Saturday, November 04, 2006

 

Toshiba Tecra M7 Tablet PC

I guess I'm getting jaded. After buying a new laptop, I just left it in the box unopened for several hours before forcing myself to take the time to set it up. I just can't get excited about Windows laptops anymore. I've gone through half a dozen of them in the past ten years. They are no longer "new toys;" they are just tools that I know will be sources of frustration.

The main reasons I chose the Tecra M7 over other available models were the following:

As I bought a MacBook just a couple of months ago, it is unavoidable that I am going to compare the Tecra to that. Please don't dismiss me as just another Apple fanboy: I've got these two machines side by side on my coffee table, and I use them both each day, so to not note the differences would be silly.

Setup

I bought the Tecra from ToshibaDirect. It arrived well-packed with a minimal amount of excess box volume, styrofoam, plastic bags, and other stuff. Unfortunately, it also did not have a printed manual. It has a "Quick Tour" card that explains how to plug it in to AC power and tells you what all the ports are. The only other printed documentation is an "Instruction Manual for Safety and Comfort" which tells you how to avoid electrocution, burns, and repetitive stress injuries. Toshiba provides a PDF user's guide, but obviously you can't read that unless you've already got the PC up and mostly running.

Turning it on for the first time brings up the standard Windows new installation setup wizard, asking for a user name, machine name, etc. One annoying aspect to this was that on onscreen keyboard popped up, presumably so that somebody can answer all the questions with a pen, without needing the keyboard. Unfortunately, the onscreen keyboard is pretty big, so you have to keep moving the keyboard around to see the text entry fields underneath. I couldn't find any way to close or hide the onscreen keyboard.

It was amusing that after telling me it couldn't connect to a network, the setup program then asked whether I wanted to register online with Microsoft and Toshiba.

I had no problems connecting to my wireless network after entering the proper WEP key (which actually took me about five minutes, using the pen). I used Windows Update and Microsoft Update to get all the current patches.

I bought Microsoft Office Small Business Edition 2003 with this notebook. When I first started Word, it asked for the 25-digit product key. It's annoying that after plunking down $300 to get this preinstalled, they can't take care of the product key for you. Even more annoying was the fact that I had to go find a magnifying glass to read the product key on the disk that came with the system.

It also includes Microsoft OneNote, which is some sort of "put all your stuff into this one application" thing designed for tablets. It has a separate product key, which is equally microscopic. Microsoft, if you are going to insist on making us enter these things, could you please (a) use a bigger font, and (b) find a way to make the characters 'B' and '8' more distinct?

Like most PCs, it comes with a lot of pre-installed vendor-specific utilities, trial software, and links to Toshiba's online store. If there are any PC manufacturers who don't do that, please tell me about them so that I can start buying their products.

Hardware

The display has the grainy appearance that all tablets have. Otherwise, I have no complaints about it. There is also an analog video output port, allowing you to use an external monitor as either a secondary display or in place of the built-in display.

The trackpad seems small, especially compared with the MacBook's. The surface feels rougher than other trackpads, and seems to be less sensitive. The left and right buttons seem small as well; I often miss them when I try to click them.

The keyboard feels pretty good. The keys feel more solid than the average laptop keyboard. The only problem is that the tilde/backquote key is in a non-standard place. This won't bother most people, as tilde and backquote are not common characters in typical English writing, but if you use UNIX-like systems a lot, it's a significant annoyance.

The fingerprint reader is supposed to let you log-in without typing a password, which would theoretically save time. However, I generally have to run my finger past the reader half a dozen times before I get a successful read, so using the keyboard to type in my password is usually faster. Maybe after some more practice, I'll get the hang of the fingerprint reader.

I upgraded the RAM from 1GB to 2GB myself (I saved about 50 bucks by buying the second gigabyte at the local Fry's). The procedure wasn't difficult, but it's more difficult than simply opening a panel in back—you have to remove the keyboard to access the memory slots.

I bought the docking station/port replicator. It seems pretty expensive for what it does, but I think the same is true of other notebook manufacturers. It has both analog and digital video outputs, which briefly gave me hope that I might be able to set up a triple-monitor display, but as far as I can tell, you still only have the option of built-in monitor plus one external monitor. The dock is designed to hold the notebook in typical landscape layout; there was apparently no thought given to mounting it so you can dock it as a tablet in the portrait configuration.

