Terrific Tablet Technology - An Attempt to Deliver on the Promise of True Portability

Introduction

The article first appeared in Tom's Hard News Email Newsletter

Introduction

The concept of flat panel PC technology is not a new one. In the early 1980s, computer manufacturer, GRID, introduced one of the first tablet-oriented PCs. Unfortunately, the lack of a robust operating system held the technology down to the point where it was almost not worth using. With the advances in portable computing technology, both in the PDA and the operating system department, tablet PC technology is once again alive and well. Microsoft foresees tablet PC technology as one very important vehicle in achieving their overall strategy of information anytime, anyplace, anywhere. Still, it is clear that advancements in handwriting recognition, voice recognition and overall user interface input must first occur in order to make these tablet PCs truly worthwhile to use. If using a tablet PC is more complicated and more difficult to use than using a standard laptop, then why not use a standard laptop?

Pace Blade has the unique distinction of being one of the first companies who has designed a new tablet PC to re-ignite the tablet PC market. PaceBlade's unique blend of technology and aesthetics might be enough to overcome an operating system that is not quite up to snuff. We at THG still believe that much attention to detail must be paid to both the handwriting recognition and the speech recognition input facilities of the PC in order for the tablet to be a true success. Other aesthetics, such as weight, battery life and size, must also fall within certain parameters in order for the tablet PC device to be truly useful. Upon inspection, it would appear that PaceBlade has made significant strides in the design of the PaceBook; however, as you will see in this review, tablet PC technology still may not be completely ready for prime time.

The System Work Horse - Crusoe TM5600

A quick look at what was in the box.
A quick look at what was in the box.

The PaceBlade PaceBook uses the Transmeta Crusoe line of processors. While the majority of laptop/ notebook devices are based on Intel mobile processor technology, PaceBlade's selection of the Transmeta Crusoe may cause the chosen market to disregard PaceBlade as a serious tablet PC manufacturer. However, we believe that, for many applications, the Transmeta processor technology approach can still be valuable in squeezing every drop of battery power from a unit. The knock on Transmeta has always been that the processor was not fast enough to compete with the current Intel processor designs. When evaluating Crusoe as a processor, we still believe that many people may have missed the point. It is obvious to us that the Crusoe processor, although it may not offer the speed of the current generation of Intel chip, does offer a significantly reduced thermal envelope and better battery life when compared with Intel and AMD processors.

A look inside the unit exposes the ALI chipset. The chip covered with a bronze material is the Crusoe processor.
A look inside the unit exposes the ALI chipset. The chip covered with a bronze material is the Crusoe processor.

By now, everyone is familiar with the Crusoe line of processors from Transmeta. Crusoe processors were designed from the ground up to accommodate battery-hungry mobile devices. By 'accommodate,' we mean that the processor takes significantly less power to operate than its Silicon Valley counterparts. The way Transmeta reduces power consumption is through what the company calls its "LongRun Technology." LongRun technology allows the other Transmeta proprietary component, "Code Morphing" software to adjust the voltage and clock frequency 'on the fly' in accordance with system requirements. By continually adjusting voltage and clocking frequency, LongRun is able to significantly reduce the thermal envelope. And, as we all know, reduced frequency and voltage requirements contribute to longer battery life.

Transmeta's Code Morphing software is really the heart of the beast. Code Morphing translates the X86 instruction set into VLIW (Very Long Instruction Word) instructions, which is the native language of the Crusoe processor line.

The Crusoe TM5600 chip that is in the PaceBook has an operating range of 500 to 700 megahertz and is fully compatible with the X86 instruction set. The operating frequency of the Crusoe that is in our PaceBook is 600 megahertz. It could be said that the Pentium III that was the state-of-the-art processor three years ago was just as fast as Transmeta's current line of line processors. However, a fair comparison of Transmeta and Intel should not be based on raw processing power alone, but also requires consideration of such factors as thermal envelope and mobile battery life.

