2.Tablet PCs

The Good, The Bad, the Ugly… and the most Expensive!  (read the update below)

The first Tablet-PC I saw in the media was an HP Compaq TX1000, which ran the venerable patched and growing Windows XP Tablet PC operating system environment. I remember a Microsoft officer giving away one of this thing to a local politician. I guess he never used it as a tablet but perhaps just as a laptop.  Politician never use what the got for free, but they charge you again and again so others can use it. The Tablet operating system was an hybrid outgrow of the Windows Pen Computing project. It has the legacy of XP with the pen inking capabilities of what was to come.

Tablet PC HP Compaq TX1000

Tablet PC HP Compaq TX1000

Soon came Tablet PC from Toshiba, with a 15-in screen, and I was tempted to replace my Satellite for a Tablet PC, but at a price tag of nearly $2k I had to say not yet.  Time passed and screen became smaller but with the same price tag, like the Portege Tablet.

Who remembers the Transmeta project run in part by the same guy who put together the first Linux core, Linus Torvalds? The Tablet with the Crusoe chip  never took off, sorry to say.

Here I should point out one reality of sort.  I am refering here to Tablet PCs, tablets will be discussed in another section. Please, be clear: iPad are not Tablet PCs, they are just tablets. What is the difference?

  1. Tablet PC, like the Tx2 and Tm2 from HP, is a full computing device operated as a laptop or by a touch screen, or just a touch screen, intended to run general PC operating systems (generally Windows’s based) with pen, stylus or touch-enable access and/or applications.
  2. Tablet devices or gadgets, like the iPad, are finger or stylus touch enabled devices that use an embedded microcode operating system such as those found in PDAs, Pocket PCs and cell phones, such that they do not support full feature microcomputer operating systems, like OSX, Linux or Win7.

So the next time one asks you if the iPad is a full blown computer, say NO, because it is not, it is a nice gadget, period. Neither are the Android tablets.

Examples of full blown Tablet PCs which ran from Windows XP Tablet PC to Windows 7 are: HP Compaq TX series which became the HP TX2 series and the Slate series, Fujitsu Lifebook Tablets T300 T400 up to T700 series, Toshiba Satellite and Portege Tablets -disappeared-, Dell Latitude XT -discontinued- and XT2 -apparently discontinued too- and recent ST2 -which does not come up yet. Lenovo has the x200t and now the x220t Tablet PC, and planned to reveal an Ideapad Tablet PC slate (it did in Android format) and we keep waiting.

For example, take a manufacturer like HP. They do Tablet PCs, like the Tx2, Tm2, Elite Tablet PC and so for. And they also do Tablets, like the TouchPad (now a thing of the past!). However the HP Slate 500 is not a tablet, is a full Tablet PC run exclusively by touch screen interaction. The newer HP Slate 2 is just an enhancement of the 500, and is a full Tablet PC.

The HP Touchsmart Tx2 (and how I learn to dislike everything HP!)

I have a HP Touchsmart Tx2-1375dx.  I got it at a computer retail store. At the time I was buying I learned that it was being replaced by the Tm2. It was cheap, lest than $1k, actually $899. So I got two, one for me and one for my son who was transfering to a major university.

Tx2 Tablet on desk

Tx2 Tablet on my desk

My first impression was “awesome”. That was until I learned its handwriting recognition was not as fast or smooth as in my old Pocket PC. There I wonder: why manufacturers like HP which had Pocket PCs did not develop a larger screen recognition software, a full size Transcriber or so, well, at least enhanced for a larger screen. I wanted to write all over the screen of a page of Word and have my writing recognized on the fly.  No. That was not going to happen. Windows Tablet came with this annoying little input box with a single line where is the place where you actually write by hand.

Then I found out Windows Journal. Ok, it allowed me to write on and on, but then it did not recognized on the fly, well, I have to ask for the recognition with another command. And then I have to train it. It did the same job as a just-pass-the-grade student: never got it right.

