The Fujitsu Stylistic Q550 may live in the iPad's shadow, but it does offer a secure, easily integrated alternative to its flashier competitor.
The Fujitsu Stylistic Q550 should be the answer to every small business owners tablet prayers. Its a business-oriented, 10-inch Windows tablet that iPad-crazed employees might just accept as an alternative to sexier, but less secure, consumer products.
However, the Q550 ($729 and $849), which the company insists on calling a slate, doesnt quite answer all those prayers,
While it offers appealing features that the iPad and other tablets dont -- including important security and connectivity features -- it simply cant compete in important areas such as touch interface, screen and form factor.
Fujitsu argues, with some justice, that comparing the Q550 to the iPad is comparing apples to oranges, but those comparisons will inevitably be made. Whatever the company might like to think, both products are viable contenders as business tablets.
At best, the Q550 will find a niche market among small businesses that are very security-conscious -- and also able to resist pressure from employees to allow iPads and Android tablets on the corporate network.
Lets look first at the plus-side of the ledger for the Q550.
One big benefit is that it uses the same Windows operating system (it ships with 32-bit Windows 7 Professional) as all your other PCs, so it can run the same applications.
It even comes with Office Starter 2010, a reduced-functionality, ad-supported version of familiar Microsoft Office, with Word and Excel. It can also run a full version of Office.
Unlike the iPad and other consumer tablets, Windows supports true multi-tasking, with multiple windows open and tasks active at the same time, making it a more flexible and efficient business device.
Advocates also argue, plausibly, that Windows tablets reduce software and IT management and support costs because they integrate more easily with existing computers and systems.
On the other hand, tablets running Windows are definitely not instant-on, which is one of the iPads best-loved -- and in many business situations, most useful -- features. Windows did launch reasonably quickly on Q550 we tested, but its a far cry from instant-on.
Tablet Security Features
More importantly, the Q550 has a bunch of built-in enterprise-class security features. They include a fingerprint reader, with OmniPass software from Softex. In our testing the reader worked flawlessly, with minimum effort required to enroll users. Biometric authentication eliminates the need for Windows passwords. Swiping a finger over the sensor automatically logs you in and launches Windows.
Its especially useful in environments where more than one person uses the tablet. And its an especially good idea for portable devices that are easily lost or stolen.
The Q550 also has a Smart Card slot that you can use for authentication (instead of or in addition to biometrics) with cards and third-party software from companies such as Cherry.
The built-in solid state drives (SSDs) have full encryption capabilities, and you can configure the USB port and SD card slot so its impossible for anyone to copy data from the tablet to an unauthorized thumb-drive or memory card.
Fujitsu is pushing the security features hard. Do most small businesses need them? Probably not, but companies looking to run mission-critical applications on a tablet with sensitive customer or company data will see enormous benefit.
One of the great complaints about the iPad is that its not very expandable, connectible or flexible. Whereas the iPad has only one proprietary port, the Q550 provides built-in USB and HDMI ports, an SD memory card slot and a proprietary docking port.
In fairness, the one iPad port can be used for many types of connections USB, HDMI, VGA, SD given the right adapters from Apple. With the iPad, however, you cannot access data on a USB hard drive even if you use the USB adapter. And some USB peripherals that require power over the USB cable wont work either.
The Q550 had no difficulty powering a USB speaker phone that did not work with the iPad. It also worked fine with portable USB hard drives.
With the iPad and some other consumer tabs, if the battery begins to lose its ability to hold a charge -- as it eventually will -- you have to send the unit to the manufacturer to have the battery replaced.
With the Q550, however, you can buy a new or second battery and quickly install it yourself or switch between batteries to keep working longer. The batteries offered dont deliver the iPad's long, 10-hour battery life, however.
The two-cell battery that ships standard with the lower-priced Q550 models lasts up to 4 hours. The four-cell unit that ships with the higher-priced models keeps the unit powered for up to 8 hours and 10 minutes (but it adds a few more ounces to the weight).
