Slate and Tablet PC info
Tablet PC Questions and Answers
(by Geoff Walker)
LG's Tablet PC
I have just read your excellent article "How to Select a Second-Generation Tablet PC" in issue #52 of Pen Computing Magazine. I have been searching for some time for such an article, so I was very happy when I found yours. I have one question for you: Have you had any exposure to LG's Tablet PC convertible, the LT20? If you have, what do you think of it? Does it stack up against the models evaluated in your report? The LT20 is available in Australia, which is where I am located. It ticks all the right boxes, but I haven't seen one yet. I haven't taken the plunge yet, but will probably be getting a Tablet PC soon. Your input would be greatly appreciated.
Thank you for the compliment on the article. I've seen the LG Electronics LT20 at a trade show but haven't had any hands-on time with it. It looks attractive (a lot like a ThinkPad), and it has the Hydis wide-angle screen, but it's nothing special. Although the LG people told me at CES in January that they intended to launch the LT20 in the USA during 2005, I wonder if that's still true now that the IBM X41 ThinkPad is available (the LT20 was developed by a Korean joint venture between LG and IBM). The X41 is not the same as the LT20, although they're quite similar.
On a specifications basis, I prefer the Fujitsu T4000 over the LG LT20. I think the T4000 is a significantly better product. It has the following features that the LT20 doesn't: an optional outdoor-readable screen; an internal optical disk that can be replaced with a second battery; an optional 12" SXGA+ screen (with standard viewing angles); a shock-mounted hard drive (I don't know if the LG has this); an optional 5400 rpm [faster] hard drive; a dual microphone array for background noise cancellation; a 100% keyboard; and a docking connector (with related port replicator). That's a substantial list of advantages. When I said that the LG is "nothing special" I meant that it doesn't have anything that makes it stand out -- it doesn't have any of the T4000's additional features. It doesn't "tick enough boxes" for my taste. In my opinion the LT20 would have to be priced at 60% or less of the Fujitsu to be valued appropriately. Configured the way I would buy it (1.8 GHz CPU, 80 GB HDD, 512 MB in one slot, indoor-outdoor screen, DVD/CD-RW), the T4000 is US$2,349 on the Fujitsu website.
--Geoff Walker, Technology Editor
Best TPC with Hydis Screen
Thanks for writing the fine article "Wide-Angle LCDs and the Tablet PC" in issue #53 of Pen Computing Magazine. I am in the market to buy a Tablet PC for my personal use. I will use it primarily as an "Internet device" at home for email and web surfing. Can you recommend the current "best" tablet PC with the Hydis screen that is WiFi enabled, has an on-board CD burner and has good battery life? I greatly appreciate the benefit of your current knowledge on this subject.
--Barry Grayson DDS
The "best" product that meets your criteria is the Fujitsu T4000. It's the only Tablet PC that has the Hydis screen and an onboard CD burner. It is an excellent machine; I have no hesitation about recommending it.
--Geoff Walker, Technology Editor
I estimate for a fire and water restoration company and I have just recently been considering a Tablet PC purchase. I came across your articles on Pen Computing Magazine's web site ("How to Select a Second Generation Tablet PC" in issue #52, and "Home Inspections and the Tablet PC" in issue #48) with great interest. After seeing a colleague using the software suite I have (Xactimate, www.xactware.com) on a Gateway Tablet PC I thought the time may be right to consider a Tablet PC. What has previously taken a contortionist ability on my part juggling between keyboard and mouse was almost effortless on his part as far as data entry goes. I was somewhat disappointed with viewing angle on that particular model, though. The performance of Tablets seems to lag a bit behind but prices seem to be reminiscent of $500 hammers being sold to the DOD. I would value your thoughts as to an "update" to your articles since I find myself following the same logic process.
The "Second Generation Tablet PC" article was written in Sept 2004 and a few things have changed since then. The Home Inspections article was written in January 2003, and a lot of things have changed since then. Providing an update on the Home Inspections article is too difficult. I can make a few comments on what's changed since the most recent article, though.
