Pen Computing Issue #6

August/September 1995

Pen Lab Review

The TelePad 3 Approach

A design review

We've already reported on the TelePad 3 in our April 1995 issue and therefore won't go into technical detail in this feature. We also have a bit of egg on our face because in that review we stated that the TelePad 3 was shipping in February of 1995, whereas in fact, it didn't. However, in July TelePad sent us what appeared to be a final production unit, and our reviewer was impressed enough to engage in a discussion of the handsome new TelePad's design. You may recall that Compaq followed a similar design philosophy (combined handle/stand, keyboard separate from LCD/system unit) with its Concerto pen computer. Users either loved or hated the Concerto (we are among the former) and it should be interesting to see if TelePad managed to overcome some of the hinge and durability problems encountered by Compaq.
At first glance, the Telepad 3 is just an exceptionally nice looking portable PC with a full set of features, including pen and voice input capabilities. It's distinctive, it works great, and feature by feature, spec by spec, the Telepad 3 compares favorably with anything else on the market. However, on closer inspection, the Telepad 3 reveals itself as a significant departure from the conventional clamshell design for laptop computers. This bold new design is so elegant and functional that one must wonder why they aren't all like this. Just about everything about the Telepad 3 is different and better. The Telepad Corporation has engineered a complete rethinking of what a portable computer should be and, in our opinion, succeeded brilliantly.

Questioning the old clamshell design
The design of the commonplace clamshell portable is virtually unchanged since the first cardboard mockup created by Alan Kay in the late 60s as an exercise in technology forecasting. Basically, it is a three layer sandwich of a flat screen, a keyboard, and jigsaw puzzle arrangement of everything else that's needed. The keyboard and the works are laminated together as the bottom of the clamshell and the screen is attached by a hinge so that the resulting contraption opens up nicely for operation on an airline food tray or folds up flat for stowage in a briefcase of similar, but slightly larger, geometry. About the only thing that varies among the several hundred versions now available is whether the diskette drive is targeted toward your lap or toward the mashed potatoes of an adjacent passenger.

The TelePad's "rear engine" design
The most noticeable innovation of the Telepad 3 is that it is a rear engine design with the processor, etc. mounted behind the screen rather than under the keyboard. As any reader of Pen Computing should recognize, the major flaw in building a pen-enabled laptop PCs on the clamshell model is that the keyboard is kind of in the way much of the time. However, in most designs, the keyboard can't be simply detached and left in one's luggage because all of the more necessary little parts that make noise and heat are permanently attached to it. The Telepad 3 handles this problem in the only sensible way. Its keyboard, with an integral Glidepoint pointing device is a detachable hollow component. This approach not only provides the option of leaving the keyboard behind when it is not needed, but also liberates the space in front of the screen for placement of a full size keyboard and mouse when these are available.
With the keyboard removed, the Telepad 3 offers good ergonomics for usage while walking around or sitting where you have no table in from of you. A large flexible handle folds out from the back of the screen so that the unit can be cradled on one's forearm in a secure and comfortable position that makes it an superb platform for a pen-centric application. If you like using a clipboard, you'll like using the Telepad 3. For extended use, the forearm is a far more comfortable spot for a computer than the hand. On the forearm, the weight of the computer is significantly less noticeable because it is carried partly by the way the unit rests against one's side.

The least noticeable, but most important innovation of the Telepad 3 is its modularity. The basic unit provide slots and sockets for up to three docking modules that can instantly customize the system for a broader variety of configurations than any other portable PC on the market. My evaluation unit came with a 540 Mb Hard Drive Module and a combination PCMCIA/Floppy Module with room for two Type II cards or one Type III card. CD-ROM, digital camera and Global Positioning System modules are just a few of the possibilities for the future.
The potential value of Telepad 3s modularity cannot be overstated. In effect, there is not just one model of the Telepad 3, but dozens or potentially hundreds as the range of available modules is expanded. Moreover, if one acquires an assortment of modules, one will be able to reconfigure the system as ones needs may change. One Telepad 3 computer with an assortment of snap-on modules can be better than having several different systems.
For an individual user, one value of a modular system is that one may easily reconfigure to suit the needs of the day. This would be ideal, for example, in a consulting practice where one's hardware requirements may vary considerably from client to client and from project to project. For a corporation, modularity can mean that a mistake in identifying requirements for a large scale deployment is not necessarily catastrophic. New or substitute modules would be far more acceptable than a complete hardware replacement. This opportunity can save the day (and ones career) when the first major system change occurs.

Target market:Field force automation
The Telepad Corporation has targeted the Telepad 3 at the Field Force Automation market. This is appropriate and the company should enjoy good success there. But they may find themselves with a crossover hit that does well in the larger mass market against commodity-class laptop PCs. After all, how many individuals or companies can claim to know their needs so well that they have no interest in the insurance afforded by Telepad 3's unique modularity? Moreover, there are a lot of laptop users out there who are weary of toting around an extensive collection of clumsy outboard peripherals.

For further details contact:

Telepad Corporation
380 Herndon Parkway, Suite 1900
Herndon, Virginia 22070
Phone: (703) 834-9000
FAX: (703) 834-1235