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Reader Q&A

Buying a Tablet PC for College

I just read your article "How to Select a Second-Generation Tablet PC" on the Pen Computing website. Thanks for the information. My son is planning to attend Virginia Tech in the fall, and the Engineering Department has recommended a Tablet PC. Their recommendations include the following specifications:

Computer Requirement

Fall 2006


Tablet PC convertible


Windows XP Pro Tablet Edition with SP2

PC Processor Speed

Pentium M single-core 2 GHz or higher, or Pentium Duo dual-core 1.83 GHz or higher

Memory (RAM)

1 GB or higher

Hard Disk Drive

80 GB or bigger

Video RAM

64 discrete memory or 128 MB shared
(in preparation for Windows Vista)

CD/DVD Drive


Input/Output Ports

USB 2.0


802.11 b/g

Wired LAN

10/100/1000 Ethernet


56K internal


3-year onsite with accident coverage
(4 years recommended)

Do you know of or could you recommend a model with these specifications for a college student? Any thoughts or ideas will be greatly appreciated. Thanks!
--Bill Kukis

Technology Editor Geoff Walker answers:

Bill, the Virginia Tech (VT) website is correct in saying that you should wait until May/June because of the lack of current Tablet PCs with the Intel Pentium Duo CPU.  However, I'm not sure that there will be more than a couple of new products available in that timeframe and the selection is likely to be too limited.  My recommended Tablet PC below is available today and meets the VT spec.  I'm not totally convinced that the Duo will make a perceptible difference in the typical student use of the PC -- and it will certainly jack up the price by at least $200.

The VT hardware spec is OK except that in my opinion, VT is too conservative regarding video RAM (VRAM).  Microsoft's latest advice for the minimum VRAM memory is 64 MB for XGA or SXGA and 128 MB for SXGA+ or UXGA. As a general rule, it's typically advisable to double Microsoft's minimum RAM recommendations to achieve good performance, so the minimum VRAM that I would consider is 128 MB, with 256 MB definitely being preferable.  The question of "discrete versus shared" VRAM is also much more important than VT implies.  I am simply not convinced that Intel's 945G chipset (containing the GMA 950G integrated [shared memory] video controller, the first one that Intel says is capable of running Vista Aero) will provide good-enough performance.  A discrete video controller is guaranteed to provide better performance, so that's my recommendation.  The video subsystem (controller and VRAM) in most notebooks and Tablet PCs is not upgradeable, so it's important to get it right the first time.

Also, my strong recommendation is to buy a Tablet PC with an integrated CD-RW/DVD drive.  Dealing with an external drive is just too awkward.  Students have enough stuff to carry around without adding an external CD-RW/DVD drive (and possibly an additional AC adapter).

Putting all of this together, my recommendation is the Toshiba Tecra M4 Tablet PC. A detailed PDF of the M4's specifications can be found here. A properly-configured M4 meets 100% of the VT spec and exceeds it in VRAM.  The negative of this product is that it's the size and weight of a standard notebook -- 6.2 pounds with a 14.1" LCD.  To some, that's a violation of the spirit of the Tablet PC, which is supposed to be "the most mobile computer ever made".  To me, it's a requirement.  I would never recommend a 12.1" LCD to a college student -- it's too small for long-term use as the student's primary computer. Mobility is good, but not in exchange for productivity.

The M4 has an SXGA+ LCD (1400 x 1050) which I consider to be a major advantage over the common XGA (1024 x 768) Tablet PC resolution.  This is the ideal screen for maximum productivity.  The dpi is 124, which is just right -- it happens to be the same as the original 10.4" XGA Tablet PC, which was 123 dpi.  It's not a wide-screen, which isn't a problem in the real world. The trend towards wide-screen notebooks is driven primarily by increased efficiency at the LCD manufacturers, not by actual market demand.  It's also not a "glossy" (or "glare") screen, which is actually an advantage because it works better in bright light, regardless of what the notebook manufacturers say about how glossy screens "pop" (have higher contrast).

Actually, given my recommended requirement of an internal CD-RW/DVD drive and a discrete video controller with at least 128 MB of VRAM, the M4 is the only Tablet PC currently on the market that meets my requirement.  It happens to also meet all of the VT requirements.

You may spot the Toshiba Portégé M400 on the Toshiba website and notice that it has the Duo CPU and an internal CD-RW/DVD.  So why aren't I recommending that system?  It's because of the LCD and graphics.  The M400 uses a 12.1" LCD, either XGA (106 dpi, too low for good productivity) or SXGA+ (144 dpi, definitely too high for comfortable use with XP).  And it uses the GMA 950 integrated graphics controller, which (as noted above) I don't think is good enough.  Sure, it's around two pounds lighter, but that's insignificant in the context of the total weight of everything that the student has to carry in his or her backpack.  Finally, the M400 is $200 more expensive.