So, there I was. Then I loaded Office 2007. It came with OCR. Ok, well. Things worked fine, not the best, but fine. By Fall 2010 I had Office 2010. Yuju! OCR is no longer included. My surprise, now I had to use OneNote to do OCR in scanned images instead of the direct OCR within Word. Another MS Mess.

Lecturing with a Touch Tablet PC

I found a nice piece of free software called Classroom Presenter from University of Washington. It allowed me to do what was doing with markers and barebone whiteboards. With a twist, because I was able to prepare my lecture using Power Point with a few things but plenty of graphics, leaving plenty of space for my handwriting. Voila! Lectures as I did but now my students were able to check what I wrote on the board after class. My Analytic Trigonometry classes up to recently were now done through my Tablet (later I was forced to use another brand Tablet PC, keep reading!) and my students can follow in their own laptops what I was doing.

About Classroom Presenter and other lecturing apps, see the section My Science Classes in a Tablet PC.

Tx2 Tablet on top of lectern

Tx2 Tablet on lectern. It is sitting on top of a fan cooler and also an extra fan. Later I found the extra fan was useless; the screen needs to be warm. Also notice the dongle antenna, it is part of the wireless adapter I use for the classroom projector.

I normally use a USB wireless display adapter (which I also had to purchase myself!). Below is a picture of my self teaching in another class.

Author lecturing with a Tx2 and Classroom Presenter

Author lecturing with a Tx2 and Classroom Presenter. Notice the USB wireless dongle attached on one side. This class was Physics for Scientists and Engineers.

For teaching physics I added animations, and Motion Tracker, a free video-motion-capture-analysis physics software. I was able to ink on it to explain further. I could even have both, Classroom Presenter and Tracker, and go from on to the other.

I even pull the clicker presentations and scribble on the slides to annotate further.

Everything went fine until the computer reached what now seems to be the 18-month hick-up.  A Big Hickup! The screen started to fail, giving screen out of sync, pixels all wrong, freezing, and the all-scare blue screen telling me the video driver had a catastrophic error. I started looking for help since the machine had only one-year warranty (now they offer 3-years, I wonder why not mine!).  In a support forum I found out this is a common problem for the tx2 and before, and tm2 were not excluded completely.  Boomer!

Tx2 video out of sync failure- 1

Tx2 video out of sync failure – stage two. Before this the screen becomes randomly filled with blank pixels.

Tx2 video out of sync failure - stage 3

Tx2 video out of sync failure – stage 3. Even though it has failed it tries to boot Windows, to no avail. It crashes and the blue screen comes out, filled with rubbish.

Tx2 video out of sync failure - stage 4

Tx2 video out of sync failure – stage 4. Blue screen filled with the same rubbish pixels out of sync.

Now that I was halfway to prove other faculty tabletpc were the way to go to enhance our science and math instruction, the HP Tx2 screen fails.

There was a partial solution and may surprise many, but not the few with the same problem: heat, lots of heat. Learning from some people in those support forums of HP, that someone just heated the tablet with a hair dryer to make it to work, I just did heat it up behind the screen, actually on the top cover. Voila! The Windows startup recover screen came on and I was able to work again, of course, after booting up, which takes a few painful minutes.

Tx2 out of sync video HOT recovery

Tx2 out of sync video HOT recovery. After heating up with a hair dryer behind the screen.

So every time before I used my tablet after the problem, I heated up the back of the screen with a hair dryer. And then all ran fine. I tried using another screen with the video out signal, but to no avail: the failure occurs anyway.  So it seems that the screen hardware seems to have a kind of temperature sensor: when it is warm of hot, it let the screen driver work fine. If it is cold, it will fail almost instantly after turning it ON.

Imagine now a faculty entering the classroom, pulling out a hair dryer to warm up the back of the screen, and then start to lecture?  Looks weird because it is weird. However, if you look a physics professor, anything can happen. But it should not be that way.

End of a Love Story

I learned the hard way not to buy HP anymore, never. Thing happened in the middle of may Fall ’11 class of Trigonometry. The Tx2 tablet simply froze, then reboot and then the two trouble LEDs started flashing. It simply said “I quit” and that was the end of its story so far.

