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Tablet PCs: Next Chapter Of Mobile Computing

Microsoft shipped its Windows XP Tablet PC Edition operating system last week, opening the door for a slew of new mobile computers, dubbed tablet PCs.

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operating system

In a review of Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, the CRN Test Center found that the platform is basically the Windows XP Professional OS with a bunch of tools and utilities for the tablet format, including the Microsoft Journal utility; handwriting, speech- and gesture-recognition engines; gesture APIs; a text input panel; stylus drivers and ink control; and sticky notes. Using XP as the basis for the Tablet PC OS made sense, since existing applications are supported.

"Ink" is what makes these mobile computers work like a tablet, but this type of ink isn't simply handwriting converted to text. It's the process in which documents, graphics and other on-screen material are converted into searchable text or images. For example, if you circled an orange globe in a piece of art and wrote a note saying, "This should look more like a pumpkin," the ink data might include possible matches for the word "pumpkin," such as pumpkin, bumpkin, munchkin, etc. Upon closing the file, you could then do a search of your ink notes for the word "pumpkin," and the image of the circled pumpkin likely would appear.

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Toshiba's Protege 3500 (l.) is an example of a convertible version Tablet PC, and Acer's TM100-15H (r.) is a pure tablet model.

Test Center engineers were amazed at how well the XP Tablet PC Edition's handwriting- and text-recognition works. If enabled, the tablet screens are pressure-sensitive, so drawn lines will appear thin and light with little pressure applied to the stylus and become thicker and darker with increased pressure. The stylus has a much higher resolution than a mouse, so writing with a stylus is much like writing with a real pen.

Instead of clicking a mouse, users tap commands on the screen with the stylus. One tap of the pen equals a single click, two taps equals a double click, and pressing and holding the pen represents a right click. At any time, users can call up an on-screen keyboard and type letters by tapping the pen on the appropriate characters. They also can use the writing pad, which allows text input by writing with the pen.

Hardware requirements for XP Tablet PC Edition include a digitizer with an active pen, support for "surprise" removal from a docking bay and fast resume from standby mode. Platforms must be legacy-free, meaning no serial or parallel ports. The display also must support both portrait and landscape modes. And for security purposes, the tablet must have a one-button Ctl-Alt-Del function.

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In the next few years, most notebook computers likely will include tablet PC functionality.

Tablet PCs, which cost in the range of $2,000, come in two basic styles: pure tablet PCs and convertible tablets. Pure tablet PCs are basically flat screens, with no lid or keyboard. A keyboard or other peripherals can be attached via a docking bay or USB ports. "Corridor warriors," or those who would need to access files on the run or while away from their desks, are best-suited to pure tablet PCs because of their light weight and portability.

Convertible tablets, on the other hand, resemble notebook computers, with keyboards and fold-open displays. But the tablet displays, when opened, also can be swiveled and folded down to lie face up, enabling the screen to be used either as a tablet or a standard laptop. Users that frequently travel or need on-the-go computing capability would benefit most from a convertible tablet PC, since they could use the device with the pen while walking or type on the keyboard while seated.

Most notebook makers plan to offer some form of Tablet PC in 2003. OEMs include Acer, Fujitsu, Fujitsu-Siemens, Hewlett-Packard, Legend, Motion Computing, NEC, PaceBlade, Research Machines, Sharp, Sotec, TIME Group, Toshiba, ViewSonic, Walkabout Computer and Xplore Technologies.

All tablet PCs will offer wireless connectivity. And in the next few years, most notebook PCs likely will include tablet functionality. That's why most vendors are lumping tablet PCs in the notebook category, instead of in their own segment. Until most notebooks offer tablet functionality, the convertible units will be slow movers, the Test Center predicts. The pure tablets should be adopted quickly by corridor warriors who, until now, have had to carry around more than they've needed.

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