Speaking of cost, the M4 configured as recommended is $1,999.16 on the Toshiba website. You have to custom-configure it to get the desired combination of options; it's not possible to buy it off the shelf. This price includes an 80 GB, 5400 RPM hard disk which meets the VT minimum spec. The next size up is 100 GB, which costs $120 more -- hardly worth it.  However, if Toshiba offered a 7200 rpm 100 GB hard disk (which they don't yet), then I'd buy it because the combination of more space and higher performance is worth it. The extended service plan that meets VT's spec is called "3-year SystemGuard + On-Site Repair + 2nd/3rd Year Extended Service Plan" and it costs $399. A fourth year can be purchased after the 3-year-plan purchase has been completed.

Regarding accessories, I recommend the following:

  1. A spare Tablet PC pen ($19). This is a critical accessory, so I've already included one in the $1,999 configuration.

  1. A second AC adapter ($79 or less). Having one that stays at the student's desk and one that's available for travel or use anywhere on campus is a definite convenience.

  1. A second main battery ($119 or less). I recommend buying a duplicate of the main battery, not the smaller one that fits in the CD-RW/DVD bay.  Personally I would buy two extra batteries because the battery life of the M4 is not particularly good. Being able to make it through a full day of note-taking without recharging is pretty important to a student. A separate battery charger greatly simplifies the process of keeping the two spare batteries charged, but Toshiba's model at $249 is too expensive. It might be possible to find one from a third party, since the M4's batteries are used in at least a half-dozen other Toshiba notebook models.

  1. A monitor ($380 and up). A monitor isn't absolutely necessary with the 14.1" LCD on the Tablet PC, but it definitely encourages better posture at the desk. The monitor that makes the most sense with the M4 is a 20.1" wide.  The reason is that both 17" and 19" monitors are SXGA (1280 x 1024), which is lower resolution than the M4's LCD.  Using a monitor with lower resolution than the computer is annoying and counter-productive.  The standard resolution of a 20.1" wide monitor is 1680 x 1050, which matches the M4 vertically and is wider horizontally (good).  You can get a good 20.1" wide monitor for $400-$450 online (click here for an example at $416).  You can also consider a 4:3 model (non-wide); it's slightly cheaper and it exactly matches the M4 screen but it's not as good for watching DVD movies (click here for an example at $380).

  1. An external backup hard disk ($100 and up). This is a critical accessory for students.  Maxtor One-Touch II with a USB 2.0 interface is a good choice. It's available in several different sizes; 200 GB is large enough to provide room for multiple backups and some additional offline storage space (click here for an example at $167).

  1. A printer ($70 and up). The VT website seems to imply that a student is expected to have his own printer; a multifunction inkjet printer/scanner makes the most sense because it also functions as a copier.  It's much more versatile than a laser, and the print quality is plenty good enough.  I like Hewlett-Packard's OfficeJet models (there are many, from $70 on up), but there are other good manufacturers.  When considering the features of a target printer, I would choose one with an auto sheet-feeder and a fast black-and-white print speed. When you consider a student's typical needs, both of these seem important. Consult Amazon user reviews for good guidance on any target printer.

My personal choice would be an HP OfficeJet 7210 - that is, assuming that there's room for a printer with a 20" x 16" footprint in the student's dorm room. It prints B&W at up to 30 pages/minute, has a 50-sheet auto-feeder, a 150-sheet input tray and USB & Ethernet ports (click here for an example at $240). Also, don't forget to budget for consumables. Printers follow the razor-and-razor-blades model; it's common to spend more than the printer costs for ink and paper in just the first year.

  1. A carrying case. Actually this depends on what kind of backpack scheme the student plans to use.  Personally I like a rolling computer backpack such as this one from Targus for $70.

Regarding software, the VT bundle is good and the selection of additional software available through VT is very good.  However, there are a few things you might consider in addition:

  1. Zone Alarm Pro ($50 or less) - A high quality firewall (Microsoft's XP firewall is not adequate).

  1. Microsoft AntiSpyware (free) - The best anti-spyware software.

  1. Copernic Agent Pro ($80 or less) metasearch program -- Extremely valuable for doing research.

  1. ContentSaver ($40 or less) webpage storage program from Macropool -- Extremely valuable for doing research.

  1. Farstone VirtualDrive ($50 or less) -- Allows CD images to be stored on the hard disk, which eliminates the need to carry any CDs with you.

  1. Executive Software Diskeeper ($50 or less) -- Much better disk defragmentation program than the standard XP utility.

  1. Microsoft Streets and Trips with GPS ($130 or less) - Much better than any online map service.

  1. American Heritage Talking Dictionary ($15 or less) - Very handy to have just one click away.

  1. GoBinder from Agilix ($50 or less) - An excellent organizer program for students.

  1. A Tablet-optimized sketching program, depending on how good the student's drawing skills are. If the skills are good, Autodesk's (formerly Alias's) Sketchbook Pro is a good choice at $79.

Note that none of these programs are for entertainment; they're all for productivity, performance or safety. I guess that's enough information for now! I hope your son has an excellent college experience.

