Replacement Tablet PC Options?

I have a Lenovo thinkPad X61 tablet that I use for a bunch of things, but mainly for working on the book in places that aren’t my home or office on campus, and lecturing. I do use the tablet features, primarily for marking up my lecture slides (I have PowerPoint slides that I use for class, and I leave blank spaces on them for examples, which I hand-write. This helps slow down the pace of the lecture a little, which is the chief student complaint about PowerPoint lectures.

The X61 is a few years old, now– three and a bit years— so it’s been getting kind of creaky. It crashes hard every couple of days and needs to be rebooted, and the wireless, which has always been kind of flaky, is getting to be ridiculously flaky. A lot of this is probably software related, and would clear up if I backup up my files and reinstalled the OS, but I haven’t wanted to deal with the hassle.

There are, however, a few issues that seem to be hardware problems, and these are getting a little worrying. This morning, for example, when I pulled it out of my bag, it was making what I can only describe as squeaky noises from the vicinity of the speaker. More disturbingly, while it had been asleep, it was now solidly off, and did not respond to pressing the power button. It stopped making noise after I took the battery out and put it back, and has now come back up, but I’m worried.

So, I think I probably need to start thinking about a replacement. Which means an opportunity for you, the reader, to weigh in, because my knowledge of the current state of the laptop market is pretty minimal. So:

What should I be looking at if I need to replace my ThinkPad X61 tablet?

this is, of course, subject to a bunch of constraints that won’t get read, but I feel I must type out anyway:

Constraint 1: It must run Windows. I am not a fan of Microsoft, but the fact is, I’m locked into a Windows state at the moment– my work computer, and our desktop machines at home run Windows, and I need to be able to move work back and forth between them as seamlessly as possible, and handle student-generated Windows files without trouble. Yeah, yeah, OpenOffice, blah, blah, blah. It doesn’t work as well as everybody says it does– anything with graphics or tables gets messed up, and that’s what I need to avoid.

Constraint 2: It must have a keyboard. No iPads, thanks.

Constraint 3: It must be reasonably fast. The currciulum we use for the intro classes these days uses a fair bit of simulation, so I need it to be able to run VPython programs well. This is another “no iPads” item, basically– I don’t want some stripped-down thing that can only run one program at a time, or only choose from a limited set of “apps.”

Constraint 4: It should have some tablet functionality, or the equivalent. This isn’t a complete deal-breaker, but I’m pretty happy with the “write on PowerPoint slides” scheme I’m now using, and I’d rather not have to completely re-invent my lectures again.

So, subject to those constraints, what should I be looking at?

23 thoughts on “Replacement Tablet PC Options?

  1. Yeah, yeah, OpenOffice, blah, blah, blah. It doesn’t work as well as everybody says it does– anything with graphics or tables gets messed up, and that’s what I need to avoid.

    I don’t know enough about the Windows laptop world to offer help here, but I second this complaint. I tried OpenOffice a bit over a year ago when PowerPoint suddenly stopped working on my office computer, and I found the presentation part of it to be unsuited to the purpose. Specifically, it would utterly botch any attempt I made to insert a figure into the presentation. For a while I worked around this problem by writing presentations only on the home computer, which has Keynote installed. I eventually learned from a colleague who encountered the same problem that the issue was a corrupt file; deleting said file caused PowerPoint to start working again.

    For all I know, the word processing and spreadsheet components may be perfectly fine, though I haven’t had need to test them. I use Word only to read other people’s Word documents (I’m a LaTeX aficionado); Excel is just fine as long as I don’t need to graph anything (and I seldom do).

  2. The tablet thing is what makes it hard. Dell makes a Latitude XT tablet, Lenovo has a replacement for the x61t (the x200t, I think), but they’re super-expensive for what they are, thanks to the relative rarity of tablets.

  3. Check out the HP TouchSmart tm2t. Might be a little anemic in the processor department, but it’s still an Intel Core i5.

  4. My Fujitsu tablet is holding up better than the Gateway tablet did, and I think when I compared prices it was cheaper than the Lenovo line. I’m really enjoying the extra battery in place of the CD/ROM drive, a good 5 hours if I leave things at the factory defaults, more if the display is dimmed. I don’t bother lugging the power cord – inverter – more cord around most days. And the sealed keyboard has saved my butt a couple times.

