benies overcome the learning curve and bugs, and if your handwriting is pretty good. If that's not the case, you don't want to be the first to hit this beach. Says Enderle, "Let someone else spend the money to figure out how to make these work."