I’ve lived with tablet computers for the last year and have developed a pretty serious wish list for this category.
First, an observation: if you need an example of an ironclad bond between a user and their machine, look closely at tablet computer users. In my case, along with true persistent wireless connectivity it’s literally changed how I view personal computing. My tablet, a Lenovo X60 convertible notebook, is the first thing I pack when I leave my house. Leave my shaving gear at home? It happens. Forget to pack enough undershirts? JC Penney’s is a nationwide chain, so that’s not a problem either. Leave my power supply in my car? Well, I regularly get six hours of battery life out of my beloved X60, so I’ll get by until a kinsmen can overnight the power supply to me.
First, what’s right with my platform:
--Connectivity options: I routinely travel to some pretty remote places, so I still use dialup.
The version of the X60 convertible I use has an integrated EvDo modem that connects to Verizon’s national broadband network. If I really need broadband and don’t want to schlep my equipment to a Starbucks and connect there, I log on to the Verizon broadband network, using a $15 day pass. I can not imagine buying or using any notebook that does not include a modem as part of its basic configuration.
Persistent connectivity is a fundamentally a transformational feature. I decided last year to go “commando” on two convertible notebooks I’ve tested, A Lenvo X60 and a Gateway CX 200. I uninstalled every component of Microsoft Office except PowerPoint and began using Google’s web-based spreadsheet and Documents. Virtually everything I blog or write while on the road today is composed using Google’s online applications. My personal net takeaway from the experience has been that I’ve weaned myself from Office, but really wish Google would work on a web-based PowerPoint- or OneNote-compatible application. I need both of these applications when I go to local colleges. While web-based apps like I-Lighter come close to OneNote, it’s not the one-for-one replacement I andothers need.
--Modems and 802.11 transceivers: The basic building blocks that weld me to my computer. Easily attaching to multiple networks or ad hoc workgroups is something else that I routinely do with my convertible notebook. If I happen to be on a college campus talking to one or more lecture halls filled with students I may connect to several classroom networks in the course of a day and join one or more student workgroup networks after class. One day last week I connected to three different networks and two workgroups in less than one eight-hour period. Without software that detected the networks and let me save my settings in named files, I would have spent as much time fiddling with network settings as I did working with students. Oh, even when using dial-up, Google’s documents and Spreadsheets offers more-than-acceptable performance.
--Weight: I prefer that my notebooks, including the power supply, weigh less than the M16 I carried as a teenager. I use a padded backpack to carry my computer and its accoutrements today. Subcompact convertible notebooks fit easily and securely in backpacks. And, using a backpack to carry my notebook frees my hands for important things like carrying my coffee in and out of classrooms.
--Form: the subcompact form factor is one of the most important basics in convertible notebooks. I use my convertible like a paper based tablet, cradling it in one hand as I take notes in the front of a class room, or delivering PowerPoint-based lectures. Balance is an important part of a successful design in a small form factor computer, and becomes a critical factor in applications where bipedal mobility is part of the usage pattern.
--Configuration: 2GB of system memory is about right for convertible notebooks. It boosts performance and helps to enhance usability with Vista, which appears to be a great choice for tablet computing. Based on my experience, tablets equipped with fast 60GB or larger hard disk drives are ideal. I’ve been surprised at how quickly my hard disk has filled with course work, and various types of presentations.
Things I’d like to see in Convertible notebooks
Backlit keyboards: I’m not a touch typist, and I often use my notebook in dimly lit college lecture halls or in libraries. I’d love to see manufacturers begin offering backlit keyboards. Alternatively, companies such as Lenovo could install two small LEDs in the top of the screen case to improve keyboard illumination. Lenovo’s X60S compact does incorporate one LED on its screen case, but this feature is not included in the X60 convertible. Granted this would cut into the power budget, but I think it could be very valuable.
Improved Bluetooth Implementation: connecting Bluetooth enabled devices to most convertible notebooks is a hit or miss proposition today. This absolutely has to be improved.
Digital Pens: The stylus (which includes the equivalent of an electronic eraser) included with the Lenovo ThinkPad X60 is the best I’ve ever used. It was designed and tested against solid human factors concepts. I have large hands ( I wear a mens size 16 ring) and the heft on the X60 pen as well as its shape works well for me, even though I’m handicapped and have degraded fine motor skills in my left hand.
If you’re a tablet computer designer or enthusiast and want to have fun, dip into your pen pot, find a couple of old pens, dip their writing ends into hot wax, and offer your tablet and a selection of styli to male and female potential convertible notebook users. The results of this primitive field experience are pretty much what you would expect: women prefer small balanced input devices;Guys seem to gravitate to larger devices. There also seems to be some preferences for electronic pens that have faceted sides. I’d love to see convertible notebook makers offer a selection of aftermarket styli that would match individual tastes or preferences.
Better built-in audio or DVD players: I’m carefully watching Hewlett Packard right now. They recently launched a tablet notebook that’s got strong entertainment features, and which I think could be a hit in college dorms. If convertible notebook makers are serious about the academic computing market they’re going to need to recognize that their tablets will fast become primary computing platforms and need to fully support students in the classroom as well as in dorms or when used on a college quadrangles. This means displays will need to be tweaked for use indoors and outdoors and audio subsystems will need to be improved.
Student Discounts: Convertible notebook makers may need to offer student discounts on their hardware that are independent of academic platform adoption programs. What I’ve noticed is that convertible portables are gaining ground much like the Macintosh did in its early days. They’re being bought and put to use by people who are attracted to their capabilities and specific functionality. This is one of the prime reasons I believe convertible PC makers need to evangelize their products nationwide, not just at specific schools.
Improved Software: Google’s failure to provide a web-based PowerPoint application is a glaring error in its strategy. Many college lectures and curricula are now delivered via PowerPoint or using OneNote.
Speaking of OneNote: While it’s possible to convert single slides into OneNote format, it’s extremely difficult to easily create entire decks from this application.
Odd and Ends: The convertible computing ball is squarely on the side of Vista in Microsoft’s court. Microsoft is the one company that has the wherewithal and the need to evangelize convertible computing.
And that’s my screed on convertible notebooks so with apologies to Guy Kawasaki, it’s time to plant a thousand seeds and let 10,000 flowers bloom. Jim Forbes from my outside office on a glorious 68-degree sunny rural San Diego County morning.