One major thing is that the price delta for tablet functionality has dropped from $250 down to $150 or less, and sometimes zero. For example, HP's tc4200 (the tablet version) and nc4200 notebooks (identical, but no tablet functionality) are both US$1,599. There is no price difference. Who wouldn't buy the tablet functionality if it's free?
Performance of ultraportable tablets (10" and 12") is exactly on par with performance of ultraportable notebooks. I suspect you're not comparing apples to apples -- you're probably comparing ultraportable tablets with thin-and-light notebooks. If you want a "thin-and-light" class (14") tablet, consider the Toshiba Tecra M4. It's a full-fledged, enterprise-ready notebook. Performance is right up with all the competitive thin-and-light notebooks; it just has tablet functionality as an added benefit.
If your job entails using portrait-mode forms, then viewing angle is very important. Viewing angle is improving as more tablets use the Hydis LCD. Today there are three 12" convertibles in the USA that use it, the Fujitsu T4000 (best in my opinion), the IBM X41 ThinkPad, and the HP tc4200 referenced above.
You may notice that I'm not mentioning slates. I'm assuming that your job entails some typing, and I believe that slates require too much compromise in mobile use with a keyboard. You can use a convertible on your lap; you can't use a slate with an attachable keyboard on your lap. Balancing a slate with an attachable keyboard on the hood of a car is problematic; balancing a convertible Tablet is no problem.
--Geoff Walker, Technology Editor
Fujitsu Stylistic 1200
I just read your review of the Fujitsu Stylistic 1200 from a long, long time ago. I hate to bug you but perhaps you can help me. I am looking at getting one of these used to use as an ebook reader. Two questions if you can remember some details that far back: (1) Any idea if the display can be rotated? (2) Can the 64-shade monochrome screens display white? I don't need a color display, but I would like it to at least be black on white and not a typical amberish LCD color.
Fujitsu did an optional rotation driver for one of the Stylistics from around that time, but I don't remember which one. The ST-1200 definitely doesn't have native rotation, and since the chance of finding a copy of an optional driver (if one exists) is zero, the answer is no.
The mono screen is shades of gray, definitely not black on white. Everyone wanted "paper white" screens at that time, but they didn't exist. The background of the screen was always a tinted gray, never white. As I recall, the contrast of the passive mono LCD was somewhere around 40:1 at best, nothing like today's 400:1 active TFT LCDs.
My advice is to forget the idea, you'll go nuts trying to work around the limitations of the machine.
--Geoff Walker, Technology Editor
Thank you very much for your reply. I have done what you suggested and given up on the idea. I decided on a GEB/eBookwise device (http://www.ebookwise.com/ebookwise/) built for this purpose. I think the battery life issue decided me. This device also does not have a true white LCD, but now that I have used it a lot I find this isn't as big an issue as I thought for me. The screen could be a touch bigger, but I really like the size. It beats a real book in almost all cases except outside reading where a normal book is easier.
I'm trying to decide on a Tablet PC for my upcoming semesters as a computer engineering student. I think I have it narrowed down to the Motion Computing M1400 and the Fujitsu ST5022D but I can't decide. The biggest differences that I can find are the battery life and keyboard. I think having an attachable keyboard would be a huge plus, allowing me to type easier in more situations, but I'm not sure if it's worth the significantly lowered battery life as compared to the Fujitsu 9-cell. The Fujitsu, however, does have an option of an attache case that allows for a similar posture, although I'm not sure about the space it takes up behind the screen. Other than that they seem very nearly the same beast. Can you offer any advice? I'm sure you're quite busy, but I'm patient and would rather wait for a real answer from you, than get a hasty one tomorrow.
