Tablet PCs have not exactly set the mobile computing world on fire since they first appeared in 2002. Price is often cited as a reason for their relative lack of popularity -- whether you choose the swivel-hinged convertible notebook style or the keyboard-less slate style, there's a premium to pay for Windows XP Tablet PC Edition (TPCE).
XP TPCE might seem absolutely necessary for the tablet format, as it includes extras that are designed to take advantage of input via stylus and touch-screen. But some hardware manufacturers are endorsing the tablet concept while eschewing the specialised operating system. We have already reviewed a two-piece tablet from ECS running on Windows XP Home, and Rock computers has recently announced its own Windows XP Home-based tablet. The T200 is attractively priced for a tablet -- our review configuration cost just £983 (ex. VAT). But is it any good?
The T200 looks for all the world like an ordinary notebook. It's a relatively large machine, weighing 2.3kg without its battery and measuring 31.3cm wide by 26.5 deep by 2.7 cm tall. The relatively large overall size provides plenty of space for the 14.1in. screen, which has a native resolution of 1,024 by 768 pixels.
The keyboard layout is nice and spacious: keys are large, making touch typing pretty straightforward. The touchpad is also responsive, although Rock has missed a trick by not providing a rocker button for scrolling through documents, Web pages and the like. Here you get just two buttons replicating the left and right mouse buttons. However, there is a scroll wheel on the front edge of the case, which is designed for use when the T200 is in tablet mode.
The two-tone slate and silver casing of the T200 is generally robust, and Rock has added a little panache by finishing the left and right inside edges and the surround of the touchpad in shiny metal.
To transform the T200 into tablet mode, two locks one on either side of the bottom edge of the lid must be slid out of position, whereupon the screen swivels on a central hinge and lays down flat on the keyboard. The twin sliding locks that hold the notebook closed in its normal configuration then double up to hold the swiveled lid against the keyboard area, providing a firm base.
The T200 is based on Intel’s Pentium M processor running at speeds up to 1.7GHz. Our review model had a 1.4GHz chip and came with 1MB of Level 2 cache. A maximum of 1GB of RAM is possible, although our configuration came with 512MB. Up to 64MB of system memory can be sequestered by the integrated Intel Extreme Graphics 2 module.
Wireless connectivity is provided courtesy of Intel's PRO/Wireless LAN 2100 LAN module, which provides 11Mbps 802.11b networking rather than the more up-to-date 2200BG unit, which delivers 802.11g at up to 54Mbps. There is no built-in Bluetooth connectivity, which some users may find an annoyance.
The case edges are peppered with expansion options and ports. Along the back edge and protected by a rubber cover are external monitor, LAN and phone jacks -- plus, unprotected, the power jack. The right-hand side houses two USB 2.0 slots, a PC card slot and a 4-in-1 card reader bay (capable of reading MultiMedia, Secure Digital, Memory Stick and SmartMedia cards). The left-hand side is relatively bare, but does provide a home for the digitiser pen.
On the front edge are microphone and headphone sockets, the infrared connector, the scroll wheel, a wireless networking indicator, several other indicators, and three ‘Hot-Key’ buttons. These come into their own when working in tablet mode: two provide access to the Tab and Esc key functions while the third, labeled ‘Q’, rotates the screen between portrait and landscape modes and doubles as a power button.
There are no built-in optical or floppy drives, but our configuration included an external DVD/CD-RW combination drive. An external floppy drive costs an additional £25 (ex VAT).
Rock has something of a reputation for providing built-in cameras in its notebooks. The Tablet T200 is no exception, and when working in notebook mode the lens sits above the screen in the centre of the lid. The camera is activated by running its application via a desktop shortcut and works in both notebook and tablet modes. Its main use will be for video conferencing.
The real draw of this machine, of course, is its tablet capability. Rock has chosen to provide Windows XP Home Edition rather than Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, and this helps keep the cost down and also allows for a relatively large screen size. However it does mean that some of the Tablet Edition features are absent: if you want OneNote, for example, you’ll need to buy it separately, and Windows Journal is not available at all as this is only bundled with XP TPCE.
Rock does provide some software for tablet mode use in the shape of RitePen, which captures writing to the screen and sends it to any application. Effectively this allows you to write direct to a word processor. Meanwhile, RiteMail is a complete pen-based email solution with its own software client. Between them these two applications provide enough basic pen-based functionality to allow you to carry out acceptable tablet-style working with the T200.
Rock also provides Ability Office 2002 as part of its bundle: this is a low-cost productivity suite comprising word processor, spreadsheet, database, drawing tool and image editor. It's sophisticated enough for basic productivity, although demanding users may wish to upgrade to a more comprehensive office suite such as WordPerfect Office or Microsoft Office.
Performance & battery life
When it comes to performance, the Rock Tablet T200 is frankly disappointing. This 1.4GHz Pentium M system delivered a MobileMark 2002 score of just 94 -- nowhere near the leading edge of notebook performance, which currently stands at over 200. The combination of a moderate-speed CPU, integrated graphics that commandeer up to 64MB of system memory and a relatively slow 4,200rpm 30GB hard disk probably account for most of this.
Despite this laggardly benchmark score, the T200 should run mainstream business software adequately enough, but you won't want to confront it with too many CPU-, disk- or graphics-intensive tasks.
Battery life is on the distinctly short side too, at 2 hours and 7 minutes. At the very least you should opt for the £99 (ex. VAT) 8-cell Li-ion battery rather than the standard 6-cell 3,600mAh unit. However, even this may not be enough to deliver adequate battery life for mobile professionals.
Tablet PCs may yet become popular, and hybrids like the Tablet T200 may be the type of machine to kick-start the process. It's reasonably priced and its built-in camera could prove more of a boon than the gimmick it may at first appear to be. However, against that must be set the T200's disappointing performance and battery life.
Tags: Laptops Computers