Steve S, a GottaBeMobile.com reader and frequent reviewer, recently spent some time with TabletKiosk and their new Sahara i440D Slate Tablet PC. As is typical for Steve, he has written up a very detailed review of the new i440D and his time spent with the good folks at TabletKiosk.
Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi: Fortune (is the) Empress of the World, and it was by the kindness of Fortune that I was given the opportunity last Friday to demo the new Sahara i440D dual mode (dual digitizer) slate and talk to some of the kind folks at TabletKiosk about their new product.
To start from the beginning, I was in Los Angeles late last week to attend a series of all-day technical meetings. My schedule was full. Looking in on the GottaBeMobile website at intervals, I read about Allegiance Technology’s planned demo of several tablet models in Orange County, just a short drive from where I was staying. Misreading the date, I posted a short lament that here I was only a few short miles away, but unable to attend because I was obligated full time to my company activities. I really wanted to see the new TK slate!
Later that day, I received a very nice e-mail from Gail Levy, TK’s Director of Marketing, inviting me to come over to their offices in Torrance. I could see the i440D there. Game on!
So late Friday morning, after my meetings were finally finished, I drove over and met with Gail and a member of the TK technical staff; we spent an hour playing with an i440D and talking about its design.
To cut directly to the bottom line, the i440D is a well-thought-out product, and the inclusion of touch screen capability sets a new level of utility for mobile platforms. The novelty of being able to use my fingertip to open windows and menus, select options and close applications took only a minute to get used to, but in that same minute it also became a must have feature. Others have reported exactly the same reaction; see Kevin Tofel’s comment at http://tinyurl.com/2r973o . But enough for now; back to our story.
TK is a boutique OEM. They create their own hardware requirements and work with a Taiwanese manufacturing group to create their products. This manufacturing group apparently works with many clients and has broad access to technologies of many types, so TK is able to create whatever type of product they wish, within reason.
By now, you’ve all seen pictures of the Sahara i440D and read descriptions of its basic features. Therefore, I won’t spend very much time reiterating these basics, except to say that the i400 family comprises three slate-style tables that feature different combinations of CPU’s and touch or active digitizing screens (or both). The i440D features a Boe Hydis 12.1Ã¢â‚¬Â screen which is very slightly inset into the front frame. The screen is flanked by two columns of small, square, flush-mounted push buttons (when held in landscape orientation). These pushbuttons have very short travel, but good feel. I didn’t ask about button configurability, but I presume that they are.
The slate features a full array of ports, including IEEE 1394a FireWire, PCMCIA and eSATA ( ! ). The stylus appears to be a standard Wacom design with pocket clip, eraser and single switch ( I think ) The stylus garage is in the lower right corner and cleverly designed so that the pocket clip serves to hold the stylus in. Along the top edge, there are separate slide switches for On/Off, Bluetooth and WiFi. Each slide switch has an attractive blue LED within the slide part of the switch to denote status. (I particularly like this approach of having discrete hardware switches for these functions, as well as front face pushbuttons for screen rotation and, if equipped, touch versus active digitizing).
TK derives their tablet designs from the needs of five specific vertical markets and uses focus groups to vet features and refine these designs and the new i440D reflects this process. One of the things that really impressed me was that for every question that I asked, they had a logical-seeming explanation sometimes quite lengthy! For example, the i440D is a bit unusual because it is arranged to favor the landscape, rather than the portrait, orientation. TK explained that this was what their focus groups recommended, in part because of the way that these users thought they would use a touch-enabled device. However, it didn’t end there. TK pointed out that the location and arrangement of the buttons on the frame (or bezel) were picked specifically to allow the longer edges of the frame to remain relatively narrow, so that the tablet would not end up appearing too square-ish (and clunky-looking). Further, when the screen is rotated to the portrait orientation, the 5 function buttons are now along the lower edge, where they can easily be reached with your thumb. A clever approach, indeed!
This same attention to detail applied to the location of the PCMCIA slot. In portrait orientation, the slot is on the top of the left hand corner, a good place if the card is any type of radio transceiver device. When rotated to portrait mode (in a clockwise direction), the PCMCIA slot is now on the upper right side, again a good location for a transceiver! These little design touches cropped up again and again in our discussions.
The tablet that I demo’ed was a prototype, with pasted-on labels. Gail showed me an example with the final production frame with lettering, which was very tastefully done. The prototype had the white case, which looks somewhat Apple-esque. It turns out this that is no coincidence, since some of the designers that TK works with have experience with Apple products. I asked about the black case, and TK explained that it isn’t simply black-colored. They elected to use a thin, black elastomer coating which provides both the color and a non-slip grip. Gail thinks that users will find it good-looking. All I can say is that I’ve handled instruments that use a similar coating, and it’s both durable and very effective.
The case is almost exactly one inch thick, and although it is comfortably rounded on all the edges, it looks (and is) kind of boxy. Why was I not surprised to discover that they had a reason for that, too? It starts with the need for good thermal management. The boxy shape provides room for good airflow through the interior of the tablet. Sculpting the edges (as, say, Fujitsu does) to get a sexier shape would have reduced this advantage. In addition, the boxy shape provides for a narrow impact or ““crumple zoneÃ¢â‚¬Â around the edges; if the tablet is dropped, the frame may get cracked, but the interior electronics have some protection. Both in my hands and resting on my forearm, balance seemed excellent; no side seemed obviously heavier than another.
