Tablet Tales

Demand for tablet PCs is going up. What are the latest features?

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John Hill got so jazzed about using a tablet computer that he started a business to sell them five years ago. "Tablet PCs always get called a niche market," says Hill, 40, founder and president of Allegiance Technology in Horsham, Pennsylvania. "But we sell them to all kinds of people: teachers, construction managers, pilots, someone who inspects yachts, even a cowboy who uses a tablet to write down numbers while sitting on the back of his horse."

Allegiance specializes in both slate tablets, which require a pen for taking notes or choosing menu items, and their convertible cousins, which accept both pen and keyboard input. Hill believes tablets are best for entrepreneurs who spend a lot of time in the field or who take lots of notes during meetings that need to be shared. Convertibles offer the best of both worlds for those who divide their time between the field and a desk.

Allegiance customer Dom DiJulia, 39, who owns a New Hope, Pennsylvania-based golf instruction business, uses his tablet out on the links to take notes about students and create videos of their swings, which he captures with a Canon video recorder and saves directly to the tablet's hard drive. "I plan to add another one so my other instructors can do this," he says.

eLink Systems, a $3 million IT consulting firm in Frisco, Texas, also reports an uptick in the number of entrepreneurs buying convertible notebooks and tablets. Blake York, the 38-year-old co-founder and president of eLink, is on his second convertible, a Compaq tc4200 from Hewlett-Packard, which he uses for phone calls and note taking at his desk and in board meetings—where he's made a few converts.

The latest generation of tablet PCs is a vast improvement over initial offerings, says Hill. Most can be purchased with Intel Core 2 Duo processor chips, which offer speedier performance and come with Wi-Fi and broadband wireless connectivity options. Display advances, including the use of LCD technology, have made them easier to use in the sunlight. Manufacturers are also outfitting some models with solid state disks, an alternative to moving hard drives that reduces power use and may improve system reliability.

Handwriting recognition has also shaped up after a rocky introduction. "After Windows XP Service Pack 2 [comes out], 95 percent of people using tablets will see their handwriting recognized easily," Hill says.

The mainstream tablet providers, including Gateway, HP, Lenovo and Toshiba, now offer more than one configuration. Business-class models are available for about $1,599, but Allegiance's average sale is closer to $3,000.

The latest Motion tablet is the LE1700, which runs off a 1.5 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo L7400 processor and includes features such as integrated Wi-Fi and Motion DataGuard, which turns the hard drive off if the tablet is dropped. Options include embedded broadband wireless. The base model carries a price tag of $1,699.

HP updated its tablet lineup in mid-2007 with the 3.7-pound ultrathin HP Compaq 2710p. Starting at $1,599, the system can be configured with an Intel Core 2 Duo Ultra Low Voltage processor chip and includes several advanced features, such as an IllumiLite LED display, a 64GB solid state drive, and support for the latest broadband wireless connectivity options.

—By Heather Clancy

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