My advice is to forget slates and buy a convertible. Why do you want a slate? Why do you want to have to fumble with attachable keyboards or cables or portfolio cases? Not to mention external CD drives. Don't you want to be able to use it on your lap when a seminar has only chairs and not desks or tables? You can't use a slate on your lap with an attachable keyboard -- it falls over backwards when you angle the screen so you can read it. The notebook form-factor has been around since 1982, and it's extremely well refined at this point. Buy a convertible, they will account for 87% of the Tablet PC market in 2005. That means more choices and lower prices due to more competition.
If you absolutely must have a slate for some reason, buy the Motion LE1600. Motion's attachable keyboard is better than Fujitsu's portfolio case solution, and Motion's attachable "slab" battery is better than Fujitsu's edge-attachable battery.
In convertibles, if you want an "ultraportable" (12-inch) class machine, buy the Fujitsu T4000. It's an all-around excellent machine that works very well as a slate. If you want a "thin-and-light" (14-inch) class machine, buy the Toshiba Tecra M4. It's an excellent Tablet PC. I want one myself.
--Geoff Walker, Technology Editor
TPC Handwriting Recognition
Pen Computing Technology Editor Geoff Walker answers reader Christopher Paris' questions:
(1) The comment in "How to Select a Second-Generation Tablet PC" in issue # 53 of Pen Computing Magazine on Tablet PC handwriting recognition ("up to 40% error rate") wipes out the purpose and validity of the entire tablet-themed issue in one stroke. If this statistic were true, why would anyone use a Tablet PC? Better yet, how could they? And, finally, why would they buy an issue devoted to Tablet PC's? The entire market would collapse.
Geoff Walker: I apologize, the statistic was admittedly out of date. That was the number for version 1 of the Tablet PC OS. V1 was in fact unusable by a large percentage of people. This was made obvious in any situation where one was able to observe large numbers of people all using Tablets at the same time (e.g., at a Microsoft Tablet PC conference in late 2002 or early 2003). Later versions (v1.5 and now 2005) are significantly better. Still, if your handwriting doesn't match the recognizer's model, recognition can still be not very good. And it has nothing to do with the "clarity" of the handwriting. Someone who writes perfectly clearly can still have bad recognition. It's the shape and method of forming the characters that's important. 80% accuracy (20% error rate, or one wrong word in five) is probably a better number for the "unlucky" users whose handwriting doesn't match what the recognizer's looking for. You quote 90% below, which is reasonably good; a user whose handwriting is a perfect fit for the recognizer can get 95%.
(2) My handwriting is "doctor's prescription" abysmal -- a teacher's nightmare mix of capitals, lowercase, print and cursive -- yet I manage to write entire pages and convert them with 90% + accuracy. The most common recognition problems come into play with odd word patterns or phrases: industry jargon, web addresses, mathematical expressions. But normal English recognition is superb. If the error rate were anywhere near 40%, I wouldn't be able to function with it. Can Pen Computing Magazine cite the source of its low number?
Geoff Walker: Our 40% number came from actual testing of the V1 recognizer by multiple people. It was a worst case figure.
(3) Some other corrections: the engine is trainable, through various free Tablet PC powertoys such as the "Dictionary Tool". Not every tablet has a "writing on ice" feel: this is dependent on the manufacturer and whether you use a screen protector or not. Some are very much like pen on paper and, like a PDA, this improves recognition.
Geoff Walker: I guarantee 100% that the recognizer is not trainable. It it is supposed to become trainable in the Longhorn release. This is mostly good news, although in vertical applications it causes problems -- it prevents a "pool" approach to hardware in a group of users, and when the hard drive fails, the training goes away with it and must be redone on a new hard drive. Training takes time.
The Dictionary Tool is not training the recognizer, it's simply expanding the dictionary to include more words (which does help recognition). "Training" refers specifically to changing how the recognizer works when it looks at individual characters, the way they're formed. When you train a recognizer you tell it that you generally write a character "this" way rather than "that" way. Training biases the recognizer towards your particular style of handwriting. Adding words has nothing to do with that. I'm not saying that the Dictionary Tool isn't valuable; it is very valuable and can significantly increase recognition rates. It does it by getting the recognizer to ignore the fact that it can't understand your "g" (or whatever) in favor of the other letters that all match the word in the dictionary. When a word is in the dictionary, it changes the recognition from dependence on individual characters to dependence on a word match. It's a matter of statistics.