This is one of several areas where the Q550 begins to suffer in those inevitable comparisons with the iPad.
The Hardware Under the Hood
The Fujitsu Q550 is a reasonably powered tablet with a latest-generation 1.5GHz Intel Atom Z670 Processor, 2GB of memory and a 30GB or 62GB sold state drive (SSD).
Configuring it with SSDs rather than the hard-wired flash memory used in iPads and other consumer tablets may contribute to the increased bulk of the Q550. (Its noticeably larger and chunkier than the iPad.)
And the processor is single core. On non-demanding tasks such as Web browsing, the Q550 appeared no slower than consumer tabs with dual-core processors, and it performed comparably to upper-end netbooks.
But when streaming video, there was a marked difference between the Q550 and the iPad. High-bit-rate video from the Vimeo website did not play as smoothly on the Q550 as it did on the iPad, and the audio was clipped.
Assessing the Screen Quality
A tablets screen is obviously a critical component. Its both an input and an output device. Based on specifications, the Q550s screen should be great for output, and it is certainly very good. It measures 10.1 inches (versus the iPads 9.7), and 1,280 x 800 pixels (versus 1,024 x 768 for the iPad).
Subjectively, though, the iPad screen looks better, especially when playing video: its crisper with richer, more realistic color.
Fujitsu stresses the Q550s wide angle of view (160 degrees), which is important if youre using the tablet with customers, and you want the people beside you to see the screen clearly. But in our testing, the Q550 held no particular advantage over the iPad and other consumer tablets in this regard.
Comparing Input Capability
On paper, again, the Q550 appears to hold a significant advantage over consumer tablets because it supports both iPad-like capacitive multi-touch and pen computing. It comes with a stylus and built-in handwriting recognition software.
But this is also where the Q550 falls down hardest.
The repertoire of multi-touch gestures is limited compared to the iPad. Scrolling up, down and sideways with a flicking motion, tapping and tapping and holding are the extent of it. You cannot tap, hold and drag to scroll slowly, for example. And when scrolling by flicking, there is a noticeable lag between gesture and action.
You also have to calibrate the screen -- both for touch and pen -- to ensure accurate tracking. This should happen during initial startup but it doens't. Before calibrating the screen, we frequently found ourselves having to poke at links several times before we hit them.
The handwriting recognition in the Q550 is a standard Windows for Tablets component and has been around for several years. Some people swear by it, but we dont.
The Q550 does, cleverly, recognize whether youre using touch or pen, so you can rest the heel of your hand on the screen while handwriting with the stylus without sending multitouch commands. A small handwriting icon appears whenever you place the cursor where text can be entered. Tap it with the pen and the handwriting interface appears.
On some occasions, though, including once when the cursor was in the search field at the Google home page, the icon failed to appear. The only recourse then is to display one of the onscreen keyboards.
The Q550 has a standard keyboard, which is active on startup. It also comes with XT9 software that adds, sometimes confusingly, a second, separate onscreen keyboard.
The benefit of XT9 is that it adds enhanced predictive capabilities and can be configured with business and technical dictionaries. All of which means it should be easier and faster to input text using the XT9 keyboard. But the predictive algorithms in the XT9 software produced some truly bizarre and annoying type-ahead errors.
Both keyboards are inferior to those on consumer tablets, and certainly to the iPads. The keys are too small, there are too many of them -- its pretty much a standard PC keyboard pictured on the screen.
The shortcomings with Fujitsu Stylistic Q550's user interface will be immediately obvious to anyone who has used an iPad or other quality consumer tablet. The trouble is, many of your users will have already had their hands on an iPad. They may balk at using a much less user-friendly device.
The shortcomings are not fatal, however. For companies that need the security features and connectivity and prefer to stick with familiar Windows for tablets, the Q550 has much to recommend it and any awkwardness with the interface can be overcome.
Gerry Blackwell is a freelance technology writer based in London, Canada. Read his blog, AfterByte
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