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PenLab: Electrovaya SC2000

Electrovaya's latest TPC: Elegance, innovative keyboard, long battery life (May 2004 issue)

Electrovaya is a Canadian company primarily known for its patented very high energy density SuperPolymer Lithium Ion technology which can provide superior battery power to any number of portable devices, ranging from cellphones to notebook computers. For several years, Electrovaya has been offering its PowerPads that slide underneath notebooks and provide up to six times the power of a standard laptop battery. Electrovaya is also a company known to always seek new opportunities for its innovative power technology. They are investigating hybrid automobiles, marine applications and other interesting projects. So when Tablet PCs came along, well, why not mate the PowerPad with a pen slate and get a Tablet PC that runs a lot longer on a charge than anyone else's? That is exactly what Eletrovaya did with its initial Scribbler products. We reviewed the SC300/500/800 model in the June 2003 issue of Pen Computing Magazine. We initially thought it might be just a technology demonstration, but the Scribbler turned out to be much more than that. Though it was more or less a slate mated to a PowerPad and thus a bit thick, we found it an expertly designed and manufactured product with a battery that lasted a long, long time. The Scribbler also ran cooler than most other Tablet PCs we had reviewed, something that ranks high in our books.

So what did Electrovaya do for an encore? Introduce the SC2000, a machine that refines and elevates Electrovaya's philosophy to an entirely new level. Good though the original model was and is, there were some areas for improvement. The 10.4-inch display was a bit small. The huge battery took a good four hours to recharge. And the design was utilitarian rather than polished. The new model addresses all those issues and then some.

Clever snap-on keyboard

When you first take the ivory-grayish SC2000 out of its box you think it's a notebook convertible, and in a sense it is, just not in a conventional sense. That's because what appears to be the top part of the notebook, the one with the LCD, is actually a detachable keyboard. It is very thin and light, but snaps on securely and is held down by a clasp. It is similar to Motion Computing's snap-on keyboard, but it's thinner and less bulky. Take it off and it becomes obvious that this is not just your standard external keyboard. Instead, it is a full deskstand as well. The key layout takes up the front two thirds of the keyboard. The SC2000 main unit snaps onto it and is supported by a stand that flips up from the back of the keyboard assembly. This arrangement would normally not allow for a trackpad because there is no wrist rest area, but Electrovaya thought of that and included a small snap-on trackpad that can be slid into the back of the keyboard when it is not in use. Ours went onto the right side, but there is also a version for lefties that goes on the left side. The QWERY layout is full size and the keys provide good feedback. Despite its thinness, it feels just like a good standard notebook keyboard. The side location of the trackpad takes a bit of getting used to, but it did not bother me, especially since I usually use the pen anyway. The whole setup is stable and never in danger of flipping over. And since the brace behind the display supports it near the center, there is none of the annoying flex that bedevils all convertible notebooks with pivot hinges.

There are, however, some drawbacks. First, the keyboard talks to the SC2000 via contacts rather than a connector, which requires solid contact between the keyboard and the main unit via two snap-on hooks which, in our pre-production keyboard at least, did not manage to get a good hold of the SC2000. Second, you can't vary the display angle. This is a problem because the SC2000's usable vertical viewing angle is not very large and the display washes out when you look down at it. Third, although the speakers, buttons and labeling seem to indicate that the SC2000 was designed for landscape use, you can only use the keyboard in landscape mode.

Electrovaya also offers a wireframe stand that you can use in both orientations, but that means you'll need a separate USB keyboard. All this makes this handsome solution one that may or may not work for you. Motion's solution, though not quite as elegant, allows both portrait and landscape operation, and we'd prefer to see that option for the Electrovaya keyboard as well.