Specifications

Baseline Specifications
Main: CPU Transmeta Crusoe 5600 600MHz
Main: South Bridge ALI Super South 1535
Dimensions: W x D x H 247x330x29mm (9.7"x13.0"x1.1")
Dimensions: Weight 1.8kg (3.96lbs)
Memory: Base 128 MB PC133
Memory: Expansion 128-640MB / 11x144-pin / DIMM (PC-133)
Memory: Cache (L1 / L2) 32kb / (512kb) embedded in the CPU
Display: Video Controller SMI 721 Lynx
Display: Memory 8MB high speed Video memory
Display: Type TFT Color, 12.1" XGA
Display: Mode, Resolution XGA ( Portrait 768x1024 / Landscape 1024x768 )
Battery: Smart Battery Yes, 6-cells (prismatic)
Battery: Main (Replacable) Li-Ion 30Wh
Battery: Life Up to 5hrs
Pointing Device: TouchScreen Four-wire Resistive technology
Keyboard Wireless Infrared Technology
Power Management: Doze, Sleep ALI Super South 1535
Power Management: Suspend, Hibernation Yes
Power Management: ACPI Compliant Yes
BIOS: System Phoenix
BIOS: ROM Plug & Play
Disk Drives: HDD (Exchangeable) 2.5", 9.5mm height end-user removable
Audio: Sound Chip Built-in to Ali 1535 Southbridgewith AC97 codec
I/O Port: Controller ALI 1535
I/O Port: CRT Yes
I/O Port: Audio Jack 2 (Ear/ Micro phone)
I/O Port: IEEE-1394/Firewire One 4 pin
I/O Port: Fax Modem RJ11 - Lucent Soft Modem
I/O Port: LAN 10/100 RJ45 - Realtek RTL8139
I/O Port: USB 2 connector (one is proprietary for camera module)
PCMCIA: Type II x 1 PCMCIA Slot
PCMCIA: PCI, PCMCIA Card bus, ZV-port, TI 1410 Controller
Power: Adapter 70W (min.) AC 90-264 V

An Inside Look

With the bottom cover removed from the PaceBook, you can get a first-hand look at its internal construction. As you can plainly see in the picture below, the PaceBook uses a single board design and the majority of the internal real estate inside the PaceBook is devoted to the PCMCIA slot, the internal hard drive, and the battery. These three components occupy roughly 50% of the total allotted space inside the PaceBook. We found the internal construction of the PaceBook to be well designed and exceptionally well thought-out for the given form factor.

A look inside the unit exposes the ALI chipset. Under the heat sink is the Crusoe processor.
A look inside the unit exposes the ALI chipset. Under the heat sink is the Crusoe processor.

The outside shell of the PaceBook tablet is constructed from magnesium composite, which adds to the feeling of solid construction. The unit measures 9.7 inches by 13 inches by 1.1 inches. This size measurement does not take into consideration the external/ detached keyboard that is included with the PaceBook. In evaluating the size of the PaceBook, it is comparable to a typical laptop computer, minus the display panel.

One unique feature on the PaceBook is its inclusion of a tripod mounting socket that allows the PaceBook to be mounted on a tripod for presentation purposes. The PaceBook weighs a bit more than is first anticipated. At 3.96 pounds, we would not describe the PaceBook as "light," but we would not describe it as very heavy, either. This weight does not take into consideration the keyboard, AC adaptor, or other accessories, which we did find enhanced value in carrying along, as well. Unfortunately, once you add the keyboard case and the accessories, you are closing in on the same weight of the average laptop. While this isn't necessarily a negative, we were hopeful that the unique characteristics of the PaceBook would have resulted in some weight savings.

We think that the trade-off here was PaceBlade's decision to use alloy-based construction, which provides significantly more durability than a typical plastic constructed notebook. As a comparison, our initial impression prior to evaluating the PaceBook was that it was more akin to a tablet version of a Panasonic ToughBook. Because of the material construction of the PaceBook, the durability factor is increased, which allows the PaceBook to be used for more demanding and rugged applications.

Wireless Keyboard

The wireless keyboard that is provided with the PaceBook.
The wireless keyboard that is provided with the PaceBook.

The PaceBook offers a detached, wireless keyboard that talks to the PaceBook using standard infrared technology. The keyboard measures 9 inches deep by 12 1/2 inches wide. It features a two-button glide pad for controlling mouse movement, as well as ten special hot keys across the top of the keyboard. The keyboard is powered by four standard AAA batteries, which may or may not be considered an advantage. It should be pointed out that if the keyboard is left in the "on" position with a key depressed, it will drain the batteries within the keyboard. And, if you forget to turn the keyboard off with no keys depressed, the keyboard will enter a 'sleep state,' which conserves battery life. In our testing, we found the keyboard life to be adequate. The keyboard action is stiff, but adequate, but with such a light keyboard, it is possible that you will experience some physical keyboard bounce. If you are used to using a track pointer, you will be disappointed, as the PaceBook keyboard offers only the glide pad. At the top of the keyboard is the IR transmitter that the keyboard uses to communicate with the PaceBook.

Under the battery cover of the keyboard is the channel select button.
Under the battery cover of the keyboard is the channel select button.

