There are two main reasons the tablet PC hasn’t taken off. One is the failure by Microsoft to better integrate its pen and touch-screen interface into its Windows and Office software. The other is the failure of computer makers to make tablets that have the right size, feel and navigation controls that might make them as effortless to carry and use as a paper notepad or book.
The hardware challenge is especially tough. In the vast majority of cases, consumers who buy a tablet want it to be “convertible;” that is, they want it to have the ability to turn into a regular laptop with a keyboard. Most tablets meet this goal, but it makes them bulkier than they otherwise might be. They never let you forget that you’re hefting a huge, heavy slab of metal and glass.
So I was intrigued when Fujitsu introduced this month the smallest and lightest tablet PC I’ve seen, the P1500 series. This is a convertible notebook that weighs a mere 2.2 pounds, and starts at $1,499. It’s just 9.3 inches wide, 6.6 inches deep and 1.4 inches thick, about the size and thickness of an average hardcover book. The screen measures just 8.9 inches diagonally.
The P1500 series isn’t officially a Tablet PC, because it doesn’t use Microsoft’s special Tablet version of Windows. Instead, Fujitsu, which has been making tablet machines for a long time, uses regular Windows XP Professional, and adds third-party software for capturing and recognizing handwriting on the screen. An official Tablet version may come later.
I have been testing one of the models in this series, the $1,649 P1510D, and have found its size to be nothing short of delightful. It feels as natural in the hand as a paper pad or book. With a twist of the screen, it converts to a traditional clamshell-shaped laptop, with a cramped, but usable, built-in keyboard.
Unfortunately, while Fujitsu got the size right, this model, like all tablets I’ve tried, is still annoying to use more often than it should be, because not enough thought has gone into tablet-specific hardware innovation.
For such a small machine, it is pretty well-equipped. The model I tested comes with Intel’s Pentium M 753 processor, a 30-gigabyte hard disk, 512 megabytes of memory, Wi-Fi wireless networking, and a built-in fingerprint reader for security. The $1,499 model is very similar except it has only half the memory.
Its biggest hardware omission is the lack of an internal optical drive to play or record CDs and DVDs. Fujitsu sells an external model for $206 if you buy it when you buy the laptop.
Unlike the official Microsoft-sanctioned Tablets, this PC doesn’t require a special electronic stylus. You can even use your finger to operate the touch screen.
Battery life is fair. I subjected the P1510D to my usual harsh battery test, where I turn off all power-saving features, turn on the Wi-Fi, crank up the screen to maximum brightness and play an endless loop of music to keep the hard disk spinning. The little tablet lasted for two hours and 15 minutes, which means you’d probably get around three hours in a more normal usage pattern.
Fujitsu sells a high-capacity battery for $45 if you buy it with the laptop. It brings the machine’s weight up to 2.5 pounds, and juts out from the bottom edge about three-quarters of an inch. But in my tests, it more than doubled the battery life, to four hours and 46 minutes, suggesting that you could approach six hours in more normal usage.
Instead of including the official Microsoft Tablet software package in the P1500 series, Fujitsu includes the Evernote note-taking software I reviewed last week, which works with handwritten and keyboard entries, and a handwriting program called ritePen. There is also a very clever program called DialKeys (www.dialkeys.com) that places twin, translucent wheel-shaped software keyboards at the lower corners of the tablet screen, so you can type with your thumbs, as you do on a BlackBerry.
So why is the P1510D annoying to use as a tablet? Let me count the ways. First, the screen resolution is too low, so there’s a ton of both vertical and horizontal scrolling needed when viewing Web pages or email. Even screens that are physically small, like this one, can present lots of material if they have higher resolution. Fujitsu could have built in a resolution higher than the paltry 1024 by 600 it chose.
Second, as in a lot of laptops, there are no good buttons or other physical controls to make reading Web pages, emails and long documents easier. Reading things on a tablet is at least as important to me as taking notes on one. And reading is best done one-handed, without requiring the use of the stylus to turn pages or scroll.
All tablets should have something like the page-turning buttons on the old e-book readers, or a four-way scroll wheel like those on newer mice, so you could just reach over with your thumb when you want to turn a page or scroll. But Fujitsu didn’t build in anything like this.
Until somebody does a better job of designing hardware controls aimed specifically at tablet users, I believe tablets will remain niche products, even when they are sized right, as Fujitsu has done.
Write to Walter S. Mossberg at firstname.lastname@example.org