  5. I have a Toshiba Portege that I use as my main computer. It occasionally gets a little slow if I’m running Photoshop, Illustrator, IGOR, and SigmaPlot at the same time, but it’s a perfectly good desktop replacement, with the convertible tablet functionality. It’s a little smaller than a typical laptop, so if you need a large intrinsic screen/keyboard it won’t be ideal, but it’s great for taking handwritten notes in seminars, etc.

  6. Although I’m a supporter of both Linux and OpenOffice/LibreOffice, I’m going to limit my initial response to the question you actually asked:

    My suggestion is that you consider two separate devices. From what I have seen, current devices which attempt to combine both tablet and laptop functions end up being a compromise which results in a lame tablet and a lame laptop. It may well be that if you focus on getting a decent laptop and a usable tablet, you will spend about as much, and get a better solution. Having said that, I have to say that I have not researched using tablets to annotate PowerPoint, so I don’t really know what is available for that (if anything).

    P.S. [off-topic – feel free to skip]

    I can’t resist commenting on these points:

    I detect a bit of “you kids get offa my lawn!” in your post. Or to put it another way – “this is how I do it, and I’m not gonna change. You kids and your new fangled tablets and clouds! Why, in my day, we had green-screens and were glad to get ’em.”

    File formats: I don’t think it’s unreasonable to educate your students on using open formats – PDF for documents you only need to read (you can also annotate), other formats if editing or data access is required.

    OpenOffice/LibreOffice: “A bit more than a year” is a long time in the tech world (especially since version 3.3 was just released), so if you look again you might find that OO/LO are much improved in the areas you mentioned. However, I doubt that OO/LO will ever be direct replacements for MS Office – Microsoft is too crafty to ever let that work well. That does not mean that they are not fully functional and useful tools in their own right.

    PowerPoint – I’ll skip my usual rant on the evils of slideware, and just refer you to Edward Tufte. I will say, however, that I have seen Tufte do a presentation; he does use “slides” and other visual aids, but he does it very effectively, and without the use of slide-ware.

  7. Haven’t really kept up with things since I bought my mac, but unless Lenovo’s gone way downhill, I’d go for the newest model they have. Handle a decent number of other brands for work and there’s nothing among them that I really like.
    If you use it all the time, you need reliability and it’s well worth the additional cost.

  8. I’m going to second that Toshiba comment – I’ve been runnig an Toshiba Portege M700 for 3 years now with no complaints – well, no complaints after switching to Windows 7. Very durable, not a bad weight and, when I got it, one of the best processor/ram combos available in a tablet.

    My only beef with Toshiba is that their power cords kind of suck – I’ve had to replace the cords both on this machine and on the Toshiba Satelite tablet I had before (Which still runs fine, and no hardware issues, it was just on the slow side, as it was almost 5 years old). But both of them stood up to considerable abuse and lazyness (including various drops and coffe spills), had fabulous tablet functionality and a good solid keyboard.

    Not sure what the latest Toshiba tablet is, but they have a pretty good track record with these things, so Toshiba gets my recomendation.

  9. Lenovo x201 is nice and of good build quality, but it can generate a lot of heat. Even when in idle. You should make use that whatever laptop you choose to get a low wattage cpu. Lot of cores running at a high frequency are also generally of little use.

    Btw, a large portion of the developers of OpenOffice is now working on LibreOffice instead, because of a copyright and trademark conflict with Oracle who owns OpenOffice.

  10. I forgot the most important part. If you don’t need more than 80-160GB, then make sure you get an SSD harddrive (of a good brand). It will give your OS a real boost like fast bootup and loading, since SSD drives has vastly better latency and generally higher throughput than spinning ones.

  11. You forgot to mention if Union will be paying for the laptop or if you are buying it yourself. This makes a big difference as to how much it is realistic to spend.

    Unfortunately, right now all the manufacturers seem to be fixated on the idea of iPad style tablets and the traditional Windows tablet with stylus is seen as yesterday’s news. This means that there haven’t been many improvements to these models over the past couple of years. If you really need the tablet functionality and cost is not an issue then the Lenovo is a good bet. If cash is tighter then look at the Dell models.

    If you can stand to live without tablet functionality then you will get an awful lot more bang for your buck. I would go with Lenovo for high end (I’ve just ordered one myself), although I’ve also heard good things about Packard Bell business laptops. For lower cost Dell, Acer and Sony make a few good models.

