As I sit here at my pen-only Tablet PC, reviewing my notes from a better time, I can’t help but wonder how much brighter my life would be if I had worked harder, made some smarter decisions, and arrived at this point with enough throwaround money to buy a Fujitsu Lifebook T900, the computer I wistfully call “My Next Tablet PC.”
Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit on some of that, but honestly, while evaluating the T900 for a couple of weeks, I did say more than once that I wanted one. The size, weight and balance felt wonderful. The pen is the best I’ve used. It ran cool to the touch. Most importantly, it’s a convertible that feels like a slate. It’s not perfect; there are several flaws a user should watch. But overall, it’s a fantastic Tablet PC. If you don’t feel like reading this more than 2,000 word review, check out my InkShow to see how easily it handles. Full specs are available at the Fujitsu website.
Display and pen + multi-touch input
So let’s start from the top by taking a look at the display. The T900 features a 13.3-inch display, the largest currently offered on a Tablet PC, at a resolution of 1280×800. Compared to most other Tablet PCs, that resolution is low for the screen size. Most are around 12 inches with the same resolution. My 14.1-inch Toshiba Tecra M7 is 14.1-inch at 1440×900. I’m used to a bigger screen with more pixels, but the lower screen-to-resolution ratio does offer the advantage of better visibility by making everything larger. This proved useful when I tried to operate it by touch instead of pen. It’s not a trade-off that everyone will want to make, but I welcome it as an alternative against the 12-inch standard, which is just a little too small for me.
As I was simultaneously testing the T-Mobile WebConnect Rocket, trying it from different locations, I did get to try the T900 in various outdoor lighting conditions. As you may have noticed in that InkShow, outdoor visibility was not great, but I saw the screen well enough to see the testing results and jot down my notes on it. The display is LED backlit with wide-viewing angles. It is not an outdoor-viewable screen, but did the job for me in less than direct sunlight.
I showed off general pen and touch input in an InkShow, so I’ll focus on the specifics here. While it proved to be inadequate when used on its own, touch input proved to be a very useful complement to the pen. Tapping on buttons and icons showed that the cursor tended to hit at the edge of where my fingertip hit, rather than the center. Palm rejection was quite good in inking applications, such as Windows Journal, where the app is aware of pen input, but poor in other applications and working in the desktop. The limitation was exacerbated by the fact that the screen is larger, particularly in portrait mode, and by my own ingrained experience with pen-only input. If the T900 was offered as a touch-only device, I’d advise against it, but fortunately it’s only available as pen-only or pen + multi-touch.
Using the pen for precision work and touch for gestures and movement, the pairing felt incredibly liberating. I grew especially fond of scrolling through web pages with a brush of my thumb, to the point that I really miss it now. The T900 uses the Wacom dual digitizer, which offers pen input and recognition of two points of contact. While other digitizers offer up to four points of contact, two points adequately covers the basics like zoom and scroll. Furthermore, holding the pen in hand, I can’t easily use more than two fingers at a time anyway. Wacom plans on increasing that in the future, but two points should be fine for now.
When viewed at an angle in sunlight, the dot grid for the touch digitizer was visible, but it wasn’t at an angle I’d regularly use. The edges of the screen were a weak spot for both pen and touch input. The bezel is slightly raised, obstructing finger contact at the very edges, while the cursor got a little jumpy at the edges when using the pen. The cursor problem extended far enough in on the left side in standard portrait (top of the screen) and secondary landscape (right side of the screen) that I noticed it in my inking. It was a problem for me on the opposite side only because that’s where I hide the taskbar. These are weak points, but I wouldn’t quite call them problems. And of course, I am rather particular about my Tablet PC inking.
