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IBM ThinkPad TransNote

A remarkable computer that didn't make it
by Conrad Blickenstorfer

Note: The IBM ThinkPad TransNote is a discontinued product. I recently bought one from TigerDirect for $799 and like it so much that I felt compelled to write and publish this review. (published March 20, 2002)

What if you had a computer that was also a notepad? A compelling idea and one that the industry has been trying to address for well over a decade with various pen tablet and PDA designs. Microsoft itself is interested in the concept and is busy working on the Tablet PC. It's a risky project, however, as so far only PDAs have had any degree of success in merging the notepad metaphor with a computer.

That's why IBM tried it a different way with the ThinkPad TransNote which premiered in February of 2001. The ThinkPad line, of course, began life as an actual pad, a tablet computer. It was only after the original ThinkPad 700/710/730 was not successful that it morphed into a standard clamshell notebook. It is therefore interesting that IBM needed to come up with the "TransNote" name to differentiate a new approach that was much more pad-like from the legions of notebook ThinkPads. TransNote - a ThinkPad that transforms into a notebook, because that's what the TransNote is. When the TransNote came out in 2001, it was received with much fanfare by some of the press. BusinessWeek named it a "The Best Product of the Year 2001" and PC Magazine presented a "Technical Excellence Award 2001" and gave the TransNote a rating of four out of five stars. At the time we had repeatedly asked IBM for a review TransNote, but never received one, hence the lack of a review in Pen Computing Magazine when the TransNote was still alive. Heck, enough Pen Computing readers might have bought one to convince IBM to keep it around and refine it until everything worked just right, and until people were ready for it.

Let me explain the basic concept. The TransNote consists of a largish leatherlike "Endurimer" folio case that contains a full computer on one side and a standard paper notepad on the other side. Only, the computer isn't completely standard, and neither is the notepad.

In order for the computer to fit into such a confined space IBM designed a flat slate that contains all the electronics and the keyboard. The display lies folded flat on top of the keyboard, LCD side up. You can use it that way, as a tablet for browsing, writing, or drawing. More likely you'll flip it up so that you can use the computer more like a standard notebook. That's possible because the display is mounted on a hinge not unlike that of the new Apple iMac. See the illustrations below to get an idea of how the TransNote works.

The notebook part of the 5.5 pound TransNote consists of a standard 8-1/2x11 paper notepad sitting on top of an electronic digitizer. A special pen lets you write on it just as if you wrote with a ballpoint pen on a regular notepad, which, in fact, is exactly what you're doing. But the pen's electronic signal is also captured by the digitizer and saved in the notepad electronics. The pad side also has its own menu controls that let you do things with the ink. This entire electronic pad part is called the "ThinkScribe."

The overall idea is that the TransNote lets you use a computer when you need one but also lets you use a simple paper notepad when you want to use one. In addition, it actually captures everything you write on the notepad and lets you manipulate it. Once in the computer part of the TransNote, you can organize the electronic representation of your handwritten notes into files and folders. You can also search all your notes via keywords. Further, the computer recognizes to-do items you jotted down on paper, and it also recognizes messages to yourself. Keywords, to-dos, and messages all require that you circle certain parts of your writing on the paper pad and use the notepad's menu system to tell the computer to remember them as keywords, to-dos and messages.

The key to manage ink is a program called InkManager Pro that resides on the computer side of the TransNote. It lets you call up ink notes, organize them, and do things with the to-dos and messages. If you are beginning to realize that the TransNote was conceived as an answer for people who love to write stuff on paper pads but who also want a computer you're on the right track. What IBM was trying to do is build a pen computer that wasn't quite as radical as the pure pen designs where you no longer have actual paper but write onto the display instead. It's a concept that sounds compelling and simple, yet also one that brings up all sorts of questions and one that has its own logistical problems.

Before I get into how it all works together, let me describe the components.

