iwho home

Tablet Computing or Placebo For The Real Thing?

This document examines the role Tablet Computers (pills) could have in schools from a practical perspective. Stay tuned to find out about PILLs that are not Placebos.

There is some FURTHER BLATHERING about tablet computing if you are interested in what I actually bought.....

Minimum Critera for Consideration

There were a number of stated minimum features that would make a tablet (in my blinkered view) practical for a school situation.


I must admit to starting this trial with a large degree of scepticism - mind you, prior to getting my laptop, i used to think they were never as powerful or useful as a fully configured desktop (which just goes to show how silly I am sometimes). I am not a pen-based computing virgin by any means - I have not been without my 'oracle' for years now and am totally used to scratching electronic notes to myself on palmtops - a PILL is no palmtop though as you will see.

I guess I would not have trialled these devices seriously unless my hand was forced - For a week each, the PILL was my computing device - my laptop stayed away. I cheated at times, by plugging in a USB keyboard and mouse, but reasoned that was not really cheating because i do that with my laptop also. I asked to have some local applications loaded (Acrobat Writer, Office, Bryce5, CorelDraw) but for the most part, used the PILL as my conduit to our notwork. Running Citrix as we do meant that so long as I had Internet connectivity, I had access to the full range of school software, my drives and other notwerk resources I have grown accustomed to.

Soooo ......the envelope please...

Pill 01

Picture courtesy of WYSE

This was a WYSE 3820TX thin tablet (meaning it was designed for Thin Client). It needed a Cisco WIFI card, talking to a Cisco wireless router (neither of which we had, so we could turn it on but not actually use it. It looked to be a custom-build for wall-mounted touch-screen apps and as such, probably was not suited to a school environment. It's stylus was thin and plastic - the whole screen was touch-sensitive but not particular about what touched it.

It had an 800x600 screen and no SVGA out and had a geeky carry-handle and spindley wire brackets on the back to stand it up...next please

Pill 02
Viewsonic TabletPC

The Viewsonic tabletPC was an impressive machine with a battery life of around 3 hours. As I was a tabletPC virgin, this machine was a gentle introduction to machines of this ilk. It weighed a lot but was 'ruggedized' and was easily luggable - mind you I remember sore arms from cradling it while carrying it. I used a cheapo plastic plate-rack to prop it up on my desk, but I believe it comes with a docking station (well, you can buy a docking station at least).

The SVGA adapter was clumsy to insert (design note here - the recessed bays for plugging cables in should be wide enuff to get them out again - these weren't as I discovered when struggling to remove a UTP network cable after this photoshoot). The thumb mouse worked well and the handwriting recognition was pretty good. It had enough USB and other ports to plug peripherals into it easily and it became my desktop computer until i carried it somewhere else. I noticed it was fairly intolerant to dicky WiFi indicating it must have had a fairly small arial. It seemed to get very hot with use - heat dissipation seemed to be into the case which is great in winter as it is shaped like a hot water bottle - I think it would be problematic in our summer though.

I liked this machine but am unsure if it was because I was able to do my week's work on it without problems and it was my first (being a tabletPC virgin, I guess you always remember your first).

Pill 03
Fujitsu Stylistic TabletPC

The Fujitsi Stylisitic was terrific to use. Once my daughter showed me that the stylus lanyard could be unhooked, I was happy to use it although the button on the stylus remains mysterious to me. The screen bleeding nearly right to the edges of this machine was a possible design flaw (as were the small, easy to accidentally press buttons near the edges. Firing this beauty up on a bus one evening caused excitement when I accidentally held down the swizzle button making the screen rotate annoyingly for a minute or two as the buffered button presses were processed.

It had a docking station with CDROM that had a swivelling bracket to re-orient your screen landscape to horizontal. The docking station came with an Infared Keyboard with a thin (=cheap and nasty) plastic feel to it - unsure how accurate it was as my typing errors increased using it - might just be me. I plugged in my own USB keyboard and mouse and was happy. Plugged into the docking station it seemed to run very hot - less so (less that the Viewsonic) when undocked.

The battery life for this beauty was 4+ hours and the hand-writing recognition and screen calibration were terrific. It had a decent processor and a reasonable amount of memory and was, when connected to it's peripherals, an all round good PC. When undocked it was fun and powerful to use. It's WiFi reception was excellent but it's infra-red must have been proprietry as my PalmT3 could not talk to it.

Pill 04
NEC Versa T400 TabletPC

This NEC was bomb-proof and travelled with me far and wide. The screen was bright and calibration was fair (meaning that where you point and where the mouse-pointer moved to were fairly close together.

There are a few design flaws with this impressive machine that were more or less acceptable. The WiFi reception was generally excellent but there was a small, stickey-uppey arial thingy that seemed like it was waiting for a kid to snap it off. Down or up, the arial seemed not to make any difference to reception. It's stylus is small - the same size as my PalmT3 stylus making holding and using it for long periods uncomfortable and hand-cramping. The button on the stylus seemed to confuse the mouse pointer and, because the stylus was so thin, it was rather difficult not to accidentally press the button. The battery life was poor - 2 hours if lucky, but the recharge cycle was less than 1/2 an hour. I have been told there is a bigger battery but have yet to identify whether that was just a vicious rumour.

It's hand-writing recognition was excellent and it's screen calibration was pretty accurate except in the screen edges (like where menus often are) where it was at times difficult to gain a response. It had a reasonable screen space and plenty of space around to grab - this machine was really light and powerful.... more on battery life coming I hope 'cause I could get used to one of these.

