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Commentary by Pen Computing Magazine's editor-in-chief

By Conrad H. Blickenstorfer
Issue 53

Two years into its career, the Tablet PC is slowly entering mainstream computing. Healthy competition is rapidly improving pen computers beyond what we thought possible, but some vexing issues remain.
For those interested in pen computers it's really been the best of times for a while now. Sure, those who expected Microsoft's latest push into Tablet PCs to be a runaway, rock-the-world success are disappointed because most notebooks are still just that, notebooks, with not a pen in sight. And most people haven't even heard of Tablet PCs. But it looks like this time Microsoft is in it for the long haul and that's good news. According to our technology editor, Geoff Walker, some 450,000 Tablet PCs were sold in 2003, and for 2004 the number will be around 800,000. That's much less than some people expected, but it's a lot more than it could have been had Microsoft blundered or withdrawn. Just look at what's been happening:

Because we now have a stable, reliable platform in the Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, a lot of manufacturers that otherwise wouldn't have designed pen computers are now offering product.

As a result, prices have come way down and quality and performance have gone up. Before the Tablet PC, most vertical market pen computers were very expensive. Thanks to the Tablet PC initiative, components have become cheaper and more available, ordered quantities are larger, and companies that previously didn't have interest are now looking at pen computers and are starting pilot projects.

Another result is that pen computers are better than ever. We used to complain that pen systems were always at least a generation or two behind the state of the art. That's no longer the case. With more customers and more competition, Tablet PCs are now being updated almost as fast, and sometimes as fast, as consumer notebooks. Just look how quickly the Tablet PC vendors switched to Intel's Centrino technology that was revealed mere months after the platform's official introduction in November of 2002. And how quickly Intel's latest generation of energy-efficient M processors is finding its entrance into Tablet PCs. Or the terrific advances in display technology. Who'd have thought that a mere 18 months after the introduction of the first tablets with their 10.4 inch displays we'd see high res screens like Toshiba's 1400 x 1050 pixel LCD, or wide-angle marvels like the BOE Hydis displays that finally let you look at the screen from every angle and any direction. Read all about the amazing developments in Tablet PC LCDs on page 64 of this issue ("Wide-Angle LCDs and the Tablet PC").

Thanks to what appears to be a firm Microsoft's commitment to the Tablet PC platform we're also seeing healthy competition that is clearly improving the breed. Fujitsu, for example, has a decade-long history of making very good pen computers. But now with stiff competition from newcomer Motion Computing, their products are even better so as to keep pace with Motion's willingness to quickly adopt new technologies. In the rugged pen slate market the Tablet PC platform has revitalized the epic battle between WalkAbout Computer and Xplore Technologies. The latest product from both companies are vastly more advanced than earlier offering.

Finally, with pen technology finally having a firm and well supported standard, many manufacturers who in the past shied away from pens are now offering Tablet PC versions of their rugged notebooks and slates. That, again, means more competition, more choices, and better products.

But not all is well, and so it's time for some griping and whining about pet peeves.

One of the things that absolutely drives me nuts about the current generation of notebooks and tablets is the way power savings settings are implemented. I never know which button or key combination to push to make a machine either go into standby or hibernation or wake up from it. At this point I simply leave my machines on and hope they will wake up when I click a key or tap the display with a pen.

The problem, of course, is that the power requirements of ever faster processors and ever larger displays and disks is far outstripping the ability of batteries to provide enough juice. By and large, advances in almost all areas of technology have been following the general direction of Moore's Law which essentially says that ever 18 months the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits doubles. While Gordon Moore (who was a co-founder of Intel) was only talking of transistors, his prediction is more or less applicable to almost every other component of a computer, except battery power. Over the brief history of modern pen computing, disk drives have grown from 40 megabyte to 80 gigabyte (a factor of 2,000!), RAM memory has grown from 2MB to 2GB, and processor speeds from 33 MHz to almost 2,000 MHz. Displays went from murky monochrome 640x480 to brilliant color 1024x768 or even 1400x1000. Battery life, however, remained constant, if that. There simply hasn't been the same progress. We went from Nickel Cadmium to Nickel Metal Hydride to Lithium Ion--quite a bit of innovation, but not nearly enough to keep up.

As a result, the good old on/off button has almost vanished. It's been replaced by a whole army of buttons, measures, panels and controls all meant to prolong battery life when away from a power jack. There's usually some sort of multi-function power switch and you never know what it's going to do when you push it. There are usually a couple of function keys with cryptic icons that are supposed to put the machine into standby or hibernation or wake it up from those states. Windows has an elaborate "power options" control panel where you can create numerous custom power settings for various modes of operation. In some machines, the Windows power options are either complemented or replaced by special OEM power saver panels (when I click on "Power Options" on my Toshiba Portege Tablet PC, a message pops up saying "To adjust power management settings, close Microsoft Windows XP Power Options and use TOSHIBA Power Saver."). Often, those software settings seem to fight one another. Modern CPUs all have power saving modes in which they run at reduced speeds. That sometimes happens automatically and sometimes it is related to power options settings, or handled through yet another control panel. Finally, closing a notebook may put it to sleep, and certain activities may wake it up, like plugging in a USB device or wireless activity. I may have overlooked a few other helpful utilities and power savings measures, but the above are what I am usually fighting with.

See, the problem is that it almost takes a degree in computer science and a serious investment of time to set the machine just right. The defaults are usually geared towards maximum battery life which is nice, but I don't want a machine that turns off its display and disk after 30 seconds. I also don't want one that goes into hibernation in the middle of a business meeting, or one that decides it's time to go into standby just when I need it most.

One of the things I liked best about Microsoft's initial Tablet PC specifications was that the machine had to wake up within three or four seconds. Few ever did.

Bottomline for me: I never know what even my daily driver notebook will do when I push a button. Sometimes it goes to sleep and comes right back. Sometimes it won't come back and I have to reboot. I also found that if I remove a USB plug after it goes to sleep, chances are it won't wake up and I have to reboot.

All of this is totally unacceptable. The user should not have to pay with massive inconvenience for a manufacturer's decision to design machines that are unable to run on battery power for a reasonable amount of time without resorting to ridiculous power savings measures. It is not their fault that battery technology lags behind. But it is their fault to burden us with power conservation schemes that are unreliable and overly complex. I want a machine with two simple buttons. One says "Wake up." The other says "Go to sleep."

And as if all of this weren't bad enough, the notebook batteries themselves are a gigantic problem. First, they don't last more than a year or two, and then they need to be replaced. Second, since manufacturers refuse to use standardized batteries, the power packs cost a fortune, often more than what an older computer is worth. And third, they become ever more expensive because many now need onboard circuitry that works in conjunction with all the other power saver measures. It is a very unpleasant situation.

Another weirdness is the Tablet PC industries' love of the dreadful pivot mechanism currently used by every single notebook convertible. The mechanism has its merits, but the inherent instability and flex in this design makes it nearly impossible to use a pen in notebook mode. Has everyone forgotten the infinitely more stable and more elegant mechanisms pioneered by IBM in its early ThinkPads? Or by Vadem with the (once again resurrected) Clio? Unless those solutions are locked away behind insurmountable legal barriers, I sure hope we'll soon see a convertible with a screen that's stable enough so you can actually use it. I hope you enjoy this issue of Pen! -

Conrad H. Blickenstorfer, a former corporate CIO, is editor-in-chief of Pen Computing Magazine and Publication Director of Digital Camera Magazine. He can be reached via e-mail at