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A Tour of the Tablet PC

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Close to a quarter of a century after we became a keyboard-centric society with the introduction of the personal computer, the pen is again trying to become mighty, thanks to the tablet PC.
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Spearheaded by Microsoft and its Windows XP Tablet PC Edition—and aided and abetted by hardware vendors such as HP, Toshiba, Acer, Fujitsu, Panasonic, Electrovaya, and others—pen-based computing is attempting to drag itself out of its traditional niche markets into the mainstream.

But this isn't the pen-based computing we knew and hated five years ago. All of those involved have actually worked hard to make it (gasp) usable.

And they've finally acknowledged that the keyboard also has its place; many tablet PC models are convertibles, easily morphing from tablet to a capable laptop.

How do they do it? Let's take a tour of both the hardware and software that makes up a tablet PC and find out.

It Starts with the Box

A typical convertible tablet PC combines the benefits of laptop and tablet. Acer, Toshiba, Panasonic, and Fujitsu have opted to present them as ordinary-looking laptop computers, while models from HP and Electrovaya feature slate-like units that dock onto keyboard modules.

In each case, you reveal the tablet personality by swiveling the screen (originally 10.4 inches, now up to 14 inches on some models) and laying it flat to cover the keyboard. The docked units can also just be lifted off their keyboards.

Now you have, basically, a naked screen. Not too useful—so vendors have placed some handy controls around the edges of the bezel. Standard equipment includes four little buttons that substitute for the Enter key, up-arrow key, and down-arrow key, and a fourth button that generates various keystrokes (Ctrl+Alt+Del, for example), depending on vendor configuration. You can reprogram these buttons; some tablets even have an extra button that you use in combination with the standard quartet for extra functionality.

Somewhere on the periphery you'll also find a power button, along with one or more slots for PC cards, compact flash cards, secure digital cards, memory sticks, or combinations thereof. There's at least one USB port, of course, and an Ethernet port, and maybe a modem port, IEEE 1394 (FireWire) port, or Infrared port. Oh, yes—and perhaps a volume control, plus connections for headphones and microphone. And somewhere in or on the bezel, there's usually a sheath or other holder for the stylus.

These puppies have very busy edges!

The screen has to be both a capable display and digitizer sturdy enough to bear the weight of the user's hand. That's right—you rest your hand on the display when you're writing, just as though it were a pad of paper!

Because a sheet of paper is usually taller than it is wide, the default orientation of a laptop screen feels all wrong when you try to write on it. Tablets come with a handy utility that you can use to rotate the image to portrait view when you flip into tablet mode. Some models can even be configured to make the change automatically.

Most tablet PCs are also equipped for wireless networking—after all, who wants a clipboard that's tethered to a network cable?

That's the box—a 3–4 pound laptop you should now be holding like a clipboard, stylus in hand, ready to scribble on. But it's pretty useless without some tweaks to the operating system to let you use a pen instead of mouse and keyboard.

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