by Marty Demarest
We Americans want our coffees "grande," our lunches "supersized" and our mini-vans to be not-so-mini. But when it comes to technology, smaller is better. So it's no surprise that Microsoft recently rolled out what it's touting as the next development in personal computing in a tinier bundle. Called tablet PCs, these personal computers aim to do everything that a laptop computer can, but in a package that's about the size of a stack of paper.
Of course, Microsoft conveniently has a new version of Windows powering these machines -- the main difference is the incorporation of handwriting-recognition software. This is important, because while some of the tablet PCs are convertible units like Acer's TMC102T -- the screen opens like a book to reveal a keyboard, spins around, and voila, a laptop -- they all allow users to hold them in their lap and write on them with a stylus.
At a recent demonstration, Microsoft reps were quick to emphasize the notepad feature over the handwriting recognition. Converting scribbled pages to word documents is theoretically possible, but even the best programs make plenty of errors. Instead, Microsoft wants to show how the handwritten pages can be treated like any other computer document, which means formatting, e-mailing and searching. If you have atrocious handwriting, however, this isn't going to do much good.
As for the hardware, it's a mixed bag. The screens on almost all of the available units are perfectly clear and bright, and writing on them really does feel like taking notes. But while companies are stressing the "flexibility" of the new systems, it's important to recall that these ultra-slim machines are nowhere near as easy to upgrade as a desktop computer or even a laptop. And manufacturers, ever-optimistic, are advertising that battery life is around four hours. I guess they think that workdays and flights will be shrinking as well.
Even though the idea behind the technology is good, consumers are going to be skeptical. Still, prices are not impossible (around $2,000), and everything seems to work. If the tablets catche on, the next generation of software and hardware is bound to work better. However, those who invest now might have the edge as everyone else plays catch-up and starts taking notes.