All PaceBook keyboards do not have the same operating requirements, as there is a channel selection/ change button inside the battery compartment of the keyboard. This will allow the keyboard to communicate with the PaceBook on a specific channel, which will reduce cross talk with neighboring PaceBooks. The PaceBook will accept any infrared communications, unless it is set to "secure" mode. In "secure" mode, the PaceBook will only accept keyboard input from the selected channel.

The IRD receiver from inside the PaceBook.
The IRD receiver from inside the PaceBook.

Touch Sensitive Display

Located on the top of the PaceBook are three buttons that are for Screen Flip, Power and Menu. There is also a noise canceling microphone. There are also two indicators: one to indicate "power on" and one to indicate "charging" mode. One of the unique features of the PaceBook is its ability to switch from Portrait to Landscape mode on the fly. By depressing the Screen Flip button, you are able to change the screen between landscape and portrait modes, which is a very useful feature. Using this software-based solution, the 12.1 inch TFTXGA panel offers resolution of 1024 X 768 landscape mode, while offering 768 X 1024 resolution in portrait mode.

PaceBook in landscape mode at 1024x768.
PaceBook in landscape mode at 1024x768.

We found the visual output of the PaceBook panel to be bright and crisp. The panel of the PaceBook is touch sensitive, accepting input either via a stylus or a finger, so it is a good thing that PaceBook includes a ScotchBrite towel to keep the panel clean. When cleaning the it, you will notice that the panel has a stiffer feel to it.

PaceBook in portrait mode at 768x1024.
PaceBook in portrait mode at 768x1024.

PaceBag and the Presentation Stand

The included PaceBook bag allows the PaceBook to function as a desktop portable or a notebook. It securely holds the tablet and the keyboard to give the unit a laptop-like feel. The PaceBook is held to the bag by two plastic/ rubber clips to allow the unit to be easily removed, while at the same time holding the unit securely in place. The keyboard is attached to the bag with Velcro on the bottom. The tablet/ display can easily be taken in and out if you want the PaceBook function as a tablet. The bag offers a flap that allows the unit to be propped up with an included easel-style flap, so that it can be used in a portable desktop manner.

The presentation stand is a good idea, but can you trust it?
The presentation stand is a good idea, but can you trust it?

The presentation stand for the PaceBook uses an easel-type design that allows the PaceBook to be propped at about a 120 degree angle. Unfortunately, the easel mechanism does not have a locking feature to prevent the unit from falling backwards out of the presentation stand. When shooting the photos of the PaceBook on this stand, we were more than a little wary that the PaceBook would come crashing onto the table due to what appears to be a flawed design. In PaceBlade's defense, they do offer four rubber coated stoppers on the bottom of the presentation stand as an attempt to keep the unit from sliding around. PaceBlade also has rubber coated both the bottom and the back easel ends to provide a more sturdy design to prevent the unit from moving. However, a locking mechanism of some sort would still be more preferable, by far. Based on our experience, we would recommend that PaceBook users exercise caution when using this presentation stand.

An Outside Look

On the bottom of the PaceBook, you will find three removable access doors. One access door allows access to the memory upgrade slot, another provides access to the hard drive, and the last one provides access to the BIOS battery. The memory is upgradeable, the hard drive is upgradeable, and the BIOS battery is user replaceable, as necessary. Also located on the bottom of the unit is the PaceBlade LI-ION battery. This six-cell battery operates at 10.8V, while providing 2800mAh. PaceBlade has informed us that they intend to offer more battery options that will have longer battery life at a later time.

Bottom of the unit with all covers removed.
Bottom of the unit with all covers removed.

With the unit sitting as a laptop in Landscape mode, on the left side you have the PCMCIA slot, RJ-45 network connector, the RJ-11 modem connector, monitor out connector, the round USB port and the stylus. The network interface card is a RealTek RTL8139, and the modem is a Lucent Soft Modem (software driven). The network, modem and monitor out connectors are covered with a flexible rubberized port cover.

The left side of the PaceBook has the PCMCIA slot, the network connector, the modem connector, the monitor out connector, the round USB port and the stylus.
The left side of the PaceBook has the PCMCIA slot, the network connector, the modem connector, the monitor out connector, the round USB port and the stylus.

On the top of the PaceBook is the 3.5 mm headphone jack, 3.5mm microphone jack, standard USB connector, DC-Out, the 4-pin 1394/FireWire connector, DC power connector, scroll wheel, and the programmable any-key; the USB port, the DC-Out and the 1394/FireWire connectors are all protected by a flexible, rubberized port cover. The only thing on the right-hand side is the IR receiver.

