Tablet PCs rock! (with Windows XP SP2)

I’ve always been sceptical about the market for a tablet PC, but after having worked with some of the Microsoft consultants who use them, I’ve been converted to the idea that these are a really good business tool (for certain users).

It should be noted that tablet PC usability is greatly improved once Windows XP service pack 2 is applied as the full version of SP2 contains all the components necessary to update the operating system to the Tablet PC 2005 release (codenamed Lonestar).

The particular model that I’ve seen is the Toshiba Portégé M200. It seems to offer most of the features I would expect in a modern notebook PC (albeit without any legacy ports and with a separately attached optical drive), as well as a screen that rotates to hide the keyboard and convert the device to a tablet. As I write this, I’m trying to get my hands on a tablet PC to get some real life experience, but the following notes were taken as one of the Microsoft consultants demonstrated his M200 to me:

  • The stylus pen is pressure sensitive, allowing it to be used just like a conventional pen for bold or light text. A button allows right-clicking with the stylus, which also includes an eraser on the top end.
  • Ink annotations can be used to review a document and literally write on it in a variety of colours as well as to highlight text (as one would with a highlight marker pen). I was really impressed when I (as a non-tablet PC user) received a document that had been annotated in this way and Microsoft Office Word 2003 was able to read the document complete with all the annotations. One point to note – annotated with Word’s reading layout enabled, the annotations will not be anchored in the in the correct location for printing – annotating a document using the print layout will resolve this issue.
  • Searches may be made on words (even those written in digital ink), and it is possible to highlight digital ink and select a convert handwriting to text option. Pen-enabled applications such as Microsoft Office applications and Notepad will perform handwriting recognition as written, even suggesting alternatives where they are not clear as to the exact word being used (and learn new words as they are selected). As alternatives to continuous handwriting recognition, single character recognition and a soft keyboard are both available; and on non-SP2 tablet PCs, writing takes place anywhere on the page, rather than in a predefined area. A particularly neat feature is that annotations may be grabbed, copied as text and pasted.
  • The M200 has a series of additional buttons situated around the display which can be used for up, down, escape, etc., as well as context-sensitive items such as cut and paste. Additionally, with the use of an application called Symbol Commander, stylus symbols can be used to perform commands (e.g. exit).
  • With a tablet PC, Microsoft Office OneNote 2003 really becomes a killer application. I have started to use it in meetings on my notebook PC (and think it is probably the best thing that Microsoft have done to Office in years), but the tablet PC just makes it that little bit more usable – allowing the addition of diagrams and really using OneNote as a replacement to the Black ‘n Red wirebound A4 ruled notebook that I normally carry everywhere when I’m working!
  • There is still at least one usability issue – the cursor position in relation to the pen depends on the angle at which the tablet PC is being held (i.e. on a desk, or at an angle), and so when calibrating the stylus, it is important to calibrate in the position that the tablet PC will be used in most.
  • The installation of a few PowerToys (unsupported programs that developers work on after a product has been released to manufacturing) might be considered, including the Hold Tool (which allows holding down the pen for controls such as scroll bars, instead of a simple push on/off stylus action) and the Snipping Tool (which allows anything on screen to be cut out and pasted into a document – useful when researching). These are just two of the many PowerToys that are available from Microsoft.
  • One might think that battery life would be a concern, but real users are achieving between 3 and 3½ hours on a single charge (with no effort) and even more with tuned power settings (up to 6½ hours in one case). Screen timeout can be a nuisance, but there is a utility called monsus.exe that can be used as a shortcut to suspend the monitor, allowing approximately a 20% drop in power consumption when used habitually (e.g. when in an impromptu discussion).

I’m told that there were some significant issues with early tablet PCs but it seems that SP2, plus some PowerToys have allowed them to become a vehicle for increased productivity opening up features such as the ability to annotate documents and send electronic copy to clients or colleagues and unleashing OneNote to become a killer application.

More information about Windows XP tablet PCs is available at the Microsoft website.

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