Two things I would call irksome were the display’s tendency to revert back to its default orientation at any opportunity, and the sheer number of utilities offered for tablet settings. The first is that the display likes to be in its default orientation, standard landscape in laptop mode and standard portrait in slate mode, and I admit this won’t affect most people. Certainly there’s no problem with the display being in landscape in laptop mode. But in slate mode, I tend to flip between portrait and landscape regularly. When the T900 resumes from sleep or a UAC alert freezes the screen, the display will revert to standard portrait if it’s in another orientation. If you primarily use portrait in slate mode, this won’t affect you. For me, it was a minor inconvenience at worst.
The tablet setting utility overload is a different story. In the control panel, in addition to settings for Pen and Touch, Tablet PC Settings, and Windows Mobility Center, there was also the Pen Tablet setting from Wacom and Fujitsu Tablet Settings, obviously from Fujitsu. So instead of the usual three different places to find Tablet PC controls, there were five. I wound up calibrating the pen in two different utilities, including in an eight-point calibration screen I couldn’t find again, and neither seemed to take (though the default calibration worked well for me).
Despite those drawbacks, the display and input felt very good to me. The screen has a finish that offered a good level of resistance for both pen and touch. I thought the raised bezel might be a problem since I’m accustomed to smooth, but it was fine except for trying to touch the edges. The pen is easily the best I’ve used. No clip, but it has two side buttons and an eraser tip. It had a slight heft and solid feel to it. I’m thinking about ordering one for use with my current tablet (Wacom Penabled). While it varied with the application, multi-touch input itself was responsive.
Performance and battery life
The opposing forces of performance and battery life did face off in my evaluation. The model I evaluated had the base Intel Core i5 2.4GHz processor, 2 GB memory, and Intel HD graphics. Not super-powered but no slouch either. I found it to be very snappy and, as you can see in my InkShow, the screen rotation occurred quickly. I didn’t get to process video on it, but it should do better than my current machine.
Despite that, it threw off surprisingly little heat. This is due in part to the improved performance of the Core processor, but Fujitsu adds their own unique features of a removable dust filter (a clean system is a fast system) and sueded contact areas at the hot spots. The air intakes are also spread out on different locations, so you’re not automatically screwed if one gets blocked. I can’t say it ever got more than warm even when it was sitting on the bed and never uncomfortably so.
The Core i5 and 13.3-inch display do eat up a good chunk of power. I found three hours to be a reasonable cut-off point in regular use without tweaking the power settings. Near four hours was the limit. One thing about power settings is that I did not get any warning when the system reached its battery limit. It started to shut down then abruptly powered off. Not sure if the default setting was set too close or if that was a flaw with the evaluation unit, but I would double check to see that the power monitoring is set to give a warning at least at 10%. I found the battery indicator to be quite accurate.
The battery life can be extended via a second battery in the Fujitsu modular bay. I was not given a bay battery to test, but based on the weight of the primary battery, I feel like a bay battery would be worth the extra heft. More on that later, but that would be my foremost upgrade to this system.
My second upgrade suggestion would be a solid-state drive. The standard hard drive is 160GB 5400rpm, but performance is not the issue here. Fujitsu offers a hard drive protection system that detects shock and impact and moves the HDD arm away from the disk to prevent damage. By default, the system is incredibly sensitive to the point that holding the tablet at an angle can trigger it with barely a move. Obviously that hampers mobile usage since the system effectively stops when the hard drive arm is pulled away. It can be tuned down so that only hard impacts trigger it, but then you are left wondering how effective the tuned down protection is. While the solid-state drive option is not cheap, it does eliminate all these concerns. Most people should do fine with any of the hard drive options. Even tuned down, the hard drive protection still registers hard impacts (though I declined to test that), but highly mobile folks with mission critical data should take a serious look at an SSD.
Size, weight, and feel
A lot of long-time Tablet PC enthusiasts have lamented the decline of the slate form factor over the years (and I find it deeply ironic that it’s made such a comeback in non-Windows systems). The decline is especially notable with Fujitsu who had been one of the early pioneers and champions of the slate. I am pleased to say their slate experience has not gone to waste on the T900.
