48 Hours. 48 hours; it seems like it should be a lot of time. But, ironically, when you’re feeding your new tablet craving, 48 hours is barely any time at all!
A few months ago, I contacted Allegiance Technology Partners ( www.alltp.com ) and signed up for a 48-Hour demo of the new TabletKiosk Sahara i440D Dual Touch slate PC. The wait turned out to be a bit longer than I expected, but last week, the long-hoped-for e-mail arrived! The i440D would be delivered just after the 4th of July, on its way back to Pennsylvania after having been unboxed (on video no less) by Rob Bushway at GBM. I could short-stop it for 48 hours and then had to turn it loose so that it could continue back to its new home at Allegiance in Horsham, PA.
The 440 arrived a tad ahead of schedule (bless you, FedEx!) and because Rob did such a good job in his unboxing video ( http://tinyurl.com/3cxjtr ), I’ll spend only a few sentences describing the contents of the box. Of course, it contained the i440D, packed in a nice anti-static plastic bag, a soft padded sleeve (case) with the TabletKiosk logo and an accessory box. The accessory box contained the battery (~35 W/Hr if memory serves), the AC adaptor and 3-wire AC cord, a large (12″) and very nice blue microfiber cleaning cloth, a somewhat sketchy color brochure which points out all the i440D features, and a stand. The stand turns out to be very, very special!
Of course, the star of this show is the i440D itself. This unit featured a 1.83 GHz L2500 Core Duo, with 1GB of RAM and an 80 GB hard drive. Compared to the prototype that I saw in late February, the production unit has turned out to be very handsome and incorporates some interesting changes. The bezel or frame is a pearlescent white, against which the TK logo contrasts nicely. It is very attractive, but I think my own preferences still run to the non-slip black case finish, but that’s just me.
The screen is still integrated into the bezel with a very shallow ledge or step. The surface of the screen is, of course, the touch overlay. Maybe it’s just faulty memory on my part, but this screen / touch surface felt firmer and more rigid to me than the prototype. (Note: In a recent posting, TK says that the touch overlay has a glass, not plastic, surface.) In direct light, it appeared to be finished with a very fine matte finish which was not very reflective at all. It felt like a perfectly satisfactory writing surface.
Of course, all the LEDs, switches, buttons, speakers, mics and fingerprint readers that we’ve all seen in press-release photos were there, along with an exceptional assortment of ports which included PCMCIA, monitor, Ethernet, modem, full-sized FireWire, two USB 2 ports, headphone, external mic and an e-SATA port! Curiously, there was no dummy insert in the PCMCIA port, making for a relatively large ‘hole’ in the side of the case. It turns out that its a missing accessory; when this particular slate shipped, the inserts had not yet arrived. TK says that all future units will sport a proper insert.
If you read my previous review ( http://tinyurl.com/yusp6w ), you will remember that I was somewhat critical of the i440D case shape; I thought it a bit boxy. Well, for whatever the reason, the
production unit looks sleeker and a bit less boxy. One reason for this is that the back of the case has been significantly re-engineered! The stubby, “table leg” rubber feet that I complained about are gone, replaced by lower rubber buttons that don’t spoil the clean lines of the back. It’s a significant cosmetic improvement, but the back of the slate probably gets hotter than it used to as a consequence.
But bigger changes were also made. The door over the wireless card was easily opened by removing two small screws, and the wireless card is easily accessible, although the connections look to be a bit cramped. The same is true of the RAM access door. Only one socket looked to be accessible, but its a snap to add RAM to that socket. The HD access door; hey, wait a minute!…where’s the HD access door
Well, it’s gone! It took me a minute or two to reason that the only plausible place to look for the HD would be in the wall of the battery compartment and sure enough, that’s where it was; TK has cleverly avoided cutting yet another hole in the back! The HD looks to be secured with a single screw on one side of the HD tray. A handy black tab is provided so that you can pull the HD out. For those who might be thinking about replacement options, the HD appears to be an 80GB Toshiba MK8034GSX (2.5″, 5400 rpm, SATA-150).
Speaking about the battery, it fits into the right side of the case (held in primary landscape orientation). There are two latches, one spring loaded, and one not; the spring loaded latch snaps in when the battery is seated, of course, but you have to manually secure the other latch. I’m guessing that this was done so that you could remove the battery with only one hand (after releasing the manual latch). Unfortunately, the battery doesn’t feature any sort of built-in status indicator, as many batteries do, so the only way you can ascertain the charge status is when it’s installed in the slate. The slate’s power port is on the upper right corner. The AC adaptor is a typical small brick shape with a ~70 Watt rating (input to the slate is 20V, 3.5A).
