Sunday, October 18, 2009

Tablet PC Manufacturer Breakdown

This is just a summary of my experiences with various Tablet PC manufacturers. My first Tablet PC was a Toshiba and my girlfriend used a Gateway Tablet PC for several years. I have since moved on to an HP Tablet PC and my girlfriend is currently using a Lenovo Tablet PC. Additionally, I recently won a Fujitsu Tablet PC at WIPTE 2009, but it is in the mail and I do not have much experience with Fujitsu yet. The last manufacturer I will talk about is Dell, while I do not have experiences using one personally, I have experience supporting students who own a Dell Tablet PC.

This review is focusing more on the quality of the product and not the price. While it is impossible to remove price entirely from the evaluation of the product, it is not the main thrust of this review.

This review is meant to be more of a summary of my experiences with Tablet PCs thus far and the opinions expressed here do not represent a detailed analysis of the entire line of products offered by each manufacturer.

I have the most experience with this manufacturer as my Toshiba M405 Tablet PC was not only my first Tablet, but was also my first "laptop." When it comes to a Toshiba Tablet they are generally a very sturdy machine. However, they have not mastered making a sturdy hinge. To help solve this problem they have added lock-in clips on each side of the screen on their newer Tablet PCs to stabilize the screen. This causes a newer Toshiba Tablet to look more like a laptop than a Tablet.

Toshiba is in general a quality manufacturer. When it comes to quality, the product will last but may not age gracefully. I know of several Toshiba Tablets that look very worn out, but they are still working. The feature combinations present in some Toshiba models will likely be very attractive to a consumer that is looking for a specific feature set. Toshiba Tablets come in some of the largest screen sizes and their smaller models come with built in optical drives. Overall, Toshiba is not a bad choice, but it is not leading the pack.

This is a very simple conclusion to reach, avoid any and every Gateway Tablet PC at all costs! These computers are absolutely terrible. From three years ago, I know almost no one who is still using their Gateway computer they had when they entered college. The build quality is sub-standard, the warranty is nearly impossible to use, and the user experience is generally unpleasant. Many people are tricked into purchasing a Tablet PC because of the low price, but they are not even worth it at the lower price point due to all of the problems.

The problems that have plagued Gateway Tablet PCs include overheating, power system problems, poor pen quality, and a general degrade in quality over time. Most Gateway Tablet's do not use the Wacom digitizer, which provides for a much worse user experience when used as a Tablet. Often times a Gateway Tablet will end up being used like a laptop because the digitizer is simply so bad.

While this is a generalization of an entire product line, all of my experience points leads me to this conclusion. I would like to point out that Gateway Inc. was purchased by Acer in 2007 and many of the Gateway products I have experience with were built before 2007. However, I hold to my recommendation to avoid Gateway Tablet PCs.

Hewlett Packard
HP has a split personality when it comes to their Tablet PC lines, so I am forced to review them as if they were two manufactures. In essence, they are truly two manufacturers when you compare the build quality and features that make it into each of their lines.

HP Consumer Tablet PCs
An HP consumer model Tablet PC is the type of computer you will find in Best Buy. Unfortunately the price point is so low, like the Gateway computers, many consumers are tricked into purchasing them. These computers have been coming in a black color lately and promote multi-media features. The processor is typically AMD which is how they are able to drive down the price. Interestingly, they often include an optical drive in the smaller form factors, but this does add to the overall size of the product. However, the main way they are able to drive the price down is by using sub-standard digitizer technology.

Some models use only resistave touch with a stylus. As a result, these Tablet PCs (using that name very loosely here) have been come to know as "Crap Tablets" at Speed School because they are just a terrible user experience. There are other models that use active digitizers, but it seems that they are not all using the standard Wacom technology. Even when these models use a Wacom digitizer, the quality of the pen input is lacking.

When it comes to overall build quality, the HP consumer Tablet PCs are not built to last. My experience with these computers include damaged screens, broken power supply connectors, and general operating system instability due to hardware problems. My overall recommendation is avoid these computers unless absolutely necessary for budgetary reasons. While these computers are not as bad as the Gateway lines, they are prone to failure in an abusive setting such as a student's backpack.

HP Business Tablet PCs
When it comes to a rock solid Tablet PC, HP has an excellent position in the market. The previous generation tc4400 and the current generation EliteBook 2730p are rock solid computers when the right balance of features. While the lack of a built in optical drive may seem like a downside to many people, the savings on bulk and weight are well worth the trade off. The digitizer is very high quality, although the old style HP pens are prone to snap in half. While the price is significantly higher than an HP consumer model, with higher specs in a line for line comparison often favors the consumer model, the cost is sunk into the build quality making the business model the better choice.

