Test drive: Look Ma, no keyboard

Written by Rick Spence

In a popular Dilbert cartoon, Dilbert’s pals snicker at their boss for being unable to tell a laptop from an Etch-a-Sketch. (He assumed you deleted files by turning the machine upside-down and shaking it.)

Now life imitates art in the form of tablet PCs, mobile computers that look just like the familiar red drawing toy. But will this new format enjoy the same lasting success?

I tested a Fujitsu Stylistic ST4000 loaded with Microsoft’s Tablet PC operating system. It’s really just an 8″ x 6″ screen, laid overtop a Pentium III processor, 256 MB of RAM and a 37-GB hard drive that add up to a hefty 1.6 kilos — acceptable in its full-featured laptop role, but too much when it’s being used as a notepad. Yes, you write on it as if you were putting pen to paper. You can also peck at its onscreen keypad or opt for its detached full-sized keyboard, which communicates with the PC through an infrared connection. Unfortunately, propping up the computer so you can read the screen and maintain the infrared signal is tricky. Voice input is another alternative, but it demands fast thinking and slow talking.

For me, handwriting recognition is the Holy Grail. It would be nice to store notes from meetings, legible, retrievable and editable, on my hard drive. Write whatever you wish and — presto! — your scribbles transform into proper, legible word-processor text — or so the promise goes.

Straight out of the box, the ST4000 transcribed most of my uneven scrawl with incredible accuracy, telling “fridge” from “fudge” and “Rich” from “Rick.” But a few of the mistakes it made were career killers. When I finished writing one letter, “Yours very truly” emerged as “Yours vengefully.” Proofreading is more essential than ever.

In the average meeting context, point-form notes suffice. If producers can reduce the weight, the tablet PC may earn a place in your office as a useful — albeit pricey — specialty tool. The suggested list for the ST4000 is $3,000.

© 2003 Rick Spence

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