Technology

High-Tech Note Taking

Tablet PCs raise doodling to a new level.

At the Fall 2000 Comdex show in Las Vegas, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates unveiled prototypes of a new portable personal computer called the tablet PC. Two years later, seven computer manufacturers launched their versions of the product. While some computer junkies raced to buy this latest innovation, many consumers hesitated due to concerns about high prices and uncertain technologies. Even now, some commercial real estate professionals don't know what a tablet PC is.

But that's about to change, as the latest generation of tablet PCs offers more power, speed, memory, and capabilities than its predecessors. Combining a desktop's computing power with a personal digital assistant's convenience, tablet PCs may be the answer for commercial real estate professionals who are fed up with manipulating their bulky laptops.

A Legal Pad That Thinks

To picture a tablet PC, imagine a cross between a spiral notebook and a laptop computer. Because tablet PCs' screens support digital ink from special pens or styluses that translate handwriting into text, you can hold and write on the product like a notebook. "We are all accustomed to the ergonomics of the legal pad. This is the legal pad on steroids," says Gary D. Gregory, CCIM, a broker with Price Edwards & Co. in Oklahoma City.

According to commercial real estate professionals who use tablet PCs, the products' size, capabilities, and accessibility are significant selling points.

Hewlett-Packard's Compaq Tablet PC TC1000's "small size makes it easy to carry around," says Hunter B. Garrett, CCIM, SIOR, a broker with NAI Earle Furman in Greenville, S.C. "PDAs are limited in what they can do, whereas the tablet PC has full computer capabilities."

While walking properties or during spontaneous standing meetings, "use of a conventional laptop keyboard is not always convenient," says Michael Anderson, CCIM, a broker at RealSource Brokerage Services in Sandy, Utah, who recently purchased an HP tablet PC. Also, "I found unfolding a laptop during airline flights to be very cumbersome, especially when the seat in front is reclined," he says.

Brokers also decry laptop use during meetings because it creates visual barriers between participants and clicking keys are distracting. Yet like paper notebooks, tablet PCs lay flat on tables or laps, and the handwriting function allows silent note taking.

In fact, tablet PCs' note-taking ability may be their greatest feature. "Before the tablet, I would take notes on sheets of paper," says Jonathan A. Hunt, a broker with NAI Sacramento in West Sacramento, Calif., who purchased a Toshiba Portégé 3505. "Eventually these papers would get filed somewhere and would be too difficult to efficiently refer to. Now all of my notes are logically organized and searchable."

The note-taking function also assists commercial real estate professionals in the field. Michael E. Gorman, CCIM, general manager of Edward Rose Cos. in Indianapolis purchased a tablet PC to help his company's research analysts survey multifamily community residents. "The ability to write directly on the screen allows for quick and easy data collection while still being able to actively participate in one-on-one conversations," says Jordanna Middleton, one of the company's research analysts.

Many new tablet PCs come with built-in 802.11b wireless modems, which allow road warriors easy access to the Internet and their companies' databases. "I have access at all times to my e-mail, faxes, forms, data, and contacts," Gregory says. "This availability has allowed me to give prospective buyers virtual tours of properties and run analyses over dinner -- I also use the tablet PC during showings by displaying a one-page setup sheet. If [a client] wants a copy delivered to his office, I e-mail or fax it to him during the showing." Gregory was an early convert: He purchased a Compaq tablet PC in late 2002 "after realizing that access by laptop or PDA was more cumbersome," he says.

Purchasing Factors

Tablet PCs come in two forms: slate and convertible. Slates are just digital screens; to type information, you must connect an external keyboard. Convertibles mimic notebook computers, except their screens swivel over the keyboards to transform into slates. Users can attach both forms to desktop computers, printers, and other peripherals via a docking station and USB ports.

Most tablet PCs utilize the Microsoft Windows XP Tablet PC Edition operating system, which is an extension of Windows XP Professional. The Tablet PC Edition includes additional software for handwriting recognition and conversion to typed text, speech recognition, digital pen input, and document annotation. It also offers screen rotation capabilities, so you can switch between portrait orientation to take notes and landscape orientation to view spreadsheets and other documents.

Tablet PCs running this operating system are compatible with Windows XP applications such as Office 2003; however, to utilize the digital ink with these software products, you must download a free add-on from the Microsoft Web site (see sidebar, "Tablet PC Applications and Add-ons"). The operating system's 2004 version should be available by midyear as a free upgrade for existing users.

