Tablets of silicon

Consolidating my life with the Toshiba M200

I should have figured that Moses was onto something when I read he returned from the top of Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone-after all, he was a revolutionary. Until October I was either chained to my desktop or buried under the weight of my 10lb. desktop replacement. In my new, “Tablet of Silicon”, I’ve found my centre-in terms of measured productivity, and not mere philosophical speculation.

Consulting as a web developer to supplement my full-time job required that I work off-hours using my desktop computer at home. I figured that with a laptop I could take advantage of the hour-long commute to and from work and expand this sideline work into a full-time, freelance career.

My first laptop, a Toshiba 17″ wide-screen P4 desktop replacement (appropriately referred to as “Lapzilla”), became my web development project centre, as well as the heart of my new songwriting and recording studio. Over the past year, I found that with its base weight of 10lb., (not including the power adaptor and other accessories such a beast requires), I did not have as portable a solution as I had hoped for.

First, Lapzilla just about covered my desk. Second, its battery lasted just over two-hours on a full charge. Finally, the intermittent cooling fan sounded like a jet engine on take-off.

The problems became even more evident when I started taking Technical Writing classes at BCIT; the sound of the fuel-injected cooling fan drowned out the instructor. At the same time, I had a personal awakening: I had too much information stored between my various computers, as well as in several paper notebooks and journals. I felt the need to “defrag” myself, and that a smaller notebook computer was the answer. At the time I wasn’t even looking for a tablet, but was fascinated by the imagined potential of the technology.

Within a month, I found a recertified Toshiba M200 tablet PC convertible listed for less than half the retail price on the website of Consumer Computer Services, a Toronto company that handles all of Toshiba’s recertified and refurbished products. My first impression was that the M200 looked like a PDA-a REALLY BIG PDA, with more than enough power to synchronize my schedule-this machine would eventually consolidate my life.

I decided to call it “The Consolidator”.

The screen is bright and clear for such a tiny thing: best viewed while lounging in one of those comfy chairs at a coffee shop. The Consolidator is meant for use in tablet mode, so its screen resolution is meant to be easy on the eyes when used at close range.

It’s based on the energy-saving Intel Centrino platform, so its battery lasts about 4 hours even when WiFi and Bluetooth are activated. It’s of the same rock-solid Toshiba quality as Lapzilla, though that still doesn’t give me the license to drop it. The recertified price was incredible, and it weighs less than 5lb.

Where in the past I used to write notes and drawings in any available notebook, now I can organize my thoughts directly into assigned folders on my hard drive at the moment of inspiration. Applications like Microsoft OneNote assist me with this. So far, The Consolidator is living up to its name.

I can also create stationery, or customized page backgrounds to use for my notebook pages. For instance, I drew nine rectangles into an Excel worksheet and printed through a special driver that sent the output into OneNote. This page became the stationery used for storyboarding a Flash movie. I can already see how this stationery would be effective in brainstorming website layouts as well.

When I need more artistic flexibility, Ambient Designs’ Ink Art is a fantastic sketching program that responds to pen pressure. The Microsoft Tablet PC Experience Pack provided it for free. It provides a limited set of tools, but I did manage to create some simple sketches just for fun. For professional illustrations I could upgrade to Alias Sketchbook Pro, used by professionals in the animation industry.

To back up my data, I found a great file synchronizing utility, Allwaysync, which is free for personal use. This program uses complex algorithms to synchronize files between several locations over a network.

Win XP SP2 for Tablet PC comes with an Input Panel utility, which wasn’t available in previous versions of the operating system. I edited most of this article in tablet mode, writing corrections into the input panel. The program must learn interactively from every stroke I correct, because it’s been producing very accurate results lately. It’s actually quite creepy, as it correctly interpreted “algorithms” when my scribble looked nothing like it.

The Input Panel also takes dictation. Everyone gasps whenever I demonstrate this feature of my new toy. The Consolidator comes with three microphones placed in a triangular pattern on the screen. The recording quality is great for dictation, great for capturing audio notes, and I also found it sufficient for use in the voice-over narration for a Flash presentation.

However, not everything about my Toshiba M200 is perfect. As accurate as the Input Panel is, I sometimes spend as much time correcting handwriting and voice recognition errors as I did entering them. Also, this model does not come with an optical drive, so used a networked DVD drive to load my software. Still, at its size and with its features, it lives up to its name and role as The Consolidator of all my information, and my life-or at least the work part of it.

I knew after the first month that I made the right choice in purchasing this machine. As time goes on I will continue to share how The Consolidator is helping me be more organized, more focused, and more on track than ever before.

Originally published on the now defunct Tablet PC Blogs site.

An excerpt from this article appears in the January/February 2006 issue of Coastlines, the newsletter of the STC Canada West Coast Chapter.


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