PenLab: HP Compaq tc4200
HP removes the price premium with this competent Tablet PC convertible (Pen Issue #56)
The HP Compaq Tablet PC tc4200 is HP's first Tablet PC convertible. As such, it complements HP's innovative tc1100 whose unique personality--not quite slate and not quite notebook convertible--left some HP customers wanting for something a bit more conventional. And conventional the new tc4200 is, at least as far as notebook convertibles go. It is a handsome design in a corporate sort of way, all dark charcoal gray magnesium and devoid of any attempt to come across as playful or fancy. The overall design closely follows the school of design initially pioneered by Acer's little C100 Tablet PC convertible and then popularized by the Toshiba Portege 3500. This means that the tc4200 looks just like a standard ultralight notebook except that it has a swivel hinge in the center of the bottom of the display. This allows the upper part of the notebook to be twisted around by 180 degrees and then be folded down flat on top of the keyboard, LCD display facing up. The tc4200 can then be used as a slate computer.
Tried and true design
With HP joining the Tablet PC convertible market late, you might expect the tc4200 to include technological advances or innovations, but such is not the case. It is simply a new ultralight notebook that HP sells both as a standard notebook and as a notebook convertible. With the exception of the swivel display, the two versions are virtually identical. If there is anything unusual about the tc4200, it is that the Tablet PC version costs no more than the standard version. The often significantly higher price of pen-enabled computers has long be a detriment to more universal adoption of the Tablet PC. By not imposing a price penalty on the pen version, HP has leveled the playing field and removed that objection. This, of course, means that HP is subsidizing the Tablet PC version as it clearly costs more to make (Wacom digitizer, pen, swivel hinge, extra software). Thanks, HP. We appreciate it.
Those who decide to buy a tc4200 get a machine that is, while not revolutionary, very competent and technologically up-to-date. In the processor department, you have your choice between Intel Pentium M 740, 750 and 760 CPUs. Those processors run at 1.73, 1.86, and 2.0GHz, respectively. Starting RAM is a generous 512MB, upgradeable to 2GB. The Intel 915GM Express chipset and the Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 900 complement the speedy processor, making the tc4200 plenty quick and powerful enough, and certainly a good deal faster than first and second generation convertibles.
Superb Hydis display
The good news continues in the display department where HP sprang for the peerless Hydis wide-angle LCD. The Hydis has horizontal and vertical viewing angles of almost 180 degrees, meaning you can look at it from any angle and the display remains perfectly legible. That is always pleasant, but becomes a downright necessity when using the display in portrait mode where the narrow viewing angle of conventional LCDs becomes a significant liability. The display measures 12.1 inches diagonally and has 1024 x 768 resolution. This is still the industry standard, but we sure hope we'll see higher resolutions soon.
The tc4200's footprint of 11.2 x 9.25 inches is roughly the same as that of its primary competitors (Fujitsu T4000, Toshiba M200), and the same goes for its thickness of about 1.3 inches and its weight of 4.6 pounds. It is a handy machine.
One peculiar design aspect of the tc4200 is that it has both a Synaptic TouchStyk with left and right mouse buttons right below the space bar and a Synaptic TouchPad with its mouse buttons, making the tc4200 a device with four different sets of cursor/mouse control: TouchStyk, TouchPad, pen, and optional USB mouse. While I suppose some touch typists unwilling to learn new things might appreciate all those choices, I found them nothing but confusing, especially since they often got in each other's way. Fortunately, you can turn one or both off.
In terms of connectivity, the tc4200 has everything you expect from a modern Tablet PC. There are three USB 2.0 ports, one each on the left, back, and right. On the left are, in addition to one of the USB ports, the power switch, a wireless on/off button, a speaker, and a button that launches the HP Info Center when pushed. Along the backside you find video-out, a PS/2 port, plus Gigabit LAN and 56k modem jacks. On the right side are the two audio jacks plus both a PC Card Type II and a SD card slot.
The front features an IR port, and those still occasionally come in handy. The front also houses a compartment for an optional Bluetooth module. Missing is an internal optical drive. This is not something we consider mandatory in this class of notebook, but the Fujitsu T4000 has one, and it is no larger or heavier than the HP. You will find, however, a docking connector at the bottom of the unit. There is also a connector for an extended "travel battery." Speaking of batteries, the tc4200's packs 51 watt-hours, making it one of the more powerful ones. It also has a "Quick Check" button that shows battery charge via four green LEDs. The primary battery is supposed to last up to almost six hours. The secondary battery can add another five hours to that.
Pen and digitizer
Since the tc4200 uses a Wacom active digitizer, it needs a special Wacom pen. HP uses a customized one that is only 4.5 inches long (standard Wacom pens are about an inch longer) and fits into a slot inside the left bottom part of the LCD housing. The pen is released by pushing an eject button located below the LCD. For those concerned about losing the pen, it can be tethered to the computer via a special tether mount on the left side of the LCD. Personally, I prefer to see whether the pen is parked in its garage or not, and that's why I prefer Toshiba's solution (copied from earlier IBM ThinkPads) of having the garage in plain view to the left of the display.
There are four additional hardware buttons located above the right stop of the keyboard. You use them to increase and lower volume, mute sound, and bring up a presentation mode dialog--very handy if you give frequent presentations.
When you flip the display into tablet mode, it locks into place via a retainer hook. You now have use of a jog dial that lets you scroll up and down and also issue an enter command, an alt-ctl-del button, and three pen activated buttons (Q Menu, rotate, and input panel). Two internal microphones help increase voice recognition accuracy.
The 84-key keyboard is full-size and works well. The keys are black and clearly marked with large white letters. Holding down a function key assigns additional functions to some keys, including a numeric keypad. Those functions are printed in blue onto the keys, making for a somewhat more cluttered look than keyboards where functions are discretely printed along the frontside of a key (Toshiba uses that approach).
This being a corporate machine, HP gave the tc4200 good hardware and software security features. You can order the machine with an optional integrated Smart Card Reader. The HP Protect Tools software lets you configure numerous boot and security options. For example, you may want to disable the ability to boot the machine via external drives, or even disable the use of certain ports and slots. You can also set various passwords and password options. A second part of ProtectTools is the Credentials Manager. It allows a user to consolidate all passwords and network accounts into a single, encrypted user identity. Access requires authentication via passwords, Smart Card, or whatever other security features or peripherals a machine may have (such as a fingerprint reader). There is also an optional TPM "security chip."
Pricing starts at US$1,599 for a 1.73GHz model with a 40GB hard disk and 512MB of RAM. A 1.86GB machine with a 60GB disk, Bluetooth and the security chip goes for US$1,849, and a top-of-the-line 2GHz machine with a gigabyte of RAM will set you back US$2,350. All of those prices are very reasonable for the value offered by these machines.
If you are in the market for a competent premium brand notebook convertible in the 12.1-inch display class, the tc4200 is a good choice, although it must compete with the Fujitsu T4000 (internal optical drive), the Toshiba M200 (older design, but has much higher resolution 1400 x 1050 pixel display), as well as the new Lenovo.com Notebook convertible. The choice isn't easy. - www.hp.com
--Conrad H. Blickenstorfer