A few Tablet PC OEMs have done a very good job of achieving "pen on paper" feeling in the last year; most have not. Using a screen protector can help a lot, since the relatively soft PET plastic surface inherently has more friction.
(4) The statement that "you can make sketches in your typed notes, which is what [the Tablet PC] is really intended for" is ludicrous. Pen input is aimed at replacing the keyboard. That may not happen any time soon, given the fact that we have generations of people trained in typing, but hearing such a comment from the editor of a magazine called Pen Computing seems otherworldly at best. Does Walker use a full-sized keyboard for his PDA and smart phone?
Geoff Walker: The Tablet PC's handwriting input is not intended to replace the keyboard. Just ask Microsoft. Saying that pen input is aimed at replacing the keyboard is ludicrous. No, I don't use a full-size keyboard for my smartphone, but that's irrelevant. I don't create documents on my smartphone. The pen is aimed at doing things you can't do effectively with a keyboard -- sketching, annotating documents, taking searchable notes quietly, sending ink emails during a meeting,
etc. It will never replace the keyboard.
(5) Even [Editor-in-Chief] Conrad Blickenstorfer's opening editorial seems to be off the mark. His criticisms of the Tablet include confusing power state buttons. I don't know, but the model I use has a single power button that toggles in and out of hibernation if I tap it briefly. Not rocket science.
Geoff Walker: I agree that Conrad is obsessed with the power state buttons. He sees dozens of different products, so he tends to become frustrated by the lack of a standard for what happens when you press the power button. An individual user only sees one product, and thus learns the particular controls and their configuration very well.
Wide Angle LCDs for TPC
I enjoyed your article "Wide-Angle LCDs and the Tablet PC" in issue #53 of Pen Computing Magazine. I am in the process of selecting a Tablet PC for use in my law practice, and I find I'm torn between the benefits of 12" XGA wide-angle displays at 1024 x 768 and 12" SXGA+ displays at 1400 x 1050. Those who use the 1400 x 1050 claim that it provides a greater viewing area, which would be beneficial when reviewing and editing documents. Those favoring the wide-angle displays from BOE Hydis point out how wonderfully easy it is to read from a Tablet PC with the better viewing angle. I get by with a 12" XGA 1024 x 768 laptop display now, but I must admit I prefer the resolution of my 1680 x 1050 desktop display (an Apple 20 Cinema Display -- which also uses LG-Philips wide-angle technology -- hmmmm).
I realize you can't make a recommendation for me (not knowing how I would use it, etc.), but if you were given the choice between SXGA+ and the Hydis XGA, which would you choose? I'm impressed with the Fujitsu T4000 that offers a choice between the two (but not both!). Any idea if an SXGA+ is in the works at
Personally I would choose the SXGA+ display over the XGA. I've been using a 14" UXGA (1600 x 1200, 142 dpi) display in a Dell notebook for several years and I'm totally hooked on high resolution. The ability to view two side-by-side documents is a great productivity increaser.
The question to ask yourself is, how much am I going to use the device in portrait mode? That's where the Hydis screen makes a big difference. You won't notice that much difference in landscape mode, since a standard laptop screen is already about 120 degrees in landscape. If you anticipate little portrait-mode use, and you already have a pre-disposition towards high resolution, then your decision is clear: choose the Fujitsu T4000 or the Toshiba Portege M200 (the only 12" SXGA+ Tablet PCs on the market). If you're willing to go for 14", then the Toshiba Tecra M4 is the best choice. It's also SXGA+. Personally it's my current favorite of all Tablet PCs. It's also the best for Longhorn [the next version of Windows] because of its powerful video controller.
