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PenLab: Electrovaya Scribbler Tablet PC

Mobile energy experts create the Energizer bunny of Tablet PCs (June 2003 issue)

Electrovaya? Aren't those the guys that make those long-lasting battery pads? Yes, they are. The company is located in Missiauga in the Canadian province of Ontario, and its stated mission is to be a leading provider of power technology for all sorts of portable devices, from notebooks to phones and wireless devices. The company is known primarily for its patented SuperPolymer Lithium Ion technology which, in the form of thin pads that sit under a notebook, can provide up to six times the power of a standard laptop battery. The PowerPad 120 and 160 have been available for a couple of years in computer stores. The same technology is used for long-lasting phone replacement batteries. At the base of all this is Electrovaya's SuperPolymer process that yields 470 watt hours per liter, a very high energy density which provides the PowerPad 160 with roughly 160 watt-hours of energy. To put that in perspective, the six first generation Tablet PCs we previewed in our December 2002 issue had capacities between 27 and 43 watt-hours. Always on the lookout for new opportunities (Electrovaya is also involved in a variety of future technologies, such as hybrid cars, marine power sources, and medical applications), the company decided to combine its PowerPad with a Tablet PC slate. The result is the Electrovaya Scribbler, a Tablet PC with two-and-a-half to three times the watt-hours of your standard Tablet PC.

The Scribbler is a tablet computer with a 9 x 11.3 inch footprint and a thickness of 1.2 inches. It weighs about 4.2 pounds and comes in three different configurations--basic, standard, and premium. The basic US$2,299 SC 300 model has a 733MHZ processor, 256 MB of RAM and a 20 GB disk whereas the SC 500 and SC 800 models have 866MHz chips, 512 MB of RAM and a 30GB disk. The difference between the US$2,699 SC 300 and US$2,899 SC 800 is the size of the patented SuperPolymer Lithium battery. The top model has a monster 120 Watt-hour pack whereas the SC 500 shares a still very powerful 96 Watt-hour version with the SC 300. The SC 800 also has a built-in fingerprint scanner. Unlike some of its sculpted competitors, the Scribbler is a basic black box with rounded corners. The entire backside is completely flat without a single latch or connector. That's because it is the bottom of a SuperPolymer Lithium Ion power back that has almost the same footprint as the computer itself. The four sides of the Scribbler are equally flat and unencumbered with any openings. It took me a while to realize that you can pry open the gray rubber strips along the top and right of the device. The right side one reveals a USB port, a mini VGA connector, microphone and speaker jacks, a RJ-11 jack for the built-in V.90 56kbps modem, and a RJ-45 jack for the internal 10/100 LAN. The top reveals a Type II PC card slot and a standard CF Card slot as well as a second USB port and an IEEE-1394 Firewire port. The power jack is at the bottom of the device. The two gray rubber strips make for an elegant looking solution, but if you connect one or more cables to the Scribblers, they sort of hang open. The strips are removable, so I suppose the idea is that you remove them when you use the unit in the office with lots of cables attached to it, and plug them back in when you take the Scribbler on the road.

Unlike most Tablet PCs, the Scribbler doesn't have any conventional buttons. All controls, located to the upper left and right of the 10.4-inch XGA display, consist of very small holes that you activate with the tip of the pen. They are similar to the reset-pinholes you find on many notebook computers and PDAs. The good news here is that they probably won't wear out or break as quickly as buttons. The not-so-good news is that you must use the pen as you can't activate them with your fingers. They are, however, intelligently chosen and labeled. The four buttonholes on the left call up the onscreen keyboard, the Journal utility, the Windows Start menu, and Alt/Ctl/Del. To the right are power, screen rotation (four rotations, not just a toggle between portrait and landscape), escape, and a programmable function button. At the lower left corner of the screen is a small four-way joystick that also works as an Enter key. The Scribbler has two speakers and comes with one relatively short pen for the unit's Wacom digitizer. The pen fits nicely into its garage at the top left of the Scribbler. Our top-of-the-line SC 800 also came with a fingerprint scanner that works with the included Softex OmniPass Fingerprint recognition security application.

Though it looks and feels tough and seems well made, the Scribbler was not designed to be a rugged device for use in driving rain or other adverse environmental conditions. It doesn't have any rubber bumpers and the inside isn't sealed off. However, unlike some of the lighter weight Tablet PCs which might scratch or dent easily, the Scribbler looks like it doesn't need to be handled with kids' gloves. This is a tool for the job, just not one for outside where sealing is needed. Not without a protective cover and case anyway.

In use, the Scribbler differentiates itself from the crowd in two important ways. First, though it doesn't seem to have a fan, this is far and away the coolest running Tablet PC I have ever used. It barely warms up at all. How do they do that? Second, the Scribbler's SuperPolymer Lithium battery sure makes for an entirely different computing experience. While even powerful conventional notebook batteries run down all too quickly, the Scribbler's power meter icon barely moves at all. After a good hour of use it was only down to 92%. Half an hour later it was at 88%. And so on. After a while you stop checking because you know the battery will last all day. It's a wonderful feeling. With conventional notebooks and even Tablet PCs, I often feel like they are not truly mobile devices at all; their batteries simply tide you over until you find the next power outlet. The Scribbler, on the other hand, relieves that anxiety. It's like being plugged in without the power cord. If there's one fly in the ointment it's that when the battery finally does run down it takes a good long time to charge it all the way back up. We're talking four hours or so. No big deal if you plug it in overnight, but you can't simply get a full recharge while waiting for your next connection at the airport.

Electrovaya ships the Scribbler with a separate USB keyboard, one of the best we've seen. It is a very thin and very light, yet feels solid and definitely not chintzy or toylike. Amazingly, though the whole keyboard measures just a bit over 10 x 5 inches, it is actually full-size. They managed to do that by making all the keys that count, i.e. all the QWERTY keys, full size while making the subsidiary keys narrower, a trick that we recommended to compact notebook manufacturers for years. Extremely clever, and yet another testimony to this company's knack for getting it right.

So that's the Electrovaya Scribbler, a Tablet PC from an unlikely source, yet one that sure knows what matters when you take computing on the road.

Electrovaya itself, of course, supplies the power pack. The Scribbler's body and electronics come from an unspecified "Tier One ODM," likely one of Taiwan's experienced notebook makers. Everything looked neat and clean on our pre-production model, and only the fingerprint reader chip appeared a bit like an afterthought. I was particularly impressed with how well the SuperPolymer battery is integrated into the overall design. It truly couldn't have been done any better. Likewise, the Scribbler is completely devoid of that "science project" feel so prevalent in many products that demonstrate a new technology. It's simply a Tablet PC slate with a battery that lasts a whole lot longer. Other than that, it works like any other Tablet PC, if not better. The 866 MHz processor feels unusually speedy for a device in this class, the disk is completely silent at all times, the screen is bright and solid, and everything worked just as advertised and expected.

When we first heard of the Electrovaya Scribbler we didn't know what to make of it. Was it just a technology demonstration? An oddball one-trick pony? Not at all. A few days with the Scribbler made us believers. This is a real product, an expertly designed and manufactured Tablet PC, but one that runs a lot longer on a charge thanks to its unique battery. It's simply wonderful not to have to worry about running out of power for a long, long, long time. - [Click here to go to Electrovaya's website]