Last July Lycoris unveiled a Linux-based tablet PC operating system called Desktop/LX Tablet Edition. Currently, only Element Computer produces a tablet PC running this operating system; however, at $999, its Helium 2100 is significantly cheaper than models running the Windows operating system.

Tablet PCs are expensive, but converts believe they are well worth the cost. Most of the newest models are very similar regarding memory, computing power, screen size, and weight, but other features come into play when researching your options.

Before purchasing, first decide whether you want to buy a slate or convertible. Since slates do not have integrated keyboards, consider whether you need typing abilities while on the road. Convertibles offer more flexibility regarding text input, but typically they are slightly heavier than slates.

Another factor to consider is screen glare. Tablet PCs can be difficult to use outdoors in direct sun because the light washes out the display. To combat this problem, some new models offer reflective screens. For example, on its M1300 Power model, which starts at $1,899, Motion Computing offers a View Anywhere display that promises glare reduction and brightness improvement. Fujitsu's Stylistic 3500 and ST4000 series offer reflective screen options; prices start around $2,299. Several other models feature integrated light sensors that automatically adjust screen brightness, although this option may not work as well as the reflective screen.

Another major factor to consider is price, because what you see is not what you get. A tablet PC's list price most likely is a basic model, and many do not come with CD-ROM drives, integrated wireless cards, extra batteries, and carrying cases. For instance, Toshiba's Portégé M200 starts at $2,399, but the price quickly jumps to $3,144 after adding an external CD-ROM drive, docking station, AC adapter, extra battery, and portfolio case. Many manufacturers offer bundles, or specially priced packages containing various accessories, which may or may not represent a cost savings depending on what accessories you actually need.

Software adds to the cost. The XP Tablet PC Edition operating system is preloaded on Windows-based models, but few other software products come standard. Read the fine print: Many units offer free trial versions of popular software that expire in 30 days.

Future or Fad?

Are tablet PCs the next wave of personal computers or will they fade into oblivion? Unfortunately, it's too soon to tell. Many commercial real estate professionals continue to research their options, while some already have decided to pass for now. "It seems so intriguing, but the sales have been slow to take off and the reviews have been less than great," says Len Magnani, CCIM, managing principal of Lee & Associates East Bay in Pleasanton, Calif. "I have been an early adopter before, but I am not convinced of the tablet PCs' long-term prospects at this point."

However, most tablet PC users think that it is a spectacular technological tool. Garrett sums up his experience succinctly: "The tablet PC provides me great versatility, mobility, and efficiency." If you are considering purchasing a new laptop computer, check out tablet PCs. Their convenience may make you a convert as well.

Products included in Technology Bueyrs Guide articles are for informational purposes only. Inclusion of a product does not constitute review or recommendation.

Comparing the Latest Tablet PCs

Model/Price/
Contact

Screen size/
Weight

Battery Life/
Memory

Features

Acer TravelMate C300
$1,899
global.acer.com

14.1"/
6.2 lbs.

5.5 hours/
512MB

integrated light sensor adjusts screen brightness; four-in-one card reader; two USB ports

Electrovaya Scribbler
SC-2010

$2,599
www.electrovaya.com

12.1"/
4.1 lbs.

up to 9 hours/
512MB

integrated 802.11b wireless connectivity; integrated fingerprint sensor security; two USB ports

Fujitsu Stylistic ST5010
$2,099
www.fmworld.net/globalpc

12.1"/
3.4 lbs.

up to 5 hours/
256MB

bundled with Microsoft Office OneNote 2003; integrated 802.11b wireless connectivity; two USB ports

HP Compaq Tablet PC TC1100
$1,849
www.hp.com

10.4"/
3.1 lbs.

4 hours/
512MB

160-degree viewing angle; two USB ports

Toshiba Portégé M200
$2,399
www.toshiba.com

12.1"/
4.5 lbs.

4.3 hours/
512MB

bundled with Microsoft Office OneNote 2003; three USB ports

ViewSonic Tablet PC V1250
$1,995
www.viewsonic.com

12.1"/
3.9 lbs.

3 hours/
256MB

integrated light sensor adjusts screen brightness; integrated 802.11b wireless connectivity; two USB ports

Gretchen Pienta

William T. Adams, CCIM, CRB, is owner of Adams Realtors in Atlanta. Contact him at 404.688.1222 or wtadams@ccim.net.Gretchen Pienta is associate editor of Commercial Investment Real Estate.

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