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Bake-Off: Convertible Tablet PCs

Marc Spiwak
mobile computing platform

Slide Show: A Tale Of Three Tablets

Unfortunately, many users don't want to trade the functionality of a conventional notebook for a tablet PC that has no keyboard. For such users, convertible tablets are the best fit, combining the functionality of a notebook computer and a tablet PC in one portable unit.

For this bakeoff, CRN Test Center engineers examined the best convertible tablets—notebooks with swiveling hinges that allow the display to be flipped around and closed so that the units can be used as tablets—from three of the biggest players in the industry. The units include Hewlett-Packard's tc4400, Lenovo's ThinkPad Tablet X60 and Toshiba's Portg M400-S4032. All of the units tested were running Microsoft Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005.

Shopping The Ingredients
COMPANY: Hewlett-Packard
Palo Alto, Calif.

• PRODUCT:HP Compaq tc4400
• PRICE/WARRANTY:$2,187/3 years.
• PARTNER INCENTIVES:HP Smart Buys, sales contribute to MDF per partner agreement.
• AVERAGE MARGINS:10 percent to 20 percent.
• DISTRIBUTORS:Ingram Micro, Synnex, Tech Data.

Morrisville, N.C.

• PRODUCT:ThinkPad X60 Tablet
• PRICE/WARRANTY:$2,299/1 year.
• PARTNER INCENTIVES:$20 rebate, MDF varies based on partner level
• AVERAGE MARGINS:5 percent to 10 percent
• DISTRIBUTORS:Ingram Micro, Synnex, Tech Data.

COMPANY: Toshiba
Irvine, Calif.

• PRODUCT:Portégé M400-S4032
• PRICE/WARRANTY:$2,199/3 years.
• PARTNER INCENTIVES:Rebate awards from 1 percent to 3 percent, MDF policy not specified.
• AVERAGE MARGINS:11 percent.
• DISTRIBUTORS:Ingram Micro, Synnex, Tech Data.

Engineers tested the tablets using PerformanceTest software from PassMark, which measures the performance of the different components of a computer and then generates an overall score, or PassMark rating. For example, the software measures CPU performance including integer and floating point math, compression, encryption and string sorting and so on. It also measures 2-D and 3-D graphics performance for lines, shapes, fonts and text. Memory and disk performance also is measured. If an individual test can't be run properly for some reason, that portion of the test is skipped and the PassMark rating is generated without it.

HP COMPAQ tc4400
Last summer Hewlett-Packard updated its tc4400 tablet PC with powerful Intel Core Duo and Core 2 Duo processors. But, like the other two tablets covered here, the sample unit reviewed by the Test Center came with a Core Duo, in this case the T2500, running at 2.00GHz. The unit comes preloaded with Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005 and is also compatible with Windows Vista.

Based on performance alone, the tc4400 tablet outdid its peers, earning a PassMark rating of 427.6. That was the fastest score of all three units, though the gap between the ratings was not wide.

However, missing from the HP unit are some key features, which could make a difference to clients, depending on how they intend to use their tablet PCs. For one thing, HP does not offer a finger touch-screen option for the tc4400. Another drawback is that the unit lacks a built-in optical drive, meaning customers will have to use an available external USB CD-RW drive if needed. HP also left out FireWire ports as well as stereo audio, opting instead for a single mono speaker.

What the device does include is a bevy of other standard features, including 1 Gbyte of DDR2 SDRAM and a 12.1-inch XGA display with a native resolution of 1,024 x 768. The display is driven by an Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950 that shares up to 128 Mbytes of system memory as needed. The display automatically switches between landscape and portrait modes, depending on whether the unit is in its notebook or tablet configuration. Storage space is provided by a 60-Gbyte hard drive.

Next: More on the HP Compaq tc4400 Ports and connectivity features on the tc4400 include three USB 2.0 ports, one S-video output, a microphone input, a headphone/line output and a connector for an external monitor. Other features include built-in wired Gigabit Ethernet and 802.11a/b/g wireless NICs, a modem, a multiformat media card slot, one PC Card slot and an infrared port. For convenience, a stylus holder is built into the side of the unit.