    Processor wise, I would go with an intel i5 or i7 if you can afford it, since the i3 is not much of an improvement over dual core. I would also go with the 64bit version of Windows 7 and get at least 4GB RAM (memory is cheap at the moment so it makes sense to max it out). SSDs are great if you can afford them, but otherwise a 7200rpm hard drive makes a big difference over 5400rpm. If you are doing anything with 3D graphics then a standalone graphics card is essential (e.g. Nvidia or ATI models) but otherwise Intel integrated graphics is fine.

    Other things to be wary of are crappy keyboards and trackpads. I would check out a couple of reliable review sites (e.g. for any model you are thinking of buying because it is difficult to check this sort of stuff over the internet.

  12. I’m going to second Uqbar’s suggestion of two devices, even though it is non-responsive to the RFP.

    I did this last year because the departments’s tablet PCs could barely managing playing slides and recording at the same time, and went seriously flaky if asked to also run Stata. I used a Wacom Bamboo Pen & Touch. It took most of a weekend to get to the point where it felt as though I was writing on the screen.

  13. Our campus got a good look at the hp EliteBooks last week, and the 2740p (their professional line) tablet pc might do the trick It is built like a tank.

    Of course I’m writing this on a Lenovo X60 that I’ve been beating the crap out of for some years, so I have nothing bad to say about Lenovo’s professional line.

  14. Three words: “Fu Jit Su”

    Fujitsu make the best powerful-tablets on the planet, and have for years. Find a local reseller if you have one, and walk in and take a look. If you don’t have a local reseller, call Fujitsu sales, tell the rep what you want, mention your blog traffic and see what they can hook you up with.

    Worst case, drop me a line and I’ll get the locals here to quote you something, but international sales are not the best solution for something like a computer that might have problems in the warranty period.

    /uses Fujitsu Lifebook (non-tablet) laptops pretty much exclusively. They’re simply excellent, unless you want a machine you can drop-kick, in which case buy a Thunkpad instead because Thunkpads are indestructible.

  15. uqbar,

    It’s not a “you kids lawn blah blah blah” thing. In the past when Chad has asked this sort of question with requirements stated just this clearly, he used to get open source zealots completely ignoring his query and expressing themselves in a way nigh unto berating him for considering anything other than their personal preference.

    And frankly, no, OpenOffice/LibreOffice spreadsheet and charting is still braindead compared to Excel. But both beat hacking together plotting code in Matlab or IDL with procedurally generated labels and output file names 🙂

  16. Nonetheless, Chad, given the penchant of physicists for putting sketching with their kvetching, before laying down cash I would say see if you can borrow someone’s wacom and test drive. If it turns out you like, way cheaper to buy than another tablet (assuming you have a laptop at your disposal).

    More relevantly, if you don’t like, next time you can put that constraint into the problem statement for people to ignore…

  17. ASUS Eee Slate EP121 should be available for purchase soon. It has plenty of horsepower for a tablet and excellent pricing for what it offers, only downside would be that you would need to use an external bluetooth keyboard and mouse.

    If price is no issue, just get the Thinkpad x201t.

  18. My wife has an HP TouchSmart that she absolutely loves. It’s a nice machine and was pretty inexpensive. It’s more than capable of running running Office 2k7 Pro Plus with no problems and the machine as a whole has been rock stable (I don’t think she’s ever seen a blue screen on that machine).

  19. Oh, and unlike LWF@3, hers is a tm2 (no t), and has an AMD processor in it. As long as you’re not looking to play Crysis, it’s fine.

  20. A) The open office complaint is bullshit. I’ve taught classes at a university, and I never had any issues at all with student-submitted work.

    B) But more importantly, whatever computer you get you can install Windows on! It’s called reformatting. If you want to keep the original operating system too you can- gasp- dual boot! I have a Mac mini that dual boots Max OS and Ubuntu, and I have an X61 that dual boots Ubuntu and Vista.

  21. I’m not getting any commission from Apple, and I’d like to think I haven’t joined the cult, but still…I’d like to point out that macs run windows, either as a virtual machine or as dual boot. Also, windows has version of office for the mac. I’ve seen my time devoted to maintaining my computer shrink to pretty much zero since I joined the dark side, this fact alone makes it worthwhile for me, but your mileage may vary. Also, no tablet functionality yet, sadly.

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