Sometimes progress can be confusing. This is especially true when dealing with the latest generation of touchscreen tablet PCs. Because these small, inexpensive touch-screen tablets use a host of approaches to capture input, some of which work and some don't, many business consumers are likely to be disappointed when they put them to work in a commercial setting. Care should be taken when selecting a machine and in many cases the “old school” tablets with active digitizing technology are still the best choice for the business user.
The IPad Revolution -- In the old days before the Ipad, tablet PC buyers knew that their machines would operate to a certain basic standard. It was a Windows XP world back then and the PCs that used that operating system all worked in basically the same way whether they were made by Fujitsu, Panasonic, Motion Computing, Tablet Kiosk, Lenovo, or HP. They all used active digitizing pens and the consumer could be fairly confident that his tablet experience would conform to a certain level of expectations.
Now all that has changed and as you might expect, the Ipad changed it.
The IPad created the perception that the personal Tablet PC should look and act differently than those old Windows Tablets. It is a machine focused on data display and it does that beautifully. But at the same time the IPad is not a good machine for capturing data and it is substandard at capturing handwritten information, the forte of the Windows tablets. The IPad comes with no stylus and although you can write or draw with your finger in some applications, the resulting input is inferior to that acheivable with Windows tablets. Aftermarket styluses can be purchased for the IPad, but they are little more than prosthetic fingers and the handwriting they produce is large and crude.
In our opinion, the IPad is still not a suitable platform with which to fill out an electronic form using handwriting. But make no mistake – the Ipad has changed the game because it has changed the focus of the traditional Windows tablet PC manufacturers. After the IPad tablet PC users thought that they should be able to get slimmer, lighter machines that were touch-enabled and could be purchased for under $1000. Manufacturers have been happy to oblige and in the first quarter of 2011 Ipad-looking tablets began to flood the market. Most of these were small form-factor devices designed to appeal to the leisure time consumer, not the dedicated business user, and most have fallen short of expectations. One of the first such devices we tested was HP's Slate 500. (See this blog for our separate review of the Slate 500.)
Like the Motorola Xoom and the Samsung Galaxy, most of these new devices have smaller-than-10” touch-screens and they use Android operating systems. A few others, such as the Dell Duo, the Asus eeePC , and Active Ink’s Scribe have gone with the “old school” world of the Intel Atom processor and Windows 7 operating system using touch-screen digitizers. Many similar devices are scheduled to drop in the weeks to come and all seem to take a slightly different approach to building their tablets, further confusing the consumer and crowding the marketplace.
Time is of the Essence -- The problem is that some of these machines work well when filling out electronic forms and some don’t. Often it is hard to tell which ones will work until you lay your hands on them. That’s because the single most important factor that determines each device’s success or failure when filling out electronic forms is the time it takes to fill out the form on that device. Any ergonomic issues the device has only had to the time necessary to fill out forms on it. If the “feel” of the device’s virtual keyboard or stylus is clunky, then mistakes are made on input, those mistakes must be corrected and the time to completion skyrockets. Furthermore, these ergonomic issues can sometimes be so daunting or annoying that the business user will give up in frustration, tossing his new tablet in the trash before going back to something else that works. Often that something else is the older generation of active digitizing tablets.
Why such variety? The newest generation of cheap tablets employ a wide assortment of data-input strategies and technologies. Some use capacitive screens and styluses, some use resistive screens, some tout “3-finger multi-touch” or “4 finger multi-touch”, or even “multi-touch with palm recognition”. Some have both touchscreens and active digitizers, some support handwriting recognition and some don’t. The differences are sometimes subtle, but these subtle differences make all the difference when filling out hundreds of electronic forms on a tablet. If the inexpensive touchscreen device has ergonomic shortcomings that add greatly to the time required to fill out a form, then their cost advantage over a more expensive "old school" active-digitizing tablet disappears.
To be Continued ... -- In part II of this discussion, we will get into the nitty-gritty of what makes some of these touchscreen tablets suitable platforms for filling out e-forms and how some of them fall short of our expectations.