Security features include a Kensington lock slot, a fingerprint sensor that can substitute for passwords and an embedded Trusted Platform Module (TPM) security chip. The chip prevents access to encryption keys, passwords and user credentials by unauthorized users.

Any convertible tablet will be larger and weigh more than a pure tablet PC (one without a keyboard). Nevertheless, the tc4400 is fairly sleek and not too heavy (thanks, in part, to its lack of an optical drive). It measures 11.22 inches wide by 9.25 inches deep by 1.25 inches high and it weighs 4.6 pounds. The tablet is very well made and has a rugged feel to it, but it's also the heaviest of the three units covered here. The tc4400 has a suggested retail price of $2,187.

HP offers more accessories for the tc4400 convertible tablet than most other vendors do, giving solution providers a strong arsenal of add-ons to fill out deals with extra profits from sales and configuration of peripherals. Such accessories include various docking stations and monitor stands that allow for more convenient use on the desktop as well as extended life and high-capacity batteries for greater mobile runtime. The unit will run for up to 5.5 hours on its standard primary battery, and an optional 8-cell extended life battery adds 7 hours for a total runtime of more than 12 hours. An optional 12-cell ultra-capacity battery adds as much as 11 hours of runtime for a total of more than 16 hours.

HP also offers lots of different types of optical drives for customers that initially purchase just a CD-ROM drive. Other accessories include memory modules, 12-volt automotive power adapters, Bluetooth PC Cards and Kensington cable locks. HP solution providers also find service opportunities by offering customization of the tc4400 to meet the needs of vertical market customers.

"We have to customize the tablets for the end users," said Pete Busam, vice president and COO of Decisive Business Systems, a Pennsauken, N.J.-based partner that specializes in verticals such as the sales force automation and medical industries. "The server side of various custom apps is usually already installed on a server, but we have to install the client side software on the tablets. We also have to load up any required security accessories and software, and we prepare custom electronic forms, scripts, charts and billing stuff."

Partners also offer training, as most users don't know all the ways the tc4400 can help them do their work.

"Our main value-add for tablet PCs is to show customers how to use the handwriting and voice-recognition technology," said Jon Mirkes, vice president of sales at Camera Corner/Connecting Point in Green Bay, Wis. "I'll show them what the capabilities are, but they usually have a local developer do any complex customization."

Mirkes added: "Sometimes we convert templates and forms into an electronic format that can be filled out on the tablet."

The company also offers loaner equipment when customers are having their devices serviced.

Next: Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet X60 LENOVO THINKPAD TABLET X60
The ThinkPad X60 Tablet is powered by an Intel Core Duo L2500 processor, a low-voltage version that runs at 1.83GHz with a 2 Mbyte L2 cache and a 667MHz front-side bus. It comes with Windows XP Tablet Edition 2005 and is also compatible with Windows Vista.

The unit earned a PassMark score of 415.1, placing it just behind the HP Compaq tc4400. While the Lenovo tablet lagged HP's performance mark, its low-voltage CPU will help squeeze as much life out of the batteries as possible.

Like the HP unit, the Lenovo tablet lacks a built-in optical drive. Instead, users must purchase either an external USB optical drive or the optional ThinkPad X6 Tablet UltraBase, which snaps onto the bottom of the notebook and adds a drive bay that will accept various optical drives as well as other accessories.

Lenovo lags its peers in terms of standard warranty, offering only one year while HP and Toshiba both include three years.

Standard memory for the X60 is 1 Gbyte, which is expandable to 4 Gbytes. The sample unit came with an 80-Gbyte hard drive, but larger and smaller drives are available, all of which are shock-mounted to prevent loss of data in rough-and-tumble vertical market environments.

Another feature that could attract vertical market users is that Lenovo offers a choice of displays: A 12.1-inch screen with a native resolution of 1,024 x 768 is standard, while a 12.1-inch MultiView/MultiTouch screen—also with a native resolution of 1,024 x 768—is optional. While the standard screen works only with a stylus, the MultiView/MultiTouch screen works with a stylus or fingertip, making it the only unit reviewed here to offer that capability. It is also optimized to allow indoor or outdoor viewing. Both screens are driven by an Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950 with up to 128 Mbytes of shared system memory.

