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First Impressions of the ACER C102i

 

Morgan Price

Oct 13, 2002

 

The Experience

 

The experience probably has to begin when I first saw pictures of Microsoft’s prototype.  It sparked a curiosity.  It sparked a longing to use a pen with my computer – properly this time.  Since then, I have been following closely; looking for news, etc and I came across tabletpctalk.com which has been a great repository for information. When I heard that Acer had quietly released these product a month early… I had to beg and plead to get a machine sent to me. 

 

It arrived at the end of last week at my local Compusmart in Victoria.  When I arrived, there was a buzz in the air as everyone had heard that there was a Tablet PC in the store.  Several floor staff wanted to play with the machine before I bought it¸ but somehow the seals were all intact when I got my hands on the box.  After getting home I cracked open the box and got to playing.  Here are some impressions...

 

The Machine

 

This machine is actually about the same size than a Clio Handheld PC and I find I cannot help but compare it to that machine.  It feels a little less sturdy (the huge side arms on the Clio really made it feel more solid than any other laptop / handheld of this size) but is well put together and I cannot believe how much they have packed into this machine.  Granted I’m comparing new apples (Tablet PC) to old oranges (Clio Handheld PC from 1999), but they have crammed a whole lot of gadgetry into 3.1 lbs.  There is modem, Ethernet, wireless, smartcard, PC Card, fire wire, USB…. Well you can read the specs sheet, I’m sure. 

 

The keyboard is slightly curved (again like the Clio) which makes typing with my size 7 ½ hands easy.  I’m still getting used to the crammed together arrow keys and the fact that “End” key is a combination key, but other than that typing is just fine.  The touch pad is small but sensitive.  There is a little 4 direction joy pad between the L and R mouse buttons which allows convenient scrolling of screens.  The hardwired on/off for the wireless network is a nice bonus coming from my older Vaio with a Linksys card.

 

The flip screen is a marvel of design and quite easy to do (unless you are a Microsoft employee doing a demo apparently). The process is: pop the two side locks, rotate the screen 180 degrees (it ONLY spins one direction), lock back the side pins and close the lid.  The final step (which is a beautiful touch – hats off to the engineer that dreamed this up) is you push and slide the lid clasp to your right and it pulls in the hook from one side and pops out a hook from the other and you can lock the machine in tablet mode.  Simple, but slick.  I have to compare this to the Clio’s swing arm design.  I think I prefer the arm design of the old Clio for two reasons: first, it feels more secure. Second, using the Clio on an airplane is a joy by comparison to any other laptop – you can adjust the screen so it practically sits over the keyboard but you could still type.  Nothing I’ve played with since has that flexibility.  Of course they hare some patents but it would be great to see a similar form factor in the Tablet.

 

There are no built in drives other than the 30 GB HD.  There is an external USB CD ROM with its own power supply.  I was surprised by the choice of the simple CD instead of a CDR or DVD, but they have to keep the costs down some how. This is the only part of the ACER that feels like they cut corners.

 

My wireless model also comes with 2 batteries standard which is a fantastic feature.  For some reason I did not mind spending extra money on the whole package and the battery was a welcome bonus.  I probably would not have spent an extra hundred to buy another battery on its own however. I applaud Acer for including this (NOTE: the non wireless version only comes with one battery).

 

The screen has the EMR digitizer that only responds to the special stylus.  This is different to PDAs, some older laptops with a touch screen, and the up and coming Mira device which will respond to a simple finger tap.  I've found that the digitizer is a bit “off”, even after recalibration.  Part of this is, I think, the nature of having the digitizing layer behind the screen, and part of it the changing direction of the EMR digitizer.  After a few recalibrations, it has seemed to improve for me, but the pointer still drifts off at the edges.  One other good feature: the digitizer is pressure sensitive.  The screen is very nice.  Text looks amazingly crisp as it is quite small and it is bright enough indoors even with the brightness set on its lowest setting.  I’ve noticed it gets quite washed out in daylight, however.