On the top you will notice the headphone jack, microphone jack, a standard USB connector, DC-Out, the 4-pin 1394 FireWire connector, the DC power connector, a scroll wheel and the programmable any-key.
On the top you will notice the headphone jack, microphone jack, a standard USB connector, DC-Out, the 4-pin 1394 FireWire connector, the DC power connector, a scroll wheel and the programmable any-key.

USB Camera

PaceBlade offers an optional USB Camera for use with the PaceBook. This USB camera, or PaceBook Camera, is a standard CCD camera that swivels 360 degrees and tilts 40 degrees up and down. The CCD does rotate 90 degrees to handle whichever display mode you are in, Landscape or Portrait.

While using the PaceBook Camera, extreme care must be taken to keep the camera lens free of all debris. We did get some dust on the lens of our test unit, and found it difficult to clean. Because the lens is so compact, the included ScotchBrite cleaning cloth will not fit in this space, and even using compressed air did not completely clean the lens. We were forced to disassemble the camera in order to get the lens clean. Disassembling the camera is not something that we recommend because (1) this will void the product warranty, and (2) we found it difficult to reassemble with the correct CCD orientation.

The ever rotating USB CCD camera rotates a full 360 degree and tilts 40 degrees up and down.  It will also rotate 90 degrees to accommodate the unit in landscape and portrait modes.
The ever rotating USB CCD camera rotates a full 360 degree and tilts 40 degrees up and down. It will also rotate 90 degrees to accommodate the unit in landscape and portrait modes.

Overall, the quality isn't bad for the size of the CCD camera. What we found particularly innovative is the way that the camera attaches to the top of the PaceBook. When attached to the top of the PaceBook, it has a very "science fiction" -type of appearance. The overall value of the camera is questionable due to the PaceBook's lack of built-in wireless options.

With the camera attached you could use the PaceBook for video conferencing.
With the camera attached you could use the PaceBook for video conferencing.

Optical Drive

Since the PaceBook does not include a built-in CD-Rom/ DVD-Rom, PaceBlade includes another approach for adding DVD-Rom connectivity to your PaceBook. PaceBlade includes a 1394/Firewire external DVD-Rom drive with the PaceBook. The included 1394/Firewire external DVD-Rom drive uses a two-headed cable with one 4-pin 1394/Firewire connector, while the other connector is a power connector that draws power directly from the PaceBook, whether on AC power or on battery power. We found the external 1394/Firewire drive to be both quiet and fast. Use of this custom cable can present a challenge in the event you happen to leave home without it, as you will be without the use of your DVD-Rom drive. The outer housing and look of the external 1394/Firewire DVD-Rom is, in our opinion, rather 'sexy.'

To keep the current form factor, PaceBlade had to use an external 1394/Firewire DVD drive.
To keep the current form factor, PaceBlade had to use an external 1394/Firewire DVD drive.

Input Methods

One area in which the PaceBook is not lacking is input methods. The keyboard is the most obvious, while with the touch screen display, you gain the ability to actually write your documents with the included stylus. If you are in the Laptop mode, you can enable the virtual or on-screen keyboard. Enabling the virtual or on-screen keyboard is done using the Menu button, which launches the Menu program. Once the Menu program is launched, you have the ability to configure the keyboard, input data, and configure or launch shortcuts.

PaceMenu will help when using the PaceBook in either Landscape or Portrait mode.
PaceMenu will help when using the PaceBook in either Landscape or Portrait mode.

If you are in a relatively noise-free environment, you can use the voice recognition software built into Windows XP for voice recognition input. If you don't like the built-in software included with Windows XP, it is possible to use other third-party software, but PaceBlade does not include any voice recognition software beyond what is included with Windows XP.

PaceBlade also has their new smARTwriter software. When installed, the programmable any-key becomes the 'Handwriting' Key. Upon pressing the any-key, the smARTwriter software will launch and the smARTwriter control pad will appear. The smARTwriter handwriting recognition software worked just the way it is supposed to, after training it, of course. Personally, we think that the Graffiti solution from Palm allows for much faster writing, but that may be because we are more familiar with the Palm features. The only problem we encountered with smARTwriter was that when we were writing, our hands would touch the screen and change the location of the cursor. That was annoying. With the cursor moving, we had no idea what character would appear.

In the upper right hand corner you will notice the PaceWrite Form.
In the upper right hand corner you will notice the PaceWrite Form.

Dongles

The physical design of the unit is solid. With the magnesium case there is very little flex to the unit. We appreciated PaceBlade's clear attention to detail in the inclusion of external cables for both the video and USB.

Cables or dongles to use when you need VGA out or an additional USB port.
Cables or dongles to use when you need VGA out or an additional USB port.

