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by David MacNeill

Summer 2003 -- Against all odds, I actually like my Compaq TC1000 Tablet PC. I say "my" even though it is, in fact, Microsoft's property and some day it will have to fly back home. But I tend to identify as belonging to me those products into which I willingly move at least a portion of my data-life; machines I trust enough with the most important information I possess except for my DNA. This Compaq is one of those machines. Which is not to say it is without flaws. It is, after all, running a Microsoft OS variant that is only at version 1.0. While Windows XP Tablet PC Edition is remarkably solid and usable in its first iteration, there are issues to be resolved. (I hope this always remains the case, else I'll have to go out and get a real job.)

Grab the tab

I received the TC1000 with the detachable keyboard and a docking station equipped with a standard DVD/CD-ROM drive. For DVD-R/CD-R burning, I use Addonics' excellent featherweight unit connected to the docking station using via USB 2.0. Compaq does not provide an external keyboard for their docking station, so I use Electrovaya's great little Mini-USB Keyboard. With its varying shades of matte silver and grey, the whole rig looks like it was meant to be.

That describes my office setup. At the end of the day, I log out of XP, flick the hibernation switch on the tablet, wait a few seconds for it to finish its business, then pull the lever at the top of the dock that releases the svelte 3-pound tablet nucleus. I slip it into my bag next to my neoprene-enveloped PowerBook G4 (which really is mine) and head home.

I keep the Compaq's detachable keyboard at home for those few times when a lot of data entry is called for, but that rarely happens. I use Tablette -- I must really like this machine or I never would have named it -- mostly for reading my favorite news sites in the morning and to take a look at today's email. The TC1000 has two little flip-up feet that makes tabletop viewing easy. I invariably have the machine set on its vertical orientation. It was obviously designed to be used that way and just feels right. Some other Tablet PCs are hard to read when the display is vertical, but not the Compaq. It is like paper.

Speaking of reading, the other principal use I have put Tablette to is reading ebooks and manuals. For books I prefer Microsoft Reader, either commercial/public domain editions or those that I create myself using Microsoft's free Word plug-in. If you can get a file into Word, you can make a high-quality ebook out of it. For documentation to which I refer regularly, I move it all over to Tablette in PDF and use Acrobat Reader. It's a great way to work. I have all my software manuals on tap, ready to access and search with a few taps, on a slim tablet placed next to my PowerBook or whatever lab computer on which I happen to be working at the moment. Sure beats trying to split a single screen into software and documentation simultaneously. I can also follow links to websites for further research if needed -- all without disturbing my work screen.

As I wander, wireless and weary...

The above scenario relies heavily on Tablette's built-in WiFi networking, a trait it shares with all Tablet PCs as part of Bill Gates' original specs. If I could not wander my house and office with this machine, it would be virtually useless.

Tablette has become my business travel machine of choice. It's small and light so it works great in a coach seat, has decent battery life, and enough speed to do anything I ask it to do with alacrity. Though it has both modem and Ethernet jacks, I don't even carry cords anymore. There's almost always a WiFi hot spot nearby, and when there isn't I'll use whatever cable is dangling in the press room or hotel business center.

When actually working in meetings and product demonstrations, I rely on Journal to capture all my notes in ink. It's fast, natural, and easy to search using Journal's fuzzy search logic. As you handwrite, the recognizer is working invisibly in the background. If you need to find a particular instance of, say, "Levenger," you just type it in. The brilliance in the design is that the recognizer may have gotten it wrong and translated your scribble into "leuenger" and it will still find the page! I tested this with some nonsense words and it worked every time. This is such a sensible feature that I think it qualifies as a breakthrough in pen computing technology. It makes naturally written words accessible in an entirely new way, without the flawed and finicky translation into typed text. People scribble, they misspell, they use personal shorthand, and they sometimes make up new words. Now computers have been given a little latitude as well. How refreshing -- and from Microsoft, fer cryin' out loud. It's as though the IRS completely rewrote the tax code so that it was just, equitable, and understandable -- just because it would improve the lives of 300 million Americans.

Two worlds, no conflict

I live in two worlds. Relying on Apple technologies for productivity, creativity, and entertainment works for me. But it's a big planet and lots of folks use Windows for these things and are perfectly satisfied. I need to have broad and deep knowledge of Windows machines for my job, but I have no need or desire to "live" in one entirely.

Where the twain met for me is in this Tablet PC, a device for which there currently is no equivalent from Apple. By using Tablette the way it was intended, I have no conflict between the two worlds. Gates foresaw the need for a thin, lightweight, wireless pen-based pad for notetaking and data viewing -- tasks that require occasional text input that could be easily handled by the world-class recognition technology that Microsoft now possesses. It's less than a laptop but more than a PDA. None of the other Tablet PCs have come closer to this vision than the Compaq TC1000.

When my Apple-only friends see me with Tablette, they look as though I've gone temporarily insane. When I show them what I use it for, they change their tune immediately and say things like, "Why doesn't Apple make a PowerPad/ iSlate?" I believe that even Steve Jobs, no lover of pen computing, will think differently when he sees this.

David MacNeill is Editor-at-Large of Pen Computing Magazine.