One caution about the 12" SXGA+ -- it's 144 dpi. That makes the non-scalable portions of the Windows interface (icons, menus, etc.) very small. You can scale the workspace in many applications (e.g., Word) by increasing the Zoom % but you can't change the overall application's scale without changing the system font size (as I mentioned in the article), and that has some undesirable side effects. A 14" SXGA+ screen is 124 dpi, which, in my opinion, is ideal. Until Longhorn comes out, that is. On a PC with a powerful discrete video controller (DX9 with pixel & shader v3 and 128 MB of VRAM), Longhorn allows scaling the entire window evenly, which will eliminate the issue. Once Longhorn is released, the market will gradually begin to understand that "more pixels is better because everything gets sharper," replacing the current understanding that "more pixels makes everything smaller and harder to read."
Regarding your Apple monitor, realize that it's ~100 dpi. It offers the benefit of more pixels so you can display more content, but the dot density is such that you have to be 20" - 24" away from it in order to avoid seeing excessive pixelation. The dot density of a 12" XGA (1024 x 768) screen is 106 dpi, which is fairly close to your Apple's 100 dpi. The point that I'm making is that you must remember that by going to a 12" SXGA+ screen you're experiencing two factors that can't be separated -- more pixels allow you to display more content, but the much higher dpi makes that content very small, so you have to get quite close to the screen. If you can, try it before you buy it.
Hydis' manufacturing process is not well-suited for making very high-dpi LCDs. They definitely can't make a 12" SXGA+ (144 dpi), so they will probably make a 14" SXGA+ (124 dpi) instead. If their management gets very conservative, they'll make a 14" XGA (91 dpi), which would be big strategic mistake in light of Longhorn.
--Geoff Walker, Technology Editor
TPCs, Vista. "Glare Screens"
Pen Computing Technology Editor Geoff Walker answers reader Andrew Amsel's questions:
(1) I had read that Longhorn/Vista will require a DirectX 9.0-capable video card to run. If this is the case, won't many or all of the current Tablet PCs fall short of this requirement, since they run the older Intel integrated graphics? Or, am I mistaken about this requirement?
Geoff Walker: You're right. Almost none of today's Tablet PCs are well-suited for Longhorn. OEMs are just starting to think about creating "Longhorn ready" Tablet PCs. You should see some around the beginning of 2006. Remember that Longhorn won't ship until the end of 2006. Also be aware that Longhorn will run on today's Tablet PC hardware by downgrading itself to "Windows XP graphics mode." The downgrade is automatic; Longhorn checks the hardware during startup and configures itself appropriately.
However, running Longhorn in "Windows XP graphics mode" doesn't give you any significant advantages. You don't get the totally scalable windows or any other major benefits. The capability exists just to provide backwards compatibility, without which Microsoft would be vilified (even more than usual). And since the initial release of Longhorn won't include WinFS, the new file system interface that provides uniform searchability across all file types, there really isn't much reason to run Longhorn on today's Tablet PCs.
I predict that the adoption curve for Longhorn will be the slowest yet -- it will take five years for the majority of PCs in the world to be running Longhorn. In comparison, roughly half of the world's active PCs are now running XP, three years after release.
The Tablet PC with the best video (in my opinion) is the Toshiba Tecra M4. It has an nVidia GeForce Go T6200 TE video controller with 64/128 MB of VRAM. It supports DX9 with pixel & shader v3.0, and 128 MB is enough VRAM for Longhorn. In my opinion, the Tecra M4 is the first truly enterprise-class Tablet PC. It's a ground-breaking machine.
(2) From everything you have written, I want a Tablet PC with a Hydis panel (you have made it far more than obvious that this is the way to go.) However, since I do a lot of typing, there are just the three choices in convertibles: Fujitsu T4000, LG LT20, and Sharp TN10W. I don't see the LG LT20 on LG's US site, so I assume it is not released yet. I also don't see the Sharp on the USA site, but I understand it has smaller keyboard keys. That would seem to leave me with the T4000, unless I missed something? Is that the best that I can currently do?
