Taking The Tablet PC

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The new Tablet PC platform

Tom Arah looks at the Tablet PC as a graphics platform.

Last month I looked at the best way to interact with your graphics applications and the message was clear: while the mouse is fine for office-based applications, for creative work you really need a graphics tablet. This is in part thanks to the massively superior control that the pen offers when drawing and partly owing to the pressure-sensitivity it enables, which lets you interactively vary the effect of your strokes - ideal for subtle photo retouching in a program like Photoshop and for artistic brush work in a package like Corel Painter.

Pressure-sensitive pen-based input represents a quantum leap compared to the awkward and crude mouse, but it's still only a halfway house as I discovered with the Wacom Cintiq 18SX. This is an "interactive display" incorporating a pressure-sensitive graphics tablet directly into an 18" high-quality flat-screen LCD. Suddenly you realise just how artificial it is drawing on a tablet while keeping your eye on the computer screen and how much more natural it is, and how much more control you have, when hand and eye work together.

The Wacom Cintiq 18SX lets you draw directly onscreen.

Thanks to its rotatable stand the Cintiq 18SX works well as an interactive drawing table, but it really comes into its own when you take the monitor off the stand and humph it onto your lap to use more like a drawing board. Working like this is a huge advance, but the large screen is a lot to cover with the pen and can prove tiring for prolonged use as does the Cintiq's sheer weight. And just when you're leaning back and getting into full creative flow you're likely to be pulled up short by the Cintiq's combined DVI/VGA/USB cable. The end result is that in most circumstances you're better off propping it up against the table edge which is workable but hardly the last word in creative freedom.

The obvious solution, at first sight at least, is Microsoft's Smart Display initiative which is being pushed by a range of companies such as Philips with its DesXcape 150DM and ViewSonic with its V150 airpanel (see Davey Winder's comparative reviews in issue 103). A Smart Display acts like the Cintiq in that it combines a screen with pen-based input, but the screen is much smaller and designed to be portable. Most importantly, it cuts the physical link to the host computer so that it can be used around the office or house, or even out in the garden.

It might seem an obvious progression, but cutting the cable is nowhere near as easy as it sounds. The Smart Display system relies on an 802.11b wireless network, but seamlessly sending screen input data one way and screen display data another is seriously demanding. To begin with, the host system has to be running XP Professional (SP1) to be able to take advantage of its Remote Desktop functionality and currently only one remote and exclusive connection is supported at any time. The transportable screen also needs its own basic processor and an embedded version of Windows CE to operate (it's this that makes the display "smart"). This adds to the weight and expense but, even with it, the wireless bandwidth simply isn't up to reliably transferring the data necessary for video, games or high-resolution graphics work.

Microsoft's Smart Display initiative isn't smart enough.

There's another critical problem: the ongoing issue of how you interact with your applications. To begin with, the Smart Display's pen-based interface is a serious let-down as multi-level pressure-sensitivity isn't supported and the fact that the screens are touch-sensitive, rather than using Wacom-style induction technology, means that you have to be careful how you hold them. Moreover there's another fundamental interface element that needs to be taken into consideration - the keyboard. With the Cintiq 18SX propped up against the desktop you always have the keyboard to hand even if it isn't exactly convenient, but with a Smart Display you're on your own. And the last thing you want is to come to a grinding halt every time you need to add some text or save under a new filename.

That's where the Smart Display's embedded version of Windows CE comes in, providing access to an onscreen QWERTY keypad that you can peck at with the pen alongside CE's basic hand writing recognition. It's enough to tide you over, but that's all. Take a look at Microsoft's promotional video (http://www.microsoft.com/windows/smartdisplay) for example and you'll see that no-one's really doing any work with their Smart Display - it's aimed primarily at browsing by the home user. In other words, while you could show off your photos on a Smart Display you couldn't seriously work on them. For the moment, Smart Displays simply aren't smart enough.

So why not make them smarter? Rather than the Smart Display's basic processor and embedded version of Windows CE, why not include a decent CPU, RAM, hard disk and OS? Or, looking at it in reverse, why not simply incorporate an interactive display into a notebook format? Inevitably there are the downsides in terms of weight and expense but these are much less than you would expect and more than made up for by the ability to run any application directly, including graphics-heavy programs. And best of all, while you can tie in to your wireless network, you aren't restricted to it so that you can use your pen-driven system absolutely anywhere.

Of course this combination of notebook and interactive display is precisely the idea behind another Microsoft initiative, the Tablet PC. Here Microsoft's main intended target user is the note-taking office user on the move but again the appeal for graphics users, while generally overlooked, is potentially even greater. If it lives up to its promise, the Tablet PC could prove to be the most natural input medium of them all: the computerised version of the artist's notepad.

