There’s a lot about write-on-image technology and Tablet PCs that I really like, and watching tablet enthusiasts like Robert Scoble and Steve Gillmor rave about their Tablet PCs makes me feel distinctly ancient with an actual hinged-screen laptop. Mine is a recent model Apple PowerBook with a gorgeous 15″ screen and cool aluminum finish, but still, having to type on a keyboard, and figure out the logistics of angling the screen “just so” for the best view are really just amazingly user-unfriendly. We don’t notice because, of course, we’ve just come to accept that it’s part of the user experience.
Further, a true confession: while I masquerade as a businessman, I’m still secretly a geek at heart, and so when I recently talked with the market relations team at Lenovo, the company that bought and absorbed IBM’s PC Division, I couldn’t help but ask if there were eval X41 Tablet PC units available. There were, I got on the list, and I received my loaner system this afternoon.
My out-of-the-box impression, something that used to be all important to the industry, was excellent. This baby is small and light, weighing in at just over 3 pounds with an approx. five hour battery life and bright 12″ LCD screen.
Then I started trying to actually use the system…
It’s light, it’s small, but it’s darn slow as received from the Lenovo team. The configuration has a 1.5Ghz Pentium M (mobile CPU) and presumably 512MB of RAM, though it actually reports 504MB to my puzzlement. Yeah, I know, you shouldn’t try to run WinXP Pro without 1GB of RAM, but a stock configuration should be at least reasonable usable.
More importantly, it’s still saddled with Windows XP Pro, which, while it’s a reasonable operating system for a lot of keyboard-based use, really isn’t too well adapted for Tablet PC interaction, in my opinion.
A quick skim of various Tablet users confirms that most seem to spend well over 50% of their time in “laptop” mode (versus “slate” mode). I really understand their experience, having tried to surf the web, enter terms into browser form fields, and even launch a simple FTP browser to grab some files off a server in “slate” mode. Typing on a keyboard may seem tedious and goodness knows keyboards as interface devices have been around since the very dawn of modern technology without many improvements, but they’re still a darn sight more efficient than using pen strokes.
What’s more frustrating is that it’s apparent that more software needs to be made “Tablet PC aware”, or something like that, because when I downloaded Firefox, I found that it was far harder to use than Internet Explorer. IE, for example, knew how to pop up the Tablet PC Input Panel when I was in the address bar, but Firefox didn’t, requiring me to launch the Input Panel utility from the toolbar, quite a distraction and tremendously tedious when trying to fill out any sort of form or even app dialog boxes.
(On the Tablet PC, you basically hover the mouse cursor over an enabled input box and a small ‘input” icon appears. Click on it and the Tablet PC Input Panel is launched, given the option of writing with the pen, entering individual letters with the pen, or tapping on a mini-keyboard)
Maybe I’m a bit jaded because it was a rather remarkable seventeen years ago when I was at HP’s R&D Labs and we were working on “write on image” systems, with actual desks that had multiple large monitors built into them, each of which had a writeable, interactive surface. All build atop an early version of X11, it nonetheless hinted at a completely electronic office environment that still isn’t quite here, though we’re getting closer.
Nonetheless, I really want to like this Tablet PC computer. In fact, I really want to buy one for my own use. They’re light and the entire “write on screen” form factor is brilliant. Further, the handwriting recognition is impressively accurate without having to do any training of the system whatsoever (though I wish I could switch into Palm’s “graffiti” input environment so I could edit, add punctuation, digits, etc.).
But I have to be candid. WinXP for Tablet PCs isn’t making me love the X41, and I’m finding the overall performance quite underwhelming, reminding me of my old 800Mhz PC more than anything. Further, trying to run programs like AOL ‘s Computer Check-Up program just to be told that “Because of monitor or display adapter limitations, your computer cannot run” certain software is just embarrassingly braindead.
There are lots of Tablet PC fans on the ‘net, including the Tablet PC Team Blog from Microsoft. Maybe they’ve drunk a different flavor of Kool-Aid or something? The Lenovo X41 Tablet PC is also currently on backorder with people complaining about being stuck on waiting lists it’s so popular.
Tell me, Tablet PC fanatics, what am I missing here? Is the problem with the X41 itself, or is it an OS issue and if I just installed my Windows Vista beta onto the X41 I’d really get a sense of what’s possible with this technology and be more excited about it?
Or should I instead wait for the technological harmonic convergence of Mac OS X Tiger with its built-in handwriting recognition system and the migration to an Intel platform to bring me what I think I really want; a Mac PowerTablet instead?
And wouldn’t it be grand to have a Tablet computer that could boot into either operating system, depending on your needs at the time…