The computer part is actually quite powerful. IBM managed to shoehorn a full 600MHz Pentium III notebook computer into the left side of the TransNote's portfolio. One with a 10GB hard disk and 64MB of RAM that can be expanded up to 320MB via a single memory expansion slot located under a cover above the top right of the keyboard. The computer also has two USB ports, an internal 56k modem, a built-in 10/100 Ethernet interface, a VGA-out port, and both a Compact Flash and a PC Card slot. If that is not enough, there is an expansion connector that hooks up with a port replicator. Alongside the front of the TransNote you'll find microphone and headphone jacks, and also a built-in microphone and a tiny little speaker. The only thing you do not get is an internal CD-ROM drive or floppy drive. No big deal. The TransNote's display initially seems like a liability. In this day and age of giant LCDs, a 10.4-inch SVGA screen seems tiny. It is bright and contrasty, however, and let's not forget that not so long ago, a 10.4-inch TFT was seen as an almost unbelievable technological accomplishment. It is definitely big enough to be useful. Another areas of initial concern was the TransNote's keyboard. How can IBM fit a keyboard into the small side of a standard notepad? Well, it can't. The TransNote's footprint is somewhat wider than that of a notepad and the 95%-scale keyboard is a bit smaller than that of a standard ThinkPad. Not by much, though, and I found it perfectly adequate for typing. It also contains the IBM "nipple" navigation knob, complemented by buttons for left and right mouse clicks. There's even a third button in the center that emulates a scroll mouse. It works well, though not quite as smoothly as an actual scroll mouse. The TransNote's display is also a touch screen so that you can use either the control knob or a stylus or both. Due to the confined space, the TransNote's battery isn't very large (1,600mAH) and battery life is limited to two and a half hours or so, enough for most occasions, but not enough for long flights. Fortunately, the TransNote not only has standby and hibernation functions that really work, but you can also control power consumption via a very complete Battery MaxiMizer utility. Like all ThinkPads, the TransNote comes with a generous helping of software. There is a number of ThinkPad-specific utilities that easily let you configure and control all aspects of the computer. No Microsoft Office, but the TransNote comes with the complete Lotus SmartSuite, a very competent offering that covers almost all the bases. Whether or not you use it or simply install Office depends on your needs and style. On the operating system front, you can get the TransNote with either Windows 98 or Windows 2000. Mine had the latter and I am very happy with it. For those who must have Windows XP, the TransNote can be upgraded without losing any of its functionality.

How does the paper notepad work?

Quite obviously, this is the first question most people ask about the TransNote, so here's how it all works. As stated above, the TransNote uses an electronic digitizer to capture what you write on the paper notepad. You therefore need to use a special pen that comes with the TransNote. It is a relatively thick affair that fits into its own compartment on the right side of the paper pad. That pen well actually adds almost an inch to the width of the TransNote. The pen has a red plastic stylus tip on one side and a standard ballpoint on the other. The ballpoint side has a removable cap that contains another red stylus tip. The ballpoint part is not a standard design and there is therefore some concern about replacing it when it runs out. IBM realized that and so the TransNote has two small compartments that contain two ballpoint pen refills each (see image to the left). After that, you need to order more from IBM.

As for the pads, you actually can use standard 8-1/2 by 11 inch paper pads. The TransNote comes with a special pad that contains a tutorial on how to use the device. It guides you through the basics of capturing ink, using the notepad side's menus, and how to record to-dos, keywords, and messages. Learning those basics isn't terribly difficult, but still difficult enough so that using the system isn't immediately obvious. You do need to set aside an hour or so to familiarize yourself with it. For example, the digitizer needs to know what page you are writing on. IBM-supplied paper notepads therefore have a page number printed on them so that you always know what page you're on. You then tell the tablet so that you're in sync. Interacting with the tablet is done via three grooves, which are sliding menus operated with the pen, placed alongside the left edge of the paper pad. One of them lets you select which of 50 pages you're writing on. A second one lets you allocate to one of 20 different files. Those files are initially named Ink File 1 through 19 but those names can be changed in the Ink Manager application. The third slider lets you select four different modes of manipulating ink. With these modes you can mark to-dos, messages, keywords, or initiate a cut-and-paste of ink to the clipboard. Two more controls act as enter and escape, and there is a separate on/off switch for the digitizer. Though the computer and the digitizer pad use the same battery, they can be on or off independent from one another. The pad, for example, can store up to 2MB of information in its own memory before it has to be transferred to the PC. I should mention that it is not the end of the world if you get your page numbers mixed up. Ink Manager has a very powerful utility to let you reassign ink, almost stroke by stroke, to a different page.

After you've spent some time with it, getting used to all of this isn't terribly difficult. It's really more a matter of whether or not using this arrangement fits your style. Take the to-do function as an example. If you're the type who routinely jots down to-dos on paper, then being able to record those and make them part of an actual electronic to-do management system may be a great thing. Unlike a paper to-do, you can assign priority, status, and additional notes to any item. Same with messages. Instead of pads full of unorganized notes, Ink Manager can arrange and catalog all those messages and you can search them. Speaking of searching, while the TransNote doesn't come with a general purpose handwriting recognition system, it does have one built-in. However, the 30,000-word VLVU (Very Large Vocabulary Unconstrained) utility is only used to convert keywords from ink into searchable ASCII text.

I should also mention that the TransNote's digitizer can be used like an external pen tablet. You can toggle the digitizer from note taking to pen tablet mode via a clever on-screen menu brought up with the touch of a hardware button located on the right side of the LCD. That menu also allows volume and brightness control, screen rotation, and putting the TransNote into standby or hibernation mode.