The pen garage is on the lower left corner. TK uses a Wacom pen that looks to be identical to the one used by Toshiba. It is light gray, uses a standard hard plastic nib and has a pocket clip that doubles to hold the pen in the garage. The pen features an eraser and a single-click switch. The pen is quite slender and I dont find these pens to be nearly as comfortable as the Motion or older HP pens, which are much larger in circumference.
The only other item that’s worth special comment is the stand. If there was ever an eloquent statement that “we’ve thought of everything,” this stand is it! Foldable and compact, it is nevertheless extremely well designed, with a stylish shape, sturdy hinge and shaped soft vinyl pads to softly cradle your slate and prop it at a nice angle. Critics may carp that the angle isn’t adjustable but you know what? I don’t care! The fact that there’s a stand at all, much less a very nice one, speaks volumes on its own! When will other OEM’s get a clue?!??<br>
With the battery installed and the AC adapter attached, the urge to fire things up was irresistible. Since Rob had already used it, there was no special start-up sequence. The I/O switch was stiffer than I expected it to be; you have to slide it to the right and hold it for a couple of seconds before the switch LED and the HD activity LED (both blue) light up.
The Battery Status LED is either green or orange and is illuminated when the slate is on or when the adapter is attached and powered.
Consistent with my expectations, the i440D went from cold start off to stable desktop in 50 seconds! (I measured this a few times over the two days and it was absolutely consistent, as I would expect it to be.) Later, I found that it shifted from On to Standby and back smoothly.
This i440D came loaded with Windows XP Tablet Edition SP2 OS. I’m told that TK is just now starting to ship i440D’s with Vista, so this machine just missed the cut! Bummer!! Of course, I was somewhat disappointed about this; I had hoped to do some comparisons between this machine and my now venerable TC1100 (which has been running Vista seemingly forever!), but that was clearly not going to be in the cards. The utter lack of “bloatware”, a unique TK philosophy, gave the desktop and Start Menu a spartan look; but it was also utterly refreshing. Users will be able to configure their machines to be lean and mean!
I spent the first few hours setting the machine up with a minimal set of capabilities so that I could test drive it. I downloaded 47 critical Microsoft updates and 8 optional updates of various kinds and installed the current versions of IE (7) and MediaPlayer (11). I installed a 30-day trial of OneCare, so that the machine would be protected. I also installed two virtual keyboards, one recommended by WNewquay ( http://tinyurl.com/2d8gkv ) and another one recommended by TK ( http://tinyurl.com/2f853p ). Finally, I loaded copies of applications that I work with routinely, MathJournal 2 and Grafigo 2.
There were also some important things that I didn’t do. Bearing in mind that this machine was a loaner and had to go back when the 48 hours expired, I was careful not to do much that involved personal information. So much as I would have liked to, I didn’t initialize the fingerprint reader or its security application. Likewise, I didn’t link to my wireless home network (I used hard wire Ethernet, instead) and I didn’t pair with any BlueTooth devices. Call me paranoid. I also didn’t load Office, because I didn’t feel like I needed to; mostly, I would have wanted to run comparisons with my TC1100, but as I said, that had already been ruled out.
So finally, I got to the fun part: using the i440D! I surfed, I experimented with the applications, and I carried it around to various locations to check the screen visibility.
I’d guess that the thing that most people want to know about is the screen; after all, the screen is the very heart of a slate. The news is good. First, in a side-by-side comparison with my TC1100 (the only comparison that I could do!), the i440D’s screen was both perceptively brighter, even with the touch overlay, and the colors were purer. Whites were whiter and pale blues were cleaner. I tried to take a picture to illustrate what I was seeing, but the camera couldn’t capture it; you’re just going to have to trust me on this one. To the best of my knowledge, TK is using a Boe Hydis screen (the later TC1100s did, too) with a Wacom active digitizer and a Fujitsu touchscreen overlay. The Fujitsu overlay is another apparent change from the prototype that I saw in February.
Screen viewing angles were almost what I expected to see. In primary landscape mode, looking directly perpendicular to the screen, tilting the slate screen up exhibited a wide viewing angle range. Tilting the slate screen down looked good up to about 600, then there was a slight, but noticeable color shift (that wasn’t apparent in the opposite direction). The color shift wasn’t severe, but I’ve not seen that effect before if this was, in fact, a Boe Hydis screen. In primary portrait mode, the angles were good in both directions. If you think about how you use a slate, the color shift should be of no practical consequence but it’s interesting that I did not see the effect in portrait mode?!??
