A mere seven weeks (less three days) after I ordered an IBM/Lenovo X41 Tablet PC — only four weeks longer than the original estimate — it arrived.
Like so many others who ordered the X41 (and who also have been frustrated by Lenovo’s rotten logistics, ranging from lying about shipping dates to screwing up paperwork for U.S. Customs clearance), I have read everything I could find about the laptop.
Check out, for example, the excellent reviews by TabletPC Review Spot, Vince Anido (suggested by Buzz Bruggeman, founder of ActiveWords) and Greg Hughes. (A big thank you to Buzz in regards to the X41. He knows why! More to come in a later post about using ActiveWords on a Tablet PC. )
A realistic fan
I’ve been a big fan of Tablet PCs — the concept, at least — and when IBM/Lenovo announced its version, I decided it was time to stop obsessing and order one. After reading all the reviews I had a very good idea of what to expect.
I was prepared to love the X41. I wanted to love it. But that is not to be..…at least not so far.
It’s not that I don’t like it and really see the value. The X41 is very well constructed, the screen is nice and bright (no dead pixels that I can find), the battery life with the extended life battery (eight cell) seems good (based on my very, very limited use) and the four-pound weight (with the extended life battery) is a lot lighter than my 4.7–pound IBM ThinkPad T23 and my 5.5- (or 5.7-) pound T30.
Speaking of the battery...the extended life battery sticks out from the back of the X41. It's designed to make the tablet easy to hold in portrait mode (especially if you're right handed).
However, the extension makes the computer a bit "back heavy" since it adds slightly more than 1.25 inches to the length. If you're using the X41 in portrait mode and holding it in your hand, the extension, as I wrote, is somewhat of a plus.
There's also no problem using the computer as a regular laptop on a desk. But if you're balancing the laptop on your knees, such as typing at the airport, you just have to make sure that it doesn't tip over because of the back weight of the battery. Not a big deal, but I thought I'd mention it.
I'm pondering getting a four cellbattery to use around my house when I don't need the extra juice. It cuts the weight about half a pound. However, the Lenovo Web site says "Call" when ordering the four cell battery. That means: "Call to find out how long you're going to wait."
Speaking of waiting, people who ordered X41s are incensed over the long wait times. I was told three weeks until it would be shipped when it was, as I wrote, more than twice as long. There have been significant delays with U.S. Customs clearance that never seemed to be a problem when IBM owned the division.
Recently Lenovo's posted this on its Web site: "Due to the great popularity of the ThinkPad X41 Tablet, some customers have experienced slight delays." Yeah, right, a "slight delay"! Check out the forums at "Tablet PC Buzz" for additional information about Lenovo's screw ups as well as finding great information about the X41 and other Tablet PCs.
I'm also finding it takes much longer to reach Lenovo customer support, even the sales department. Lenovo is not creating a good impression, at least among people who ordered Tablet PCs.
Portability versus performance
I thought long and hard about whether to get a more powerful Tablet PC, such as the Toshiba Tecra M4, with a 14 inch screen (rather than the X41’s 12 inch), an internal optical drive (rather than an external drive), a faster hard disk drive and a dedicated graphics processor (rather than integrated).
If you want to carry around a Tablet PC and use it in portrait mode to read eBooks, Web pages, etc., weight makes a big, big difference. In addition, I prefer the IBM trackpoint to a trackpad, although many people don’t.
I also have been impressed — in the past — with IBM’s customer support for technical information and for repair. I hope the purchase by Lenovo won’t destroy the quality of customer support. It’s one of the major reasons I am willing to pay a bit more for IBM laptops.
And, I’ve been impressed with the ThinkPad’s ability to survive when I’ve dropped it (at least the two T series laptops I’ve used). I’m not so confident about the ruggedness of other vendors’ laptops.
There are many things to like about the X41 and most of the reviews have been extremely positive, though it certainly isn’t perfect.
Here are some of the things I’m not too happy about. To wit:
The hard disk drive
I never thought I’d have to worry about the speed of a hard disk drive. I don’t engage in really heavy duty computing, such as computer-aided design, detailed graphic design, mammoth spreadsheets, etc. So when I read that the X41’s hard disk drive ran at 4,200 rpm, rather than the 5,400 rpm drives I have in my other laptops, I didn’t think it was too much of a concern.
Well, I find the X41’s drive is noticeably slower. It just isn’t as snappy as a 5,400 rpm drive, and I often work with a dozen or more applications open at the same time. It’s not just that booting applications is slower but other functions that access the drive are slowed down.
It’s not awful, but it is somewhat of a pain. Especially in Tablet mode, when I want the response to be fast, the hard disk is a drag. When I'm doing PowerPoint presentations in front of an audience I want to make sure the slides and animations "snap."
