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July/August 2008 Issue | Volume 34 Number 5| Page 26

Tips & Tricks

Why (and How) to Buy a Tablet PC

Although they’ve been available for several years, tablet PCs just haven’t gone mainstream—yet, that is. Maybe their use will spread once more lawyers learn about the upsides of these nifty little computers. For those who might like to consider making the switch, here are the experiences of one tablet convert.

My first hands-on experience with a tablet PC was at ABA TECHSHOW® 2005. Intrigued by the concept, a few months later I took the plunge and bought one—and I have never looked back. In fact, I just got my second one and am enjoying a new generation of features.

A tablet PC essentially functions and operates like a normal laptop computer. And physically, it also looks like a laptop computer until, with a flick of the wrist, you twist the screen around 180 degrees and fold it flat, and voila, you’ve converted the “laptop” into “tablet” mode.

In tablet mode, with the screen now laying flat like a traditional writing surface (e.g., a tablet—get it?), you operate the machine by interacting with the screen using a special pen-like stylus (or even with your fingers on some models). You use the stylus instead of a mouse to perform functions like pointing, clicking, dragging and opening files—actually, you can do most everything you do in laptop mode with the stylus, except for typing long passages of text.

An on-screen keyboard lets you tap out letters, or you can even enter handwritten text, which the tablet’s system then converts to typed text.


What Makes the Tablet So Cool

You can go back and forth between laptop and tablet mode on the fly, depending on what you’re doing at any particular time. But there are clear advantages to tablet mode in many instances. Let’s run through some.

For one, when it comes to reading on the screen, the ability to review PDFs, e-mails and other documents while they’re laying flat in front of you on the screen (in either portrait or landscape orientation) is similar to reading a paper copy, which I like. This has allowed me to be a bit “greener” too, since I no longer drag around printouts of things I want to read.

Also, the tablet isn’t as obtrusive when taking notes or looking up information at meetings or elsewhere because it lays flat on a table or on your lap. (And that feature can have a side bonus when you’re sitting in a courtroom, since it looks to others like you’re writing even if you’re really not.) Better still for the road warriors among us, tablet mode makes it easy to continue working on a plane when the person in front of you reclines her seat full-tilt back.

The tablet’s handwriting recognition function is also cool—although anyone who has ever seen my chicken-scratch handwriting will know that I didn’t buy the tablet with any reasonable expectation that the handwritten script-to-text conversion would work. However, I have to say the converter can read my writing better than I can, so I think it’s fabulous. Plus, you can search for occurrences of specified text strings within handwritten notes—amazing! And it takes just a few clicks to convert handwritten notes to text that can be pasted into a document.

Another thing I really enjoy is mindlessly surfing the Web using the tablet interface. Pointing and clicking with the stylus or my finger is just so easy and less bothersome than using a mouse, and it’s fun to be on wireless and wander the house when I’m on Skype or Google Talk. Likewise, killing spam and dragging and dropping e-mails into subfolders is a synch with the stylus. The ability to stand or sit and easily hold the tablet also lets me deal with e-mails in places and circumstances that would otherwise be dead time for me (like when I’m commuting on the subway).

And on top of all that, you can play a wicked game of solitaire—moving cards at least five times faster with the stylus, and even faster with your finger. I’ve become addicted to solitaire … again.


How to Choose Your Make and Model

Are you getting intrigued about buying a tablet PC? Then here’s some information about my most recent purchase that might help you in making a choice.

First, size and weight invariably add up when you’re on the go. So, because I do a lot of traveling, I really like the portability of a smaller machine. My two tablet PCs, as well as my last laptop, have all had 12-inch screens (although I have a larger screen, docking station and proper keyboard at my office desk, of course). For real mobility, go for a weight of 4 to 5 pounds.

My short list of final choices included the HP tc4400 (a newer version of the tablet I had before), the Fujitsu Lifebook T4220 and the Toshiba M700. All are about the same size and weight and have similar (but not the same) features. The Lenovo X61 is on par with these machines, but it was not on my list because it didn’t have a touchpad, which is a feature I can’t live without.

I went with the Toshiba M700 because it had an internal DVD, something I occasionally missed on my last tablet (although for the most part a thumb drive worked fine for transferring files and the like); an integrated Webcam (I always wanted one); and a higher-resolution screen (1280 x 800 as opposed to 1024 x 768 on my HP tc4200).

My second choice was the Lifebook. The HP tc4400, I should note, fell off my list not only because it had a lower resolution, but also because it had no internal DVD. U.S. buyers, however, will have more upgrade choices than I had in Canada.

By the way, my new tablet also has a fingerprint reader, which I now think of as essential equipment because not having to remember passwords is a dream come true!

For organizing your information, consider buying Microsoft OneNote to go with your new machine, or maybe get the newly released (and free) Evernote. These programs organize text, pictures, digital handwriting, multimedia files and more in one digital notebook.


Try Before You Buy

Now, for some notes about minor quirks I encountered with my new tablet PC, just to reinforce the concept that it’s always good to try before you buy.

I found that with the 1280 x 800 resolution on the M700, the default font size was a bit too small for my old and tired eyes (apparently I now need reading glasses), so I had to make two adjustments in the settings, although both were simple. First, I increased the dpi to 115 percent of normal size. To change the DPI setting to whatever works for you, right-click on the desktop and then select Properties-Settings-Advanced.

Second, I turned on the ClearType feature, which makes the fonts on LCD monitors sharper and clearer. To turn this feature on, you right-click on the desktop, choose Properties-Appearance-Effects, check the box at “Use the following method to smooth edges of screen fonts,” and select ClearType from the drop-down list. Then click on OK twice.

I also tried increasing the font size to Large (under the Properties-Appearance menu), but this didn’t really work for me because it messed up the layout of several of the programs I use.

In addition, the M700 has a touch screen, which means your finger works as a pointer. This seems like a cool idea, and it works quite well when doing some things, but I’m struggling to make it work consistently. I find that sometimes when I use the stylus, the side of my hand also ends up selecting things on screen. Resting my hand on the edge of the screen helps solve this, but this is not a comfortable or natural writing posture. Perhaps I just need some time to adjust to it.

Overall, though, I remain a die-hard convert to the tablet PC concept. So, are you more curious about it now? If so, try one out. A tablet PC may well help you work in new and more effective ways—and have a mean game of solitaire as well.

About the Author

Dan Pinnington helps lawyers avoid malpractice claims and looks for good tech tips in Toronto, ON. He is an editor of the Law Practice Today Webzine.