While the T900 is a convertible, it feels so good in slate mode that it practically becomes a slate. As shown in the InkShow, the edges are smooth and flush despite the gaps. The hinge and latch are very solid and tight. Wiggle is barely noticeable. Fujitsu really did approach this machine, and I’m sure all their convertibles, from a slate perspective, turning slates into convertibles rather than turning laptops into convertibles. To me, the T900 feels like a slate first and a notebook second.
Of course, the notebook features were quite nice too. Even at this size with the 13.3-inch display, the keyboard was a tad smaller than I normally use but proved adequate. I gave the touchpad a necessary once over, but “gorilla arm” or not, I prefer to manipulate the screen with finger or pen.
Coming from the 14.1-inch, about 6 lbs. Toshiba Tecra M7, the T900 was smaller and lighter by my perspective, but it is a larger Tablet PC compared to the usual 12-inch models. With that in mind, maneuvering it one-handed was no problem for me. The balance was excellent. I carried it with the modular bay DVD drive the whole time. That can be removed to go lighter, but as I stated earlier, I think beefing it up with the modular bay battery would be the smarter move for mobility. I don’t think the weight would be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and the added hours of runtime would be well worth it.
Dimensions are 12.56″(w) x 9.61″(d) x 1.45/1.54″(h). Starting weight is 4.78 lbs., not counting a drive or battery in the modular bay. If that’s a bit too much for you, the T730 is darn near the same machine with a 12.1-inch display and almost a pound lighter. Been thinking about going lighter with my next Tablet PC, but under my current needs, I’d still go with the T900.
Most of the included software is the usual stuff, like OneNote, Adobe Reader, and trial version of Norton Internet Security, pretty much free of crapware (or as free as one can expect). On the touch side, there’s the Microsoft Touch Pack, which anyone can download, and the Fujitsu Touch Launcher. The Touch Launcher is a gesture toward making the tablet touch-friendly out-of-the-box. It doesn’t go as far as remaking the interface, such as HP’s TouchSmart system. Rather it’s a simple dock for quick access to applications. It’s unobtrusive enough in landscape mode but scales to giant size in portrait mode. For the most part, the software side of the T900 is that of a standard Windows 7 Tablet PC, but that’s perfectly fine given the excellence of the hardware design.
I really tried to put the T900 through my usual daily routine, but with an out-of-town visit with a friend and simultaneous evaluation of the T-Mobile WebConnect Rocket, much of my two-week evaluation period was anything but usual. It did afford me a more mobile evaluation than I would normally be able to perform. Couple of glitches with the Rocket (as covered in that review) caused some resume issues. Otherwise, I was able to carry it in sleep mode and wake it up in seconds as needed during my days out. In office, the screen felt a bit cramped since I normally use a larger tablet, but it worked fine for note-taking and then pasting some of those notes into a spreadsheet. The cool operation in all these situations was really noticeable.
Pen + multi-touch allowed for a much improved web surfing experience by letting me use my thumb to throw around the web page and using two fingers for zoom, which I didn’t realize I’d use so much. Coupled with the rapid screen rotation, I was able to easily zip through stories in slate mode then flip it around to pound out the commentary on the keyboard. The smooth, solid hinge, which can rotate in either direction, and quick screen refresh after rotation allowed for easy transition between slate and notebook modes with no detriment to productivity.
For me, the T900 is a big win. I cannot emphasize enough how much it feels like a slate in slate mode. On paper, it looks heavy and large, but the balance goes a long way to making it feel light and nimble. Battery life is as good as can be expected given its size and speed and can be boosted with a second battery. I really appreciate now why Fujitsu owners invariably speak highly of their tablets. That quality, of course, does not come cheap. The Fujitsu Lifebook T900 is a premium tablet starting at $1,989 with a dual digitizer and the specs I listed earlier. If you want a Tablet PC that really trucks, the T900 scales up very nicely with faster processor, more memory, SSD options, and a second battery in the modular bay. As of now, this is the Tablet PC I’m saving my pennies to get.