New Gadgets Offer Deja View

The Romans used to say “Nihil Novi Sub Luna” …nothing new under the moon. The English then tried to make that truly new and fresh with the astonishing departure, “There’s nothing new under the Sun.” And so it goes….

One of the few tough parts of reviewing new technology is that companies roll out new versions of the same old thing, add a few zeros after the model number and we’re supposed to swoon. Sometimes it works, especially when the put a really good graphics card in there… but I digress….

Now we’ve found a few products made new from old reliable companies and they’ve given us a completely new way of looking at the same old thing.

This latest crop includes a notebook computer that transforms into a Tablet PC, a Tablet PC that can transform into a desktop (thanks to USB I/O devices), a whiz-bang multimedia powerhouse that will not only let you watch your favorite movies and TV shows, it will record them for you, a sleek all-in-one little number that promises the aforementioned moon (but does it deliver???) and a Palm device that finally gets it right.

Let’s take a look at them, shall we?

Toshiba Portege 3500 Tablet PC
It’s hard not be immediately captivated by the designs of both the Toshiba Tablet PC and the Gateway Tablet PC we discuss below. Toshiba’s Portege 3500 does everything a fast notebook can do, sporting a 1.33 Ghz Pentium III processor with Microsoft’s XP Tablet PC operating system. Easily converted to a tablet pc by turning the screen on its hinge, it changes to tablet mode. The manufacturers hope consumers will find writing on tablet PCs to be “the same experience as (writing on) an 8 1/2 by 11” notepad.”

Well, it’s not. We’ve played with both models and enjoy the nifty and erratic handwriting recognition software. It’s fun to capture my chicken-scratch handwriting and save it digitally or convert them to (95% useable) text. My problem no longer is that the handwriting recognition programs are imperfect. They’ve improved somewhat from the handwriting recognition software Microsoft and others boldly launched then abandoned a decade ago. My problem with these new Tablet PCs is that writing on glass still annoys me almost as much as a cat scratching on a chalkboard. When I write by hand, I like the cushion of a papery-pad and the guarantee of permanence when ink inscribes paper.

So, I’m in a quandary. I admire these designs and enjoy the way-cool form factor but I find I quickly dispense with the tablet features for the old reliable keyboard. At $2,300 to $2,500, this is a better value than the Gateway, but still comes with a pretty hefty price tag

Gateway tablet PC
Unlike the Toshiba, the Gateway Tablet PC looks like a laptop that’s been snapped in half at the hinge. Comprised of a separate screen and separate USB keyboard and DVD/CD-RW combo drive, the computer comes with a a sturdy docking station which makes it look like a sleek desktop, as well as an easel-type stand, for something a little less rigid.

The star of the show is the tablet screen. It’s as light and easy to tote around as a thin hardcover book. The screen is big, bright and beautiful. It features a 40 GB hard drive, 256 mb RAM, and high-speed wired and wireless internet connections built-in.

We love the wireless connections that let us access the web anywhere on a wireless network. We love the feel of the tablet overall, and how the “Microsoft Journal” program, that lets you take handwritten notes, and email them to anyone.

Wedon’t love the price tag. At $2,800 we could just as soon get a nice laptop and a PDA. Bring the price down and maybe we’ll reconsider.

Overall: Both the Gateway and Toshiba are very nice but very expensive niche products.

HP Media Center PC 873n

This multimedia PC features Microsoft’s new “Media Center Edition” of Windows XP. You can’t buy this version in the stores… you can get it only with a certified Media Center PC from HP, and several other manufacturers.

First, about the operating system…. Windows XP Media Center Edition combines TV, CD player, DVD player/burner, personal video recorder and digital photography programs in an all-in-one OS manager. Granted, all of these things were and are available as separate installs for just about any PC, but this new version comes with everything in one box ready to install.

We love having everything in one box. We also like the ability to capture television programs on our hard drive like “TIVO.” Depending on the speakers that come with your system (ours came with killer Klipsch surround-sound speakers and subwoofer), the audio can really rock.

What we don’t Love: not all systems allow you to connect it to your home entertainment system. If you can’t, it’s probably not a lot of fun to record your favorite shows, only to watch them on a smallish computer monitor. Also, a multimedia computer is all about the monitor. This model does not include this beautiful f70 monitor. That will set you back several hundred more dollars. On top of this unit’s price of $1,649.

Sony PCV W10
It’s another entertainment center and computer combined... except this one doesn't burn DVDs. But you can watch them, and edit movies, as well as burn CDs.

We love its small footprint, widescreen monitor, decent speakers and it looks elegant. It’s definitely where the desktop is evolving to: a handsome entertainment center hybrid that you can work on and play on and won’t be embarrassed to have in your living room. So why don’t we already own several of these? At $1,599, they’re certainly affordable considering how elegant they are. To be honest, it’s the Celeron processor. My producer Bob and I hate this processor. It’s just not tricked-out enough to deliver the video and graphics performance that you’d expect from something this slick. In short, it’s a pretty box but we wish it had more in it.

Palm Tungsten T
Speaking of entertainment, I’m now using my Palm to look at my pictures. The Tunsten-T isn’t revolutionary, I suppose, but after years of trying, Palm finally got it right.

It’s fair to say that we who carry a Pocket PC and a Blackberry and a Palm are probably a little too wired. At least, we shouldn’t spontaneously jump in a pool, with all those batteries. If we weren’t electrocuted, we’d sink like a stone.

But after five sweet months with the Tungsten T from Palm, it’s become the old reliable. When the Pocket PC device runs out of batteries (daily), my schedule is always safely on the Palm. Stuck on a plane for 6 hours? I can scramble and unscramble the Puzzle game with a focus that frightens other passengers. (Please don’t tell Tom Ridge.)

But the other features, like a bright color screen that lasts; convenient Bluetooth to easily connect with one of the few Bluetooth phones (like Sony-Ericsson’s T68i) or my printer, for example. It’s also handy to have both multimedia and SD expansion cards. I routinely keep a gigabyte of pictures on this little mama.

Palm called me the other day and asked why I didn’t show this. I swore that I showed the Tungsten to almost everybody. Then I realized everybody but the folks at home. Well, now that they just brought the price down to $399, I’m sick of showing off mine. Get your own.

By Daniel Dubno and Bob Bicknell