Benchmarks

In testing the PaceBook, we chose to run a minimal amount of benchmarks in order to better understand its performance limitations. Because we did not currently have another Transmeta system against which to test the PaceBook, we chose to just present these numbers for reference use only. We think it is important to note that, while the Transmeta processor is fully capable of running any X86 applications, because of its dynamic Code Morphing technology it is not, perhaps, the best suited unit for handling the most demanding applications.

It is important to fully understand that the Transmeta processor's target audience is those who are running more common office and Internet style applications. While there are those who feel that perhaps the Transmeta processor does not fully deliver on its promise of performance, we think that for the targeted applications, the Transmeta processor does deliver on its promise of lower power consumption and longer battery life. This said, we believe that any attempt to benchmark the PaceBook against a standard AMD or Intel processor would be futile because it would not be a true 'apples to apples' comparison.

These benchmarks were run on the PaceBook under Windows XP Home, using the provided 256MB memory and Fujitsu 20GB hard drive.

MobileMark 2002
Performance Rating - 43
Average Response Time - 4.54s
Battery Life Rating - 132 minutes

SYSmark 2002
Internet Content Creation - 41
Office Productivity - 35
SYSmark 2002 Rating - 38

BWS Battery Mark 1.0
2 hours 20 minutes

DVD Playback
1 hour 40 minutes

Conclusion

After spending a significant amount of time with the PaceBook, we can honestly say that it presents many interesting and innovative ideas in tablet computing. While everything may not be as perfect as we would have preferred, the PaceBook is a fine first effort in this newly revived product category.

When looking at the PaceBook, one must decide if this type of technology offers the kind of flexibility that the user needs. It might be better said that the PaceBook is not necessarily a perfect fit for those seeking a power oriented machine. However, if you are looking for portability and the unique style of flexibility that the PaceBook offers, then it might be a good investment.

One feature that we feel is critical, and missing from the PaceBook, is built-in wireless Ethernet support. The fact that you are tethered to a wire to get network connectivity sort of defeats the purpose of a tablet PC. While it is possible to use a wireless Ethernet card in the PCMCIA slot, we still found that to be unacceptable when one takes into consideration how much the PaceBook costs ($2100). Also missing is a floppy disk drive for those occasions when you may need it. You can attach a USB floppy drive, but unfortunately, you will not be able to boot from it.

Another idea that PaceBook might want to consider is the addition of a presentation remote control, which would be a nice feature to have to present Power Point slide shows. A solution might be a generic universal remote with a driver for the IRD receiver that would allow the remote to perhaps mimic a keyboard.

PaceBook with the travel bag or PaceBag.
PaceBook with the travel bag or PaceBag.

Overall, we think PaceBlade has presented a new and interesting twist on tablet PC technology. While it can't be said that everything with the PaceBook was perfect, many of the concepts presented in the design technology from this Taiwanese company are far more innovative than what we have seen previously. After reviewing the PaceBook, it might be best said that we have more questions than answers. On one hand, it does fill a void that has existed in PC technology for many years, but on the other hand it does not fit the needs of all consumers. PaceBlade can't really be blamed for this, as many of the problems are rooted in the lack of tablet PC specific support in Windows XP itself.

We wonder what a product such as the PaceBook would be like if it used the Palm operating system instead of Windows XP. With Palm's acquisition of Be, we have to wonder if the next generation of the Palm operating system would not be a better fit for tablet PC technology than Windows will ever be. The down side is that you can't run standard Windows applications on a Palm OS. This, however, could be overcome with the continued massive development efforts of the Palm OS development community.

When considering tablet PC computing, we wonder if we wouldn't be better off with an oversized Palm Pilot, instead of a 'smoke and mirrors' Windows operating system that was never designed with tablet computing in mind. While we are sure that Windows XP will improve its support for tablet computing over time, this is not the current state of affairs. While PaceBlade may struggle to find a niche market for its products, much of the blame will squarely and rightfully fall at Microsoft's doorstep.

The question to be answered is, would we buy a PaceBook? While the PaceBook does present many of the things we have been longing for in computing technology over the past few years, the PaceBook still has a variety of shortcomings that do not make it a good fit for our uses. The PaceBook does offer many niche applications, a unique product that has not been available previously. Depending upon your application needs, the PaceBook may be a good fit for your uses. We would encourage you to make sure that the PaceBook meets all of your potential requirements before committing to purchase one.

Solid construction and innovative design, as well as exceptional craftsmanship, are the marks of the PaceBook. We can only hope that the Windows XP operating system will catch up soon.

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