I decided to test how far the reality matches up to the dream by trying out the Acer TravelMate C102Ti which is a reasonably typical system built on an 800-MHz Pentium III M processor with 256MB of RAM and 30GB of disk space and capable of an impressive 3.5 hours of battery life. What immediately struck me when it arrived was its size - I simply wasn't expecting something so small (it's just 251 x 208 x 25mm) and comparatively light (at 1.4Kg). In other words it's very much a sub-notebook format.

The Acer TravelMate C102Ti is one of the new breed of Tablet PC.

My experience of sub-notebooks in the past has been disappointing as their cramped keyboards and poor connectivity meant that they somehow contrived to be less convenient than their full-sized counterparts. Thankfully time has moved on and the Acer provides a workable, slightly curved keyboard and reasonable connectivity via the supplied USB floppy drive and CD-ROM (though not rewriter) along with a PCMCIA CardBus slot which, with a card reader, can be used for ongoing backup and file transfer. Even better in this regard, is the Acer's Ethernet port and especially its InviLink button. Click once and you're connected to your wireless network, click again and you're offline and maximizing your battery life.

So far so good, but of course what makes the Acer a Tablet PC rather than a sub-notebook is the way that you interact with it. The unit provides a touchpad which, like all touchpads, is just about adequate for navigating around the screen and interacting with menus but absolutely useless for creative work. Of course that's not a problem with the Acer as you can simply pick up one of the two supplied pens and draw on the screen. It's a hugely liberating experience. In the past notebooks were of limited interest to graphics users because you couldn't seriously interact with your main creative applications unless you were sitting at a desktop and had plugged in a mouse or graphics tablet. Now suddenly you not only have the control offered by pen input, you also have the huge advantage of being able to look at the pen as you draw as you do with the Wacom Cintiq. And you can use the system absolutely anywhere (well in bed if not the bath)!

Being able to use the pen in traditional notebook mode is a huge advance on working with the touchpad and the Acer's relatively small 10.4" screen size (1024 x 768 resolution) makes this less tiring than you might imagine. However drawing on a near-vertical screen isn't comfortable for long. Of course this is where the Tablet PC truly lives up to its name. In the Acer's case you switch to tablet mode by releasing two locks on either side of the screen, rotating the display 180 degrees clockwise, re-engaging the locks and then closing and latching the display. You can then pick up the tablet and draw on it just as you would on a Smart Display or a pad of paper.

It's another huge leap in terms of natural input - especially as, using the Tablet and Pen Settings control panel, you can rotate the screen orientation in 90 degree increments (the Acer also provides a dedicated button next to the display for this). This means that you can hold the Tablet PC upright in an upright portrait rather than landscape mode which is more comfortable when using the pen and generally makes the Tablet feel much more like a drawing pad or slate (it's also better for onscreen reading of PDFs etc). Of course even the lightweight Acer is still very heavy and cumbersome compared to an actual pad of paper but it's not too bad. In fact a bigger problem than the weight is the build up of heat which can become uncomfortable over time.

Working like this makes the Tablet PC well-suited for its main intended task of taking notes whether text or graphics (or most probably doodling) using an application such as the supplied Windows Journal. Soon though you'll want to explore the Tablet PC's creative potential in a bit more depth and that means moving beyond Windows Journal's default pen. If you open up the Pen and Highlighter Settings you'll see that there is a limited range of widths and tip styles to choose from. More importantly, you'll see the option to make your pen pressure-sensitive which immediately makes even these crude options seem far more subtle and responsive and much more like their real world counterparts.

Or rather you'll see the pressure-sensitive check box if you are using a supporting system as pressure-sensitivity isn't built into the Tablet PC standard. This is a crucial point and, if you are at all interested in the graphics potential of the Tablet PC, you really need to make sure that you buy a "Penabled" system that uses Wacom's patented technology - there's a current list including options from Acer, Fujitsu, NEC and Toshiba on the Wacom site. And if you have one of these models already and it doesn't seem to offer pressure-sensitivity, then make sure you download the Penabled driver from the Wacom site - it's probably the single biggest difference you can make to your system and it's free.

With its tablet/slate working mode, rotatable screen and pressure-sensitive pen wrapped up in a system that you can take anywhere this is getting quite exciting. With a program like the latest Corel Painter 8 the Tablet PC really does approach the dream of the simple pen and pad that can replicate working with an almost infinite range of art materials from thick oils through to diffusing watercolours. And all this within a computer environment which offers other benefits such as the ability to undo your strokes and work with layers. However there's one potentially crippling issue that still needs to be resolved - how to work without a keyboard.

Pressure sensitivity and pen input are perfect for Corel Painter.

