Your average full-function Tablet PC convertible -- for a lot less.
(by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer, February 2005)
It is in the nature of things that good products will be copied or imitated, and that the imitations are usually less expensive than the real thing. In technology it's often more difficult to determine what is the real thing and what is an imitation. After all, once a technology matures anyone can, within the boundaries of patent law, build and sell a device that initially originated from the big name brands. Kias and Hyundais have become credible cars even though they started as inexpensive copies of Japanese vehicles. These days, a Kia offers almost as much, and sometimes more, than a Honda, at a lower price.
Averatec itself, a computer company located in Orange County, Calif., has apparently thought of this. On their website it says, "Similar to the auto industry in the late eighties, the two-seater convertible was a car very few could afford, but everyone wanted. One manufacturer seized this opportunity and introduced a sleek and sexy roadster that anyone could own. The idea that you had to spend a fortune to enjoy the luxury of a roadster was gone." The car they are talking about is likely the Mazda Miata, an affordable roadster that also impressed with performance, design, quality and reliability.
Using that analogy, is the Averatec C3500 Tablet PC convertible indeed the inexpensive Mazda Miata of Tablet PC convertibles, giving you the same as a Porsche Boxster, but for much less? The C3500 certainly looks like one of the brand name notebook convertibles, it has good specs and many features, and it costs at least $500 less than equivalent big name products. It took a while, but I finally have an Averatec C3500 in front of me. In fact, it sits right next to my Toshiba Portege 3500, and in many respects, it looks a lot like it, too. Coincidence? Probably not. And the C3500 name is likely meant to invoke the Portege just as Mazda once came up with the name Miata that was almost the same as the Italian Siata sports cars and roadsters built until the early 1970s.
But just in case that you haven't heard about it, what is the Averatec C3500? It is a notebook computer that morphs into a tablet by twisting its display and folding it down flat onto the keyboard, LCD side up. Averatec uses the same screen pivot method that was initially employed by Acer and then adopted by every other notebook convertible maker. Toshiba, Fujitsu, Panasonic, Sharp, ViewSonic all use this same trick. Unlike the little Acer, the Averatec uses the 12-inch display that has become the standard for Tablet PC convertibles. And even though it is silver and the Toshiba Portege 3500 black, it's pretty clear that it was the Toshiba (the first notebook convertible with a 12.1-inch display) the folks at Averatec aimed their cross hairs at. Like Toshiba, Averatec placed the pen garage to the left of the display. The display latch mechanism is the same, as is the placement of many of the controls. This is clearly a derivative product.
Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. While the C3500 looks like most other Tablet PC convertibles, it has many of its own merits. Its matte silver magnesium/aluminum housing is elegantly and cleverly designed. This is an attractive machine that looks anything but cheap. It also comes nicely equipped. On the left side are the obligatory modem and 10/100 LAN jacks and a PC Card slot. And an S-Video TV-out connector that none of the others have. On the back are a standard SVGA connector and the USB ports. And that's not one or two but four USB ports. On the right side are audio in/out jacks and a volume scroll wheel (like the Toshiba). But there's also an internal DVD/CD-RW optical drive in this machine that's no larger (but heavier) than the Toshiba. That is a big, big plus for the Averatec. And instead of the usual single speaker, the C3500 has two. That way you can watch your DVDs and listen to the sound in stereo.
What about the standard Tablet PC hardware buttons? Apparently the standards have been relaxed a bit. The C3500 has just two buttons--one for 360 degree screen rotation in 90 degree increments and one to bring up an onscreen controls menu. There are no up/down buttons like in all first gen TPCs, nor a control stick like in the Toshiba Portege M200. Instead, the Averatec uses a Pocket PC-style up/down rocker that can also be used to issue an "enter." Apparently, Averatec believes that few people will ever use the C3500 in portrait mode. The once mandatory alt-ctl-del button is missing. It isn't really necessary in a device with a keyboard anyway. Another thing that's missing, at least compared to the two Toshibas, is additional card slots. The Portege 3500 has PC Card, CF Card and SD Card slots, and I use them all. I'll trade one CF Card slot for the much welcome DVD drive, but I'd like to have seen a SD slot.
