Old tablets and new tablets

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Lenovo X61T and purple horse

I’m typing on a buzzing, hot Lenovo X61T convertible tablet. It was aged when I bought it in 2010. The keyboard and battery were tired, and the screen is neither the high-res (1400×1050) nor the touchscreen version. Still, an actual ThinkPad tablet with a Wacom pen for pressure-sensitive, accurate drawing was a dream come true.

Now some time has passed, technology has moved on, and the remaining time to failure of the system fan can only be guessed at. Given that I am easily entranced by new gadgets, how is it that, so far, no device has managed to seem really sparkly and new next to my tired old 12-inch tablet?

Historically, there have been several reasons, and note that I have to use the word “I” a lot, because some of these are probably not compelling points for most people:

  • pressure-sensitive pen input: I really want it, I already have it, and it works great.
  •  screen resolution/aspect ratio: I’ve got 1024×768 pixels, a 4:3 aspect ratio. For a while there, it was hard to find more than 780 vertical pixels on a new laptop; not very exciting. I find the 16:9 ratio cramped on my work laptop, Android tablet (Asus Transformer TF101) and Android phone. The 4:3 of my parents’ iPads is much more comfortable.
  • screen technology: I really find the colours and viewing angles of TN panels problematic, and I prefer a matte screen over glossy.
  • touchpads: I do not like. I do like IBM/Lenovo’s trackpoint.
  • operating system: I’m looking for a computer, not a media-consumption machine. While Linux is my comfort zone, non-RT Windows would probably do. MacOS would require the most adaptation in terms of software applications.
  • price: when the computer I already have has most of the value for me that a new $2000 device offers, well, um, $2000 looks shinier than a new computer.

However, I would say that it’s conceivable that there will be a really shiny new tablet from one manufacturer or another before my system fan seizes up for good. Display resolution and quality have begun to progress again. While computer styluses have existed in the background for pretty much as long as computers have, mobile hardware has improved enough to make a stylus-enabled device really comfortable to hold and use. People are now used to interacting directly with their screens, and hardware and software development objectives for the mainstream largely coincide with those needed to improve the pen-input experience.

This wasn’t so much the case when the first Thinkpad tablet with a pen was released in 1992 (here’s a video of one in action), or in 2002, when Microsoft tried to popularize Tablet PCs with stylus input, and it didn’t catch on. These, and tablets and slates from Fujitsu, HP, Motion Computing, as well as, surely, others that I could check up on with a quick visit to the forums at tabletpcreview.com, have largely escaped the notice of mainstream consumers.

I should specify that when I say “stylus,” I’m not talking about a stick that acts as a proxy finger on a resistive or capacitive touchscreen; I mean a system with an active digitizer that allows the pen to hover and offers high precision and pressure sensitivity.

Asus, who have a long history of pushing the envelope with niche features on more-affordable devices — often with big trade-offs in other features and quality control — have been releasing stylus-equipped machines for years. Samsung (with their Android-based Galaxy Note range) and Microsoft (with the full-Windows Surface Pro series) have been trying to leverage the new hardware capabilities to popularize the stylus, and I think it’s working. Many people will never feel the need for a pen, but to benefit from one no longer costs so much, in money or in compromise. It’s going to be a fun time to watch developments and drool over new devices.

A side note: Despite Steve Jobs’ disparaging statement about styluses, I do wonder whether Apple will watch as others prime the consumer consciousness, and then swoop in with its cachet to scoop up the creative market with a Wacom-equipped iPad.

Another side note: Wacom has dominated the pen input scene for a long time, with peripheral non-screen artist tablets, Cintiq tablet-screen devices, and display-digitizer tech for slates and convertible laptops. There are other players, like N-Trig, which seems not to have matched Wacom for performance yet. It will be interesting to see whether this field becomes competitive.

Final note: Microsoft’s newly-announced Surface Pro 3 device at first seemed to tick an awful lot of boxes for me: Haswell CPU, 12-inch display, 3:2 aspect ratio, 2160×1440 resolution, type cover, adjustable kickstand — but ouch! an N-Trig pen! (And they seem to be talking up the “substantial” feel of the pen — yeah, no kidding, if it needs a battery!)  I’ll reserve judgement pending reviews. Maybe this is the moment N-Trig catches up with Wacom! But if Microsoft has forsaken digital artists for the sake of a price point and a pen that’s good enough for OneNote, it’ll be a shame, if not necessarily a bad business decision. The next one to watch may be Lenovo’s upcoming 10-inch, 16:10, Wacom-equipped ThinkPad 10 Tablet with its low-voltage CPU but full Windows. May be too small for me, though…