Users of the ThinkPad X60 Tablet can connect to the Internet or a network anytime, anywhere. Integrated Intel PRO/Wireless 3945ABG is standard, while ThinkPad 802.11/a/b/g/n wireless connectivity is optional. The latter is compatible with all existing Wi-Fi protocols as well as the draft version of the forthcoming 802.11n high-speed wireless protocol. The X60 also includes a modem, Gigabit Ethernet and Bluetooth. Ports include three USB 2.0, NIC, modem, one PC Card slot and one Secure Digital card slot. The X60 uses a TrackPoint pointing device and does not have a touch pad. Some users don't like pointing sticks, so solution providers should check this preference with their customers first.

Optional embedded wireless WAN (WWAN) connectivity lets users connect to the Internet via cellular data services, which offer data transmission speeds ranging from 400 Kbps to 700 Kbps and tighter security than Wi-Fi hot spots. Unfortunately, the service is not free. As an example, Verizon offers wire-less data service for $79.99 per month for new customers.

Such mobility is encouraged by the size of the X60, which offers the same size screen as the other units covered here (12.1 inches), yet is thinner, smaller and lighter than them.

The sleek X60 measures 10.75 inches wide by 9.5 inches deep by 1.25 inches high with the standard 4-cell battery installed, and it weighs only 3.8 pounds. It's 0.75-inch narrower than the Toshiba unit and more than a half pound lighter. With a list price of $2,299, the X60 the most expensive of the units covered here.

Lenovo offers users many different battery options. The standard battery is a 4-cell Li-Ion pack that provides up to 3.3 hours of runtime, the least of any of the units reviewed here. An optional 8-cell battery, which increases the depth of the notebook to 10.5 inches and its weight to 4.23 pounds, provides up to 7.5 hours of runtime. An optional extended-life battery that mounts underneath the notebook, making it slightly taller, increases runtime to 6.4 hours in combination with the standard 4-cell battery or up to 10.6 hours with the 8-cell battery.

Another battery option is the ThinkPad Advanced Ultrabay Battery, which pops into the Ultrabay in the ThinkPad X6 UltraBase and provides up to 11 hours of runtime when used in combination with the high-capacity 8-cell system battery. Note that the Ultrabay Battery, or rather the X6 UltraBase itself, cannot be used when the extended-life battery is attached to the bottom of the notebook.

The ThinkPad X6 Tablet UltraBase snaps onto the bottom of the ThinkPad X60 and greatly expands the notebook's functionality. It also adds about an inch of height to the notebook, and another 1.5 pounds to its weight. The X6 UltraBase houses stereo speakers, a microphone input, headphone output and VGA output. It also has Ethernet and modem ports, four USB 2.0 ports and serial and parallel ports. A power port lets users plug the notebook's power adapter into the UltraBase to power the system and recharge the battery. An integrated key lock secures the X60 ThinkPad to the X6 UltraBase, which features a Kensington lock slot to prevent the entire assembly from being stolen. The UltraBase features an Ultrabay that can house any type of optical drive, a second hard drive with an HDD installation kit or even the Ultrabay Battery. The UltraBase costs $199, and any peripheral for the Ultrabay also costs extra.

Lenovo offers numerous accessories for the X60 tablet giving solution providers lots of opportunity to reap additional profits while customizing the solution to meet customer needs. The ThinkPad X6 Tablet UltraBase, for example, gives users added capabilities on the desktop as well as more convenient use in general. The UltraBase's Ultrabay lets users swap in various types of optical drives, as well as an additional hard drive, none of which are included. Adding a second hard drive also will require Lenovo's optional ThinkPad Serial Hard Drive Bay Adapter. Another neat item is the ThinkPad X60 Tablet Sleeve, which makes it easy to carry and use the tablet on the go and also protects the tablet from scratches and dings.

Next: Toshiba Portege M400-S4032 TOSHIBA PORTEGE M400-S4032
Toshiba's Portg M400-S4032 features a 1.83GHz Intel T2400 Core Duo processor with a Mobile 945GM Express chipset. Like its peers, the M400 runs Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005 and is compatible with Windows Vista.

