Sunday, May 20, 2007

Tablet PC Hardware: Pen, Battery, and Screen

I said I was going to blog some about my tablet PC and here is my first real post. It only seems logical that I start by talking about hardware. I'm going to focus on my tablet but most of the things I have to say cover all tablets in general.

First off, I have a convertible tablet PC. I actually remember when they didn't have convertibles, only slate tablets (think Flintstones). First off, a tablet PC is meant to be very portable. I have a 12.1 in. screen. They do go up to 14 but that seems a little cumbersome to me. I carry my tablet with me everywhere, to every class. Weight matters here!

Besides size and weight, the actual input device makes a difference. Gateway seems to be the oddball of the group having a different type of technology. They don't have erasers and the pens are a little bulky. Also, if memory serves, they have a battery in the pen so they only last for a finite amount of time. HP and Toshiba have compatable technology which includes an eraser. (Funny side note, if you see a new tablet user erase something on their scree look to see if they brush away the eraser filings like they were using real paper.) I have use HP's tablet pen and it is rather tiny. It seems sturdy but the size is a little small. Toshiba (although I am clearly partial) seemed to do things right by making the tablet pen look and feel exactly like a real pen. (The Toshiba pen is pictured to the left.)

The next important thing to be concerned about is battery life. When I scheduled for fall classes in the mack of my mind I was thinking, "will my battery make it though these classes back to back?" I have a feeling this fall is not going to treat me nicely on Tuesdays when I have over 7 hours of classroom time. Luckily, I think I can plug-in during one of the classes. As of yet I have not been forced to plug-in during any of my classes. Also, Speed is starting to put plugs in classrooms for students but I digress. My first bit of advice regarding batteries is buy the secondary battery for you model computer. Although it will cost a little extra, the additional battery life is worth the money and the added weight.

Battery life eventually runs the life of any daily portable computer user. Luckily I live on campus and I charge in-between classes. This semester I can be a little more liberal with screen brightness because I have so few classes, but that won't last. Screen brightness is the enemy of any battery (although Vista seems to be the newcomer to the battery busters). Typically I run on the lowest or near lowest brightness setting to conserve power.

Since I have run my computer under XP and Vista I have some grounds for comparison. Under XP I could easily get 6 hours of battery life before I would get to what I consider the danger zone (under 15%). Now that I run vista my battery life seems to be (easily) 5 hours and I can try to stretch it to 6 but I am getting to the critical level where Vista takes control and sends me to hibernate. I also can drain my battery amazingly fast if I crank the settings up, it seems I could empty my batteries in just over two hours.

Vista does have its advantages over XP, specifically the way you manage your battery. It seems easier to just switch your power settings based on your current needs to one of the three available settings. I've gone into the advanced settings and further customized the settings to stretch my battery even further. Under XP I used the Toshiba battery utility which worked reasonably well. Vista offered many of the same features of the Toshiba utility making it unnecessary (not to mention impossible under Vista).

If I were to look at my battery life and try to determine why it does not last as long as it once did, I can not identify the specific reason. I simply changed too many variables. I am now using Vista, I have double the RAM running at a higher clock speed, and I use an SD card for ReadyBoost. Which one of these is hurting my battery the most? I am not sure.

Not to dwell on the Vista vs. XP battle, but the sleep function under Vista works remarkably better than XP's standby. I never turn off my laptop between classes, I always go to standby or the equivalent in Vista. This saves time by having everything ready in just a few seconds and the time to pack-up is cut down to almost nothing. Under XP standby worked, most of the time, but sometimes it would take much longer than I wanted to go to standby. However, did recover from standby very quickly. Under Vista, it might just be the fancy fade to black effect, but it seems that going to standby is faster. I know it is not good to jostle around a hard drive so I always wait till my power light goes off, and with Vista it happens almost before I can shut my lid.

That is enough with batteries for now, moving onto another topic...

The other important factor that I am going to talk about now is the actual screen. With a normal laptop, it almost seems the worst possible thing to touch the screen, but with a tablet it is no big deal. This is because they are heavily protected with a durable layer of plastic. One of the bad things about this is there is actually a gap between the external protective layer and the screen that dust and dirt can get trapped in. Its not the end of the world but I do have a few specks on my screen now that I can't get rid of. I've had them before but they go away, sometimes.

Different manufactures have different screen properties. Some are more rigid and others have a more natural writing feel. Personally, I am not completely satisfied with the Toshiba screen. My main complaint is that it wobbles slightly. Unlike a normal laptop, convertibles have only one hinge. Toshiba actually solved this problem with their new tablets which lock into laptop mode on both sides. These laptops seem to be the best tablets (in my opinion) on the market (although I never have touched one. My only complaint about these new tablets is that they are now missing a optical drive.

In summary, the biggest problem with tablets is the battery life. As I have learned, speed isn't always everything and sometimes should be sacrificed for battery. Specifically to tablets, the big differences are in the pen and the screen. However, many of the same considerations to laptops apply to tablets (CPU, RAM, graphics card, optical drive). I can easily say that one can not expect to find a desktop replacement in a laptop (although I am holding out for an external graphics card that might make it possible).

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