Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Tablet PC Trial

I've had a tablet PC on loan from the Open University for the last six months or so and, as it's getting shipped back to them tomorrow, I thought I'd bounce a few ideas around about how I got on with it...

CREDIT: TabletPCReview.com
The Toshiba Tecra M7

The OU lent me a Toshiba Tecra M7, which is about two years behind the cutting edge, and had fairly lackluster reviews even back then. However I know at least one person who, despite the relatively poor uptake of tablet PCs in general, swears by theirs and wouldn't have a normal laptop, so I was really interested to get my hands on one for an extended test.

However even after six months with the Toshiba, using it for all my OU teaching support and marking, I'm not a convert. In practice I found the tablet an ergonomic nightmare to use. While in the end I worked out a method of propping the tablet and my elbows up to different levels using stacks of books, so that I could use it for several hours at a stretch to mark scripts, it was hardly an elegant solution. Using the tablet on its own for any length of time severely exacerbated my RSI, making it almost entirely un-portable.

I don't really want to get into issues specific tablet model I was testing, for instance placing the power jack directly under where you'd normally want to put your elbow was an act of twisted genius, but suffice to say there were many.

However I can see why the OU lent it to me, in theory being able to write comments, draw freehand diagrams, and scribble equations onto student work allows a much more flexible approach to marking work submitted electronically by the students. In practice the tablet only partially lives up to what, in theory, it should be easily capable of...

It really didn't help that the software integration of the tablet into the OS is also pretty poor. Writing large chunks of text you intend to be read by the OCR software is a laborious process, and spinning the display around so I could use the keyboard to do so wasn't really practical, or particularly convenient. I'll draw a polite veil over the possible comments I could make about painstakingly spelling out words on the software keyboard.

Ergonomically therefore, the tablet PC was a total bust. I'd almost go as far as saying it was unusable. It was certainly almost entirely un-portable, it also counts as one of the heaviest laptops I've ever had the misfortune to have to carry around. If you've followed the blog for any length of time, you'll know that I subscribe to the notion that there are two main core demographics for laptop users. The road warriors, who would kill for another half hour of battery, or half a kilogram less of laptop, and the power users who desperately want another couple of inches of screen real estate, and another hundred gigabytes of hard drive.

I definitely fall into the road warrior category, the tablet PC I had on trial weighed three or four times as much as the Dell mini I recently picked up to use while traveling.

So it's not exactly with a heavy heart that I'm saying goodbye to my loaned PC. I can see the problem the tablet PC is trying to solve, but at least for me, it doesn't even come close to living up to the hype.