Look deeper under the hood and it becomes obvious that the C3500 is definitely not a technology copy cat. While everyone else uses Intel processors, Averatec chose the Mobile AMD Athlon XP-M 2200+. This is a German-built low-power chip designed for use in thin and light notebooks. It's running at 1.67 GHz, with the "2200+" suggesting that it runs as fast as an Intel processor of that faster clock speed. We didn't run any benchmarks, but the C3500 was definitely a very quick performer. No problems there. We did, however, notice that the Averatec ran quite hot despite its large fan and heat exchanger. I do not like hot-running machines and have to hold that against the C3500. Tablets are meant to be carried around and held in your hands. I do not like it when a tablet gets too hot.
Since the Averatec uses AMD there is no Centrino sticker on the unit or Intel wireless technology inside. No problem as the C3500 comes with integrated 802.11g wifi. As with the Toshiba, there's a hardware switch to turn the radio on and off. Very handy.
Another departure from the Tablet PC norm comes with the digitizer. Although the pen looks like a Wacom pen and the digitizer acts like a Wacom digitizer, it is not a Wacom digitizer.It is made by UC-Logic of Taiwan, and the sleek pen actually has a battery in it.
Moving on to the display, the Averatec's 12.1-inch transmissive LCD is very sharp and very bright. It also doesn't have any of the slight iridescent shimmering of both Toshiba's display (even though, ironically, it is a Toshiba display). I count that as a plus as it is one of the more annoying aspects of the Porteges. However, just like the Toshibas, the Averatec's display suffers from a very narrow vertical viewing angle. Which turns into a very narrow horizontal viewing angle when you use the screen in portrait mode. Fact is that ever since the incomparable BOE Hydis display with its near 180-degree viewing angles in both directions became available, every other screen feels inadequate. Still, among non-Hydis displays, this is one of the best.
The Averatec takes a needless hit in the keyboard area, one that could have easily been avoided. Although the company calls the keyboard "full-size," it is not. The ever crucial QWERTY part of the keyboard is 95%-scale. A small difference, but one that can drive touch typists mad. The keyboard is just a little bit too small, and it didn't have to be. Normally it is only Asian companies that make this mistake.
Power is provided by a beefy 49 watt-hour lithium-ion battery. That, however, is only good enough for "up to three hours," and in our experience less. As the prodigious heat dissipation suggested, the speedy Athlon seems a power-hungry beast despite its various power savings technologies.
On the software side, you get Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005, Microsoft OneNote, Norton AntiVirus 2004, Roxio Easy CD Creator 6.0 and a number of utilities.
No review of the Averatec C3500 would be complete without a mention of its stylish dark blue carry case. At first sight it looks like it might be metal, but it's not. Instead, Averatec used what seems like flexible plastic with a very dense foam surface. It looks great and certainly protects the shiny C3500. No compartments for cables, disks or manuals, though.
The bottomline here is that the Averatec C3500's automotive metaphor should not be the Miata. For that it would have to be a more modern re-invention of an obsolete albeit classic theme. Instead, it's more like one of those ever better-equipped Hyundais or Kias. You get an awful lot for your money here. A full Tablet PC convertible with a DVD/CD-RW drive, plenty of disk and memory, a good display and fast wireless for just over $1,300? Wow. For that we're willing to forgive the keyboard and heat dissipation. What we don't know yet is how well the C3500 will stand up to the daily use and abuse a Tablet PC is likely to encounter. - www.averatec.com
Conrad H. Blickenstorfer
||Mobile AMD Athlon XP-M2200+
||Windows XP Professional Tablet PC Edition
||512MB expandable to 1GB
||12.1" XGA (1024 x 768) TFT
||60-80 GB hard disk and DVD/CD-RW
||11.6" x 9.8" x 1.57"
||5.6 pounds incl. battery pack
||49 WHr Lithium-Ion ("up to 3 hours")
||10/100base-T, 56K V.90 Modem, internal 802.11b/g wireless LAN radio
||4 USB 2.0, audio/mic, RJ-11, RJ-45, VGA, 1 PC Card Type II, S-Video
||starting at US$1,345