TECHNOLOGY has come a long, long way from back in the days when cutting- edge handhelds meant calculators and mini-tape recorders. Today, some of the most bantered about buzzwords in mobile warrior circles are tablet PCs and pocket PCs.
Tablet PCs, which combine the functionalities of a writing surface and a laptop, are finally ready for primetime. Tablets run on a dedicated Microsoft operating system, Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, and use Intel’s powerful low-energy consuming Pentium M chip and Centrino technology. The relatively lightweight units offer a great range of capabilities, including: hand writing recognition; annotation of documents imported from other applications; wireless connectivity; and the ability to run dedicated task-specific Windows programs.
Though the operating system also includes voice recognition, the strength of the software is with the handwriting recognition, which can convert even relatively scribbled notes.
Because of all they have to offer, tablets are good matches for contractors who want to maximize efficiency and productivity away from the desk — and travel light to boot. They provide freedom to write on the slate while walking a job or at a meeting, enabling users to take notes without having to put the unit down on a hard surface to use, as would be necessary with a notebook. They also feature the ability to sketch a drawing and pass it along immediately.
Tablet computers are available two ways — either solely as slates, which is a screen on top of all the PC hardware, or as convertible units, hybrids that can function both as slates and as notebooks.
Slates, which do not have keyboards (but which have ports for connecting a keyboard and mouse back at a desk) accept and access data via a specialized stylus using digital “ink.” The stylus, which is generally a high-resolution device, acts both as a pen and as a mouse.
Convertible units feature two modes of operations. In one position, they look and perform like a notebook. But, with a swivel of the screen and a few directed clicks, a unit quickly converts to a slate configuration and mode of operation, with the keyboard hidden and locked beneath the screen and the screen ready to accept data input with a specialized stylus.
Generally, tablets have high-resolution screens, well suited for displaying or working on drawings or plans. The tablets can be equipped with (wireless) Wi-Fi (802.11b) technology, which enables users to have Internet and e-mail access remotely as long as within range of an access point. Access is becoming more readily available in offices, even at jobsites that have wireless in the area or while traveling about. (Some airline terminals, convention centers, malls and other public spaces already offer free access.)
If you use the Tablet-Input Panel that runs within a narrow space across the bottom of the screen, the operating system converts handwriting almost instantly. (The TIP works with any Windows applications.) Or, you can wait until your note-taking session is over and then convert all or selected text at once.
When using convertibles in notebook mode, the text on the screen appears in landscape mode. But when converted to a tablet, the software automatically converts to portrait mode, which is akin to a traditional paper pad. Broadening tablet functionality even further, numerous third-party software developers offer a broad range of task-specific solutions for tablets.
Toshiba, HP, Acer, Fujitsu, Gateway, Motion and other major manufacturers offer a choice of well-appointed slates and convertibles. Screen sizes generally are either 10.4 in. or 12.1 in.
Typical of convertible units is the sub-notebook Acer TravelMate C110. The unit, which weighs 3.4 lb. and has an anti-scratch 10.4-in. swivel screen LCD, is equipped like a well-dressed notebook, with two USB ports, an Ethernet port, a modem port, a Type II PCMCIA CardBus slot, a SmartCard interface slot, a 40-GB hard drive and a Pentium M CPU.
Pocket PCs are PDA handhelds running off a Microsoft operating system that not only can handle contact data but also can send and retrieve e-mail, browse the Web, exchange text messages and synchronize information with a desktop computer. Some new models also incorporate a cellular phone, a speaker and a microphone.
The units, which do not have keyboards, work with a stylus. Like they do for tablets, third-party software vendors (including some with HVAC-specific or contractor-specific programs —many of which have been covered in this column in the past year) have enabled their programs to work with pocket PCs, providing easy exchange of data between the office and field.
The latest operating systems from Microsoft for Pocket PCs are Windows Mobile Software 2003 for Pocket PC and pocket PC Phone Edition, for units that include cellular phone capability.
Several companies, including Samsung, Dell, Toshiba, ViewSonic and HP market a variety of models with assorted accouterments. The Samsung i700, for example, integrates a phone, speakerphone capability and digital camera, providing the ability to capture an image, attach voice memos or text messages, and send the file via e-mail or infrared capabilities.
William and Patti Feldman can be reached at [email protected].