 

Rotating the screen is quick and can be done with a combo key press in either tablet or laptop mode.  It takes about 4-5 seconds for everything to refresh.  NOTE: you can set the rotation order and I recommend that you do.  The default order is to rotate around 90 degrees at a time.  If you rarely need the other two rotations, turn them off.  If you do not, you will be rotating through two upside down screens all the time and this gets boring quickly – especially when you are trying to show off to friends and family.

 

I was surprised that the touchpad did not rotate with the screen.  There must be a way to have the touchpad adjust itself so that up / down does not become left/right when you rotate the screen. If anyone at ACER is reading this – please add this feature as I have found myself trying to use the tablet in “open book mode” several times.

 

TABLET PC SOFTWARE

 

This is really what people want to know about, I am sure – and there is only one place to start an impressions review:

 

The Handwriting – it is not bad. I do not have the neatest or most consistent handwriting (it is mixed cursive, but it is legible) and it does a pretty decent job of converting my scribble to text.  My biggest problem is my capital “I”.  I still have to find a trainer (for myself) to show me the best way to write an “I”.  I should also comment on the first “law” of handwriting recognition, which has been present since the first Newton: handwriting recognition is worst when demoing to other people.  Do not be surprised if “I love you” (which you practiced 20 times before your spouse comes home) does not work that one time when you show her / him exactly why you had to get the second mortgage on the house.

 

A word to the PDA users getting a Tablet – size makes a difference and do NOT be afraid to rest your hand on the screen (but also do not wear jewelry!).  I was hovering my hand over the screen unconsciously at first and once a set my hand down… my recognition improved. Dramatically.

 

But Microsoft has said something and, well, I’m finding I’m agreeing with them this weekend – Ink is Ink and shouldn’t always be text. Being able to convert your notes to text is handy when you are writing something like this review. But, being able to keep Ink notes is great too. Especially when you can search them like you can a text file… that is the key here. It is not a graphic file that has pixels arranged into words, as you’d get from Photoshop or Palm’s Note Pad.  These are not like a web Gif or JPG. These file are like RTF was to plain text.  You can search your ink.  You can bold, italicize, and move your ink. Each line is saved as a discrete element and is pressure sensitive.  You can erase letters, stroke my stroke and the end of the stylus is a functional eraser.  You can also scratch out ink using the pen like you would on paper, only the words disappear.  A similar feature was on the Newton years ago and this was my most missed feature from that machine.  Overall, I am impressed and I did mention that the Ink is searchable, didn’t I?

 

The input panel is fairly well thought out – it has 1-2 lines for handwriting recognition, plus you can use any of the character recognizers from the Pocket PC.  You can access Microsoft’s speech engines which were part of office and come as part of this machine.

 

The only complaint would be the keyboard – there is too much dead space between the keys – it would be improved if it was smaller and there was less space.  I am sure, though, that there will be some third party keyboards much like for PDAs coming out shortly.  I would be surprised if FITALY keyboards were not available on some of the slate machines in the near future.

 

One of the things I didn’t know about was the on screen writing. From the demos, I assumed if you wanted text input via the pen you either use the Journal application and exported it, or were stuck wasting screen space and using the input panel. Not so! There is a very functional overlay mode that allows you to write many lines of text and have it all he read at once.  It seems well designed and I find it quite useful (I’m sitting on a couch writing this right now). You only have the center of the screen to write on, but this is a lot of space and it also makes sure that all the menus, scroll bars, and buttons are protected from accidental activation / allow for easy access.

 

Journal:

 

Journal is Microsoft’s answer to paper.  It defaults to a simple lined page background where you can write ink notes.  There are several templates that include different pages from graph paper, to calendars to musical scores.  Handy for making different types of notes (pun not intended).

