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Review: New PC tablets cool but still need work

Tablet has style, but needs more development

By Jeordan Legon
CNN

Fujitsu's Stylistic is cool, but like other tablets it's not as easy to use as it should be.
Fujitsu's Stylistic is cool, but like other Microsoft tablets it's not as easy to use as it should be.

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(CNN) -- Take it to a meeting and colleagues will want to borrow it to doodle. Take it out in public and people will try not to stare, but they will. Microsoft's new tablet PC has the "wow" factor going for it.

I tried out Fujitsu's Stylistic, a flashy thin, silver and black pad about 8-by-10 inches big, complete with keyboard and docking station. It looks like a designer Etch A Sketch -- except you write on it with a stylus -- and people found it to be irresistibly stylish.

Is it worth the $2,200 base price? Probably not. Is it as user-friendly as a laptop? Not yet.

But Microsoft spent $400 million to come up with a tablet PC that runs Windows XP and which it believes holds the right formula for pen computing. Now the company is putting marketing muscle behind it.

Microsoft said it expects to sell 500,000 to 1 million Tablet PCs over the next year -- many of those to consumers who insist on having the latest tech toys. But in the long run, Microsoft sees a broader market.

"I think if you go out five years from now, and look at portable computers, virtually all of those will have this tablet capability," Microsoft chairman Bill Gates said.

Microsoft said the computers are designed for office workers, who rush from meeting to meeting or who need to take notes or add scribbles to e-mail or Microsoft Word documents.

Think of the possibilities

But there's something about holding this little machine in your hands that makes you think about endless possibilities.

They might also work someday for doctors, who could scribble notes on the screen and then beam them to nurses, pharmacists and other physicians so that everyone could have updated copies of a patient's file.

What if someday - when the price point drops significantly - restaurants would hand you tablets instead of menus? You could get a picture of the dish, calorie content and the menu could be changed daily without having to print anything.

I know it might sound far-fetched, but don't underestimate Microsoft.

HP and Toshiba, two other makers of the tablets, already have preloaded their computers with Zinio software. The application allows people to read PC Magazine, BusinessWeek, Technology Review and Harvard Business Review on their tablets.

Forbes, the New Yorker, the Financial Times, Slate and the Los Angeles Times also are rumored to be working on creating digital editions for the Tablet PC.

Publishers think they can make a business out of this because the color quality is excellent and the screens are about the same size as a piece of paper (the Fujitsu's screen is about 10 inches long by about 8 inches wide.)

What's cool and what's not

Fujitsu's tablet loads into a docking station that allows you to use a mouse and keyboard.
Fujitsu's tablet loads into a docking station that allows you to use a mouse and keyboard.

Beyond reading magazines, one of the coolest features is the note-taking application called Window's Journal. The program displays what appears to be lined writing paper for you to write your notes. It allows you to search the scribbles you made on the notepad for specific keywords - even if you have bad handwriting like me or wrote the word upside down.

Other cool features include about 4.5 hours of battery life, the units run all programs for Windows XP, and, in the case of the Fujitsu model I tried, a $250 docking station included a built-in CD-drive.

But like with any new technology, there are many shortcomings.

Sending copies of your handwritten notes to your colleagues could be frustrating because right now, you can only do so by exporting them as Web pages or TIFF graphics files. Microsoft needs to work on this so that it's easy to transcribe written notes to text then copy and paste into any application including Word, Outlook or PowerPoint. The company says it's working on a free Journal viewer download that will allow colleagues without tablets to view your notes, but that's still not enough.

Right now, you can add handwritten notes to Office documents on the tablet by downloading the "Office Pack" from Microsoft. But that's limited too. Within word documents, you can only add handwritten notes in square boxed in the margins. No circling words or marking things in red or crossing out entire sentences.

Writing on the screen also takes some getting used to because plastic does not have the same traction as paper. Trying to call up and highlight the right program in your task bar can test your patience.

And you better hold on to the special magnetic-tipped stylus that comes along with your computer. Without it, the computer won't work. You can't use your fingers or a pen like you can with Palm.

Gates promises more cool features

Gates is banking on the tablet, promising to spend a "a few billion" in the next five years to further his company's research, with Office and the tablet at the center of a business information network.

And as the price comes down and the machines are made more user-friendly, I may one day soon be able to use a tablet to order Mousee de Foies de Volaille at a classy French restaurant without having to ask my date: "What is it?"


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