During this period, we were “blessed” with very sunny, very hot weather, so there was plenty of ambient light both inside and outside the house. Inside, the i440D screen was outstanding; bright, clear and colorful. Easily as good as any comparable screen that I’ve ever seen (and again, that’s with the touch overlay). On our screened-in porch, open on 3 sides to the outdoors, the screen was a little washed out, but quite usable. Outside in the direct sunlight, the screen was completely washed out and not useable (but no one should expect anything different considering the day). Finally, in a mildly shaded area, but still outside, the screen was barely visible and probably marginally usable (but you wouldn’t want to do it for long). Based on my experience, this is typical and expected performance for a display of this type. TK has said in the past that a screen protector can be applied over the touch overlay, but I did not attempt to do this. I do not know, but suspect that a Vikuiti SP might have slightly improved some of the shaded performance.
As you may know, TK elected to use a hardware button to toggle between the Wacom active digitizer and the Fujitsu touch (passive) digitizer. Each time the button is pressed, the screen toggles and either one or two ‘beeps’ are heard. For some reason, TK set the volume of these beeps unusually high! You can reduce the volume in the control panel, but then you also reduce the volume in general; that’s something that needs some work!
In the active mode, the pen and screen work exactly, and as precisely, as you would expect, and in this mode the i440D is no different than any other tablet. The ‘slick-on-slick’ feeling of the plastic nib on the screen was also typical. I much prefer the writing feel of a felt nib and so I ended up using one of my spare pens more than the TK pen; again, this was a personal choice, not a judgment of the i440’s design. Early on, I noticed a non-uniformity of response to the pen along the far right edge of the screen (slate in primary landscape orientation); it caused scroll bars (for example) to jump erratically up and down. The effect appeared to be confined to a very narrow strip along the one edge.
A couple of telephone calls produced the conclusion that my demo unit might have a defect; TK was unable to reproduce the same problem on any of their other units. So although I experienced some problems, hopefully no one else will. Since the problem was confined to only one very narrow area, I decided to carry on and let John at Allegiance decide what he wanted to do about it!
Which brings us to the passive digitizing touch screen. Because the screen incorporates two digitizing functions, TK had to take a definite stand about when active and passive digitizing should (or would) be used. In short, they feel that passive is mostly for non-precision tasks such as activating button-like controls, activating a window or possibly ‘cartooning’ a sketch. Active digitizing is for precision tasks, especially writing and precision drawing. In their concept, you would not attempt to write using the passive digitizer and consistent with their approach, the i440D does not include passive features like palm rejection.
But I think that they are wrong in that once users are presented with this capability, they will want to use it for as much as they can, including simple writing and sketching! In fact, that’s exactly what I proceeded to do! In my opinion, TK is going to have to re-examine their usage assumptions and, to the degree that they can, broaden the capabilities of touch by incorporating palm rejection and any other software applications that make sense.
Before we talk more about usage, let’s take a minute to discuss TK’s touch implementation. As mentioned earlier, TK is reportedly using a Fujitsu touch overlay on their indoor screens. The surface of the touch screen feels very firm, but not quite rigid. Relative to my impressions in February, the overlay feels firmer now, but I could be mistaken about that because memories can be unreliable! As in February, I had absolutely no impression that the overlay was in any way fragile, and active inking on it with the pen was completely routine. The required touch pressure appeared to be light and very harmonious with the feel of the active pen; TK has achieved a very nice blend between the active feel and the passive feel. Interestingly, however, you cannot use the active pen when you are in touch mode! You can use your finger or a passive stylus, of course, but the touch screen will ignore the Wacom pen.
The touch utility is Panjit’s TouchSet. The screen can be calibrated with your finger or a passive stylus at 4, 9 or 25 points across the screen. Apparently, you only calibrate the screen in one orientation, in my case landscape. Like the active calibration, the utility displays a series of crosses and you touch each one in turn. At first, I had difficulty getting the calibration to take at one point or another, but after a while, I realized that it was because I was accidentally touching the screen in more than one place simultaneously. Once I took care not to do that, the calibration cycle ran quickly and smoothly. I used the 9 point calibration, and passive inking looked to be dead accurate!
In use, the dual screen worked smoothly, once I paid more careful attention to what I was doing with my hands in touch. I exercised both MathJournal and Grafigo in both screen modes. MathJournal, as expected, worked very consistently in both modes. I actually think it’s a small miracle that math can be recognized, much less on a touch screen, but there it was! Grafigo’s graphic features worked consistently, too, with one small exception. Grafigo’s writing / text features, however, wouldn’t work in touch (nor were they designed to). Vectoring was periodically a problem; no surprise there. The powerful Duo Core processor showed its muscle time and again; with 9.6 GB on the HD, a OneCare virus check took much less than an hour (~30-40 minutes). IE7 would start in 3 to 5 seconds! And I also opened and closed windows, started applications, did some surfing functions and generally used (and abused) the touch functionality! All of these things worked as one would expect.
