Bill Gates may see his daring Tablet PC vision become reality after all. His rosy predictions of mainstream penetration of Microsoft's tablet technology into laptops is slowly coming to be.
True tablets, such as HP's Compaq TC1100 and the Motion Computing machines are finding their niches; it'll be years before common computer users wise up to how great such thin-light slates are for casual home use. Until then, the convertible tablet rules the roost. Toshiba has found respectable success with their convertible offerings, as to a somewhat lesser extent has Acer. Averatec now offers a bargain-priced convertible tablet, and we'll soon see a very interesting new convertible from HP.
Tablet computing pioneer Fujitsu, whose Stylistic line has been the gold standard for such devices for almost a decade, released its convertible Tablet PC a bit behind the others -- a not-unexpected move for this generally conservative computer maker. Where their original T3000 convertible tablet was capable, it lacked a certain seriousness in its look and feel that may have convinced some corporate buyers to shy away. It was good, but we expected more from a company with Fujitsu's track record in pen computing.
All that has changed with the new T4000. With edgy 1.6 and 1.8GHz mobile processors, WiFi B/G internal wireless ethernet, Bluetooth, a gorgeous 12.1-inch Hydis wide-view display, and the first removable optical drive in any Tablet PC, this machine has injected some much-needed excitement into the Tablet PC scene. For all those who complained about the lack of speed and internal drives in first and second generation Tablet PCs, Fujitsu has a machine for you.
For this review, Fujitsu sent us their best-equipped model, sporting the 1.8GHz Intel Pentium M 745 processor, 512MB of DDR-333 RAM, a 60GB drive, 802.11G wireless, integrated Bluetooth, and Microsoft OneNote 2003 application preinstalled. Of course, if has XP Tablet PC Edition 2005 installed, the many benefits of which are detailed elsewhere in this issue. Though is comes standard on this top-shelf model, the multi-format DVD writer module was not ready in time for use to review; we used the combo DVD-ROM/CD-RW drive instead. Total system price is a reasonable $2499 direct, though this price will have inevitably dropped by the time you read this. Further customization is available at additional cost, as are port replicators and various media bay modules including batteries.
The Fujitsu T4000 exhibits both the personality of an IBM ThinkPad-esque business notebook and a high-end consumer media notebook. Though that sounds like a trainwreck of clashing styles, they made it work beautifully. The dark gray metal and light gray polycarbonate shell looks good in any environment -- once you take all those tacky Microsoft, Intel, and Bluetooth stickers off the wrist rests, that is.
In standard clamshell mode, this machine couldn't look more conventional if it tried. If subtlety is important to you, this computer may be the end of your search. For all intents and purposes, this is a regular compact notebook with a 12-inch display. All buttons are where they belong, though it may take you a minute to find the power button, as it is placed unconventionally on the lower-right corner of the display shell. The light gray, full-size keyboard feels great and includes a separate, rather than embedded, arrow key cluster -- no complaints here. A standard trackpad sprouting two large mouse buttons and a well-designed rocker for scrolling make the T4000 a joy to use in the common fashion.
Straighten the display to 90 degrees, spin it around, flip the solid black lid latch through the display, and click it closed with a reassuring thunk, and you have a tablet that offers more than any other currently on the market. Aside from the obvious benefit of having an optical drive onboard, you get front-mounted headphone and microphone jacks, a Memory Stick Pro slot, a SecureDigital slot, a smartcard slot for security, a PC Card slot, two USB2 ports, a mini-FireWire 400 port, wired Ethernet, infrared, modem, a Kensington security slot, and 15-pin analog video-out jack. With an acceptable weight of about 4.65 pounds, that's a lot of computer in an attractive and compact unit.
Niceties abound in this computer. When you switch to tablet mode, the optical drive automatically disables itself. Since the eject button is on the "bottom" when using it as a tablet, the risk of accidentally ejecting and damaging your disks is eliminated. You can override this feature, of course, if you need it on for some reason. The monochrome LCD status strip in on the display so it's visible when the unit is tablet-style, and of course all the de rigueur Tablet PC navigation buttons are here as well, usable in either orientation. The solid active pen lives in a discrete slot on the display face, and there is a tether point and cord for it if you are the pen-losing kind.
More RPM, please
In the performance department, this machine steps lively. The 1.8GHz T4000 is the fastest, most satisfying Tablet PC in my personal experience. Sure, one of those P4-equipped desktop replacement beasts would smoke it, but who can live with an hour of battery life and a travel weight hovering somewhere between a sack of potatoes and a set of encyclopedias? About the only things I'd say could use improvement is the garden-variety 4200-RPM 60GB hard drive that comes standard. With 5400-RPM parts all over the net and 7200-RPM parts coming online right now, there's little excuse to hobble such a fast machine with a stone-age drive mechanism. If I ordered a T4000 I'd make sure to stay clear of that pokey drive and select the optional 5400-RPM 80GB drive instead. It would be money well spent, as it would future-proof the computer for at least an additional year and perhaps more.
In either clamshell or tablet mode, the T4000 gives off an unmistakable air of seriousness, durability, and thoughtful design. Fire up the stunning display and your eyes are babied with the finest LCD panel technology you can buy today, the Hydis 180-degree view panel from China. It's bright, sharp, and it absolutely will spoil you forever; using any other panel, particularly on a tablet, suddenly makes no sense whatsoever. Our editors are unanimous in praising the Hydis display. It is a true leap forward in mobile technology that has received far less coverage than it deserves from our colleagues at other publications.
Then again, most other tech publications don't seem to really understand what the Tablet PC is all about, so perhaps it's not surprising that they miss such obvious advantages as a display that looks the same from any angle. As a reader of Pen Computing Magazine, you know the kind of old-school ignorance I'm talking about. I say the greatest weapon against these benighted souls is to buy and use a Tablet PC, reaping the many benefits only such an evolved mobile machine can offer. Sooner or later, the plodding masses will catch on. -