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Reader Q&A

Mid-2006 Tablet PC with Outdoor-Readable Screen

I have been looking for a good Tablet PC to use in the body shop for our car dealership.  We have been demoing a Toshiba; it's a good computer but is all but useless when used outside.  That is the main idea, that we can just pick up the computer and move outside to do an estimate and not make any mistakes.  We thought the Panasonic Toughbook 18 was going to be the answer to our problem but I think the size of the machine is going to be far too small with only a 10.4-inch screen.  Do you have any suggestions or recommendations for something good outside but has a OK screen?
Charlie Cushing, Fisher Motors

Technology Editor Geoff Walker answers:

Charlie, outdoor-readable screens on "commercial" Tablet PCs are available only from Motion Computing, Electrovaya, Fujitsu and HP.  All of them have 12.1" screens except the LS800 from Motion, which is 8.4".  Outdoor-readable screens on "rugged" Tablet PCs are available only from Panasonic, WalkAbout, Xplore and Itronix; all of them have 10.4" screens except Itronix, which is 8.4".  There are no outdoor-readable 14.1" screens on Tablet PCs yet, although there might be by the end of this year.

Since you say in your email that a 10.4" screen is too small, then you're limited to the commercial products.  The first decision you must make is slate vs. convertible.  If you need an integrated keyboard (which I gather you do, since you say that the Toshiba is a "good computer"), then your choice is between Fujitsu and HP.  Between the two, the main difference is whether you need an integrated optical drive or not (Fujitsu has one; HP doesn't).  Personally I would choose the Fujitsu.

Here are links to the appropriate product pages: Fujitsu T4210 and HP tc4400.

Note that in both products, the outdoor-readable screen is an option that must be explicitly ordered.  The outdoor-readability is actually a treatment that's applied on top of the LCD.  The underlying screen in both products is identical, the Hydis wide-viewing-angle 12.1" XGA (1024x768) LCD.  If the degree of outdoor-readability is critical in your application, you should consider seeing a demo of each product, since the outdoor-readability treatments on the two products are slightly different.  I can't really say which is "better"; often it's just a matter of personal preference regarding the degree of "graininess", specular & diffuse reflectivity (anti-glare) and other subtle characteristics that the treated screen exhibits.

The basic hardware specs of the two products are very similar.  They both use Intel's latest Core Duo CPU with integrated GMA 950 graphics.  This graphics controller will run Vista Aero, but only if you buy 1 GB of main memory, since that's required to run Vista Aero with this graphics controller.  Note that 2 x 512 MB is better than 1 x 1024 MB because the former takes advantage of dual-channel memory support for the best possible performance.  The advantage of the latter is that it's cheaper to upgrade the memory to more than 1 GB in the future -- which isn't really much of an advantage.  The weight of the two products is very similar, but if you remove the optical drive from the Fujitsu and put in a "weight saver" (filler), it's 0.3 pounds lighter.  The size of the two products is very similar, although the Fujitsu is actually 5% smaller in terms of volume.

In the "value added specs" area, the Fujitsu is better.  It has an integrated digital microphone array with noise-canceling software, a larger hard drive option with a shock sensor, a memory card slot (good for use with digital cameras), a spill-resistant keyboard, and a wider range of accessories.

Regarding where to buy your Tablet PC, I recommend buying direct from the manufacturer's website in either case.  Because you require the optional outdoor-readable screen, most retailers won't have the correct product configuration for you.  Ordering direct from the manufacturer also allows you to select the exact CPU, memory, wireless, software and accessory combination that you want.

Based in Silicon Valley, Geoff Walker is Global Director of Product Management at Elo TouchSystems. Prior, he was a consultant with Walker Mobile, LLC ( Geoff has worked on the engineering and marketing of mobile computers since 1982 at GRiD Systems, Fujitsu Personal Systems (now Fujitsu Computer Systems) and Handspring. In addition to mobile computers, Geoff's areas of particular expertise include displays and digitizers.