My preliminary analysis is that students who entered school this year with a 2730p will still be using the same computer in 4 years. When you compare that to what my class has experienced, many individuals who are entering their 4th year are on the second computer. The biggest problem I have encountered with these computers are the crap-ware that is bundled with the manufacture's build of Windows. However, this problem is solved by simply reinstalling Windows (hopefully Windows 7) and not installing the software that is bundled by default. However, this is nit-picking as every manufacturer does this.

My overall recommendation is that an HP business class Tablet PC is a purchase that will be hard to regret.

The problem with saying that a Lenovo Tablet PC is an excellent computer is that the quality of the line is not limited to the Tablet PC series. Lenovo computers are very rugged and will last for many, many years. When someone expresses interest in purchasing a Lenovo Tablet PC, my response is typically, "Great choice, enjoy your purchase!" I have not met a single person who regretted purchasing a Lenovo Tablet PC.

My experience with Lenovo includes my girlfriends second Tablet PC, which she uses to take all of her class notes. As a point of comparison, she never used her Gateway to take notes, and now she only uses her Lenovo to take notes in class. The biggest downside people immediately point out is the lack of a touch pad, but to those people I say try using a track point before you judge. On my HP computer which has both, I exclusively use the track point as the input device.

The biggest downside of a Lenovo is typically the price, but when you look at how long the product will last it is not something that should be considered. Just to emphasize my conclusion, Lenovo is one of the best manufactures of Tablet PCs and is in a league of their own in quality.

My experience with Fujitsu is very limited. Two professors that I have worked with both have Fujitsu Tablet's because of the 13" screen. They are very happy with their decision to go with Fujitsu. At WIPTE 2009 I was able to play with some of the Tablet's that are in the Fujitsu line of computers. Additionally, I won a brand new Fujitsu T5010 from a prize giveaway at WIPTE 2009. I have not received the computer yet, so I can not provide a full review.

However, I can speak some to the quality of Fujitsu in general. Since Fujitsu is not new to the Tablet PC market, many of their products are highly refined. Their line of Tablet PC's is one of the largest if not the largest so the quality within the line does vary, similar to the difference between the HP consumer Tablet PC and the HP business Tablet PC.

My recommendation, although not as informed as I would like, would be to go with Fujitsu if it meets your needs from a feature standpoint. With such a wide range of options provided by Fujitsu, they have Tablet PCs at sizes that are slightly larger and slightly smaller than the rest of the market. This translates in some of the models being slightly niche, in a market that is already niche. However, I have high hopes for my new Fujitsu Tablet PC and would recommend someone purchase a Fujitsu if it meets their needs.

Dell is the leading computer manufacturer in the United States. Michael Dell famously stated that Dell would not sell a Tablet PCs, but years later ended up introducing the Dell Latitude TX and then the TX2. Dell Tablet PCs, at this time, do not use a Wacom digitizer. I can already recommend that Dell Tablet's should be avoided simply because they do not use the Wacom technology! This recommendation is magnified if it is going to be used in a heterogeneous Tablet PC environment where everyone else has a computer that supports a Wacom pen. It is extraordinarily frustrating when you attempt to use a Wacom pen on a Dell Tablet PC and it simply does not do anything.

However, Dell does offer some interesting features, mainly touch support. While the Dell touch drivers were plagued with problems when they first launched the platform, it seems to be working now. Touch will continue to become more and more important in Tablet PC lines, but it will never replace the need for an active digitizer.

My experience with Dell is not long enough to give an estimate on how long they will last, but in general the machine is well constructed. Overall, I will still give the recommendation to avoid purchasing a Dell Tablet PC. Unlike my recommendations to avoid other Tablet PCs based on build quality, the recommendation to avoid the Dell is based on other grounds. While the main reason to avoid a Dell Tablet PC is that it is not using a Wacom digitizer, the other reason is product generation.

Dell is only on their second generation of Tablet PCs while other manufacturers are in their double digit generation numbers. While Dell may eventually develop their Tablet PC line to be a major contender, it is still too early to recommend. Once Dell is on their 5th generation of Tablet PCs, I would feel a lot better recommending a Dell Tablet.

Toshiba: Quality products, some innovations, but still middle of the pack
Gateway: Avoid at all costs, poor build quality, very bad experience
HP Consumer: Avoid based on low build quality and bad digitizers, offers low cost alternative
HP Business: High quality products, reliable and compact form factor, good user experience
Lenovo: Very high quality products, long lasting product, very positive user experience
Fujitsu: Wide variety of options and sizes available, refined product line
Dell: Young product line, non standard digitizer, recommend avoiding but not the worst option


Louis said...

