Can't Afford a Tablet PC? Try This!

by Wei-Meng Lee and Brian Jepson

Recently, Microsoft launched its much talked-about Tablet PC initiative. Unless you're lucky enough to have the money or the timing to buy a new notebook, you'll have to live with watching your peers show off their new Tablet PCs.

But did you know that you don't need to buy a Tablet PC in order to play with one? If you're a MSDN subscriber and have about $100 to spare, I'll show you how to have a near Tablet PC experience.

First, a Little Windows XP Tablet Background

Beneath the hood of every Tablet PC runs the Windows XP Tablet PC Edition The Windows XP Tablet PC Edition is actually a beefed-up version of Windows XP Professional, expanded with features such as handwriting recognition and software for pen input.

Tablet PCs generally come in two types: Convertible (Figure 1) or Slate (Figure 2). The Convertible type allows you to double-up your machine to be a Tablet, as well as a Notebook.

Convertable Clamshell
Figure 1. Types of Tablet PC: Convertible integrated keyboard and clamshell design, from Acer and HP

The Slate type comes without a keyboard, but you can also couple it with a docking station, essentially transforming it into a desktop.

Slate Slate and Docking station from Fujitsu
Figure 2. Types of Tablet PC: Slate and Docking station from Fujitsu

Converting Your Existing Notebook to a Tablet PC

Granted, the new hardware is a big part of the Tablet PC appeal, but the operating system is also quite interesting. And you don't need to spend a $1,000 to play with the OS. You can convert your existing laptop into a temporary Tablet PC running the new Windows OS. First you need the following:

  • Windows XP Tablet PC Edition (available if you are a MSDN subscriber)
  • A graphics tablet such as the Wacom Intuos2

For this article, I used the Wacom Intuos2 graphics tablet:

The Wacom Intuos2 graphics Tablet
Figure 3. The Wacom Intuos2 graphics Tablet

Wacom supplies the pressure-sensitive pen input technology to major Tablet PCs manufacturers, including Acer, Fujitsu, Toshiba and Viewsonic.

The Intuos2 comes with an Intuos2 pen and a cordless 2D mouse. The 2D mouse requires the graphics tablet in order to work (it is not an optical mouse). So with this combination, you can say goodbye to your old mouse.

With the above items, I setup the whole Tablet PC system on an IBM ThinkPad.

Windows XP Unwired

Related Reading

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By Wei-Meng Lee

Running my Tablet PC

The setup process was similar to that of installing Windows XP Professional edition. It's only when you restart the machine that you will realize you are now using Windows XP Tablet PC Edition.

The Windows XP Tablet PC Edition comes with the Tablet PC Input panel, shown in Figure 4.

Tablet PC Input Panel  Writing Pad
Figure 4. Tablet PC Input Panel -- Writing Pad

The Tablet PC Input Panel has two tabs, one for you to write (Writing Pad) and one for you to tap on a keyboard.

Tablet PC Input Panel  Keyboard
Figure 5. Tablet PC Input Panel -- Keyboard

If you are using a normal notebook or a desktop, using the keyboard in the Input Panel doesn't make much sense.

Using the Writing Pad, you can use the Intuos2 Pen and start scribbling away. A couple of comments here. First, it "writes" very much as if you're writing on paper. The response is good. It doesn't feel like writing on your PDA. As the tablet is magnetic-based, touching the tablet with your hands does not affect your writing. However, since I am not writing directly on the screen, I'm missing a big part of the fun of using a tablet PC. (But I'm still not ready to buy one.)

Another emulation oddity is the "hovering mouse". The pen acts as a mouse when you are not writing. And so when you move the pen (not touching the tablet, but hovering just about one inch above the tablet), the mouse cursor will follow your pen. Many a times I have mistakenly dragged the wrong item on my windows desktop when I tried to write on the Writing Pad.

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