Ultra-cool Computers

My next personal computer is going to be an ultra-portable tablet. I’ve never bought a laptop of my own, since my employers tend to shower me with them, and they’ve had so many drawbacks I couldn’t see any point in shelling out for one of my own. But recent research shows that we’re officially in the Dynabook Era with great gear like the Dell Latitude XT Tablet, the Lenovo X200 Tablet, the Asus R1E, Fujitsu LifeBook T5010, and the recently-announced HP Elitebook 2730p

What these babies have in common is light weight, sharp but small screens, long battery life, a wealth of connectivity features, and other goodies like web cams and mikes, GPS locators, touch-sensitive displays, and handwriting recognition. They’re more like Smartphones than traditional PCs, but without all the annoying limitations that make Blackberries better in the demo than in real life. Unlike pure slate computers that lack keyboards, they have swivel-mounted screens that can be twisted and folded to cover the laptop’s clamshell base, so you have a touch-sensitive display for when you need to jot notes or draw, and a regular keyboard for high-volume typing.

Each excels in some areas. The Dell seems to have the clearest screen and the best handwriting recognition since it uses a capacitive touchscreen. It draws a bit more power, since capacitive touch keeps an electric field active across the screen, where the more common resistive touch relies on a magnetic stylus to alert the touch sensor that something’s happening. The stylus-activated system rules out using your finger as a pointing device, which is also unfortunate, and has a thicker overlay on the screen than the Dell. The iPhone uses a capacitive touch system.

Dell also has a nice graphics chip with some dedicated memory which signficantly outperforms the shared-memory systems that are commonplace. But Dell’s CPU is at the low end of the scale, and the 1.2 GHz Intel U7600, an ultra-low voltage 65nm dual-core CPU, is as good as it gets. This is apparently a soldered-in part that can’t be upgraded. Dell is also super-expensive.

The Lenovo is too new for much in the way of evaluation, but it has very nice specs and a great pedigree. While the XT Tablet is Dell’s first convertible, the X200 is Lenovo’s third or so, and the details show. If they would only stop white-listing their own wireless cards in the BIOS they’d be at the top of my list. X200 Tablet uses a more substantial and higher power Intel CPU, around 1.8 GHz, which makes is considerably faster than* the Dell. They also use Intel’s Centrino graphics, and suffer a bit for it, but that’s a classic engineering tradeoff. Lenovo has an amazing array of connectivity choices, including the UWB system AKA Wireless USB. With an internal Wireless WAN card with GPS, internal Wi-Fi (including 3×3 11n,) Bluetooth, and Wireless USB, this system has five kinds of wireless without a visible antenna, awfully sharp.

The Fujitsu and Asus convertibles have larger screens – 13.3 in. vs. 12.1 for the Dell and the Lenovo – and add a pound or so of weight. Asus is concentrating on their netbooks these days, and doesn’t seem to be serious about keeping up to date, while the Fujitsu makes some strange choices with noisy fans and heat.

To be avoided are the older HP’s using the AMD chipset. AMD can’t keep up with Intel on power efficiency, so convertible systems that use their parts are only portable between one wall socket and another.

None of these little Dynabooks has made me swipe a card yet, but the collections of technology they represent say a lot about the future of networking. With all that wireless, the obligatory Gigabit Ethernet looks like an afterthought.

Which brings me to my point, gentle readers. What’s your experience with Wireless WANs in terms of service – between AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon, who’s got it going on? I get my cell phone service from friendly old T-Mobile, but they’re not player in the 3G world. I like Verizon’s tiered pricing, as I doubt I’ll use 5GB/mo of random wireless, as close as I tend to be to Wi-Fi hotspots, but it seems like a much nicer fall-back than using my Blackberry Curve as a modem.

For a nice demonstration of the XT’s capacitive touch screen in comparison to the more primitive Lenovo, see Gotta Be Mobile.

*Edited. The X200 non-tablet has a faster processor than the X200 Tablet. The tablet sucks power out of the system, and Lenovo had to de-tune the CPU to provide it.

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