21st Century Tablet PCs

The ThinkPad X41 convertible tablet Computer, by Lenovo (the Chinese company which bought IBM's personal computer division), was introduced in June 2005 and can be used in two modes: for writing on with a digitized pen (above, left) and as a traditional notebook computer (right), with data and words input via keyboard.

For the past couple of years, Microsoft has been subscribing a cure for PC users who don't want to type on a keyboard to take notes during a meeting. Take a tablet - a tablet PC that is.

A number of PC makers have filled that prescription, but none better than Lenovo, the Chinese company that recently acquired IBM's personal computer division. The new ThinkPad X41 Convertible Tablet gives you all the advantages of a tablet PC without any of the annoying side effects.

Tablet PCs allow you to write and draw on the screen and use the computer as if it were a smart electronic clipboard. Most run Microsoft's Windows XP Tablet Edition operating system which is optimized to work with an electronic "digitizer pen" along with a keyboard. You can use the pen in lieu of a mouse to point, write and draw on the screen.

The operating system comes with handwriting recognition software that, depending on the user's handwriting, is capable of converting writing into text, enabling you to use a pen to take notes or do your writing, just like your great grandparents did. Well, not quite like your great grandparents. You can also use the pen to edit your documents, delete and insert words or add signatures or graphics.

Before I go on, I have to admit that I'm pre-inclined not to like the Tablet PC because I have terrible handwriting. I learned to type when I was in elementary school, long before personal computers, and get writer's cramp if I have to hand-write more than a few words. What's more, like most touch typists, I can type much faster than I can handwrite. Still, I like the ThinkPad X41 Tablet because it gives me a choice.

When you unpack the X41, it looks and acts just like IBM/Lenovo's regular X40 and X41 ultra-light notebook PCs. It has the same excellent keyboard that IBM is famous for as well as the eraser-style pointing stick that makes it easy to move the cursor about the page.

Prior to getting my loaner unit, I had been using an IBM X40 ThinkPad, which operates almost exactly the same as the X41 Tablet when you're using it with the keyboard. The difference between IBM's regular ultra-lights and the Tablet version is that you can swivel the screen around and transform the unit from a standard notebook PC to the electronic version of pen and ink.

One downside to a standard notebook PC is that it's a bit rude to type while you're at a meeting - especially if you're sitting around a table. It separates you from the rest of the people and pecking at the keyboard tends to make a bit of noise.

With a tablet PC, you can hand-write on the screen almost as discreetly as you can with paper. You can also draw diagrams, circle important words and do all those things we tend to do with yellow notepads.

The software, in theory, can recognize cursive script - but it had a very tough time recognizing mine. If I slow down or print my letters, however, it usually gets them right.

Another option is to use an onscreen keyboard that allows you to "type" by using the pen to tap on letters. That, however, is a very slow way to enter text. Even people with good handwriting are unlikely to use the pen to enter large amounts of text.

When it's time for serious writing, you simply swivel the screen around and start using the keyboard. You can do that without having to restart the computer or even close the document. The software, for example, allows you to use the stylus with Microsoft Word and switch over the keyboard as needed.

You can also use the stylus and the keyboard at the same time which can make it easier to mark-up documents, enter signatures or draw on the screen without having to give up access to the keyboard.

In addition to fine-tuning the basics, IBM/Lenovo also added a great security feature. It has an integrated fingerprint reader just below the screen. It takes only a few minutes the machine to recognize your fingerprints (you train it on multiple fingers) and once it's ready, you can log on to the PC or any software or website simply by swiping a finger across the small reader. It's easy and highly accurate and usually faster than typing in a password.

The X41 tablet weighs 3.5 pounds and is 1.4 inches thick, making it only slightly heavier and thicker than IBM's standard X40 and X41 notebook PC. Like the other IBM ultra-lights it has a 12.1 inch screen, which is smaller than some notebooks PCs but more than adequate for most users.

It does not have an integrated optical (CD or DVD) drive. You can purchase a docking station with an optional optical drive or, for $399, you can buy a USB 2.0 Multi-burner drive that reads and writes both CDs and DVDs.

The X41 Tablet costs $1,899 without an optical drive but with a 1.5 gigahertz Pentium M processor, a 40 gigabyte hard drive and 512 megabytes of memory. It also has integrated wireless (802.11g) networking and Bluetooth to connect to mobile phones, PDAs and other handheld devices.

A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."

By Larry Magid
  • Lloyd Vries