First a quick update on what we are using at Vermont Academy. (We are just now beginning to look at options for next year, though we won't be making a final decision until March or April.)
Our standard model Tablet PC this year was the HP TC4400. We opted for the high-end model with all the bells and whistles, most importantly an indoor/outdoor screen. It is a pretty sweet computer and I am pleased to be using one as a secondary Tablet PC and development computer. It is running Vista Ultimate (from MSDN) quite happily and I am VERY pleased with Vista. Now if I could just get the HP drivers to enable the buttons and a few other odds and ends like the microphone… Maybe after the consumer release of Vista…
But my primary Tablet is still my trusty and aging TC1100. Much as I like the horsepower, bigger screen, outdoor viewable screen, etc., of the TC4400, the form factor of the TC1100 is still closer to "right" in my opinion.
So, without further ado, my specs for the perfect Tablet PC. HP (or anyone else), feel free to claim these for your own. Just let me be a tester for you.
Size and weight: The external dimensions should be barely larger than the screen. The weight of the keyboard-less Tablet should be under 3 pounds, preferably around 2 pounds. NEC had a 2.2 pound Tablet years ago. One half, perhaps three quarters of an inch thick, but no thicker. The keyboard weight is discussed below.
Screen: 12.1" is the sweet spot here. Large enough to be useful, small enough to carry around conveniently. Indoor/outdoor viewable. Wide, wide viewing angle. No extra bezel around the keyboard beyond what is necessary. TabletKiosk seems to have this down well.
Memory: 2 Gig standard, max of at least 4 Gig. USER ACCESSIBLE! All the Tablets I've seen hide one of the chips, so an upgrade that requires the replacement of the internal chip is not possible by the end user.
Keyboard (and ports): It must be both detachable and secure when connected. The Tablet should be able to fold over the keyboard face up or face down. The small clips on the TC1100 are a weak point and we have seen many a keyboard bite the dust when the hinge broke when dropped. Why do we have to have inserts into the Tablet from the keyboard? How about a connection that actually grasps the outside of the Tablet itself enough to hold it securely? If the electrical connector is designed right, the Tablet could go in either way and there wouldn't even need to be a pivoting hinge. (I'm not 100% sure of this, so make sure I get to see those early prototypes, OK?) Weight of the keyboard is not a key factor! In fact, I would prefer a keyboard that actually weighs as much or more than the Tablet itself. Put a second battery in the keyboard. Heck, put a huge battery in it. My TC4400 has a couple pound battery attached that gives me many hours of usable time. Stick that inside the keyboard. Put an (optional) optical drive in the keyboard itself. Put most of the connectors (several USB, modem, etc., maybe even the Ethernet connector) into the keyboard. The only regular ports I really need on the Tablet itself are a couple of USB ports, audio and microphone, SD card slot and (probably) a PC-Card slot. Maybe the Ethernet, though I find that when I use that I am generally on the keyboard anyway. The advantage of a heavy keyboard is that you won't carry it when you don't need it (and generally this is also when I don't need most of the connectors). You can offload some weight from the Tablet itself this way. When you do need the keyboard, it is heavy enough to make the system stable, not top-heavy like the TC1100. Oh, and make it a decent keyboard to use. While I love using a Tablet in slate mode, I am a touch typist and I want a real keyboard… Last thing on this point: make sure that the keyboard latches securely when closed. I find it very unpleasant to hold a tablet with the keyboard attached (convertible or hybrid) and feel that movement between the two pieces. It's a common complaint.
Battery: Until I had the external on the TC4400, I thought carrying a second battery and hot-swapping was just fine. I was wrong. It is good, and definitely the internal battery should be hot-swappable, but having that external battery is great! It needs to go on the back of the system and attach in such a way that the unit doesn't sit at a funny angle when on the desk. It should also not negatively affect the carrying of the unit like some do. They change the balance point or extend to one side or another and, for many users at least, make carrying the system more awkward. (To be fair, with both the TC4400 and the Lenovo systems, some users actually like the extra ledge the battery creates and find it an aid to comfortable carrying.) Eight cells is good, twelve cells is marvelous! A really nice feature of the HP 12 cell is that it can be independently charged and comes with its own power block.
External buttons and indicator lights: Besides the standards in the Tablet PC spec, several programmable buttons should be on the system (and make sure you include something akin to HP's excellent Q menu). These should all be located on the side (when held in portrait mode) and positioned centrally on the side. In this way, both left- and right-handed users will find them convenient. I'm right-handed, so I am just speculating here (left handed users should chime in on this), but I imagine that a left-handed user would want to set the standard portrait mode into the secondary portrait position so that the buttons are accessibly more easily with either the hand holding the Tablet or the writing hand. Rotating my TC1100 this way puts those buttons down in the lower part of the screen where they are awkward to reach. Additionally, wireless on/off, mute, and maybe volume (perhaps by using the jog dial cleverly). Power, wireless, charging, hard disk activity lights at a minimum. Small and discreet, please, but easily visible.
Docking station: There is plenty of room for improvement in almost all docking stations I've seen. The TC1100 dock is good. It allows the tablet to rotate and to be positioned at angles between nearly vertical and nearly flat on the desk in either orientation. This is critical. The TC4400 "dock" is really little more than a port replicator. Useful as such, but I do most of my work in portrait which means I only get to see part of anything I've worked on when docked. I've thought for a long while that a wireless dock would be a great option and it looks like that is becoming a reality now with Toshiba's new R400. (More on this unit in a bit.) That is brilliant! I have so often wanted to hold my Tablet and write on it while looking at something on the external monitor. The TC1100 dock sort of allows this since I can lay the Tablet down, but wireless would be the perfect solution.
I could go on and on (in case you couldn't tell…), but these are some of the key features I would look for.
All that said, the new Toshiba R400 could up the ante for convertible Tablets. It is a svelte, attractive unit. It has the wireless docking station. It has a great looking display and seems to have a reasonably well attached screen. Still about 4 pounds, though. I hope to see one when we evaluate computers for next year. For now, it's worth looking at the video of it from CES that the GottaBeMobile guys have posted on their web site. It doesn't answer every concern but it looks to be a definite step in the right direction in a convertible world.