Pen-based tablet PCs continue to improve. Fujitsu's "next generation" Stylistic 5000 series slate models ($2,099 and up), launched in January, are certainly better than the earlier Stylistic ST4000 series products.
There's nothing substantially new in the tablet functionality itself, which is in any case determined mainly by the Windows XP Tablet Edition operating system but there have been significant refinements in form factor, utilities and security features.
Most notable is the larger screen 12.1 inches versus 10.4 inches on the ST4000s with the sacrifice of only a few ounces in overall weight. The ST5000 units still weigh under 3.5 lbs.
The increase in processor speed is surprisingly small, however from 933 MHz to 1 GHz.
Despite the improvements, slate PCs like the Stylistic models remain a niche category, aimed at specific verticals such as health care and insurance, and horizontal functions such as field service automation.
They're suitable for any application that requires on-the-fly gathering of information in settings other than traditional offices insurance adjusters reporting from accident scenes, for example, or health care professionals filling in electronic patient charts.
The Ultimate Price of Mobility
The keyboardless slate models are distinct from convertibles, notebooks with attached keyboards that fold out of the way when you use the computer as a tablet. The convertibles make sense as all-purpose computers. Slates, which also lack CD or DVD drives, make far less sense.
You can purchase an optional wireless keyboard for the ST5000s ($100), but it's only useful if you also purchase a desk stand ($40) to hold the screen upright, or one of the docking stations ($300 to $450) which add an optical disc (DVD, CD, CD-RW) drive and additional ports.
But now you're looking at a sizeable premium over a conventional laptop. The ST5000s come with a 1GHz Pentium III M processor. Configured with a 40GB hard drive and 256MB of memory, the ST5010 costs $2,100 when buying direct from Fujitsu. Add the $450 dock and you're up to $2,550. And it still doesn't work well as a traveling laptop.
Compare that to $1,500 for a comparable conventional notebook from Fujitsu, the Lifebook S6120, with 256MB of memory and a 40GB hard drive. The S6120 actually has a bigger screen (13.3 inches) and faster Pentium M processor (1.3GHz), while still keeping weight under 4 lbs.
All of which is not to take away from the ST5000. It's cutting-edge technology. But you don't want to consider it unless the tablet functionality is need-to-have and you'll likely never need to use it as a conventional laptop for word processing on an airplane, for example. As a desktop computer with the dock, yes, but not as a laptop.
Forms to Go
The best new thing about the ST5000 is the larger screen. That it was achieved with no gain in thickness and little in weight is important.
Many tablet applications involve filling out electronic forms. If the form can all fit on one screen it certainly makes using the application easier. That convenience gain, however, would have been nullified by any significant increase in size or weight.
As it is, the ST5000 can still be comfortably held in the crook of one arm while writing with the other, although it's important to note that it is not light or small enough to hold easily in one hand.
It's also worth noting that the ST5000 battery life is actually slightly less than the ST4000s, presumably because of the larger screen. Fujitsu claims up to four hours of battery life with a standard 6-cell battery, five hours with the optional 9-cell pack. That's down from 4.5 and seven hours.
Also new to the ST5000 is the built-in slot for a smart card. Fujitsu does not include or apparently sell smart cards or smart card software but the slot can be used for a couple of applications that may be critical in the environments where these devices will be used.
Some health care providers, for example, now keep patient information on smart cards. They can also be used to automate network authentication in environments where the units will be used by more than one individual.
Notable Feature Set
The ST5000 adds a Firewire (IEEE 1394: define) high-speed connector port though we're not quite sure why. These are ports that are used by a relatively few printers and digital cameras, but mostly are used for connecting camcorders and tranferring video at high speed.
The Firewire port is in addition to three USB 2 ports (though we could only find two on the review unit), wired Ethernet, phone modem, external monitor port, flash memory card slot MemoryStick and Secure Digital (SD) card as well as the smart card slot.
The unit also has two built-in infrared ports and Wi-Fi wireless networking. In the case of the 5000D models, the WLAN (define) adapter is multi-band. It can connect with basic 11 mebabits-per-second (Mbps) 802.11b access points but also at 54 Mbps on 802.11g and 802.11a networks.
Included in the ST5000 package is Microsoft's intriguing and pen enabled Office OneNote 2003 program. It takes the seemingly simple task of note-taking to a new level.
For example, it allows you to add voice notes, synchronized to the text notes. You can clip information from other programs and paste them into a OneNote file OneNote even automatically appends the Web address if you're clipping and pasting from a browser. Tablet PC users can add free-hand drawings to notes files.
Some excellent features from the ST4000 have not changed substantially. The soft buttons along the side of the ST5000, mostly the same as on the 4000, add a great deal of convience. There are dedicated buttons for Control-Alt-Delete, launching e-mail, changing the orientation of the screen, Escape and Enter.
Using the Function button in combination with the other buttons you can also launch a browser, switch to an external monitor and set up two custom key combinations. Pressing the Function button twice brings up a new Fujitsu utility menu that gives quick access to setup screens, LCD controls and more. Further down on the same side are vertical and horizontal scroll keys.
These may seem minor design details, and easy enough features for Fujitsu to implement, but they're crucial to a workable slate PC. If you don't have a keyboard for input other than the onscreen keyboard data entry can become very tedious without these buttons.
The Bottom Line
Our assessment: for the right application, the Stylistic ST5000 is a great computer. For the wrong application, it would be an expensive mistake.
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