Pill 05&06
Compaq and HP

This COMPAQ (and HP) tabletPC confused me initially as it resembles a Laptop with a twirly screen. the attached keyboard, like most of the accessories for this weighty machine were snap-on/off. I subsequentally trialled an identical machine badged by HP (so it seems HP manufactures this and Compaq badges it - fair enuff).

All tablets are equal, some are more equal than others - this machine more closely resembled a laptop when fully geared up but not a very durable one - the snap-in accessories are flimsy and crowded but have 'wow' value. The Compaq machine had a hyperactive stylus that made selections for me (very annoying) but the HP one worked perfectly - manufacturer error?

I should like this one (you get what you pay for, right?) but many things erked me about this machine. The screen calibration was fairly approximate, the image quality was awful (solid blocks of colour weren't - solid I mean, they were trippy/blurry). This thing weighs more than my laptop (even when you strip off all the bits) and the clasps to keep it all together were flimsy. The stylus is yummy to hold (when it works properly) and the screen appeared durable.

For a school I think there are a few issues with this machine - lots to lose/break. Given it is expensive and manufactured by a Tier-1 company(HP) it has the reliability/service part of the equation. It's case was modernish and zippered black fake-leather but I was concerned when opening it that the machine would tumble out (as it was anchored into the case by a clip-on spine hinge).

Pill 07Hitachi VisionPlate

This Hitachi VisionPlate was flown in from the States for us by Wyse (aren't they nice people?) as this particular bit of hardware is not, for some reason, available in this part of the world yet. As a 'thin' appliance it is interesting - native XP embedded and Linux support (indeed most of the wizzy features only work properly under Linux). As a 'doze box it is a little frustrating to use for a number of reasons.

The screen as a whole is touch sensitive - not necessarily stylus but any stickey-outey-bit that touches it hijacks the mouse pointer. It is really hard to write and draw with nothing but stylus tip touching the screen. The on-screen keyboard app is awful (every one who used it with me got stuck in permanent r-click mode by accidentally selecting ctrl then closing the kbd app - may be a software thing but really annoying). The screen orientation was only landscape - i have gotten used to being able swizzle to work in portrait mode, so this erked me (or am I becoming a tablet-snob?).

There was NO SVGA connection - an issue as I want to be able to connect it to a projector. The port covers are dangerous (I stubbed my thumb twice whilst trying to work out how to insert the power recharger cabley thing - the hole is small and slightly wierdly shaped so it is hard to know how to insert it properly.... a major design fault as you have to recharge it regularly). The port covers are plastic hinged also which, in a school, would probably be the first thing to fall off.

On the plus side, for a 'thin' device this machine had NO MOVING PARTS (yay, at least some manufacturers are actually thinking future technologies) as it's secondary storage is a 512Mb FlashRAM. It is impact-rated to about 9G's, which means in theory your could chuck it down the stair well while it is on and it would be fine (even though you have to go down the stairs to retrieve it). In practice, I think the thin beige plastic case would be a little worse for wear after such a trauma).

It's wireless reception was generally pretty good, it's stylus was thin (like most others) and it's battery life in full use was about 2-3 hours. Strangely enough, the recharge cycle is also around 3 hours ... and given that the battery is not easy to get out, that is a pain if you want to recharge one while using another)......... next contestant please.

gimme another, go ahead manufacturers, get your manufacturing arse together and let me see your product ... I want to buy bunches of these things


The Pen is mightier than the Mouse (well, if you wish to be pedantic, the stylus is). I had forgotten the JOY of creating graphics (ie. drawing) because I had resigned myself to having to do it with a clumsy, inaccurate and un-natural mouse - all be it 3 buttoned, ball-less and with roller wheel. I have even gotten really good at creating graphics using the 'nipple mouse' embedded in my thinkpad's keyboard (although I turn off that dreadful touchpad thing - what a nasty ACERism they are). Nothing compares to being able to hold a pen-like object when it comes to drawing serpentine lines and applying paint.

The question remains as to whether I believe a tablet PC is a real alternative to a Laptop. In a school environment (and indeed on the road) I believe the answer is a resounding YES. Laptops are not designed for school kids to lug around - they have too many moving parts and break too easily, their screens are too fragile and they come packed with so many gadgets that are not necessary all the time. I strongly believe that TabletPCs provide the ruggedness that schools have been looking for (if schools are NOT concerned with ruggedness of their hardware and what warranty actually means interms of repair, then they deserve the nightmareish money-pits that their laptop programs become). This technology is RIPE (ie. it works and is affordable) and deserves a much bigger airing than it is getting - come on manufacturers, think outside the CLAMSHELL you are flogging to schools for their 'laptop programs' and give schools an opportunity to use gear that is more closely aligned to what it is used for!!!

<RANT> Understand MANY laptop programs are fueled by MANUFACTURERS telling us what is suited to the task (based on what they can sell to you, not necessarily considering ANYTHING to do with what the things are actually used for). Manufacturers (or more correctly resellers) are businesses interested in VOLUME sales, and can convince even the most sensible school administrations that their stuff is 'cost effective' without giving a rats-arse to the total cost of ownership of that decision ... all sales are good sales, right? </RANT>

The IDEAL tablet PC would have a battery life of 6 hours, good screen calibration, good hand-writing recognition, a thick (to hold) stylus, WiFi with good reception, a padded carry case, Card bays for PCMCIA and SD cards, at least 2 USB ports, be light-weight, have a full sound-card, have an SVGA out socket to connect to a projector and cost sub $2k - many of the machines above come close.

still thinking ... check back when I can find my bleeding stylus...

What do you think?

Join an active online teaching community and share your opinions/concerns ...

Mail me with your ideas/feedback - I'll post it for others to see if you like.

© w2k+4
goto wOnKosite