Additional Comments

Conrad, thank you very much for the link to the above Q&A item.  I am in agreement with most of Geoff’s recommendations. However, his information with respect to the availability of the Duo processors in shipping Tablet PCs differs somewhat from what multiple vendors have implied to us in non-disclosures.  They all told us that they expect to be shipping Duo-core Tablets in June. Of course, I am sure that your magazine has had non-disclosures with the same companies and from a different perspective so you may have more up-to-date, accurate information.

We also did a lot of investigating into the whole Vista question and I would certainly take the 128 MB discrete VRAM card over the Intel chipset, given the option (although the Gateway engineers swear that their M280E with the ATI 64 MB discrete VRAM option runs the current betas just fine with all video features).

-- Tom Walker, PE, Associate Professor, Engineering Education Department, Virginia Tech

(See also this article about the VT Tablet PC requirement, in which Professor Walker is quoted.)

Editor Geoff Walker responds:

Tom, here are some thoughts in response to your comments above.

  1. The CPU is very far down on my list of important things to consider.  In my opinion, screen size & resolution, video subsystem and optical drive are the key determinant factors in selecting a Tablet PC for college.  Once the product range is narrowed down to those that meet the key factors, then one can consider the CPU.  I would certainly give preference to a product that has a Duo CPU over a non-Duo because it's more "future proof".  It's generally accepted today that over the next few years, software will move towards designs that take advantage of multiple cores.  This means that as time goes on, the performance of a Duo-equipped computer will tend to stay higher than a non-Duo-equipped computer.

    However, I think it's unrealistic to expect the Duo to make any perceptible difference in today's applications.  Benchmarks that I've seen show that in a single-task environment, equal-clock-rate Duo and Pentium M CPUs are indistinguishable in performance.  The Duo only makes a difference in true multitasking situations, such as a student who is ripping audio CDs to MP3s at the same time that he's running an engineering simulation model.  (The question of whether he "should" be doing that is a whole separate issue!)  The reality of today's use is that true multitasking is not the norm.  Having multiple windows open is of course very common, but the issue is whether the other windows are actually using substantial CPU resources.  Personally, I find that when I'm doing true multitasking on a PC today, I'm usually I/O-bound rather than CPU-bound.  Most of my real-world work is heavily I/O dependent -- thus my preference for a 7200 RPM hard drive.  My example earlier in this paragraph is the ideal case, where the second task (a simulation model) is CPU-intensive.

    The question of how many Tablet PCs will offer Duo in time for the Fall semester is therefore not of much import.  If a Duo is available, great!  If not, no big deal.  The parent's email that I responded to seemed to imply that he wanted to buy a Tablet ASAP so his son could start becoming familiar with it; that's why I told him that it wasn't important to wait for a Duo.

  2. The issue of price is always important.  A parent who waits until VT is able to offer negotiated discounts with selected Tablet PC vendors is obviously doing the right thing.  However, if none of the discounted products meet my recommendations regarding the three key selection factors (screen size & resolution, optical drive and video subsystem), I wouldn't hesitate a moment in advising a parent to ignore the discounts and buy direct.  This purchase is intended to have a four-year life.  Even a $500 difference in the cost of the system is negligible when it's amortized over four years.  It's even more negligible when it's put in the context of the total cost of a college education. 

    Your comment in the TMC Net article about the delta between the cost of a laptop and equivalent Tablet PC is on-target.  The average delta is currently somewhere around $100-$150.  For example, Toshiba is a little higher while HP is lower (the delta between HP's nc4200 notebook and tc4200 Tablet PC is actually zero).

  3. Regarding the video subsystem, my point was that a discrete GPU will outperform an integrated GPU, with which you seem to agree.  Gateway's statement that Vista Aero "runs fine" on an M280E with ATI/64 MB is probably correct but I'm bothered by the totally non-quantitative nature of "runs fine".  The M280E has a WXGA (0.98 megapixel) screen, so 64 MB of VRAM meets Microsoft's spec for the minimum amount of VRAM; it's just a matter of how well it actually performs.  By the way, maybe it's just me, but according to the Gateway website, the ATI option isn't available on an M280E.  I can only find it on the CX200X Tablet PC -- which is more desirable anyway, since it has a Pentium M instead of a Celeron.

  4. I think that the author of the TMC Net article did a very good job of capturing the strong emotional currents swirling around VT's Tablet PC requirement.  Most people don't realize that Tablet PCs are slowly moving away from the ultraportable space and moving into the "thin-and-light" notebook space.  Much of the common perception of a Tablet PC is still based on the compromises necessary in an ultraportable-class product.  The Toshiba M4 that I recommended to the VT parent is truly a standard notebook.  The M4's Tablet functionality is pure gravy.  That's what people don't understand, and it's difficult to change their perceptions.  From your quotes in the article, clearly you understand it -- but Bauman clearly doesn't.  VT should just give Bauman a free Tablet PC.  He would probably become a proponent of VT's direction quite quickly.

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.