Speaking about thermal management, I asked them whether they had considered more sophisticated approaches for this critical need. TK said that they and their Taiwanese partners were familiar with a variety of approaches, but TK chose to take an entirely pragmatic approach keyed to cost effectiveness. As mentioned above, the boxy design provides needed room for air flow over all the critical components; TK implemented a 2-vent, straight-through (literally ““from one side to the otherÃ¢â‚¬Â) airflow using conventional thermal management components. They also talked a bit about the benefits of fixed-speed versus variable speed fans. The prototype that I handled appeared to have a variable speed fan installed and I never once heard any noticeable fan noise. I can only say that whatever the TK approach is, it is effective; the slate was only modestly warm and I couldn’t feel any hotspots at all. Gail claimed that the tablet had been running for at least the last 24 hours and had recently been on its AC adaptor. Even so, the slate showed no signs of it!
Touching briefly on the internal electronics, TK noted that the motherboard was kept smaller than usual so that it would fit into a range of somewhat smaller cases. (TK did not say that they intended to issue any smaller designs in the foreseeable future; I simply got the impression that they were thinking ahead.) They also commented that to the degree possible, the internal electronics were kept modular (presumably to make the slate easy to service). For example, the external power interface was a module that plugged into the motherboard.
The back of the case is almost perfectly flat. The battery fits into one edge and there is a docking connector almost exactly in the center of the back. TK has thoughtfully provided three access doors, one for RAM access, one for HD access and one for access to the wireless card. The slate can take up to 4 GB of RAM and uses the 2.5Ã¢â‚¬Â HD form factor. TK mentioned that with all the activity in new and existing wireless technologies, access to the wireless card would be important for those who wanted to upgrade their WiFi or perhaps migrate to EVDO or some other future connectivity option. Each of the doors looked to be simple to open and reseal. What was really obvious here was that TK recognizes that component technologies are fast changing, and they’ve taken the right measures to make sure that the user can upgrade easily and without taking the slate completely apart. (However, TK mentioned that the CPU is soldered onto the motherboard and is therefore not upgradable.)
The standard battery is good for about 3.5 hours of operation. TK says that they will eventually offer an external battery that will have a flat, rectangular form factor so that it will cover the entire back (presumably like the Motion external battery). The battery will connect to the tablet via the docking connector.
About the only thing that I didn’t like about the design of the case was the rubber feet, which are small and round but struck me as being unusually high (almost like little stubby table legs). They’re really not excessively high, but I thought they spoiled the modest lines of the case.
Finally, we came back to the real star of this show, the dual mode display. As I mentioned above, TK is using the Boe Hydis wide viewing angle XGA display combined with a TK proprietary touch screen overlay. Of course, the surface of this overlay is what you both write on and touch. The screen viewing angles appear to be perfectly normal and extend to the usual high off-normal angles that we’ve all come to expect from Boe Hydis screens. More importantly, I couldn’t see any obvious optical penalties associated with the touch screen overlay. None! The screen resolution and clarity seemed completely unaffected. About the only thing that I didn’t like about the screen was that it is ever-so-slightly inset into the frame; that is, there’s a thin ledge surrounding the screen. I’ve always found insets to be distracting when I’m trying to write, and I really wish that TK had done a more flush integration, but I understand that this sort of thing is sometimes a design compromise. At least the ledge isn’t pronounced!
The surface of the screen had a slight ““giveÃ¢â‚¬Â to it; it was not hard-surfaced and rigid like a conventional screen. Of course with the touch functionality, something like this was not unexpected. I tried inking with the stylus only long enough to ensure that the active digitizing part of the dual mode worked entirely as one would expect, which it did. When I asked how durable the surface of the dual mode screen was, Gail mentioned that TK started out as a touch screen manufacturer, and that similar screens were being used for POS (point of sales) applications in places like Las Vegas, where they get used and abused nearly 24 hours a day. Those screens held up well and TK was expecting that their new slate would, too. For what it’s worth, I had no significant impression that the screen surface was at all fragile, despite the slight ““give.Ã¢â‚¬Â
The screen seemed to be a bit prone to reflections and glare; the surface layer appeared to have a light matte finish, but apparently had no real anti-reflection coating. I asked if a screen protector could be used without interfering with the touch function, and TK said yes. My immediate thought was that a Vikuiti Ã¢â€žÂ¢ screen protector might improve the screen visibility slightly and would also provide the extra surface protection that I think nervous users are going to want (regardless of TK’s experience).
Without repeating myself too much, the touch functionality was a revelation! I’ve used touch screens before (quite extensively, actually) but in this setting it was somehow new and immediate. The prototype was running XP, rather than Vista, so I didn’t get the most up-to-date experience but even so, touching on the start button and selecting an application was both easy and fun! As handy as a stylus is, I quickly found myself not wanting to go back to only having active digitizing. I suddenly wanted it all! TK’s screen was both sensitive and responsive, and it was easy to touch and ““clickÃ¢â‚¬Â on small icons and tabs despite my fat fingers. TK talked briefly about the trades between 80 and 120 gram touch screens. Because of the dual mode, TK selected the 80 gram version for their slate and to me, it felt perfect. We also talked about palm rejection and, again, because of the dual use aspect, they don’t think that it’s needed. (Palm rejection figures prominently if you are writing, but TK points out that if you have dual mode, the natural tendency will be to use the pen to write in active mode, where the weight of your palm isn’t a factor.)
The bottom line here is that I couldn’t really find anything of real significance to fault in this new dual mode screen — except, of course, for that thin ledge!
Before I had to leave, TK revealed one last interesting fact. Almost as an afterthought, I asked them what kind of software (you can read ““crapwareÃ¢â‚¬Â here, if you like!) bundle they were intending to offer with the i440D. I was both pleased and astonished when Gail said: ““None.Ã¢â‚¬Â She went on to explain that their various clients generally had their own specialized software needs and for that reason, it made no sense for TK to bundle any add-ons with the slate. For users who were interested, she said that the TK website had links to various software partners that TK has agreements with.
Will wonders never cease???
St. Louis, MO