Looking around again I found at Touchsmart Developer’s Zone (http://www.touchsmartdevzone.com/forums) that the motherboard of the TX2 series and former, made by AMD with its ATI graphics chip, had a manufacturing defect that neither HP or AMD have been willing to accept and replace the Tx2 of the affected owners. The solution they propose seems daring: heat up the whole motherboard inside a 375F oven for about 8 minutes. For the proponents it semed to work. So we will try it.

I would strongly recommend to all users who have been brought into buying the Tx2 and had serious problems to sue HP and AMD for giving such a bad computer to their customers and not recognize and fix the manufacturing defect, by either supplying all of us with a new Intel Elitebook or some monetary compensation for all the time lost and the money invested into a new machine, because the Tx2 simply did not stand up to the job it was intended to.

A Temporary Teaching Solution for a Defunct Tablet PC

After the Tx2 started its recurrent Hickup, my immediate solution was to get myself another tablet PC, a smaller full Windows Tablet PC to deliver my lectures and demos just in case the Tx2 did not work (now it is the only way out).

I found two choices under or around $500, a Dell Inspiron Duo, the one with a flip tablet screen, and a Lenovo Ideapad s10-3t Tablet PC.

I got the Duo this Fall 2011, and I will explain why. First reason: did not have $999+ to expend at the moment in a Fujitsu Lifebook, a Tablet PC equal or better than the Tx2 (now much much better since the Tx2 died), and second reason, the Lenovo choice had serious problems of its own.

Some may say, why the Duo which seems to be bare bone Tablet PC, why not the Lenovo Ideapad S10-3t Tablet PC. Well let me share another bad thing I found about the Lenovo: Lenovo s10-3t’s LCD screen has a tendency to crack. Yes, you may use it for a while, close the lid, and later found a tiny crack on the LCD which later grows to take over the whole screen, and by then, the screen does not work anymore. That has been the story of thousands who bought the s10-3t. And the Lenovo people does not replace the screen even if it cracked under warranty: they will take it back and then call you to charge you $230 to replace the screen. They so far have not accepted that there could be a manufacturing or assembly defect. So stay away of that Lenovo until they fix this problem.

As a matter of fact, I found other colleagues doing the same: a workstation laptop in the office, and a netbook for class lecturing. The difference here is they did not pay from their own pocket for their Tablets, I did on mine, on both.

Oh, yes, and here is the worst thing!: my university does not provide the equipment faculty requests to work for classes.  For example the Inspiron Duo costs only $500 and they will not say yes into buy it for us to use. (If you want to know which university is so hard on getting you the right equipment write to my email).

My advise on Tablet PCs for now: do not buy HP (not even the Elitebook!), or the Lenovo s10-3t.  I cannot speak for the other high top convertible tablet PC they have, their flagship, the ThinkPad x220t (keep reading and you will find out why).

I got tempted by Fujitsu Lifebook Convertible, but frankly my dear I don’t have the dime ($1.4k) to buy it.

About the Dell Inspiron Duo, what we have done and what we currently do with it will be explained in the section on Tablet PC used to teach science.

Finally a machine that will do (perhaps, I ‘ll keep my fingers crossed!)

In the end, as I have pointed out above, the Tx2 did enter into a coma stage perhaps to never wake up again.  I cannot wait for a resurrection, so I have to do what I have to do: buy a new one, a nice one, the best one!

So I got myself the convertible Tablet PC that has been at the top of all the reviews: the Lenovo ThinkPad x220t.  And I did it on Black Friday!

Lenovo X220t Convertible Tablet

Lenovo X220t Convertible Tablet

A machine that Lenovo retails for $2k, that sells on the web for $1.6k, I got it for a few bucks over $1k. With all the bells and whistles! Ok, only 4Gb but the slot for the other 4Gb is free and open, and a chip for it only costs $40 or less!  At 2.1 kg of mass, is a monster for a Tablet PC, I know. A huge 12.5in screen!!  multitouch and with active stylus (by Wacom!). Beefy 320 Gb, that is quite juicy for a mid size laptop, and there was the option of a ultra fast solid state disk drive!

