The Clipboard Computer

FRAMINGHAM (07/24/2000) - I've seen pen-based tablet computers before, but the Qbe Cirrus from Irvine, Calif.-based Aqcess Technologies Inc. is the first one that really intrigued me as a computer. The Cirrus is the biggest tablet computer yet - as big and heavy as a laptop - but it's still designed to be carried in one arm and used with input from a cord-attached stylus, voice recognition technology and a built-in digital camera.

This is no limited-functionality personal digital assistant (PDA) like the Windows CE-based handheld computers typified by NEC Corp.'s MobilePro 800 and 780. No, the Cirrus is a full Windows 98 PC with a 400-MHz Pentium II processor, 128MB of RAM, a 12GB hard drive, a built-in CD-ROM drive and a 13.3-in. active-matrix touch screen. Thus it can do nearly everything your laptop can do and some things it can't do as easily.

Ideas vs. Implementation

To simplify using it on a desktop, the system comes with a small-footprint keyboard, a mouse and a kind of easel, called a porticle, that includes ports for all the usual serial, parallel, Universal Serial Bus, external monitor and other connections. There are also Ethernet, 56K bit/sec. modem, IEEE 1394 and S-video ports on both the Cirrus and the porticle. The suggested price is US$4,745.

Last fall, I gave the Cirrus an enthusiastic write-up based on seeing it at a trade show. I really like the idea behind this system, and it's been designed and implemented quite well - as far as it goes. But after actually working with it for a few days, my enthusiasm has tempered considerably. I'm having trouble deciding just what the machine is really suited for and who will want to buy it.

It has to overcome two basic problems: a $4,000-plus price tag in an era of pretty good $1,500 notebook PCs, and its 5.7-lb. weight. That's an OK weight for a laptop, but when you're carrying the unit in the crook of your elbow, it soon starts to feel as if it's gained several more pounds. The experience wears thin quickly. Aqcess claims that the Cirrus has a battery life of two and a half hours, but I sometimes got less than an hour.

In terms of ergonomics and usability, the Cirrus developers have taken on a difficult job, and while they've done fairly well, I don't think this unit is quite ready for most users.

Functionality Needs Work

First, ergonomics. The magnesium and ABS plastic case has nicely contoured edges that make it more comfortable to hold, and the bottom corners are covered in rubber, which helps keep the unit from sliding around when it's on a desk or its porticle stand. The weight, as I've mentioned, is its chief drawback. Your arm and elbow are going to get tired really quickly, although it's kind of nice when you hold it on your lap. The touch screen is very reflective, and in an office environment with overhead fluorescents, there was a tremendous amount of glare and reflections that cut badly into screen visibility.

Usability is another area where a lot of work has been done, but a good deal more is needed. Most Windows users have become accustomed to bringing up context menus with a right mouse click, but if you're using a stylus, rather than a mouse, what then? There's a big, round button at the top of the Cirrus that was designed to function as a right click. It wouldn't work for me. A mouse-button icon on the desktop was mysterious and didn't seem to do anything except highlight different buttons on its depicted mouse. In fact, after carefully reading the user's manual that comes with the device, I was dismayed to find statement after statement about some function or feature being a known problem and not yet working. For some, possible fixes were outlined but not guaranteed to work.

The Cirrus could certainly use better documentation of its stylus operation, which ought to be intuitive. But after calibrating the stylus and screen per instructions, I still often had trouble positioning the cursor, which would be offset from the stylus by an amount great enough to impede operations and give me a different selection than I was aiming at.

Hope Springs Eternal

All this adds up to a brave new product that I'm sure will be the answer to someone's prayers, especially where portability and alternative inputs are critical. For example, I can see it being very attractive to artists and designers or to people who use applications that involve surveys, forms or questionnaires.

For most users, though, the Cirrus needs a serious amount of further development and debugging, better instructions and a crash diet. It's got versatility that's unparalleled by any other computer, yet it sometimes seems to get in its own way.

Overall, I have to give Aqcess an A for effort but a D for implementation.

There are still too many loose ends, bugs and problems to recommend this system. If only the right-click function operated properly, that would go a long way toward making the machine more customizable and suited to an individual user's needs.

But hope springs eternal. A new model - the Stratus, which weighs less than 3 lb. and costs less than $1,500 - is due this fall. If Aqcess can solve a few of the interface issues, the Stratus is bound to be a much more important product.

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