SAN MATEO (05/23/2000) - There is a big difference between being able to bring your computer with you and being able to actually use it when on the move.
Laptops, of course, represent the former because they're easy to transport, but they can't be used too far from a flat surface. Personal computing tablets, on the other hand, attempt to bring familiar functions to the mobile hordes, with their cell phones and handheld devices, making powerful mobile computing a reality.
If you have a group of workers that could benefit from the ability to use computers in nonconventional spaces, a tablet could be just the thing to help them fill orders faster and close deals more quickly.
You can find a couple of products geared toward these mobile users. The most recent comes from Aqcess Technology Inc., which recently announced its new mobile computer, the Qbe (pronounced "cube") Personal Computing Tablet. The unit comes in three flavors: Genus, Cirrus, and Altus. Each is based on a solid laptop platform but attempts to transcend the laptop's shortcomings by adding a touchscreen, speech and handwriting recognition, a built-in video camera, and a magnetic card reader, all of which facilitate business regardless of the user's proximity to a cubicle. To complete the package, each Qbe comes with a docking station, called a porticle, as well as a keyboard and mouse, which can make long stints at the desk more comfortable.
The Qbe's closest competitor is the Fujitsu Ltd.'s Stylistic 2300. Both units provide you with the look and feel of an electronic paper tablet, but the main difference between the two is that the Fujitsu is smaller and nearly three pounds lighter.
Overall, I found the Qbe to be an impressive package, but it was not without a few faults. I found the unit heavy, and viewing the screen in sunlight was almost impossible. In addition, I would have liked the option of adjusting my docking station height, and I didn't particularly care for all the cables that hung off my device when I was hooked up to my porticle. For these reasons I gave the Qbe a score of Good.
I reviewed a Qbe Cirrus unit that was configured with Windows 98 Second Edition, a built-in digital camera, touchscreen technology, handwriting and speech recognition, a 13.3-inch color display, videoconferencing capabilities, an Intel Pentium II 400MHz processor, 128MB of RAM, and a 12GB hard drive. The Cirrus fits in the middle of the line, with the processor being the main differentiator among the models. All three Qbes have the same exterior design.
The Altus, based on the Pentium III, should be available sometime this summer, and the Cirrus and Celeron-based Genus should be widely available by the time this review is published.
Getting the system hooked up to the docking station was fairly easy but not very quick, requiring me to screw the porticle in to the back of the unit and then plug in the cords for power, pen, mouse, and keyboard. Frankly, I would have liked the design better if the mouse plugged in to the keyboard and the pen had no cable; that would have eliminated much of the mess. In addition, I would have liked the option of adjusting the height and angle of the docking station, allowing me to work with the screen more upright.
The Qbe comes with two PC Card slots and dedicated network and modem jacks.
Other connections include a USB connector, security cable slot, IEEE-1394 (Firewire) connector, PS/2 jack (for keyboard or mouse), and microphone and speaker jacks. The docking station supported USB, S-Video, PS/2, parallel, SVGA (Super VGA), game, and serial connectors.
A hefty system
As I began my evaluation, roaming indoors and outdoors with tablet in hand, I could not help but notice that the 6.5-pound system was giving my arm a workout. I simply found this unit too heavy to be labeled a mobile device.
I was pleased with the touchscreen, which will accept input from the pen, your finger, or both at the same time. And whereas most monitors usually are locked into the landscape mode to display information, the QBE's screen can be oriented into portrait mode.
Although the handwriting and voice-recognition technology undoubtedly add great value to the mobility of this computer, I found myself using the electronic keyboard pen and my finger both to enter data or view documents when on the go and the tradi tional keyboard while at the desk. As with all recognition software, the handwriting and voice software requires a fair amount of training time and patience -- more than I was able to offer for my relatively short evaluation period. Those with imperfect handwriting or speech may wish to forgo the effort and use the conventional input methods.
In most cases, I liked the large color screen, but when outside on a sunny day I found viewing the screen was almost impossible. Even when I tried to position the device at different angles, the amount of reflection on the screen and the lack of emitted light were insurmountable obstacles. It was disappointing, and I found it to be a big design flaw, considering it's marketed as a mobile device.
Overall, I liked the Qbe and its abundance of integrated features make it compelling for any mobile worker. Although it certainly will help those on the go work smarter by expanding their computing work area, the Qbe's weight and the difficulty of reading the screen outside will provide challenges that need to be addressed. I recommend you try one in the actual environment in which it will be used; within a few hours, you'll know whether the Qbe is ready to help your company do business faster and more conveniently.
Ana Orubeondo is a senior analyst at the InfoWorld Test Center. She specializes in telecommunications and networking technologies as well as handheld computers. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.
THE BOTTOM LINE: GOOD
Qbe Cirrus Personal Computing Tablet
Business Case: Offering multiple input options and a host of features, this personal computing tablet can help any field worker get business done where it happens. With a little imagination, this will help you fill orders quicker and seal the deal faster.
Technology Case: The myriad features, including a digital video camera, magnetic card reader, handwriting and speech recognition, and large touchscreen give most, if not all, of the tools your mobile users will need in the field.
+ Intuitive interface
+ Powerful configuration
+ Built-in digital camera
- Viewing screen in sunlight difficult
- Relatively heavy
- Non-adjustable docking station
- Too many cables
Cost: Starts at $4,795
Platform(s): Windows 98 Second Edition
Aqcess Technology Inc., Irvine, California; (888) 818-0055 www.qbenet.com