Three Tablets That Will Change How You Work, and One That Won't

Last Updated Jan 11, 2010 2:06 PM EST

Waif-like tablet devices seemed to multiply across the show floor at CES like so many brainy legal pads, but which ones actually have the potential to make us more productive?

Lenovo's new hybrid notebook contains a tablet PC in its lid. One frontrunner is Lenovo's IdeaPad U1, a two-in-one notebook PC with a detachable tablet that docks inside its lid. Sure, the translucent plastic enclosure smacks of a late-90s iMac, but don't let the bubble-gum appearance fool you: this is an extremely capable sucessor to the laptop-and-dock setup that many enterprise workers have come to cherish.

The U1 takes portability to a different level by splitting the screen and the base into two separate computers: a power-sipping tablet with a dead-simple touch OS, and a beefier, faster base running Windows 7 and a Core 2 Duo chip. Once docked into the clamshell, the computers automatically link up to share 3G wireless, battery power, data and documents, and users can toggle back and forth between the two for seamlessly. The whole thing only weighs 3.8 pounds; the tablet portion tips the scales at just 1.6 pounds.

Another office God-sent is the Spring Design Alex, an e-reader I'd dub the "Kindle for business". The Alex combines an e-ink reader -- perfect for viewing documents on a soothing, paper-like display -- with a fully functional smartphone at the bottom running Google Android.

The Spring Design Alex The Alex turns e-readers into productivity tools by letting you browse the Web, check email, and run apps on the bottom touch-screen in lovely full-color glory, just as you would on an Android phone. But let's say your colleague emails you a document or a Web page you'd like to read: simply flick it up to the e-paper screen above, and read it as easily as you would on paper. That means no more squinting at your Blackberry to discern numbers on your latest P&L. (Once you're done working, of course, you can read e-books and play music, just like a conventional e-reader.)

Perhaps the most amazing innovation to come out of CES is the humble-looking Notion Ink Adam, which takes the concept of the Alex, above, and combines it into one big, beautiful 10-inch screen. This device is still in final development, which is perhaps why the company's website looks like it was slapped together by high schoolers -- but the Adam's CES demo spoke for itself. As Gizmodo so succinctly put it: "The bullet's in the chamber. E-ink is going to die."

What you're seeing is a hybrid screen that can switch between e-ink and a regular old color LCD mode (like your laptop) with a mere button-push. That means you're reading e-paper documents in bright sunlight one minute, using virtually no battery power and then -- bam! -- you're surfing the Web in a full, backlit, color Android browser the next. The Adam is powered by Nvidia's speedy, economical Tegra 2 chip and a screen big enough to handle a sizable on-screen keyboard.

One device notably missing from CES this year was Microsoft's much vaunted Courier tablet, a book-like device which several outlets have reported is approaching final stages of development. Its absence in Las Vegas saved Redmond its fair share of embarrassment.

The Microsoft Courier, courtesy of Gizmodo. For as slick looking as the Courier is -- and it is very, very slick looking -- it embodies a whole host of anachronistic, impractical technologies that other, more sensible device-makers have long since abandoned. For one thing, it's operated by a stylus. Let that sink in: while the rest of the industry is busy producing marvelous touch-operated interfaces (Apple, Palm, HP, and Google, to name a few), Microsoft seems to be clamoring for the heyday of Windows Mobile, when handwriting recognition still seemed like a workable idea. There's no virtual keyboard; the Courier asks you to press your greasy palm on its twin seven-inch displays and write long-hand. Better yet, there's a camera in the back of this thing; imagine holding up a device the size of a hardback book to take a photo.

A better version of this folding gizmo already exists: it's called a notebook computer. With so many ingenious alternatives like the ones above, don't bother waiting around for this Courier to make its appearance.
  • Chris Dannen

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