Hi Jared, I enjoyed your article and would like to add my personal experiences to the list. I have used a Fujitsu Stylistic ST5032 (slate) for several years now and have mostly only good things to say about it. It is a sturdy device and overall has not given me much grief over the years. The display is excellent and the battery power has seen me through 6-8 hours average on low consumption settings. I have replaced the battery twice in the past 4 years but have terrible conditioning habits so that’s all right. The downside was that the biometric scanner (fingerprint reader) never worked, I put this down to bad drivers which, an issue which has probably been solved since. The other bad thing is that Fujitsu tech support might as well be in charge of national security. It is easier to get milk out of a rock than to get any information from them. They mostly seem to let the customers help each other working their problems out rather than getting involved.

I bought an HP Touchsmart pc (consumer version) as a replacement. I hoped that the dual touch screen (allows you to navigate by pen or by finger) would be a neat feature but it is so buggy and the software is so slow that it is practically useless, even though I had the factory upgrade my unit to the fastest processor. Cute, but useless. My main observation is that this machine runs so hot that it is very hard to hold on to or even use on your lap for extended periods. This might be due to the AMD processors which tend to run pretty hot. The battery life is worse than expected at 2.5 hours, approximately. This alone makes it completely useless for me as my classes rarely allow me to plug my unit in. It should come as no surprise that the professors do not wait for you to replace batteries or the 3 minute boot up sequence, no matter how nicely you ask. My classmates got enough laughs out of me on this that I have left the damn thing at home and have gone back to using paper (ugh!).

If you are left handed, using the hp is a drag. There is only one place to attach a tether on the laptop and that is on the right side of the keyboard. The string they include is so short that you cannot hold onto it with your left hand and still write. Due to this I have lost my pen (which tends to pop out like a projectile at the slightest provocation), and have not been able to find a replacement yet! Nobody sells the darn things, not even HP!

To add insult to injury, I use my tablet overseas and although HP even sells this unit here, they refuse to have anything to do with mine, considering it to be a competing product. They won’t help me fix it even if I pay them out of warranty.

If I have to say one good thing about HP, and I hope you realize how very hard this is for me to do, I really like the lightscribe dvd drive they included in this heavy, clunky, slow, pain inducing unit.

Conclusion, Fujitsu is rock solid, and as long as you don’t need their help you will be happy with it. Doesn’t sound like a winning testimonial, but sadly that seems to be the way of the market lately so I’m sorry to say I’m thinking of buying another one despite their bad support.

Avoid HP at all costs unless you are into things like pain and suffering or would like to knock off some serious karma points before you kick the bucket (in which case I would recommend going with windows vista as well, preferably the beta version).

Take care, Louis

Jared Hatfield said...


Thanks for the kind words. I would have to agree with your comments about Fujitsu and HP.

Your experience with the consumer line of HP Tablets sounds like every person I know who has purchased from that line. They are built to be low cost and they are clearly sacrificing quality to meet that goal.

My main Tablet PC at the moment (out of the lineup that I have) is my HP EliteBook 2730p. I keep using this computer because it is so small and rugged. Not the best battery, but even with the low power CPU it has no performance problems. While I do know several individuals who have had issues with this model computer, my experience has been almost flawless.

When it comes to support from HP, that is a different story. I do not use support unless I have a serious hardware problem and luckily I have had not issues to date.

In the end you are correct in avoiding any and all HP consumer Tablets, but their business class Tablets are not all bad.

Louis said...

I am glad to hear that not all HP’s are bad. I remember reading an article on your site from way back about how not to buy the best buy HP models as they had passive digitizers but when I called HP sales they told me that they only had one model for sale. I figured that I must have read an old post on your site but it turned out I was given the wrong information.

Since we are on the subject, I’d appreciate if you could tell us about the screens on these devices. One doubt I have is if all multitouch screens have passive digitizers. You mentioned that Dell does not have a wacom digitizer, but does it have an equivalent system that comprehends multiple sensitivities (light to heavy strokes of the pen) just as well? Do you have any input on which brands tend to have better screens?

I understand that noise is now a factor with tablet pc’s as the processors are getting faster and require more cooling. I know the hp touchsmart has a fan that sounds like a turbine and that can really get in the way and I also noticed that Lenovo declared that their unit has a close to silent operation but I don’t know how true this is. Do you have any input on this characteristic?

Gateway Tablet Pc said...

thanks for nice describe about Gateway Tablet Pc.Your post is very helpful every one.

ellenjoy25 said...

Hi Jared, seems like you experienced using most of PC brands. Your blog was really a nice post to read, very helpful to those who are just planning to buy their own. I just noticed that Gateway Tablet PC doesn't even give you good service, unlike the others you mentioned. Anyway, good review of the products that you have personally used.