Lenovo IBM X41 Tablet PC: I’m Not Impressed

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…

13 comments on “Lenovo IBM X41 Tablet PC: I’m Not Impressed

  1. I found this review because I was trying to find reasons to move to a tablet PC. However, after reading this, I’m not sure that I would really want to.
    Forget about the fact that the PC was running slowly for you. What is interesting to me is your interaction with the computer and it doesn’t seem that promising.
    It sounds like you’d have to tinker to get it to work with existing apps (the Firefox issue you mentioned). I like to tinker (I run Linux on a couple of boxes) but what I’m in the market for is a production unit.
    Thanks for the review.

  2. Dave,
    It just seems that you are now too acclimated to using your Mac and using applications made for keyboard/mouse input and that is fine. It takes some time using some programs mad for ink to really see the full potential of a Tablet PC. Sometimes it is even harder when you have a convertible unit, because you are tempted to fall back to the keyboard instead going with a full ink experience. I generally try to tell new users to give it a go using their Tablet with just the Stylus for a week and see how it goes.
    Firefox is very Tablet PC unfriendly. One browser you may try that works great with the tablet is Maxethon( http://www.maxthon.com/ ), which adds Tabbed browsing, mouse gestures and pen gestures as well for quickly navigating pages and closing tabs as well as some other features.
    If OneNote is installed on your Tablet give it a go, it is amazing what this program can do. I use every day for recording meeting notes , conference calls, and just taking daily notes. If you record audio the auto-bookmarking feature is a great time saver.
    If you live out of Outlook there is a great third party application called Tablet Enhancements for Outlook or TEO as it is known in the Tablet PC community. A new version 3.0 is coming soon…
    Another must have application that I use for day to day planning is Mindjet’s MindManager Mindmap software great for making outlines, planning projects. There is a free trial of this as well.
    There are also some great free applications for the Tablet PC worth checking out like the Experience Pack( http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/downloads/tabletpc/experiencepack/default.mspx ) and Education Pack( http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/downloads/tabletpc/educationpack/default.mspx). Each has great free software showcasing the Tablet PCs abilities.
    For more TabletPC applications head to http://www.tabletpcpost.com/.
    The new abilities of Vista on the Tablet is pretty good. The TIP (Tablet Input Panel) is much better in recognizing characters and can be hidden to pop out from the side. It isn’t fully integrated into Vista yet and won’t probably see effects like Aero Glass and some other features until Beta 2 comes out this November. But the overall Tablet experience with the addition of ‘Flicks’ is a great addition (quick motions to add cut,paste,copy, etc.)and the new scrolling drag and scroll features added.
    I agree a MAC/Windows Dual Core/Dual boot system would be a killer piece of hardware/software, but I think one would probably gravitate to using one more than the other depending on the individuals needs. We won’t know until one is created…
    If you would like any help in using the Tablet PC or would like any pointers feel free to contact me.

  3. Being associated with the a consumer group or an NGO, is fascinated to know about the Lenovo new product announcement on Tablet PC.
    The consumer group namely CAP (Consumer Association of Pakistan) will be interested to evaluate the product and publish it with the consumer publications, with ratings/reccomendations.
    Lenovo please let me know the cost of evaluation units by a consumer group an NGO (non government organisation) with all the documentation, warranties, and product offerings.
    Haroon Rashid
    Cell +92.300.9215711

  4. C’mon, Dave, it’s totally unfair to criticize the Tablet PC platform (much less Lenovo) because *Firefox* isn’t tablet-friendly. That’s like criticizing Apple for Mac Word 6.0.

  5. And yet, Paul, surely if I have a computer that’s ostensibly even better than a regular PC, isn’t it bogus if I have to keep figuring out individual workarounds because applications have to be custom recoded for the Tablet PC?

  6. Dave, interested to know whether you think its the hardware or the OS that is letting you down. Seems like its mostly the OS. Let me know please as I am looking at the x41 vs other Tablet PCs.

  7. My company is just buying a new load of x41s and I have had one for about 2 months now and I like it. The speed thing has a fix for it so it runs at max on power, which speeds it up. If using like a desktop replacement, it works almost as fast as some desktops, but as a tablet pc, it’s power lasts forever – well almost. It goes into StandBy in a wink and comes back out as fast – brilliant. I use it on the plane in slate mode with the pen doing emails when there is enough room sometimes to open it into laptop mode, so it’s brilliant. If I have one criticism though, it is with the Windows XP Tablet PC OS version which I think needs some more development time as it gets a little flaky sometimes. But the x41, I like it.

  8. now it’s mid 2010. new 7″, 5″ tablets running android and around $200 from china will hit like a tidal wave. just watch

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