Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Tablet PCs - dunno...

OK. That may be a little misleading.

It isn't that I dunno if the Tablet PC form factor (format, way of life, whatever) is valid. It is - everything (well almost everything) has a place - and I can imagine quite a number of situations where it would be (a big part of) an ideal solution.

It is just that I dunno if the Tablet PC form factor will work for me or for the rest of us here at the Quark Group.

We're getting to the point where we need to deploy a CRM application and some project management software, amongst other things. We also need to keep better records of the work that we do - now, I'm not saying that we're bad at keeping records - we've got loads of info on our client sites and jobs here, it is just that we need a more structured way to keep all of this information and have it readily accessible to us all when and where we need it.

In particular, *I* need to find a way to keep *my* records better - I often use a piece of paper at a client site when we're discussing something to scratch notes, diagrams, serials, phone numbers of cute girls, requests and general information on and then have every intention of transferring all of this information into the relevant documentation here at the office. The problem is that often between this client site and entering this information into the computer, "stuff" happens (another client, the weekend, the paper migrates south on my desk and finds a warm place to hibernate for a week or two) which results in my not entering this information into the computer as quickly as I originally intended.

So, we've started using Outlook and in particular the Notes section of an Appointment to enter this information into - and this is where our Windows Mobile 5 PDAs have found yet another use. However, I still can't get everything in there as easily as I'd like - small keyboard, too small a page for many diagrams, and other excuses I care to make up as I go. WHat information is in there, however, syncs automatically to Exchange and is also relatively easy to pull into other documentation, reports and jobsheets.

I have been thinking for a while now about getting a new laptop and replacing my desktop with it. I have a trusty old Toshiba Satellite Pro 4600 Pentium III/900 laptop that goes most places with me and has done so for quite a few years now. It is easily enough to use onsite and when away from the office for a few days to check emails, run diagnostics on client sites and things like that, but there's no way I could use it as my main PC (screen res is too low and it just isn't fast enough) and no way we can use it to demo much to clients (too slow).

So, looking at a new laptop. Do I get a large, heavy, powerful laptop (17", Core 2 Duo, 4 GB, loads of HDD space, preferably 2 drives) and run my life from this unit? Do I get a smaller, 15" Core 2 Duo, 2 GB with heaps of HDD space to run most things on except serious Virtualization demonstration environments (that the 17" beast could do) and remote into the office to access the demos there? Do I look for a smaller, 12.1" Core 2 Duo laptop with 2 GB and enough HDD space and replace my older laptop with that, still keeping my desktop?

First, the mega gruntmeister. 1920*1200 LCD or nothing. 4 GB RAM. Whatever fast HDD that comes with it used as a secondary and the main HDD will be a Hitachi E7K200 or a Seagate equivalent when they make one. No *need* for a second monitor, but another display sure won't hurt. What *WILL* hurt, however, is my back from lugging this thing around everywhere with me. It will be easily able to handle a full SBS+TS+XP+XP demo to a client (or replace XP with Vista Business, whatever takes my fancy). It won't be fun to pull out at a coffee shop for a quick demo - it will take up most of the table. Not so much fun.

OK, so let's look at replacing my ageing Tosh SatPro with a newer unit. 1600*1050 is probably what I could live with as a minimum widescreen resolution for daily use (out of the office) with another display as a secondary in the office. It still isn't going to be particularly light and with a screen that small it won't be easy to demo much to a client - it'd be better with a small projector or plugged into an LCD of theirs. My back would not need as much physio/chiro which is a bonus. It wouldn't be able to handle a full SBS+TS+VB+VB demo unless I threw more RAM at it. In a coffee shop, it still isn't that great - takes up a more reasonable amount of table space, but the screen is getting a little pokey for 2 or 3 people around a coffee table.

Now we're down to the 12.1" or so notebook that's easy to lug around, running at 1400*1050 or so, which is kinda nearly almost 1600*1050, will definitely require a second desktop display if this were to replace my desktop and can't really be used to demo outside a coffee shop unless there's a projector in my car boot. It takes up less space than a dinner plate at a coffee shop, though! Most likely of all three units to make it to EVERY job I do and still bearable to use on a daily basis when out of the office. Actualy, as to demos, if it had 4 GB, it would likely have as much grunt as the 15" unit above, or extremely close to it.

(OK, I have to admit that I *can* live with a 1024*768 15.4" LCD display as the Satellite Pro 4600 has shown me, but that doesn't mean I enjoy it.)

And this is when I started to look at my options and decided that of all these, the 17" although it would be nice, really isn't something I'd like to lug around all day. The 15.4" is the worst of both worlds (still heavy and with a screen res I could scrape by with, but not really like), leaving the 12.1" being too small to *really* demo on (display-wise) but light enough to lug around all day and grunty enough as well as absolutely requiring a second screen if I were use this as a desktop replacement.

So, now, having decided that in reality, smaller actually IS better, I had a rethink of what I was looking at getting a notebook upgrade for. I wanted one to help me organise my record keeping a little better. And what do I do? I write stuff on paper all the time. How will replacing the SatPro help? It likely won't (although, I could use it to demo things to clients). So really? Waste of money for what I really need.

But, 12.1" brings Tablet PCs into play. Now, there's something that could be well useful as they are basically a big, thick, heavy (compared to a paper pad) digital piece of paper. We have Wi-Fi access at most client sites, so this big, thick piece of digital paper would be able to sync back to the office, and when we don't, we have GPRS/3G/HSDPA access which will also work fine.

Of course, as notebooks get smaller their proces go up, and add Tablet PC capabilities into the unit and it goes up quite a bit again. This makes a Tablet PC approximately the same cost as the big gruntmeister box. Hhmmm... OK. That means we're looking at shelling out somewhere in the vicinity of AU$3500 - AU$4500 on this setup, so we had better know it will deliver what it promises.

For a laugh, I decided to look on eBay for an M200 - the older sibling of the M400 Tablet PC I'd been eyeing off recently - to see what they were going for. They had a Pentium-M CPU and a max of 2 GB RAM as well as a dismal 32MB nVidia onboard video card (poor Aero performance), but they'd also give us an idea of what this form factor could actually achieve. My eBay exercise turned out to not be as silly as I had initially thought - there were a number of M200 units available for prices varying up to AU$1750. Included in this list of items was one that I eventually bought for AU$651.27 (including freight) which was a Pentium-M 1.5 GHz, 512MB RAM, 40 GB HDD unit - all up, well worth the price to see if this would work out for us.

So, including adding some extra RAM to it and swapping the 80 GB PATA from the SatPro into this, it cost a smidge over AU$1000. Well worth it, methinks, to see if this will let us know one way or the other as to the usability of Tablet PCs for both myself and the rest of us.

And then I bought a docking station - making the grant total a smidge under AU$1200. Again, well worth it as we'll also see how useful the docking stations are when it is at home back on the desk in the office.

We've also had a few clients asking us about the usefulness of a Tablet PC in general and in their business more specifically. Well, now we'll have some real world experience to back up our recommendations which is always a better place to come from. Other people's experiences are valuable, but often not as valuable as your own. :)

So, I'll keep posting as I see how this works out for me.

And on that note, sitting here with an empty glass of bourbon and listening to sigur rós, I think I'll "refill and chill" a little more.

The Outspoken Wookie