Geoff Walker: You're 100% right in wanting the Hydis screen. It makes a huge difference when the system is used in portrait mode. The number of convertibles available today in the US with the Hydis screen is very limited -- there are only three, as follows: the Fujitsu T4000, the HP Compaq tc4200 and the IBM X41 ThinkPad. The Fujitsu T4000 has the added advantage of being the only 12" Hydis Tablet PC with an internal CD-RW, starting at US$1,599 with an empty modular bay. The HP Compaq tc4200 is a very nice new 12" Tablet PC, also starting at US$1,599 not including external CD-RW. The IBM X41 ThinkPad is a nice 12" Tablet PC starting at US$1,499, not including external CD-RW, with legendary IBM durability and keyboard (the latter albeit only 95%) and lots of enterprise-oriented features.
At CES in January, LG told me that they plan to market the LT20 Tablet in the USA later this year, although I wouldn't count on it, since the LG notebook brand is basically unknown in the USA. Although the LT20 was developed by a Korean joint venture between LG and IBM, the IBM ThinkPad X41 is not the same as the LG LT20 -- they're similar but not identical. Now that the X41 is released, it seems less likely that the LT20 will be marketed in the USA.
The Sharp TN10W is at end-of-life. If you could find it at a big discount, e.g., $1,100 instead of $1,900, you might consider it -- but it's the previous generation of technology, so you should make sure it really meets your needs.
(3) If I go with a T4000, just a question about the Hydis display when used in "notebook mode": are the "layers" that are added to a Hydis panel for pen use substantially detrimental to the viewing enjoyment in notebook mode? In other words, would looking at a Hydis panel in notebook mode be as pleasurable as any other pure notebook screen? If I were to switch to a tablet with a Hydis panel, would I be likely to suffer possible eyestrain using it for extended periods? I now use standard "matte" LCD panels on my desktop and notebook. I understand that panels, such as the Hydis which have "glossy" screens, increase the contrast but introduce glare which can strain the eyes?
Geoff Walker: It's a complex topic. Every Tablet PC has a "writing surface" (covering) on top of the LCD, something standard notebooks do not have. The LCD in a Tablet PC is therefore inherently less visible. The covering is usually acrylic plastic but it can also be glass. In general, the light loss due to the covering is in the 5% - 10% range, typically 8%. The typical current brightness specification for Tablet PCs is around 180-190 nits. The brightness level is actually determined by the LCD manufacturers, all of whom are gradually upgrading their LCDs to higher brightness. The Hydis screen is currently at 180 nits. Personally I don't think you will be conscious of the difference between 180 and 165 nits (8%), since many notebooks are still at 150 nits, especially those in the ultraportable (10" - 12") class. Note also that high-dpi screens typically have lower brightness due to the smaller aperture ratio of the TFT LCD -- for example, the 12" SXGA+ (1400 x 1050, 144 dpi) screen used in the Fujitsu T4000 and Toshiba Portege M200 has a brightness of 170 nits.
Some of the very latest notebooks and Tablet PCs are beginning to appear with what is technically called a "glare" (glossy) screen. There is no common generic market name for a "glare" screen; each OEM has their own trademark name. For example, Fujitsu calls it "Crystal View." A "glare" screen is an LCD where the top layer (a polarizer) has no anti-glare treatment on it. Most LCDs today have an anti-glare treatment on the top layer; the treatment scatters reflected light so that you don't see clear reflections on the screen. For example, if you hold a current notebook screen so that you can see a reflection of a standard household light bulb, you'll see a very broad bright area, with no clear image of the light bulb. With a "glare" screen you'll see a relatively clear reflected image of the light bulb.