(I'll get a chance to test PowerPoint performance when I moderate panels and speak at two conferences this month in San Francisco and Canada. I'm looking forward to using the stylus to write on my slides to highlight points as well as using its note capabilities to jot down information and questions when interviewing panelists in a roundtable format..)
I purchased a 512MB memory module in addition to the 512MB that came with the X41, and I think I might have been a bit “penny wise and pound foolish.” I assume having 1.5GB of RAM, rather than my 1GB, would improve the performance a bit.
I’m wonder whether I could return the 512MB module I purchased from Crucial Technology in exchange for a credit to purchase 1GB. The X41 can accommodate a maximum of 1.5GB of RAM.
Update (9-13-05): Crucial Technology, the company that sold me the 512MB module, has agreed to credit my purchase for a 1GB module. Yea! I should receive the 1GB by the end of the week and will return 512MB module. I hope the extra half gigabyte makes a difference in speed.
I am very, very fussy about keyboards. I hate the keyboards that are bundled with desktop PCs. Cheap mushy junk with virtually no tactile feedback.
Warning: Rant about keyboards follows in brackets.
[Even the fancy multimedia keyboards are pretty awful. They have lots of buttons and enhanced functionality but the underlying guts are just like most of the other keyboards: Mushy junk.
The best keyboard was on, arguably, the spectacular (and expensive) IBM Selectric typewriter. The best computer keyboard in the world, I believe, was also from IBM: On the original IBM PC (that I purchased in 1983) and also on the next-generation first hard drive model, the IBM PC AT.
The IBM keyboards were heavy, metal (I think) and used a buckling spring mechanism that provided great clicky, tactile feedback you don’t find on today’s crummy keyboards. They made a lot of noise, but the feel was great.
If you’ve never used a buckling spring keyboard you have no idea what a great keyboard should feel like. It’s as if you’ve only listened to rap music and have no idea what a great singing voice is supposed to sound like.
I have two keyboards for my desktop PC: Avant Prime and the Unicomp keyboard. The Avant Prime seems to me to feel like the keyboards made by the now-defunct Northgate computer company; their keyboards were known to be great. Indeed, their keyboards achieved greater fame than their computers (that weren’t bad).
The Unicomp is the closest I’ve found to the original IBM PC keyboard, although the Unicomp seems somewhat lighter and a bit less “aggressively” tactile than I remember. But it has been something like 20 years since I used the IBM keyboard and my memory isn’t what it used to be!]
Lots of people writing about the X41 keyboard are raving about how wonderful it is. They are describing it as "full sized." Well, that's only if you follow one definition.
I’m more critical. The keyboard stroke and pitch are slightly less than the non-ultraportables from IBM. I have a ThinkPad T23 and a T30 and there’s a noticeable difference.
The T series keyboard is better. The keyboard action feels a bit, well, “silkier.” Also, the T series has some important full sized keys, such as Enter and Backspace. Some of the X41’s non-letter keys are significantly smaller and, at least for me, the smaller Backspace is a bit of a pain.
So, it’s somewhat less pleasant to use the X41’s keyboard than that of the IBM T series -- the gold standard for laptop keyboards. That doesn’t mean the X41's keyboard isn't good. For an ultraportable, it’s excellent.
The feel is solid and the keyboard doesn’t flex. I can see where some people — who might like a shorter stroke and don’t mind the smaller keys — might even prefer the X41’s feel to some desktop keyboards.
Keyboard feel is very subjective. My subjective keyboard rating would be a 10 for the IBM Selectric typewriter, 8.7 for the original IBM PC, 8.5 for the Unicomp, 8.3 for the Avant Prime, 6 for the T series ThinkPad and 5.5 for the X41.
Once again -- the X41 keyboard is excellent; I just don't like the somewhat shorter stroke and the smaller Backspace key. (Yes, I did know about the keyboard before I ordered it.)
I have been following the progress of handwriting recognition for decades. The algorithms certainly have improved. But the Tablet PC’s handwriting recognition still falls short of what I’d like. Often it works fine but I find there are some words that never seem to be recognized even when it try writing them — very legibly — a dozen different times.
Perhaps it's the application I'm using -- that's still in beta -- but it's frustrating to write clearly and not have the X41 recognize a word. I'll have to check to see whether the app I'm testing can do anything to improve the recognition or whether it simply uses the Windows Tablet PC engine.
My typical handwriting isn’t great, but when I make an effort to be neat it certainly is readable.
The stylus is lightweight and does the job but it doesn’t win any design awards. It looks rather crummy and doesn’t quite measure up to the high quality look and feel of the X41.