Sure, this is not the normal Tablet PC one will provide to the kids, but it will be dream machine for the teacher or professor. And they had to do the highest performance, they are creating the active learning content for class.

Of course, this flagship is the one the university should buy in the first place for faculty like us, and they do at nice respected university. Mine is married to Dell, and Dell just dropped the convertible tablet XT2. Dell had plans to put in the market a full Tablet PC, the ST, but nobody knows when will be for sale.

For now one, for class I will use the Dell Duo, on which I will post the review in another page (Capacitive Reactance). And for my own work, to prepare the content and do my own research -again, not paid for by my university-, will be done in the Lenovo x220t.

I am also thinking on putting to work an Android Tablet, a generic one, to see how effective will be for class. I am sorry for Apple iPad fans: I simply do not have the money to buy one, if Apple wants to convince me to use it in class against all odds, they should give one for a semester, and then we will talk.  The generic Android costed me only $80. The use of the Android will be in yet another page (Androids in Class).

UPDATE: My university is a Dell fanatic… so I got a Dell XT3 !

Oh, yes. If you are fan of Dell (remember I had use the Dell Inspiron Duo as a rescue machine for class, but not anymore) there is one Tablet PC you may like to try, if you have deep pockets or do not mind not changing the oil of your commuting car for another year.

My university is all Dell, and the administrators wanted to do a renovation on equipment. They accepted my proposal for an interactive projector and a Tablet PC. So, finally I got the Tablet PC provided from my university I needed for so long.

The machine, the Tablet PC in steroids -and price to match those steroids- I got was a Dell Latitude XT3, which came to market together with the Dell ST -which will be probably purchased for other not so IT hungry faculty-.  The pictures I have below are from the machine I got -so not to bother with Dell-.

My Dell Latitude XT3 – actually my university’s – Notice the stylus on the left side.

It is a -nearly- state of the art Tablet PC.  The Latitude trim all the way. Magnesium case. Polished aluminum top. N-Trig active digitizer screen. Stylus in its cave beneath the keyboard. HDMI plug, 2 USB -yes only 2- and a mini-USB plugs, wired network plug, plus a USB ATA plug for the  included external DVD writer/reader module and other Dell devices. Also it comes with SD, EC, SC slots for memory cards.

Dell Latitude XT3 plugs and connectors

Dell Latitude XT3 plugs and connectors.                                                                                                      Top: Left side; miniUSB, SD slot, USB, mic/headphone and EC. Center: Right side; SC slot, WiFi On/Off, USB-ATA, USB.  Bottom: Back side; top: screen on/off, cursor up/down; bottom: power plug, HDMI, XVGA out, Nework.

The XT3 has an undeniable solid construction -although I will not drop it from the third floor as old ads from Dell suggested will do and keep running-.

Remember: the Achilles’ heel of all convertible Tablet PCs is the screen’s rotating hinge, and even XT3 looks solid (no “Paris” in sight tough!).   It has no Chiclets keyboard like the small Duo, but a fine regular low profile quiet keyboard, surrounded by the Latitude orange trim (new Lenovo Thinkpads come with Chiclets keyboards!).  And, you guess it, it comes with the Thinkpad’s keyboard-centered toggle mouse or “nubbin”, except is black and concealed, not red and protruding.

In the screen you have on the left side the On/Off switch, one key button, one turn-screen button, and fix (toolbox); and on the right side the Sound Off button and Sound Up and Sound Down buttons, followed by the fingerprint reader.

Dell Latitude XT3 screen buttons

Dell Latitude XT3 screen buttons (left: On/Off, screen and toolbox controls, right Sound On/Off, Sound Up, Sound Down, fingerprint reader)

The model I got has a an Intel Dual Core i5 CPU, upper models offer the i7.  Loaded with Windows 7 with Tablet PC functions enabled, I loaded in addition Office Pro Academic licensed from my university, and other software that came with the Dell S500Wi interactive wireless projector, such as eInstruction Whiteboard customized for the projector.

