Tablet T200 - Computer Buyer (Jun '04)

Tablet PC’s may look like overgrown Etch-a-sketches - But beneath their deceptively simple exteriors, they’re sophisticated beasts.

Tablet PCs have special, touch-sensitive screens that can be used to control everything the PC does - just like you would with a mouse. Instead of moving a mouse across a mouse pad, you move a stylus around on your PC’s screen. Sounds great, but there’s a catch: the average price of a Tablet PC is well over a grand. Which is why at £799 excluding VAT, Rock’s T200 seems such a steal.

For a system that doesn’t cost the earth, the T200 is respectably powerful. The combination of a 1.4GHz Pentium-M processor and Intel Extreme graphics yields a solid score of 892 in our 2D benchmarks, 40 percent faster than any other Tablet-style PC we’ve seen. Its 3D Mark 2001 score of 1868 was modest, enough to deal with things such as Web animations and educational software, but definitely not up to running games. Still, you wouldn’t buy a tablet PC to play games - it’s not what they’re designed for.

Surprisingly, although this is a tablet PC in every important respect, it doesn’t actually come installed with Microsoft’s Tablet PC Edition of Windows. Instead of Windows Tablet PC Edition you get Windows XP Home and a piece of software called RitePen from Parascript to deal with handwriting recognition. There is one major benefit to doing things this way: the Rock comes with a huge 14in panel. Screens that are compatible with Microsoft’s Tablet PC specifications aren’t available at this size.

Microsoft stipulates that Tablet PC’s should only respond to the stylus supplied - but you can move the T200’s cursor with your finger or any other pointing device. This is a double-edged sword - while moving the cursor around with your finger can be handy, it can also be a pain if you accidentally brush the screen with your hand while writing.

Because Rock has used Intel’s Centrino technology, this notebook also has Wi-Fi wireless networking built-in. This means you’ll be able to surf the Web from your couch, or send documents to your printer from a deckchair in your garden. It also has a four-way memory card reader, offering support for SD, MMC, MemoryStick and SmartMedia. This makes it especially easy to get digital photos on to your PC without faffing about with cable and drivers. For the most adventurous, a tiny webcam is built into the top of the screen, so you can use the PC for video conferencing or even simple film-making, as soon as you take it out of the box.

As well as wireless networking, the T200 also has a normal 10/100 Ethernet port for connecting to a wired network or certain broadband modems. If you don’t need super-fast Internet access, there’s a V.90 modem. A VGA-out connector at the back enables you to plug the Rock into a proper monitor, and two USB 2 ports allow you to plug in devices such as printers and scanners. If that’s not enough plugs and ports for any external devices you want to connect, there’s a PC Card slot - the notebook equivalent of a PCI expansion slot - which lets you add new devices to the laptop itself. This handy, as there’s no FireWire port, so you can add a PC that provides one.

Sadly, as well as lacking FireWire ports, the T200 comes with no CD drive of any kind. Rock does offer external drives, but £149 (excluding VAT) for a CD writer / DVD combo drive and £249 (excluding VAT) for a multi-format DVD writer, these are rather expensive.

Using the Rock with a pen has some drawbacks, such as the fiddly way you have to click in the system Tray at the bottom right of the screen to bring up right-click menus. Anyone who has used Microsoft’s Tablet PC Edition will also miss some its helpful pen-oriented widgets. However, Rock has compensated for these by adding some buttons next to the screen, providing immediate access to functions such as screen rotation and tabbing, plus there’s a handy scroll wheel. The big screen offers a large area to write upon. Wee found RitePen’s handwriting recognition accurate and effective, even when faced with messy handwriting. A little care is needed to keep recognition accurate, but this is no different to using Tablet PC Edition.

As well as being able to use the Rock like a flat tablet, you can flip its screen around to us its keyboard, like a standard laptop. When used this way, the funny little feet on the Rock’s underside make it slightly uncomfortable to sit on your lap. It also gets a bit hot after a while recharging on mains power. Still, it’s intended primarily for use unplugged, and here it reaps the benefits of Intel’s power-saving Centrino technology. Lasting more than two hours in our intensive test, it should stretch to three or four hours in ordinary use.

There’s no two ways about it, this is an incredibly cheap tablet PC. Despite not having Tablet PC edition, the basic handwriting recognition and stylus control functions work well. At 2.3kg, you won’t want to be lugging this machine around for long periods but, even taking the absence of a CD drive into account, its still a decent deal.


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