The advantage of a "glare" screen is that it seems sharper with richer, brighter (more vivid) colors. The image on the screen seems to "pop" when you look at it. This is because the anti-glare treatment also affects the light transmitted through the screen -- it makes the image a little fuzzier and duller. When you compare a normal LCD with a "glare" LCD side-by-side, you'll usually prefer the "glare" screen. The negative of a "glare" screen is (duh) more glare! It's often said that "glare" screens suffer from the "white shirt problem," meaning that the clear reflection of your white shirt in the screen can be quite distracting and/or annoying. Whether the increased glare will induce eyestrain over time is unknown.
It's unclear if notebooks in general are going to shift to "glare" screens. Based on the positive response by consumers so far and the increasing number of "glare" screens hitting the market, it's a good bet that it will become the standard.
If you were to compare a "glare" notebook with a "regular" Tablet PC side-by-side, you would definitely see a visible difference. However, some of the more experienced Tablet PC OEMs are starting to use a "glare" version of the Hydis LCD. For example, Fujitsu uses a "glare" Hydis LCD in the T4000. The writing surface is glass -- it's thinner and has higher light transmission than plastic. The glass has an anti-reflection (AR) coating on both sides, an anti-glare (AG) treatment on top, and an anti-smudge (anhydrous, or water-repelling) coating on top. Starting with a "glare" LCD in this arrangement is better because it moves the AR coating from the LCD up to the writing surface. However, even if the Tablet PC uses a "glare" screen, in a side-by-side comparison with a "glare" notebook, the Tablet PC LCD will typically seem very slightly dimmer and less vivid. In my opinion, the difference in actual use is negligible. Side-by-side comparisons don't count much in the real world of applications.
TPC in Home Inspections
Geoff, in reading your article "Home Inspections and the Tablet PC" in issue #48 of Pen Computing Magazine, I concluded for narrative reports the Tablet PC was not the sure way to go. I'm a real estate appraiser in sunny South Florida. As a home inspector, our job is to walk around the house and verify and document our findings. We use check boxes and drop-down lists within our appraisal software (Alamode, www.alamode.com), as well as some narrative areas. My questions are these: (1) Is there a Tablet PC that can be used outside? (2) Can I hook up a lapel microphone and speak about the property so that what I say will be transcribed directly into the software? (3) Can I use Vonage's VoIP software (www.vonage.com/features.php?feature=softphone) on a Tablet PC so that it works similar to a cellphone?
Yes, you can get a tablet that has an outdoor-readable screen. Motion, Fujitsu and Electrovaya all have them in slate form; only Fujitsu has them in convertible (notebook) form.
Yes, you can use speech recognition to record comments about the property. You must use a headset (close-talk) microphone, not a lapel mike. For best results it should be a USB headset rather than a standard audio headset. There are only three software packages you should consider: (1) Scansoft Dragon, (2) IBM ViaVoice, and (3) the built-in speech recognition in the Tablet PC. I suggest #1. It will take a bit of practice (several inspections) to get good enough at dictating the information and learning how to correct the mistakes it makes, especially while recording into specific fields in a form.
Yes, Vonage VoIP Softphone can be used on a Tablet PC - remember, a Tablet PC is really just a notebook with a pen and a rotating screen.
The Home Inspection article was written in January 2003. A lot has changed since then. A Tablet PC is definitely the way to go now. Inspection software supports Tablets, and Tablet hardware has improved substantially. All the answers are "Yes". You just have to select the Tablet that best fits your particular needs. See my article "How to Select a Second-Generation Tablet PC" in issue #52 of Pen Computing Magazine - although the article is 10 months old and already getting out of date, it still should help.
--Geoff Walker, Technology Editor
Based in Silicon Valley, Geoff Walker is a consultant with Walker Mobile(R), LLC. Geoff has worked on the engineering, marketing and application of mobile computers since 1982 at GRiD Systems, Fujitsu Personal Systems (now Fujitsu Computer Systems) and Handspring. He can be contacted at email@example.com.