 

After using Journal for a few hours, I decided to officially retire my “Ideas Book”.  I’ve kept a variety of notebooks over the years for various projects. My Ideas Book contains meeting notes, plans, sketches, and middle of the night ideas for whatever project I might be working on or thinking about at the time. As of today, I’ve put the book aside and will try and use the searchable journal for this functionality.  I am a little hesitant to try this as these books have been with me for 11 years now, but I think the search feature in Journal is worth trying to change.  My biggest fear will be loss of productivity not through the handwriting features, but rather through having to demo the product every time it comes out of my briefcase.

 

 

Sticky Notes:

 

This little piece of software lets you write ink notes on little yellow e-sticky notes.  They take the notes feature a little further, however, as these are resizable, editable, etc.  Plus, you can add a voice tag to them.  30 seconds is all you are allowed, but that should be enough for a quick reminder.  Admittedly, I have not played with this feature yet.  I’m not sure how much use it will be to me right now.  I have a PDA that I scratch down quick reminders and have it remind me to look at them…

 

E-Books:

 

Microsoft’s reader works very well with the Tablet PC.  It was very comfortable reading from the screen in tablet mode while in bed.  The hardware keys allow you to flip pages without reaching for a stylus and the Clear Type seems to make reading easier on the eyes.

 

I also downloaded Adobe’s acrobat e-book reader to see how that would work.  They too, enhance the text using Cool Type (similar to ClearType).  The text looks great, but sadly, the default key configurations don’t let the up/down keys of the Tablet PC to turn pages.  Adobe has chosen left / right keys to flip pages and the Tablet PC keys default to up/down.  I’m hesitant to change the default keys at the OS level as the UP/down is more functional for other programs like web browsing.  I can’t find any preferences to change the key config in Adobe’s e-book reader so I’m stumped…unless I’m missing something really simple.  Ironically, if you rotate the Adobe e-book screen to portrait (and leave the Tablet PC's screen in landscape) the buttons become active.

 

       

 

Office XP:

 

Microsoft has an Office – Tablet PC pack that will allow ink email in Outlook and allow you to add ink to the other programs.  I have not had a chance to review this at all at this time.

 

The Game:


As yes, the obligatory solitaire game… Spider solitaire was my new addiction after XP was installed on my desktop.  Claiming that the breaks “helped clear my head”, I have logged many many games of the various solitaires.  Now there is a new addiction: Ink Ball.  This tests you reflexes, your ability to think about vectors and your ability to juggle several balls as they bounce all over the game board and you have to sink them into the right coloured holes.  Good addition and a neat Tablet specific game.

 

Conclusion:

 

So after using this machine on and off for a couple of days over Canadian Thanksgiving, I must say that I like what I have seen.  Sure handwriting recognition would be better if it was thought recognition, but it works fairly well.  Ink is Ink and may become a useful data type if other companies begin to incorporate it into their feature sets. The machine feels well built and is certainly comfortable in speed, size and features.  Ultra portable power has come a long way from the days when I played with the Clio and other Handheld PCs.

 

Sure, there are a few things to get used to, but these are minor compared to the feature set.  Time will tell what are useful features and what is just coolness factor.  But, overall, this machine is a keeper and has been worth the wait.

 

 

My Background:

 

I am a GP in Vancouver, British Columbia.  I have recently finished my clinical training, only to go back to school to do a Masters in health information science at the University of Victoria.  Before medicine I was a 3D computer animator and pursued a degree in Biology.  I think I have always been interested in the pen interface to the computer – in the days of the commodore 64 I had a Koala pad touch tablet, and used Wacom tablets when I was animating.  Once in medicine, I started testing out the Newton to see how useful it could be to keep me organized on the wards.  Personally I was fascinated by the portability and the pen interface.  This was a great machine and there was some medical software for it that was very helpful on the wards.  I began to develop some software for myself while studying.  Sadly, the Newton died off and I was forced to change platforms.  Since then I’ve tested some homegrown software of my own and numerous commercial products on many platforms from the Handheld PC to the Palm to the Pocket PC. 

 

I am curious about how the Tablet PC could integrate into clinical medicine as I feel that this form factor has some obvious advantages to the typical desktop or laptop computer when you are sitting with a patient.

 

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