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PenLab: Motion Computing M1400

Speed, connectivity, and an awesome wide-angle display (December 2004 issue)

What can you say about Motion that hasn't already been said? This is a company established by a highly qualified group of former Dell executives for the explicit purpose of making hardware for Microsoft's Tablet PC project. The Motion people believed in that idea, so much so that they never deviated from their plan to make the best possible pen slate even when others got cold feet and migrated to notebook convertibles instead. It's also a company with enough confidence in this market and in their own abilities to engage in a head-on competition with Fujitsu PC Corporation, a company that has been quite successful in making and selling vertical market pen slates for well over a decade. No one would have been surprised had Motion crashed and burned even before it got off the ground, but it didn't. The company is now in their own third generation of hardware, has been more successful than most in the fledgling Tablet PC Edition market, and has shown more willingness and ability to quickly pass the latest technological developments on to their customers.

This technological edge, in fact, has almost become a tradition for Motion Computing. When everyone else entered the market with smallish 10.4-inch displays, Motion was the only company to offer a much more pleasant 12.1-inch LCD, the only one available in a slate. And when the Tablet PC industry was slow in switching to Intel's new Centrino technology (which came at a truly obnoxious time for the Tablet PC OEMs, just a few months after the initial launch of the tablet PC platform), Motion took the lead and almost immediately made Centrino-equipped models available. It was this sort of forward-thinking and willingness to quickly adopt new technology for the benefit of customers that earned Motion the coveted Pen Computing Magazine Editor's Choice award for best pen tablet for 2003.

However, time doesn't stand still and, apparently, neither does Motion. Ever. The subject of this review is the M1400, Motion's third generation product after the initial M1200 and M1300. Once again Motion chose to improve the product by using new and better technology rather than simply making design changes for the sake of it. As a result, the M1400 has virtually the same overall design as the original models. There are small changes here and there, but anyone who knows Motion will immediately recognize the M1400. Which means that the M1400 is still the same sleek slate with an 11.7 x 9.4 inch footprint, a thickness of less than an inch, and a weight just over three pounds. The device looks sleeker and the display larger due to slim black bezel that now surrounds the LCD. Both the LCD and the bezel are under the protective glass surface. This makes it much easier for the pen to navigate along the perimeter of the display, something that is a notorious weakness of most Tablet PCs equipped with Wacom digitizers. The overall button and interface arrangement remains unchanged. The chrome controls have changed just a tiny bit, with the icons now embossed in the buttons rather than being silkscreened next to them. As before, all major interfaces are placed along the bottom of the device: modem and LAN jacks, video-out, a docking connector, two USB 2.0 ports, FireWire, and audio in and out. As before they are open as opposed to sitting behind doors or flaps. Motion slates are durable and well built. They are not meant to be rugged devices. I need to say that I have never been crazy about those chrome buttons Motion uses. They should not be that shiny and reflective. The icons, likewise, should be redesigned as their meaning is not obvious. A square, a triangle, a cross, and a circle?

What has changed, and that comes as no surprise, is the stuff under the hood. The processor has been upgraded once again, this time to an ULV ((ultra low voltage) 1.1 GHz Pentium M 733. Another part of the Centrino trio has been upgraded as well. The M1400 comes with the Intel PRO/Wireless 2200 edition that supports 802.11b as well as g. The older models came with the 2100 circuitry that only supported the slower 802.11b standard.

The biggest change, however, is the display. Motion has always been a leader in that department, first with its insistence on offering a large display, then with the excellent "View Anywhere" display option. That display used some proprietary optical enhancement process initially developed for military and marine applications. It had significantly less glare than a standard display, was brighter due to higher efficiency in letting light pass through, offered readability even in bright sunlight, and had a somewhat wider viewing angle. Side by side with a standard transmissive display, even one with anti-reflective coating, the "View Anywhere" was much more readable in sunlight while being ultra-bright indoors. That display is still available as an option for those who need to use their Motion tablet outdoors a lot, but Motion now introduced yet another stunner. Yes, the new M1400 uses the ultra-wide angle display that first became available in 10.4-inch format in the HP TC1100 and in 12.1-inch size in the limited distribution Sharp Actius Tablet PC convertible. This display, designed and made by BOE Hydis, is so much better than any conventional display that we considered it the technology breakthrough of the year for 2003.

It is almost impossible to overstate the gigantic difference it makes to have a display that you can truly view and read from any angle. For all practical purposes, both the horizontal and the vertical viewing angle of this display are a full 180 degrees. It says something like 160 in the specs, but in real life it's really from anywhere. And that's not all. While standard LCDs, due to striping issues, fall flat on their faces when they are rotated into portrait mode, the BOE Hydis display remains as perfect as it is in landscape mode, and the viewing angle from all sides remains perfect as well.

