Gateway Tablet PC Review

Friday Jan 31st 2003 by Eric Grevstad
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Heads will turn when you carry Gateway's three-pound clipboard into the conference room. Eyes will widen as the slate goes seamlessly from smooth, intuitive scribbling and sketching to desktop PC duty with the supplied docking base and keyboard. But how does this star of the new Tablet PC generation compare to conventional portables' price and performance?

Do we go with the head or the heart on this one?

Microsoft's Tablet PC push is all about taking pen-based, clipboard computing out of its various vertical-market niches — doctors making rounds, insurance adjusters filling out forms at accident sites — and into the business mainstream. And using the Gateway Tablet PC, you can easily become a believer: You're taking notes in a board meeting, not bothering coworkers with a clicky keyboard but smoothly writing on the three-pound tablet in your lap — even if the meeting stretches past the three-hour mark.

When the boss asks a question, you alone have the answer, using the system's 802.11b wireless link to retrieve a file or check an e-mail message or Web reference. When the meeting's done, you pop the tablet into its docking base and use the attached keyboard and DVD-ROM/CD-RW drive for a spell of desktop work with your favorite Windows programs, mostly using an external monitor but keeping your browser open on the tablet LCD alongside. In short, the Gateway is not just for scribbling and sketching; it adds scribbling, sketching, and enjoyable mobile convenience to a genuine desktop alternative.

Unfortunately, it has two drawbacks. The first is that, like other Tablet PCs of the "slate" (no keyboard) as opposed to "convertible" (notebook with reversible screen) style, it's of limited use as a laptop alternative — no, Windows XP Tablet PC Edition's handwriting recognition isn't bad, but it's no substitute for a keyboard for more than a few minutes' writing or editing work.

The second is sticker shock: Gateway deserves credit for offering the Tablet PC only in a fully usable bundle, complete with USB keyboard, desktop dock, and DVD-ROM/CD-RW drive, but the price comes to $2,799. These days, that'll easily buy you both a capable desktop and notebook PC, both with more performance than the modest 866MHz mobile Pentium III-powered Tablet. So while the heart says "Cool!", the head asks, "Do you really need handwritten notes and diagrams?"

The Best, Biggest-Screened Slate
The Gateway Tablet PC isn't really a Gateway product; it just puts the direct vendor's logo next to that of startup Motion Computing, which sells the same slate as the Motion M1200 (for the record, charging $40 less for a comparable bundle, though Gateway offers a far stronger support infrastructure; both vendors provide a minimal one-year warranty).

While ViewSonic and Fujitsu, among others, offer slate-style Tablet PCs with 10.4-inch screens, Motion opted for an easier-on-the-eyes 12.1-inch, active-matrix LCD with 1,024 by 768 resolution, switchable (like all Tablet PCs) from landscape/horizontal to portrait/vertical orientation. It's in a slightly hefty but well-balanced, easy-to-carry slab that measures 11.7 by 9.5 by 0.9 inches and weighs 3.3 pounds — 3.9 counting the protective, hard plastic lid that snaps over the LCD and can be snapped onto the system's back when in use. (Though Gateway includes plenty of other goodies, it omits a carrying case.)

The screen is bright and colorful, even with the backlight turned down one-quarter or halfway to save battery power. Its viewing angle, however, is narrower than lounge-chair or hammock users would like — sometimes we stretched out on the sofa or sat up in bed for a spot of note-jotting, only to find we had to prop our knees up near vertical to see the display clearly.

There's a 40GB Hitachi hard disk and 256MB of memory (expandable to 1GB, though Gateway's Web site oddly lists no upgrade options) under the hood, along with Intel's 830MG integrated graphics chipset and an 802.11b Mini PCI wireless networking adapter. Along the bottom are docking connector, 56Kbps modem, 10/100Mbps Ethernet, VGA monitor, one FireWire, and two USB ports plus headphone and microphone jacks; one Type II PC Card slot is at the right edge.

Not Fast, But Pretty Fancy
Anyone accustomed to recent 2.0GHz notebooks will need to readjust to the M1200's performance — especially on battery power, when Intel's SpeedStep technology slows the 866MHz Pentium III-M to just 400MHz. (Applications ran and responded smoothly enough, but it's been a while since we waited 25 seconds for a program to load, as we did with Corel's nifty Tablet PC drawing package, Grafigo.)

Plugged in for benchmark testing, the Tablet PC performed about as well as the 1.0GHz Pentium III laptops we reviewed in the summer of 2001 — which means, if you want to be critical, that it's the slowest PC we've tested since then. The system puttered to a BAPCo SysMark 2002 Internet Content Creation score of 94, with Futuremark PCMark 2002 numbers of 2,729 (CPU), 1,596 (memory), and 499 (hard disk).

While we don't expect any Tablet PC to satisfy the 3D game fanatics, Microsoft does tout these things as able to be your primary PC, so we were hoping for something better than the i830MG graphics controller for desktop image (let alone video) editing sessions. Its 3DMark 2001 SE Pro score of 660 is more or less miserable, as is its 24 frames per second in the venerable Quake III Arena (High Quality 1,024 by 768 mode) benchmark.

Spare Parts
System setup is straightforward, though you may be daunted by the sheer number of pieces in the box — the Gateway is the first computer we've seen, for instance, that comes with three AC adapters. One is for the slate; one is for the external AOpen 8X DVD-ROM and 24/10/24X CD-RW combo drive, which plugs into the FireWire port (and caused our only stumble during testing when we found the system can't boot from the FireWire drive; Gateway's e-mail tech support was no help, but a notice on Motion's support site says a BIOS upgrade is in the works).