Elegant design

The SC2000 itself is a stunning product in almost all respects. Unlike the utilitarian earlier models, this new one is sleek and elegant. Of existing Tablet PC slates, it most resembles Motion Computing's M1300, a Pen Computing Magazine's 2003 Editor's Choice Award winner. The SC2000 is more angular and even thinner than the M1300. The entire case of the SC2000 seems to be made of magnesium, giving it excellent rigidity for such a thin slate. It feels solid as a rock. It is also beautifully crafted and detailed. Designed primarily for portrait use, the upper half of the display is flanked by hardware control buttons. On the left are alt-ctl-del and three buttons that bring up the on-screen input panel, the Windows start menu and the Journal utility. Below them are four indicator lights that inform on network, hard disk, battery and power status. On the right are the power button, screen rotation (toggling back and forth between landscape and portrait). The lower right has a small "direction ball" that works like cursor control keys and enter (but not as a mouse replacement). On the bottom left and right are two speakers, in the center a fingerprint recognition sensor that works in conjunction with the SC2000's powerful and flexible OmniPass password and access management utility. While almost all ports of the original Scribbler were hidden below removable black rubber strips, the ones on the SC2000 are in plain view. On the left side are a USB port, PC Card slot, modem and LAN jacks. On top are the IR port, audio in and out jacks, a Firewire port, a second USB connector, power, and a video port. The right side features two contact connectors, one for the optional dock and one for the keyboard. The pen garage is at the bottom left. A good location when the machine is used in landscape mode, but a drag in portrait where it points downward.

The bottom of this Electrovaya model is very different from that of the original Scribbler SC800 where the computer basically sat on top of a massive battery with the same footprint as the slate itself. That is not the case with the SC2000. The Li-Polymer battery slides in from the side and takes up less than a third of the bottom real estate. This means that the remaining two thirds are available to the SC2000's electronics. The bottom has two doors, one covering a single SODIMM slot and the other the 40GB Toshiba 2.5-inch drive which is protected to some degree with a rubber sleeve. Neither door has extra sealing, emphasizing that the SC2000 is not an all-weather rugged device. The bottom also shows a small round fan opening for the SC2000's heat exchanger. The fan draws in air from the side and blows it out the bottom. What about the vaunted battery life that's the primary raison d'etre of Electrovaya's Tablet PCs? Here the SC2000 makes a compromise. Its battery is considerably smaller than the original model's--70 instead of 120 watt-hours. That is still about twice the capacity of your average Tablet PC, and Electrovaya rates the SC2000's battery life as "up to 9 hours." The smaller battery charger in under three hours instead of over four for the bigger unit. The SC2000 runs a bit hotter than the SC800, but still cooler than most. Its fan only comes on every once in a while.

In terms of specifications, the SC2000 benefits from recent advances. It is based on Intel's Centrino technology comprised of a 1.2GHz Ultra Low Voltage Pentium M processor, the 855GM chipset, and Intel's 802.11b wireless module. The 1.2GHz M processor represents an excellent compromise between speed and battery life (not that the SC2000 is lacking in that arena). Base memory is 256MB of SODIMM RAM, and the system is upgradeable to 1GB. 30 and 40GB Toshiba hard disks are available.

The SC2000 also comes with an unusually rich complement of software. In addition to all the Windows XP Tablet PC Edition's own goodies, Electrovaya loads Corel Grafigo, Alias Sketchbook, McAfee VirusScan, Farstone Virtual Drive lite, Acrobat Reader, and a trial version of FranklinCovey TabletPlanner. A most impressive effort. - Electrovaya: -

Conrad H. Blickenstorfer

Type Pen slate
Processor 1.2GHz ULV Pentium M
OS Windows XP Tablet PC Edition
Memory 256MB expandable to 1GB via expansion slot
Display 12.1" XGA (1024 x 768) TFT
Digitizer/Pens Wacom/1
Keyboard Snap-on 85-key full-scale
Storage 30 or 40 GB hard disk * external USB optical drivek(opt.)
Size 9.2" x 11.95" x 0.75"
Weight 3.6 pounds w/o keyboard
Power 70 WHr Lithium-Ion ("up to 9 hours")
Communication 10/100base-T, 56K V.90 Modem, internal 802.11b wireless LAN radio
Interface 2 USB 2.0, audio/mic, RJ-11, RJ-45, VGA, 1 PC Card Type II, fingerprint scan
Price US$2,299 to $2,599
Contact Electrovaya