Chris Roberts

The Best Tablet PC

• Posted in Technology

As you're probably already aware, this week saw the launch of Apple's first stab at a tablet form-factor device with the iPad.

From what I can see (without ever actually having seen one), it looks like a pretty neat gadget. I'm not sure it could ever live up to the hype, and I'm not sure Steve Jobs' claims of having invented a whole new platform are entirely justified. But - I can imagine seeing one kicking around my living room as a handy way of browsing the web in front of the television.

What the iPad, and every Windows based Tablet to date, have so far failed to do is adequately capture the needs of the business user. I appreciate that Apple are clearly not targeting this market, but Microsoft have been since at least 2001.

Having used several Windows based devices over the last few years, I am convinced that a decent tablet would be a real asset to many business users. But, every device I have used has had severe shortcomings causing me to resort to pen and paper every time!

So, in case anyone from the likes of Microsoft, Apple or Google are listening (I really don't care who it is!), here's how to make the perfect Tablet for business users. If anyone fancies taking up the challenge, I'll be first in line when they go on sale!

(in no particular order...)

Instant On / Off

And I mean instant, not just 'fast'! If you can't turn the device on and navigate to your calendar in the time it takes someone to say, "Hi, about that meeting next Wednesday... Can we make it half an hour later?", it's just not fast enough.

Touch and Stylus, but NO Keyboard!

If you're going to make a tablet, make a tablet. Don't make a laptop which can convert into a tablet, and don't make a tablet which has a badly made keyboard which somehow clips onto the side. I have a desktop PC or a laptop which I can use when I need a keyboard. This device is going to be my companion as I bounce from meeting to meeting, not a tool on which I'm going to write an essay!

The main problem with the 'convertible' is the size. If you want to use your device like a tablet it's no good having something that's an inch thick and gives you a hernia if you try to carry it under your arm. These monsters also lose out significantly in the looks department with their crazy hinges and clunky clips. The iPad, it has to be said, is a thing of beauty by comparison!

So - the input method has to be touch, and it has to work with my fingers and with a stylus.

This requirement isn't without it's complications, though. Multi-touch would be nice, but this would need a capacitive touch screen which doesn't work with a stylus (although Apple may have a solution to that). The device would also need to know when I'm using the stylus and ignore any touches on the screen that I make with my hands when I'm writing.

Whilst we're on the subject, the stylus can't be a small, cheap piece of plastic. If I'm going to be in a full day of meetings writing a lot of notes, it needs to feel like a proper pen.

Small and Light (but not too small)

The tablet needs to be big enough to be useful, and small enough to be portable. That means no bigger than a standard pad of paper in any dimension. I want to be able to pick the tablet up and carry it from meeting to meeting without breaking my wrist.

Big Screen, No Buttons

The screen should occupy virtually the entire surface of the device. It should be crystal clear with a high resolution (1280 x 800 at a minimum).

One of the best things about the iPad (and the iPhone) is the lack of hardware buttons. Most tablets that are available at the moment have an array of buttons which, among other things, perform user defined tasks. As far as I'm concerned, these are a waste of space. If the user interface is good enough, I won't need 'quick launch' buttons.

An Operating System Designed and Built for the Purpose

This is the one thing that really sets Apple apart from Microsoft. The iPad works the way it works because the operating system was built for the job. Microsoft's offering is a version of Windows with a few extensions on top.

On the one hand this is great - you can run all of your software on your tablet! But then, who wants to run all of their software on a tablet?

By using a purpose built operating system Apple are able to use cheaper, lower power hardware. They can power-up immediately and they can deliver an entire user interface designed specifically for touch throughout the system.

The most important point is this. The device is intended to be used for a very specific purpose. The way to make a successful product is to engineer the software to perform that task, and to perform it well. Taking a general purpose operating system like Windows and adding more to it is simply the wrong approach.

More Power!

Battery life is important. Not being able to use your tablet half way through a meeting because the battery has gone flat simply can't happen.

Being able to turn the device on or off instantly should help reduce the total running time required, but overall it should be capable of working for as long in one day as a human can (about 12 hours seems reasonable).

On top of this, recharge times should be quick, and the charger should be small enough that when travelling you don't fill your entire case with accessories!

Connectivity

Nothing out of the ordinary is required here - just built-in 3G, WiFi and Bluetooth. A USB slot for memory sticks should be included for sharing files with other people.

A Mico-SD slot would be a bonus to add to the device's internal memory in a slightly more permanent way.

OneNote

OneNote is, without a doubt, the jewel in Microsoft's tablet crown.

It really is exactly what you'd want from a note taking application on a tablet. It lets you write notes in a free-form way just like you can on paper. You can organise your notes into folders, tabs and pages. You can insert screen clippings and annotate them. You can use various highlighters, draw pictures, link from one note to another and even link your notes to a particular meeting or e-mail in Outlook.

Once you've written your notes you can get OneNote to convert them to text, or to leave them as handwriting. Either way, it indexes the content in the background so that you can search through them at a later date.

The only thing that's stopped OneNote taking the business world by storm is the lack of a decent platform on which to run it!

Other Software

Apart from a new operating system and a copy of OneNote built-in, I'll be needing the following list of software...

  1. A full featured E-Mail, Calendar and Task Management tool. This will, of course, have to have full Exchange server and direct push support.
  2. A decent web browser. Sorry, Microsoft - Internet Explorer doesn't count I'm afraid. The browser is going to need to be lightweight, fast and responsive!
  3. A Word Processor, Spreadsheet and Presentation application, compatible with Microsoft Office.
  4. Viewers for all common types of file, especially PDFs, images and other common attachments.
  5. A file manager.

Yes - that's quite a lot of software. But, that's what it's going to take (nobody said this was going to be easy!)

What's more, each of these pieces of software will need to be designed from the ground-up to work well with a touch interface. Ideally, applications like the e-mail and calendar should have one version of the user interface for use with fingers, and a separate one for use with a stylus.

There will, of course, also need to be a full developer's kit for the operating system so that third parties can create their own applications.