Friday, June 30, 2006

The Vermont Slate - Act II

Well, as I've said before, the slate is dead. I'd like to follow that by saying, "Long live the Slate," but unfortunately I can't.

Since the TC1100 is no longer in production, we have had to select a new model Tablet PC for use at Vermont Academy. This was far from an easy task. We have finally made our decision, but before I reveal our choice, I would like to do a nickel review of the various models we tried out, and what we saw as some of the plusses and minuses of each.

Our selection pool consisted of two slate models, the Motion LE1600 and the Sahara i213, and three convertible models, the Lenovo X41, the Toshiba M400, and the HP TC4400. (Our demo model was actually a TC4200, but the TC4400 is on essentially the same chassis but with updated insides.)

Students and faculty had a chance to spend time with each machine and try it out, giving us feedback on their likes and dislikes for each one. We had some pretty interesting results, but in the end each machine had its proponents and its detractors. The basic minimum specs of each machine were very similar for our evaluation: 512 meg of RAM, wireless b/g networking, 12.1 inch screen, multiple USB 2.0 ports, etc. Pretty standard stuff for Tablets. We also were interest in models that offered an outdoor viewable screen, integrated fingerprint reader, wireless a/b/g, Bluetooth, docking stations, 3 year warranty, and an accidental damage insurance policy. Not all models offered all of these options.

The Motion LE1600 is a pure slate, but it does come with an optional "convertible keyboard" which we also evaluated. It is quite light weight (3.13 lbs) since there is no keyboard in its normal configuration. It uses a Pentium M processor running a 1.5 GHz (a Celeron model is available) and an Intel 915GMS chipset. The default 30 gigabyte drive is small, but a 60 gigabyte drive is available. Maximum memory is 1.5 megabytes. It claims 3+ hours of battery life, but offers an extended battery for longer battery life. Motions have a terrific docking system, letting the LE1600 dock in portrait or landscape, and an excellent internal microphone setup. The case is very attractive and rugged, being made of carbon fiber and magnesium alloy, and feels good in the hand. There is an option for an outdoor viewable screen. I will confess to being a long-time fan of Motion Tablets, and this model is a very nice addition to their line. The keyboard is another story. During our evaluations, this model got good reviews as long as we didn't include the keyboard. It was universally panned by our students who tried it out when the keyboard was attached.

The Sahara i213 is a little-known sleeper in the Tablet arena. It is a beautiful Tablet and looks like what I would picture an Apple-made Tablet PC looking like. Nice lines, a screen that goes almost edge to edge, keeping the external dimensions as small as the TC1100, but giving the larger workspace of a 12.1 inch screen. It uses a Pentium M processor running at 1.3 GHz, the slowest in the group by spec, but not really noticeable in use. Base hard disk size is 40 megabytes, with larger units available. Maximum memory is a rather paltry 1 megabyte. It comes with 802.11b/g and no Bluetooth. It, too is quite light (3.1 lbs), the lightest model we examined. While we didn't receive an evaluation unit, the docking station looks great and allows the i213 to dock in either portrait or landscape mode. It's a bit pricey, though. Sahara does not offer any kind of attachable keyboard, nor does it support Bluetooth, so an RF or tethered keyboard is the only option, the former through use of an adapter. There is no outdoor viewable screen option. The plastic case is an off-white color, though our evaluation unit was actually a special run pink color. This was a huge hit with our females (both students and faculty), but unfortunately, the color was not available to us for purchase. For myself, I liked the style of this unit enough that I would consider it as a likely replacement for my TC1100 if it were based on the newer Centrino Duo chip and had an outdoor viewable screen.