The more revealing trials involved the two virtual keyboards. The TK-supplied keyboard was a straight-forward, fixed size keyboard that was partially transparent and sat at the bottom of the screen. It may have had adjustable features, but if it did, I never figured out where they were. As an exercise, and contrary to TK’s usage assumptions, I tried to touch-type on this keyboard. It really didnt work! The keys were slightly too small for my fingers, and I frequently hit the wrong keys. But worse than that was that I frequently nudged the screen with other parts of my hand, causing unpredictable effects! Several times, I would get a couple of paragraphs done only to lose everything when a spurious touch caused an application to abruptly close (for example).
The In-Scribe keyboard, suggested by our own WNewquay, was much better. It featured variable size, variable transparency, a handy up-sizing and down-sizing function (think window maximize and minimize) and rearrange-able key locations, among other things. The baseline key arrangement was a little odd, but since Time wasn’t waiting for me, I didn’t bother to make it more conventional.
With the proper size, I was able to type much better, but I continued to be plagued by inadvertent touches. Again, much text was lost. But as I continued to use the keyboard, things got better, and I think that with practice it might be made to work passably well and provide significant value. I don’t see it as a bullet-proof replacement for a real keyboard yet, however. Interestingly, I couldn’t get a Snip image of either keyboard to show here!
I do see real potential with this and perhaps some other, similar Human Interface functionalities. That’s why I think TK needs to revisit this aspect of the i440Ds design and continue to refine it; a genuine slate competitor to the convertible paradigm might be a real possibility!
Turning to a couple of other items of interest, I ran two informal tests of battery life. I managed to complete one and not quite complete the other. Conditions were: Windows XP (of course), Screen at max brightness, WiFi and BlueTooth off and a mix of Internet surfing and virus-checking, sometimes concurrently. I ran the battery from full charge to 5%. The first test resulted in 3 hours and 22 minutes of run time. The second test had to be aborted just past the 3 hour mark, but curiously the time remaining, if correct, would have given just about 3 hours and 20 minutes! Based on my experiences, this seems quite consistent with a ~35 W/Hr battery’s capability. Note, however, that the battery was essentially brand new and might not be working quite at its optimum, yet.
For those worried about heat and fans, there is good news and average news. The good news is that the fan is almost inaudible. In fact, I had to put my ear right up to the vent to be sure that it was running! The fan appears to have a single speed as I never noticed anything but a single pitch to what little fan noise that there was. The average news is that the back of the slate gets about as hot as many slates do when they’re pushed hard. The prototype’s stubby feet may have been an attempt to better mitigate this. However, with a OneCare virus check and an application running simultaneously, and flat on a table top, the back got to about 1100 F (estimated). That was about the only time that things got that hot. Angled up from the table or running more moderately, I would characterize the back of the table as “warm.” I consider this pretty good thermal performance overall.
One more observation. The i440D carries and handles well. The slightly boxy shape actually helps with this. However, I kept picking the slate up and accidentally pressing one or another of the buttons! Presumably, a bit of experience would fix that!
In summary, the i440D is an excellent example of current slate design with power and features that definitely raise the bar. The prototype, seen in February, has matured into an attractive and capable product that cries out for Vista so that these attributes can be properly showcased. Even if TK elects to stand pat on this design, Fujitsu and Motion had better start watching their backs more carefully!
The i440D exhibits many strong points in its design:
o A clean and trim form factor, easy to carry and cradle for use;
o A bright, easy-to-use dual-mode screen;
o A fast and powerful CPU and system architecture;
o A “bloat-less” software load (so refreshing!);
o Easy accessibility for wireless, RAM and HD upgrades;
o At a very decent price, and…
o The stand!
There are also a few things that I would recommend to TK as future refinements or improvements:
o Touch characteristics of the screen should be further refined. TK should find a suitable virtual keyboard to pair with the i440D and should provide other software that will improve the touch functionality (e.g., palm rejection).
o Because the passive digitizer ignores the active pen, TK should provide a simple passive stylus with the i440D. (In fact, TK has a passive stylus available at their website ( http://tinyurl.com/36vbgn ), but it really should be included in the box!)
o In future versions of their slates, TK should consider a beefier stylus, a la Motion or HP, in lieu of the i440D “stick” pen.
Last, but hardly least, do you remember the thin ledge around the screen perimeter that I complained so much about in February? In actual practice, it didn’t bother me at all! I guess that shows what I know!!