The M400's PassMark score of 400.4 was the lowest among the units covered here, though it's worth noting that the performance difference between the three is negligible.

What's not trivial is that the tablet features a built-in optical drive, making it the only unit covered here that does. While the optical drive does add some weight to the unit, CRN Test Center engineers believe that many users would never want a mobile computer that's missing a built-in optical drive, so this convertible tablet is ideal for such users.

Something else the M400 has that its peers don't is Toshiba's EasyGuard technology, which is a series of hardware and software enhancements that improve security, connectivity and ease of use. Enhancements include several features that would appeal to vertical market users, including hard disk protection, a spill-resistant keyboard and a biometric fingerprint scanner. A built-in accelerometer detects when the tablet is falling and temporarily parks the hard drive's head. Vibration-dampening materials further protect the hard drive against shock and impact, while integrated impact bumpers in the outer corners further protect the internal components.

The M400 joins the HP unit in only offering stylus-based input. No finger touch-screen option is available.

The unit includes 1 Gbyte of memory and a 12.1-inch XGA (1,024 x 768) display. The display is driven by the Intel 945GM chipset, which dynamically borrows up to 128 Mbytes of system memory as needed. Like the other two units, the M400's display automatically switches between landscape and portrait modes depending on configuration. A one-touch presentation button makes it easy to switch the display to an LCD projector or external monitor. Six buttons built into the display bezel offer easy access to commonly used functions and a stylus holder is built into the side of the unit.

The M400 also features a 100-Gbyte SATA hard drive, three USB 2.0 ports, one FireWire port, an RGB output, one PC Card slot, a 5-in-1 media card reader, a V.92 modem and stereo speakers.

A Gigabit Ethernet NIC provides wired connectivity, and wireless support for the 802.11a/b/g protocols is also included. Bluetooth connectivity is optional.

Like the Lenovo unit, the M400 can be configured with integrated high-speed WWAN connectivity via Evolution Data Optimized (EV-DO) technology for Verizon's Wireless BroadbandAccess service.

Like the HP tablet, the M400 also features an integrated TPM chip for added security.

The M400 measures 11.6 inches wide by 9.8 inches deep by 1.53 inches high and weighs 4.5 pounds, which is about the same as the HP unit in every respect, except that Toshiba squeezed in an optical drive. The unit costs $2,199.

Toshiba offers several accessories, including a docking station for desktop use, extended service plans of up to four years, various types of input devices, different kinds of optical drives, mobile power supplies and a global AC power adapter. An optional 6-cell expansion battery mounts underneath the unit, extending battery life from up to five hours on the standard battery to 10 hours with the expansion battery. Solution providers also find opportunities to bundle the tablet with Toshiba's extensive line of high-profit projectors for business travelers.

Toshiba partners also find ample service opportunities.

"Microsoft's OneNote comes on the M400, and it's a very powerful product. But most users don't know much about its capabilities. We provide pre- and post-sales training for our customers so they can get the most from their new tablet," said Stephen Ale, COO of Richards Computer, a Fairfax, Va.-based solution provider that sees the education market as its largest vertical for tablet PCs."We've also worked with some form companies to create digital forms for utility companies so that their drivers can simply check off the appropriate boxes right on the tablet," he added.

Next: The bottom line THE BOTTOM LINE
All three convertible tablet computers impressed Test Center engineers with above-average quality and similar feature sets. Price/performance came out roughly equal, as performance ratings were similar and the difference in list prices varied by only $112 between the lowest- and highest-priced units.

Lenovo garnered points for being the smallest and lightest unit tested here (excluding its expansion base), giving it a boost for ease of use. But by leaving out a built-in optical drive, that win came at the expense of features. Toshiba's choice to include a built-in optical drive—a key decision that in the eyes of Test Center engineers creates a more versatile tablet PC—made it heavier than Lenovo's X60 but on par with the weight of the HP unit, giving the M400 the advantage on features.

Users seeking the combined functionality of a notebook computer and tablet PC in a single unit will prefer the Toshiba Portg M400-S4032 over the HP Compaq tc4400 and Lenovo's ThinkPad X60, which affords the lowest estimated partner margins among the three. But if low weight is a priority, then Lenovo is the way to go.

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