Tablet PCs are finally poised to make their mark

August 11, 2010

With the continued growth of do-everything handheld electronic devices and the trend of replacing desktop computers with laptops, it's only natural that the tablet PC has finally come into its own.

Tablet PCs currently make up less than 2% of portable computer sales, but reports show that market will soon grow at a rapid clip. According to a recent market forecast by Framingham, Mass.-based IDC, tablet PCs will account for nearly 10% (9.7 million units) of the 100.3 million shipments of laptops expected in 2008. Market researcher In-Stat, Scottsdale, Ariz., predicts the worldwide market for tablet PCs to rise from $1.2 billion in 2004 to $5.4 billion in 2009.

There are numerous compelling reasons for using a tablet computer. Users can hand write (rather than type) meeting notes, create searchable archives of handwritten notes, convert notes to text, share notes with colleagues, and work easily with drawings, to name a few.

Tablet computers also sport nearly the same hardware and software as desktop computers, so the learning curve for new users is minimal. Microsoft, for instance, offers a version of its Windows XP operating system for tablet PCs.

A trio of tablets

Users currently have three ways to enter the world of tablet PCs:

  • Slate systems feature a touch screen with all the electronics mounted behind it.

  • Convertible systems look like laptops but feature a touch-sensitive screen attached to the keyboard/CPU section.

  • Hybrid systems consist of a slate tablet but with a removable keyboard that can be attached like a convertible or detached and left behind.

Slates and hybrids typically weigh in on the lighter end of the scale, from two to four pounds, but are missing some features traditional laptop users expect, such as a full-featured keyboard with function keys or a built-in CD burner. Common complaints about convertibles often have to do with their heavier weight, which can reach six pounds, and flimsy hinges for the pivoting screen.

San Jose, Calif.-based tablet PC maker Acer America is the first to solve the weak hinge issue. Last month, the company introduced its Travel-Mate C200 tablet PC, which features a patented sliding-track mechanism that allows users to quickly convert the unit from a laptop to a tablet. The system features a much more stable writing surface than the common pivot/swivel mechanism.

Tablets are available with a variety of screen sizes (from 10.4 to 14.1 inches), depending on the model and manufacturer. Suppliers include Acer, Averetic, Fujitsu, Gateway, HP, Itronix, Lenova, Motion Computing, Panasonic, Toshiba, and Walkabout.

This year has seen a slew of new tablets in all shapes and sizes. Slates, such as those made by Motion and Fujitsu, look like oversized PDAs, but feature such goodies as 60-gigabyte hard drives, CD burners, and wireless Wi-Fi connectivity. These machines weigh as little as two pounds and start at about $1,000.

One downside to tablet PCs (and most mobile computing devices) that has kept them off job sites is their fragility. Now manufacturers such as Acer and Panasonic offer magnesium-clad machines fitted with shock-absorbent mounting systems to protect key components and gasketed cracks to keep water out.

Users of Fujitsu's Stylistic tablet PC can "ruggedize" their computer for the job site with the Otterbox 4600 protective case from Otterbox Products, Fort Collins, Colo. The case features a handstrap for easy handling, and is wrapped in a waterproof Gore-type material that allows the tablet to "breath out" its heat while staying dry in wet conditions.

Another drawback to tablets that manufacturers are finally addressing is the limited viewability outdoors. Glare from sunlight can be overbearing, affecting the productivity of the users. Austin, Texas-based Motion recently introduced an optimized screen option for its LE 1600 tablet PC that allows the screen to be viewed from any angle in virtually any light condition. Utilizing a proprietary optical enhancement process initially developed for high-end military aviation and marine applications, the display automatically adjusts settings to adapt to different environments.

Software solutions

Give architects a choice, and they'll want the option to sketch anytime, anywhere, which makes some of the latest software for tablet PCs especially compelling. Desired features usually include the ability to sketch in 3-D, pan, rotate, zoom, shade, and walk through spaces.

Boulder, Colo.-based @Last Software recently unveiled a pen-based version of its design product SketchUp for use on HP tablet systems. The software allows users to create 3-D models of complex geometry with variable levels of detail, flexible dimensioning, and text controls.

Another interesting tool for sketching and rendering on tablet PCs comes from Alias, Toronto. Called Alias SketchBook Pro, the software features pallets of contextual tools that can be selected with a flick of the pen. The program allows users to sketch and refine renderings with relative ease. SketchBook is compatible with pressure-sensitive graphics tablets and tablet PCs running Microsoft's Windows Tablet PC.

         
 

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