Motion also introduced an ambient light sensor that sets brightness automatically. This (and many other functions) can be changed or overridden in the very handy Motion Dashboard. In our preview model, the sensor always adjusted the display a little too dark for my taste, and maximum brightness was less than I remember from the Sharp Actius. Anyway, the Hydis wide viewing angle display makes the M1400 better than ever. One thing to keep in mind though: as great as this display is, it washes out outdoors. If you want to use your Motion outdoors you should order the "View Anywhere" display instead.

For those who use the Tablet PC Edition's voice recognition and recording capabilities, Motion added its new "Speak Anywhere" technology. This combines dual-array directional microphones with acoustic echo cancellation software and background noise suppression. In addition, microphones can be set to either accept a wide or a narrow range of audio input. Motion demonstrated this to me in a noisy restaurant, and the difference between standard microphone input and this new technology is amazing. Many have tried voice input and given up on it because you can't always walk around with a headphone/microphone set on your head and because the built-in microphones were inadequate. "Speak Anywhere" fixes this and should be a boon for voice recognition and voice command applications.

Yet another addition to the M1400 is an integrated fingerprint reader that works in conjunction with Softex OmniPass software. Between passwords for the OS, BIOS Setup, booting, and hard disk access, this is one secure machine. Prospective users, of course, should carefully think through their security setup before they implement it, or else they will be the ones locked out. Still, you can never have enough security in a device like this, and Motion is to be commended for making every effort to keep user data safe.

On the software side, there is the aforementioned DashBoard, a most useful utility that can be called up at the touch of a button. Other utilities handle security, Bluetooth, the advanced microphone technology, WiFi detection and configuration, BIOS flash and so on. This in addition to Acrobat Reader, Windows Journal, and Sticky Notes. For a nominal fee of $34.99 Motion throws in the Motion Pak Software upgrade that includes OneNote 2003, Alias SketchBook Pro, Virtual Drive, Colligo, Microsoft Reader, and Streets & Trips. Don't even think of getting the M1400 without it. It's a total steal that would cost many hundreds of dollars. There's also an Office Pak Upgrade that includes the usual Microsoft Office apps. That one costs $320 extra. Thanks to Microsoft the days where your computer came with a free office suite are over.

Motion offers two optional keyboards. One is a separate external unit that connects via USB. It's full size and works acceptably well. Like Panasonic does with its Toughbooks, the QWERTY and punctuation keys on Motion's keyboard are gray whereas the rest are darker. The keyboard has a touchpad, two mouse buttons and foldout feet to set it at an angle. Most people will use this reasonably priced (US$49.99) keyboard in conjunction with Motion's docking station.

The second keyboard is a rather ingenious combination of display lid, desktop stand, and keyboard. It is very thin and snaps onto the frontside of the M1400 just like the large plastic lid that comes with all Motion slates. And it is barely thicker than one. Using it is sort of a mixed blessing. As a stand, it only offers one angle, and that's always a problem. The keyboard part is not bad. Unlike most Asian makers of thin-and-light notebooks who invariably make the QWERTY part unnecessarily small, Motion's is virtually full size. Unfortunately, this came at the expense of making some other important keys very small (like the often used Backspace) and by placing some in unusual positions so that you constantly push the wrong keys. By far the biggest problem is the built-in curvature on the left side of the keyboard. It's where your left hand is supposed to be and makes typing difficult. That is too bad as the overall idea is good, the IBM-style pointer know works well, and it's certainly a desirable solution.

What about pricing? The basic M1400 goes for $1,999 (a lesser $1,649 version with a slower Celeron chip is available also). This includes the awesome wide angle display, 256MB of RAM, a 20GB disk and all the other goodies mentioned above. That's a great deal, but it doesn't include as much as a case. Motion's website uses a Dell-style smorgasboard menu for adding options. Liberal use of it (View Anywhere display, 2GB of RAM, 60GB disk, dock, portfolio case and so on can easily double the price, so make sure you know what you want.

As is, the Motion M1400 is one terrific machine. We picked it as the best Tablet PC slate last year, and this year it's even better with the addition of a faster and more energy-efficient processor, the fingerprint reader, Bluetooth, faster WiFi and the superb wide viewing angle display. The competition must be quaking in their boots. -

Conrad H. Blickenstorfer

Type Tablet PC slate
Processor Intel Pentium M 733
OS Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005
Memory 256MB to 2GB
Display 12.1" XGA (1024 x 768) transflective wide angle TFT
Digitizer/Pens Wacom/1
Keyboard optional snap-on or USB keyboards
Storage 20 to 60GB hard disk
Optical storage Optional external
Size 11.65" x 9.45" x 0.87"
Weight 3.4 pounds incl. battery pack
Power Replaceable 40 watt-hour Lithium-Ion ("over 4 hours")
Communication 56k V.92 modem, LAN, 802.11b/g WiFi
Interface RJ11/45, audio, video, 2 USB 2.0, IEEE 1394, dock, fingerprint reader
Price starting at US$1,999
Contact Motion Computing