Fortunately this is one area where the graphics user benefits hugely from the Tablet PC's strong office focus. Basically Microsoft had to get text input right or the Tablet PC would be dead in the water. Rather than the Smart Display's cut-down Windows CE implementation, the Tablet PC offers the dedicated Windows XP Tablet PC Edition which provides a Tablet PC Input Panel available to all applications. Essentially you put the cursor where you want it in your application and then write freehand in the panel's Writing Pad tab and, after a short pause, your writing is converted to text and sent to your application. And it really works. OK it's not completely perfect but I found it coped well enough when taking extensive notes on packages I was reviewing and it's certainly all that you need to add some text to a drawing or to enter a new filename in a graphics package. And if you need more than this, you can always switch back to notebook mode.

Text entry proves less of a problem than you'd imagine, but the keyboard actually functions as much more than just a typewriter - it's become an integral part of the overall computer interface. If you try and push away the keyboard when working in a graphics program like Photoshop, for example, you'll soon find yourself automatically reaching for it to swap between tools, change brush transparency, swap between channels and so on. Losing this keyboard shortcut interface comes as an unpleasant shock, but eventually I realized that I could gain most of the missing functionality simply by swapping to the Tablet PC Input Panel's Keyboard tab. In fact in many ways using the onscreen keyboard proves better than the real thing as there is no interruption to your pen-based flow (this works particularly well in portrait orientation when you can effectively dedicate the bottom of the screen to act as a glorified menu strip).

The Writing Pad and Keyboard take care of text entry and shortcuts.

There are two areas though where the use of the onscreen keyboard falls down. To begin with, keyboard combinations such as Shift+Ctrl+P are a pain to tap out sequentially compared to single key shortcuts. Much more problematic is the inability to use the Shift, Alt and Ctrl keys as modifiers while you're drawing or selecting, for example to add to or subtract from a selection - a feature which most graphics programs use extensively. It might not sound that much, and in most cases you can use property bar options instead, but it's amazing how even small irritations like this affect the overall experience. Hopefully it should be a temporary setback as all it would take would be the presence of dedicated Shift, Ctrl and Alt buttons next to the screen and within easy access of the hand holding the tablet.

The Tablet PC needs to adapt to the way we are used to working, but it soon becomes clear that today's software also has to adapt to the new environment. In particular applications need to be able to work in portrait mode as well as - and probably in preference to - landscape. As such, the current arrangement in most graphic applications of a docker window or floating palettes down the right of the screen eats up far too much screen real estate and leaves no room for work compared to a control panel interface along the bottom of the screen. In fact the real ideal, partly because it works as well in either orientation and partly because it suits the idea of the Tablet PC as a blank slate, is the totally clean screen.

Most applications have a toggle for quickly hiding and displaying all palettes and many have one for working in full screen mode both of which help. There's one graphics program though that has been specially designed from scratch for the new clean screen Tablet PC environment: Alias SketchBook Pro (US$ 129) from Alias Wavefront. As its name suggests, Alias SketchBook Pro is designed to mimic working with a paper-based sketchpad. This means there's no need to laboriously create and size a new file when you open the app, there's always a page ready to draw on and filling the whole screen whether that's portrait or landscape. And once the screen is full, you can click on the Grow Page command to open up more space or start a new page. You can then flick quickly between all pages/files in the current directory.

Alias SketchBook Pro is graphics software designed specifically for the Tablet PC .

What really makes Alias SketchBook Pro different though is the way that you interact with it. The menus are minimal and by default there are no floating palettes; instead you control the program through a range of graphical icons arranged on a curve in the bottom left corner of the screen. Each icon is hierarchical so that pressing on the Brushes icon, for example, opens up a circle of alternative tools to choose from. This keeps pen movement to a minimum and you don't even need to wait for the secondary icons to appear so that, as you learn where the icons are, you can choose tools, colours and commands with a flick of the pen.

Working in this way soon becomes completely natural and very efficient and Alias SketchBook Pro is great for knocking up technical sketches and exploring ideas. However there's simply not enough power under the hood. In particular the choice of pens and brushes is only slightly larger than in Windows Journal and you can't add text except as scribbled notes. If you combined the Alias SketchBook Pro interface with the power of Corel Painter then you really would have the killer Tablet PC creative application.

Even without it, I have to say that I've been seriously impressed by my experience so far with the Tablet PC - and very pleasantly surprised. There are some things I wish were different about the Acer: the thickness of the screen leads to parallax problems and the limited viewing angle means that it's not really up to serious photo-editing while handwriting recognition and natural media brushes really demand greater processing power. And while we're at it, a slightly larger screen in a lighter and cooler system would be ideal. There's no question though that even this first generation of XP-based Tablet PC devices is far more than just a proof of principle - they really are capable of doing useful work right now.

In fact, whereas in the past notebooks proved virtually unusable for creative work, the Tablet PC is now showing the way to the desktop.

Tom Arah

August 2003

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