Tecra as Tablet

I used the physical keyboard for that initial setup stuff, but once Windows proper started, I flipped the display around and tried to exclusively use the pen interface for everything. A few tutorials are provided to introduce the user to the pen techniques. I'll write a separate entry about the Tablet PC user interface. But I have a few comments about pen use with the Tecra.

First, I think the Tecra M7 is really too big to be an effective tablet. It is too heavy to comfortably hold like a clipboard. With the large screen, your hand has to travel long distances to get to the menu bar, the start menu, scroll bars, and other controls. If I wanted to get serious about using a notebook as a tablet, I think I'd go with a 13-inch screen.

I still haven't found a really comfortable position to hold the tablet in my lap while sitting on my couch or in a chair. You have to keep the screen at exactly the right angle, or it becomes difficult to see. At some angles, you can see the top of the screen but not the bottom, or vice versa. Then you have to consider the need to move your hand to any position on the screen, which means you need complete freedom of movement of your arm and shoulder. Again, a smaller screen would probably be easier to deal with.

Using the tablet at a desk is awkward. Something like a drafting table is needed to provide a good viewing right angle. Laying it flat is acceptable for taking notes during a meeting, but it is not good for reading.

The stylus that comes with the Tecra is okay. Not great, but okay. It doesn't feel very solid, and the internal pieces rattle a bit when you shake it, but it's serviceable. It has a fingertip button and an eraser.

I also bought the "reserve pen," a PDA-sized stylus that you can stow in the battery compartment and bring out if you lose the main stylus. The Toshiba manuals don't tell you anything about how to stow the reserve pen; I had to search the Internet to find out that there are little clips inside the battery compartment designed to hold the stylus. I don't think I'll become so dependent upon the stylus that losing the main stylus would be a problem, so the peace-of-mind I get from the spare may not be worth the $20 it cost.

Writing on the screen feels pretty good. The screen has some texture to it, so dragging the stylus across it feels enough like pen-on-paper that it feels natural. I even have the tendency to try to brush away rubber crumbs after using the eraser.

The Tecra has a little four-direction joystick-kinda-thingy and four other buttons next to the screen. By default, the four-direction joystick acts like the up/down/left/right cursor keys, and the other buttons do things that I find useless (changing monitor mode and Ctrl-Alt-Del, for example). The buttons are easy to accidentally press when simply holding the tablet, and the cursor keys aren't very useful when you aren't also using a keyboard. I'd prefer having just Page Up and Page Down buttons so that I can easily read documents in tablet mode. There seems to be a way to re-program the buttons for other functions, but my attempts to change the functions have failed.

The battery only lasts about three hours, give or take an hour. This means you can't use the tablet to take notes during a long day of meetings, unless there is a power outlet nearby and you don't mind having the power cable jamming itself into your right leg once in a while.

Overall Impression

In re-reading some of the above, it might sound like I really don't like this machine. That's not true. As Windows notebooks go, it's not bad. But the more I use the Tecra, the more I appreciate my MacBook.

As a tablet, I think it leaves a lot to be desired. If you really intend to take advantage of tablet functionality, I'd recommend looking for a smaller, lighter model with longer battery life.


Comments:
>>Even more annoying was the fact that I had to go find a magnifying glass to read the product key on the disk that came with the system.

Dude, that's not Toshiba's fault. That's Father Time. Go visit a lenscrafters.

Regards,
the voice of experience
 
Would you take your tablet and a gps with you in an airplane to use as a poor man's Avidyne?
 
>>Dude, that's not Toshiba's fault. That's Father Time. Go visit a lenscrafters.

I had my contact lens prescription refilled a couple months ago. These numbers really are small; even with a magnifying glass, they were hard to read. The characters are about half as tall as the Product Keys on other Microsoft products.

>>Would you take your tablet and a gps with you in an airplane to use as a poor man's Avidyne?

It might be usable in an airplane, but I'd recommend something smaller. This thing is pretty heavy. I think you'd want something you can comfortably move around with one hand. It's definitely not yoke-mountable.
 
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