The Lenovo X41 shows all the hallmarks of its ThinkPad heritage: a slim, sleek black case with a terrific keyboard and integrated TrackPoint pointing stick in the keyboard. The model we tested had the 8 cell battery, claiming 5+ hours of battery life, and bringing the unit's weight to about 4 pounds--still quite light for a convertible. Some users liked the small ledge created by the extended battery as a hand-hold, others did not. (The optional 4 cell battery is about an inch shorter than the 8 cell and does not stick out beyond the back of the unit.) This model is powered by a Pentium M running at 1.6 GHz. It had 512 meg of RAM with 1.5 meg max, a 60 gigabyte disk, wireless a/b/g networking, Bluetooth, and integrated fingerprint reader. There are several docking station options, but none of them allow for rotation of the screen to portrait mode. There is not an option for an outdoor viewable screen.

The Toshiba M400 has the Intel Centrino Duo processor running at 1.6 GHz, an 80 gigabyte disk, 512 meg of RAM (2 gig max), 802.11a/b/g wireless, Bluetooth, a 6 cell battery (claiming over 5 hours of battery life), an integrated fingerprint reader, and an internal DVD/CDRW drive--the only model tested that contained an internal optical drive. It weighed in a a solid 4.5 lbs. Toshiba offers several port replicator options, none of which allow for rotation of the display to portrait mode while docked. The case is rugged and there is built-in protection for the hard disk in case of a sudden drop of the unit. The unit includes a touch pad pointing device. Toshiba also has some very nice custom software on the unit, particularly the wireless management tools. Unlike the rest of the models considered, the screen on the M400 was a softer plastic that showed tracking on the surface for pen users with heavy hands. There is no outdoor viewable screen option.

The HP TC4400 was not physically evaluated, as it had not yet been released by Hewlett-Packard. However, the release date was scheduled early enough that we wanted to consider this unit since it was the only model other than the M400 that ran on Intel's newest chip. Because it is externally the same as the TC4200, we evaluated that unit for look and feel, recognizing that performance would be slower than the TC4400. The TC4400 we considered has the Intel Centrino Duo processor running at 2 GHz, 1 gigabyte of RAM, an 80 gigabyte hard disk, 802.11a/b/g wireless, Bluetooth, a 6 cell battery, and an integrated fingerprint reader. The keyboard includes both a touch pad and a TrackPoint pointer, either of which can be disabled if desired. Several users commented on the perceived ruggedness of the unit. An outdoor viewable screen is an option. It weighs in at 4.6 pounds as configured. The docking station, just as with the other convertibles, does not permit rotating the screen to portrait mode.

It was a tough decision, with a lot of good comments both pro and con on most of the units. In the end, there were a couple of factors that drove us in the direction of our final choice, the TC4400. First, we couldn't see standardizing on (and asking families to pay a comparable price for) Pentium M based systems when the Centrino Duo was already out. This left only two units to be considered. (Lenovo has the X61 scheduled for shipping in November of this year, too late to be considered, and neither Motion nor Sahara would state whether or when they were releasing updates incorporating the new chips.) Second, price was a major factor. We requested quotes from all of the vendors on the configurations we evaluated. Surprisingly, the two slate models came with the highest price tags and the vendors moved the least from their list price. The HP handily won on price alone, even though it was the most powerful model examined and even when we added the outdoor viewable screen option. Plus, we already have a good, established relationship with a warranty center, so sticking with the same manufacturer minimized problems in that regard.

Finally, we actually did consider many other matters as well, a few of which I want to mention.

Being able to rotate the docked Tablet to portrait mode should be standard practice with docking stations. That no convertible manufacturer's docks allow this shows a significant lack of understanding of Tablets on the part of convertible makers. This was a big strike against the convertibles.

The keyboard is a crucial tool for students, even those that do use the Tablet function extremely well. Neither slate model had a particularly good keyboard option, though both had excellent docking stations. All of the convertible models had very good keyboards. It is unfortunate that they are just dead weight when in Tablet mode, though. This was a critical point--students need good keyboards and they need them to be convenient even when away from their desk.

Nevertheless, given the interest that the pink case had for the girls at Vermont Academy, we might well have supported the Sahara i213 as an optional choice if we could have gotten it in that color. This evaluation was the first time that I have seen many girls actually excited about a computer. (Manufacturers, are you listening?)