In order to test the real-life utility of the Transnote, I took it along on a recent business trip. I used the ThinkScribe notepad to jot down some six pages of notes during a long meeting a Microsoft. From a mechanical standpoint, everything worked fine. The Transnote allowed me to take notes just as if it were a paper notepad, but I ended up with a complete electronic record of everything I wrote down as well. However, I found the pen's shape such that it hurt my fingers after writing with it for an hour or so. If it had been a regular ballpoint I would have discarded it and used a more ergonomically suitable one, but with the Transnote you can't do that. I didn't mind the thickness or weight of the pen; it was a ridge near the tip that holds the pen's cap in place that bothered my hand. Another minor nuisance is that the pen emits a very slight click as it engages the digitizer every time you press down to write.

In a second meeting I recorded notes on the computer side. I used the recognizer that comes with PhatWare's PenOffice 2.1 to write directly into Microsoft Word. I have years of experience using handwriting recognizers and PenOffice itself worked just fine despite the fact that the Transnote's digitizer has a relatively low sampling rate of just 100 samples of second. I encountered some spiking when touching the display with anything other than the pen, so you need to make sure not to rest your palm on the display while you write. I cannot fault IBM for this as the Transnote did not come with a handwriting recognition engine and probably wasn't meant to be used that way. While taking notes I felt somewhat self-conscious of the noises the pen made while writing on the display. All in all, I'd probably rather use a Pocket PC to take notes in handwriting recognition, but the test showed that the Transnote can easily be used that way as well.

Speaking of handwriting recognition, I do wish the Transnote had deferred recognition of whatever you write down on the paper pad. One of the reasons I like recognizers so much is that they record my notes as text files that I can use and edit on the computer. Handwritten notes, even those electronically captured, still need to be transcribed into text.

But isn't this whole contraption unwieldy?

Yes and no. On the one hand, placing both a computer and a notepad into one handy portfolio makes a lot of sense. And while there are perhaps a few slightly rough and unfinished-looking edges here and there, overall IBM has done a magnificent job in making everything fit without giving up functionality. The computer part is just terrific, offering plenty of power and oodles of functionality. I love the adjustable display that can be set at the proper angle no matter how you use the TransNote. The keyboard is as good as that of any other ThinkPad. And while the battery doesn't last all that long, the TransNote's unconventional packaging acts as insulation from the unpleasant heating up so prevalent in today's notebooks.

On the other hand, making everything fit resulted in a pretty large package. A standard notepad may only be 8-1/2x11 inches, but the TransNote's footprint is more like 11x12.5 inches. Fully opened, with the computer and the notepad side by side, we're talking 23 x 12.5 inches, a good chunk of real estate. Fortunately, ingenious packaging allows the TransNote to be used in a number of different ways. To facilitate that, the portfolio cover is permanently attached to half of the underside of the computer and half of the tablet. The other halves are fastened by Velcro. This allows the PC side to be folded over the tablet or the tablet over the PC (see illustration). This sounds more awkward than it is. I got used to it within a day or so and have come to appreciate this arrangement as a positive aspect of the TransNote. It very easily sits on your lap and it doesn't tend to tip over like many lightweight clamshells. And I already mentioned the lack of heat build-up (something that bothers me a great deal on conventional notebooks). Among the more problematic aspects are the aforementioned size of the whole thing, and I am also somewhat concerned about durability. I find myself afraid of one day accidentally ripping off either the computer or the tablet part from the portfolio. There are just so many seams and hinges and other things that might get damaged or lost.

Now what?

In many ways it is too darn bad that IBM gave up on the TransNote. It is an unusual design that includes a lot of great ideas--the result of many years of research in IBM's advanced technology labs--and the overall package works surprisingly well. Yet, despite extensive focus group testing and elaborate praise from some analysts, the TransNote apparently didn't make it in the marketplace. The roughly US$3,000 list price may have had something to do with that, but more likely the public just isn't ready for a device like the TransNote. I bought mine from Tiger Direct simply because I couldn't resist owning a piece of pen technology history, without expecting to use it much after the initial investigation. However, just like the Compaq Concerto pen convertible I bought in the mid 1990s when Compaq blew out inventory, I ended up liking the TransNote a whole lot. With 192MB of RAM memory isn't an issue under Windows 2000 (it even ran fine with the standard 64MB), and thanks to Symbol's Compact Flash 802.11b "Networker" wireless network card I have high-speed wireless access to the LANs in my office and in my home. As a result, the TransNote has become my "daily driver" notebook.

If a) you've always waited for a device like the TransNote, b) are an aficionado of pen technology, or c) simply can't resist a great deal, I suggest you get a TransNote from Tiger Direct. At $799 they won't last long.

View concept paper on the Transnote.
The TransNote Ink Manager SDK
IBM's official introductory press release
A Yahoo Group for Transnote users
IBM instructions on upgrading the TransNote to Windows XP
IBM's Transnote device driver download page

Conrad H. Blickenstorfer is editor-in-chief of Pen Computing Magazine. He can be contacted at