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Tech Take-Apart
Tablet PCs
by chris
Sometimes I just have to jump into the deep end as an early adopter of cool computer technology. Generally I take a conservative approach to computing - either by building my own systems or upgrading a basic "bare-bones" system to fulfill whatever my special wish or need happens to be at the time. For example, I waited for the 2x CD-R drives before getting my own. On the other hand, I was doing sound, video capture, and graphic imaging back when systems were still running under DOS and Windows 3.1 (remember EGA displays? - wasn't 256 colors at 320x200 terrific?) However, I digress... notebooks are one area where BYOS (Build Your Own System) techniques generally just don't work and I have to "bite the bullet." At the same time, the limited expandability of notebook models means that they don't undergo the constant evolution of minor upgrades we see with desktop systems.

After lugging a seven-pound notebook computer around with its additional two-pounds of support hardware (power brick, spare battery, etc.) I was ready for something new (smaller and lighter = better.) Tablet PCs were already on my radar as a result of product announcements from Microsoft on development of new "Embedded OS" versions. While the features were interesting, what really got my attention was the reduced weight and size.

The small footprint and low weight are generally obtained by eliminating or restricting several common notebook options. First, reduce the LCD screen size to a 10 inch diagonal display to drop some of the weight and reduce the size of the backlight, extending the overall battery life. Next, eliminate built-in removable storage devices such as the floppy drive or CD-ROM drive. Sub-notebooks generally use a smaller keyboard and touchpad or mouse which helps to drop the weight some. Tablet PCs may eliminate these entirely, replacing the functions with either a resistive or electromagnetic type touch display.

Tablet PCs generally come in two flavors, the slate and the convertible. The slate styles usually lack an internal keyboard and touchpad, using only the screen for input when the unit is not docked. The convertible Tablet PCs are basically sub-notebook PCs with an integrated keyboard and touchpad, although the screen is still the primary input device when in the Tablet configuration.

With resistive screens, you can use your finger, a plastic stylus, a pen or just about anything - get a screen protector to avoid scratching these soft-surface displays! Electromagnetic displays use a digitizer integrated into the display that responds only to a special stylus which acts like a small radio transmitter. The stylus does not even have to touch the display have its position detected. Microsoft's "Digital Ink" technology allows these types of styli to have a pressure sensor in the tip so you can vary the weight (thickness) or darkness of a line with your stylus pressure, just like a pencil or marker would react to increased pressure. It can even support a digital eraser feature when you reverse the stylus! The Digital Ink enables sketching and quick note taking without giving up the keyboard and touchpad of a notebook.

Windows XP Tablet PC Edition has built-in handwriting and voice recognition to handle data entry, although Office XP can add these features to any system, as well as software such as IBM's ViaVoice and Dragon Naturally Speaking for voice recognition. There have also been several handwriting recognition packages around, although one of the best ones I found was Phatware's Calligrapher series. They make a variety of products for PDAs using Windows CE / PocketPC and Palm PDA platforms. I first worked with their Windows software on a Viewsonic Tablet PC (a ViewPad 1000) that shipped with the Embedded Windows 2000 OS. I upgraded memory and hard drive on my system then upgraded the OS to Windows XP Professional. The hard drive upgrade involved opening the case (and voiding any warranty), but sometimes the factory choices just aren't enough. So what do I use for my everyday notebook? One of the 3.2 pound Acer Tablet PCs.

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