The third is for the supplied FlexDock, a desktop base that duplicates the system's ports and connectors (modem and PC Card excepted) at its rear and adds a third USB port up front. A sliding stand lets the slate tilt back from vertical so you can still write on it while it's docked; in a clever feature, the docked system senses and switches between portrait and landscape mode if you swivel the LCD.

You can use the LCD, an external CRT monitor, or both at once, either as duplicates or a single, expanded display — although since the pen only works on the LCD, you'll need to use the keyboard's touchpad to drag program windows from one screen to the other. The compact keyboard has a flat but comfortable layout and typing feel. All told, the FlexDock is too bulky and heavy to pack for travel, but certainly beats the provided, folding plastic easel that's an alternate way to prop the Tablet upright, but that gets in the way of connecting cables to its bottom. (The easel is holding the snap-on lid in the photo above.)

The Gateway bundle also includes a second, spare digitizer pen — the special stylus required for a Tablet PC — and a handful of spare points for the pens, plus a cleaning cloth for the LCD. InterVideo's WinDVD player and Ahead Software's Nero CD accompany the preinstalled Windows XP Tablet PC Edition; Microsoft Office XP Professional is a $300 option.

The Tablet PC Experience
Let's interrupt this mixed review for an unqualified rave: You've probably used pen-stylus PDAs or maybe even earlier touch-screen PCs, but the Tablet PC's accuracy and convenience is leagues ahead of those devices. The secret is the active digitizer that responds only to the special pen (even if the latter is hovering just above instead of actually touching the screen), leaving you free to rest or drag your hand across the screen without messing things up.

It's not perfect — the pen's "ink" invariably seems to appear just a millimeter or two away from where you think you're pointing, even after you use the provided, four-tap calibration utility a couple of times — but it's a far more natural, comfortable way of writing or drawing, and one you can adjust to quickly (even though Gateway's pen, unlike some Tablet PCs', doesn't have an "eraser" on the blunt end).

For instance, it takes hardly a minute to get used to the Tablet PC pen as a substitute for a mouse — tap to click, double-tap to double-click. You can right-click by tapping while pressing a rather flimsy button on the pen barrel, or (our usual choice) by pressing and holding the pen down for a few seconds. We initially turned off the Start menu's "Open submenus when I hover over them" option, since unwanted menus were popping up like dandelions, but later learned to master even that function.

The M1200 complements the pen with six buttons to the right of the screen, below the pen-holder slot and above the rather small and stiff-sliding power switch, that let you control the M1200 when there's no dock or keyboard in sight. One duplicates a PC keyboard's Esc key; another the Ctrl-Alt-Del sequence to log off or check Windows' Task Manager. A four-way compass or rocker switch serves for cursor control, with a straight inward push equaling the Enter key.

Another button is a Fn key that can be used in combination with the remaining two, programmable buttons to launch applications or perform various functions. By default, one of the latter two switches the LCD between portrait and landscape modes, while the other launches Motion Computing's Dashboard utility — a handy mini-control panel that lets you toggle wireless networking and adjust power-saving options, screen brightness, and speaker volume, as well as several program-launching or keystroke-combination shortcuts.

For entering text without a keyboard, you turn to the Tablet PC Input Panel, which lets you tap letters one at a time on an onscreen keyboard or write naturally in a one- or two-line handwriting recognition area; when you pause (or tap a "Send" button), the OS translates your writing to text in your word processor, e-mail client, or other active application. (Alternative settings let you write in a large, floating text box if you find the default input area too small, or try a Pocket PC- or Palm Graffiti-like simplified character set.)

The Write Stuff
Generally, the system's handwriting recognition gets a "not bad, but not good enough" rating — it didn't turn our scrawl into a hopeless jumble, but its errors were plentiful enough to make us reach for the keyboard despite many painstaking, good-faith efforts to work in longhand. The same, if not more so, goes for the built-in speech recognition, which — after a minimum of 10 minutes' training — lets you dictate text with fair-to-middling accuracy; like all such systems, it works best in a quiet room with a plug-in headset microphone, taking a considerable hit if you simply talk in the direction of the built-in mic amid the background noise of an office.

But if you'll crave a keyboard — or a hideaway-keyboard convertible like Toshiba's Portege 3500 or HP's Compaq TC1000 — for anything more than a one- or two-sentence e-mail reply, you'll want to spend even more time enjoying Tablet PC Edition's pen-and-ink (bitmap rather than text-conversion) applications.

A handy Sticky Notes utility lets you scribble or voice-record various reminders. And the platform's main attraction, Windows Journal, is a remarkable legal-pad emulator — with not only more pen and highlighter colors than a box of Crayolas, but features no paper pad will ever have, such as the ability to lasso and drag a scribble to a different place on the page, or insert space for an addition between two existing lines.

In a final winning feature, while the Gateway's bottom grows noticeably warm with use, its lithium-ion battery is good for plenty of lap time. We regularly jotted and doodled for three and a half hours before the first low-power warning, with at least 10 minutes to spare after that.

So is it the head or the heart? If the Gateway Tablet PC weighed and cost one-third less, we'd be gushing about how it's an executive status symbol or conversation piece, stylish light-duty desktop, and truly convenient note-taking and idea-capturing platform all in one. As is, however, the Gateway is as cool and innovative as a Segway, but just as unaffordable for the vast majority of PC users. Stay tuned for the second generation.

Adapted from Hardware Central.

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