Also, the pen doesn’t include an electronic eraser feature; that a very useful feature. Shame on IBM/Lenovo.
I'm very glad I splurged by purchasing a good looking (for a stylus!) Cross stylus that has an [electronic] eraser top. It works fine and I highly recommend buying a stylus with an eraser. I use the Cross pen as my primary stylus and use the Lenovo stylus as a backup. The Cross does not combine a regular ink pen.
I bought the version with the silver-looking cap rather than the capless because I think the former version looks better, although you have to remove the cap to use eraser. Ergonomically you might prefer the capless model, and I sometimes I would, too!
Theoretically, I’d like a dual-capability high quality stylus + regular pen, although from a practical standpoint I can see myself accidentally writing on the LCD with the ink pen! It’s not something I want to chance.
It's a lot tougher to erase real ink on an LCD than electronic ink! But if anyone knows of a great combo pen (I’d really like a Montblanc stylus <g>), let me know.
Sometimes when I press the stylus to the screen the response is quick, sometimes it isn’t. Most of the time it’s fine but a few times it takes too long for something to happen. And sometimes I have to tap the screen once or twice more than I should.
I also find that the cursor arrow doesn’t move as far away as I’d like after I lift and move the stylus. What I mean is that after I enter text in an input box I will lift the stylus and move it away from the box. But all too often the arrow remains in the box and I have to move the stylus back to the box and more slowly move the arrow out of the box.
I’m testing one beta software that won’t initiate an action until the arrow is moved completely out of the text input area so the response is slow if I have to move the cursor out of the panel.
I assume part of the problem is just me adopting the correct technique.
Tablet PC-related software wishes
I’m left handed. There are ways in software to rotate the screen to accommodate lefties, although when in tablet portrait mode the icons are upside down on the bezel surrounding the frame. That’s not a big deal for me.
But I would like some software-related changes to accommodate my left handedness. For example, the browser scrollbar is on the right — just as it always is! — but in Tablet portrait mode it’s a pain to stretch across the screen from left to right to touch the scrollbar.
If I were right handed it would be easy because the pen would be in might right hand (duh) that's right below the scrollbar. I wish there were a hack to move the scrollbar to the left.
Speaking of browsers, my favorite browser by far is Firefox but with the X41 I’m using Internet Explorer much more because it’s easy to enter a URL with a stylus since the “TIP” (Tablet PC Input Panel) panel appears automatically. It doesn’t appear with Firefox, but perhaps there’s a way I haven’t found to automatically enable it to work the way it works in IE.
Also, I’m discouraged that it isn’t easier to enter numbers and letters into Microsoft Excel spreadsheets. I’m much more of an MS Word user than Excel, but over the next few months I’ll need to use Excel.
In the Tablet PC mode you can use the TIP panel to enter numbers or letters. (The panel icon is in my Windows Taskbar but the TIP icon doesn't automatically appear when I position the stylus over an Excel cell; perhaps I need to put a check mark in some menu box.)
But what I want is to pen-enable Excel so I could simply enter information into every cell without requiring use of the TIP.
You can annotate an Excel spreadsheet by enabling the inking function and easily scribble notes all over it — on top of the cells or on the side. You don’t need to first activate any panel -- just click on the pen icon and you can write wherever you want until you click the "stop inking" button.
I want to do the same thing when entering data into cells — just click/tap on one box and enter numbers directly into each cell without having to open the TIP each time I want to enter a number.
Perhaps Josh Einstein could develop a "Tablet Enhancements for Excel" the way he has developed Tablet Enhancements for Outlook. (I have to download a trial copy of that; it's gotten excellent reviews.)
Update (9-13-05): From Marc Orchant's great "thetabletpcweblog" I see that the developer of OrangeGuava Desktop is working on making Excel more "inkable." Great. I can hardly wait to try it when it will be available. (I am also eagerly awaiting Loren Heiny's gestures for MS Word. I do a fair amount of writing and often look over other people's work so this would be quite useful.)
One last point, for now anyway: The X41, like just about every other (every?) Tablet PC, has a Page Up/Down key on the bezel for use when you’re in Tablet portrait mode. I wonder if the number of lines skipped can be modified.
For example, when I read weblogs in Onfolio (a good RSS reader and an excellent Web research tool), those Page Up/Down keys don’t move, well, up and down, satisfactorily.
When I press the Up key, for example, I want the page to move to the next page just like turning to the next page in a book. That means when I get to the next page I don’t want to see any lines from the previous page or “miss” any lines because the computer has skipped too many lines.
I’m finding, though, that in portrait mode when pressing an Up/Down key results in moving too many lines forward or not enough lines. I have to see if I can change those parameters.
Well, that’s it for now. I’m sure I’ll be writing more about my X41 experiences.