The Dell XT3 is a Tablet PC for an executive (with a keyboard with many similarities to the Thinkpad), extremely similar to the HP Elitebook and also to the Fujitsu high end Tablet PCs.  And in a price between these two (Lenovo xt220, now replaced by the xt230, is considerable cheaper with its lighter plastic black-suit box). This model had a small discount offered by Dell because of the proposal to get two together with the projector, which was discussed with them in part (“we will test all of this and tell you what went bad, because the good you probably know!”).  Those were the good news.

Now… (drums..)… the BAD news!! (I hope Dell is reading this and correct their mistakes  in this machine SOON because if future customers do read it, they will not sink their $$ into this machine!!).

Just after receiving the unit and installed the whiteboard software I found the digitizer was acting weird, sort of like The Invisible Man, the comics character. In the screen, at about 8-1/2″ from the left, in a 1/2″ wide area all the way from the top to the bottom of the screen, the stylus would not generate ink on the screen. NO INK. And this happened only when I would try inking vertically. Horizontally it will cross over the screen, but NOT vertically in this whole area!  It did look like the people at Dell DO NOT CHECK THEIR HARDWARE before delivery!

Not only that, when you tried to write, suddenly the pointer of the stylus will start jumping around and you could not stop it with the mouse, like the other comics hero character, Flash. I took the stylus and touched the screen at some places, calibrated it, and again suddenly will begin again.  Dell people told us to open the stylus and take the batteries (2 AAAA, yes 4A which we do not have here locally) and put them back again.  This failure together with the non-writeable area issue, started to disappoint me and my university IT team (“What a waste, why they did not want to get the Lenovo!”)

There was a long talk to the local Dell people about these two issues, and they agreed to replace the screen module altogether.  Needless to say when the PC was returned, it was blank (had to re-install everything!) and had dents on the edge of the screen (did they try to disassemble it?, they just have to replaced the whole top!).

I had used the XT3 for about three last weeks of Summer 2012 term and the first two weeks of Fall 2012, using it to write on my Math and Physics classes.  With Physics class I used it a bit less because I also use the interactive wireless stylus that came and works with the projector. And.. SURPRISE!

The screen does not resist to writing with its own stylus!! (N-trig systems are supposed to come in pairs: screen and digitizer stylus). After a couple of classes with some drawing and problem solving I found the screen was scratched all over. After careful examination, it was doing it all the way, but this last work was especially bad for the screen. I do not use but soft pressure on the screen, but the screen looks like a bad cat lectured an electric field class with it, I do not lie, see the picture below.

Dell XT3 scratch-prone screen

Dell XT3 scratch-prone screen

The reader can easily note the circles drawn and the letters “y = 3.0 m”, arrows, crosslines, etc. This was not supposed to happen!

It certainly did not happen in the two years I used the HP Tx2 which is also an N-Trig machine, and had not happened to my Lenovo xt220, even though I had to use it the first half of the Summer before the Dell arrived (and I promised myself never to use my own Lenovo in favor of my university and not getting anything back!).

And this was not all that happened to this Tablet PC! At first behave mad with my Wireless  Video adapter from Warpia, but finally learned the lesson that my Warpia is here to stay (by the way Warpia needs to replace the power adapter that came with it, its connectors are beginning to fail, one needs to push them harder, they won’t last).

Its DVD writer/reader has some behavior of its own. It refused to read the standard DVD that came as instructor resource with my new textbook. I had to dust-off my HP Tx2 to read the DVD and extract the files needed for my classes!

Well, that is for now my experience with another Tablet PC. Keep coming back.

Until then, good luck and keep sending your thoughts to my email.

One thought on “2.Tablet PCs

  1. Thank you so much for your detailed review of your experience with tablet laptops. I too am a teacher and wish to get a good tablet laptop. A colleague has used the Dell XT and now the Lenovo X220T with great results. Our school likes us to only get Dell or Apple, so I’m looking at the Dell XT3, however I’m quite disappointed that you’ve had so much trouble with it. With Windows 8 only a few weeks away, it seems like a good idea to get a touch screen, but I’m not sure that I’ll like the XT3. Update the post with any issues the Lenovo has, if there are any problems.

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