OK, I’ve been tapping away on pen-based convertible notebooks long enough now to have some strong opinions. Up front: Pen-based computers aren’t a fad, they make good on most of the promises that were made about potable computers decades ago.
Some disclosure here:
I ‘m handicapped- I lost the fine motor skills in my left hand that’s needed to write legibly in a stroke. What I didn’t lose in my stroke was my sense of humor or my tenaciousness. One of the things you really don’t want to tell me is “you can’t do this or that.” I’m just stubborn enough to go ahead and try to prove naysayers wrong.
Having said that, Lenovo –which includes a bunch of people who I knew from my involvement in IBM’s Mobile Computing Advisory Council in the last century—remembered my interest in tablet computing and supplied me with a ThinkPad X41 early in 2006. I promptly sat down and starting mastering pen-based text input. My handwriting looks like crap, even when I print. If something is really important, I quickly reposition the screen to gain access to the keyboard and enter data the old fashioned way. About half of the time, I use my tablet, it’s in tablet mode, the rest of the time I just tilt up the screen and begin typing. My writing is now good enough that I can read my own simple shorthand
Pen-based computing and convertible notebooks have become a central component of my second-life as an occasional guest lecturer in classes on web-based businesses at local four-year colleges or as a student in classes and lectures on California history.
What I’ve really noticed however are growing numbers of tablet PCs on numeround college campuses.
Notetaking applications like OneNote and iLighter (available as a download from www.ilighter.com) -- rule. As a result of using a convertible computer in an academic setting I’ve also come to rely on Google Docs and Spreadsheets. If Google is serious about owning web-based applications it needs to provide an alternative to Power Point very quickly. Increasingly, most college profs use PowerPoint to distribute lecture notes and other course materials.
So, What does a Successful Convertible Pen-Based Computer Require?
Durability tops the list, particularly in academic computing and for most vertical applications where pen-based computing is being used. Because of the sheer number of screen opening and closing cycles, notebook makers need to use solid hinges on the screen case. Snap a hinge on a convertible notebook and you’re hosed. Just adding a digitizer screen to a notebook isn’t nearly enough to build a good convertible computer. In an ideal world, a notebook maker also reinforces the system case. I’ve taken three convertible notebooks apart so far. Both the Lenovo X41 and X60 tablets reflect the ThinkPad design team’s penchant for building sturdy products and the current Gateway convertible, the CX 200, is flat out one of the most rugged notebooks I’ve ever seen. Anecdotally, switching to a lightweight convertible notebook also forced me to recognize that I needed to carry my notebook in a sleeve in my backpack. And that isn’t a bad thing since its helps protect my hardware investment.
Battery Life may be the second most important factor in a successful convertible notebook. I’m only on campus long enough to lecture in two classes, or attend a couple of history classes.After that, I grab a quick lunch in the student center and beat feet of campus. The battery life of the systems I’ve tested average between five and six hours, so I often leave my charger in my parked and locked truck. The downside to the battery life issue is a weight penalty. If I were a student with a 16 or 18 credit class load, I’d probably opt for a convertible notebook that had eight or nine hours of battery life, or face he prospect of life as a classroom AC power outlet vulture.
Good system throughput is another key requirement in building a convertible notebook that meets the needs of students and business professionals. Based on my experience, a decent platform needs a fast hard disk drive, 2GB of system memory and a fast system board. Waiting light years for a system to boot up as a college instructor begins to lecture is a tedious experience and most current convertible portables have been upgraded with faster hard disk drives than first- and second-genration machines. One of the reasons I’ve been so positive ibn my reviews of the Gateway CX200 and the new Lenovo X60 tablet is that both companies have upgraded their systems with hard disk drives that are faster than their previous machines and which produce beter system throughput (performance scores).
Good screens are essential in good convertible notebooks. They need to be sharp enough to display small text used by some professors in annotating lecture notes and reading assignments. Furthermore, screens have to be bright enough to be easily read in uneven classroom and lecture hall seating. One of my favorite convertible notebook tests is to catch up on my email on a tree shaded bench outside a lecture hall. One of the weaknesses of past convertible notebooks has been tscreens that are difficult to read outside.
Solid WiFi networking is an essential component in a successful convertible notebook design. Antennas positioning within a system needs to be carefully thought out. The best solution to this that I’ve seen is in ThinkPad and a handful of other machines where the 802.11 or broadband wireless antenna is ben built into the upper part of the screen case. Although college lecture halls have a lot of line of sight angles, the walls of those rooms also have a lot RF signal sapping steel rebar. Academic computing is not an experience in one-way data flow, it’s full blown interactivity.
Ad Hoc workgroups are an intrinsic part of my convertible notebook uses. For some reason, the widespread use of ad hoc workgroups in educational computing was at first surprising.. Over the last year, I’ve grown accustomed to working with three discrete work groups: one for the classroom and one for each of the business plan teams I’ve participated in. Although this is more a function of operating system and applications software, I’d love to see a convertible notebook maker build a software gadget that guided users through the software setups needed to enable maximum work group productivity.
Ergonomics is one of the final things that I think goes into a good convertible notebook. A reliable, comfortable keyboard is must and a stylus that’s as comfortable as your favorite pen is icing on the cake. I never let anyone play with my tylus. It’s too likely to magically fly into that person’s shirt pocket when my back is turned.
Lastly, from what I’ve seen, I think Vista will have a huge impact on pen-based convertible computing. Vista is the one reason why anyone buying a new convertible notebook should order it 2GB of system memory, now—Jim Forbes on 01/01/2007.