Toshiba Portege M400 vs HP Compaq TC4200

Tablets are getting hot. That’s what manufacturers would have us believe, anyhow. For a technology that’s been around almost as long as the laptop in its current form, it’s been about as successful as e-books — adopted by a narrow fringe of users, something the majority of us see as a cute novelty but dismissed as too cumbersome.Perhaps it’s the collective Luddite in us — one of the only places the computer hasn’t encroached into our life is when we’re walking around with a pad and pen or just doodling, and if tablets had their way, that’d be one more chunk of free time given over to one workplace or another.

Tablets have never really threatened the traditional laptop, but now prices are tumbling and better technology is allowing for lighter models, so more than one manufacturer hopes you’ll finally be swayed.

The West has been the recipient of two tablet notebooks in recent weeks, so we present both here for your consideration. After a glance at the specs above the winner seems clear, but that’s only further proof you can’t judge a book by its cover (or a computer by a few numbers).

Despite being advertised with the Intel Solo Centrino processor, the first batch of Toshiba Portege M400’s in Western Australia have come instead with the Intel Duo Centrino for the same price. What’s the big deal? It’s more or less a dual processor that multitasks. At the moment few applications allow for multitasking, but to future proof your machine for Windows Vista and the software that will be produced for it, you could do a lot worse. And while it’s not as simple as saying you’ll have twice the output of a 1.6Ghz processor (being two of them), the resulting performance of the Duo chip is comparable to a 1.8Ghz.

The Portege also comes with thumbprint recognition which locks the system until you slide your thumb across the tiny scanner, and a handy Toshiba technology introduced a year or so ago where the system parks the hard drive if the computer gets bumped. The theory is that if it’s falling or likely to sustain a heavy impact, the heads are moved away from the disc platters to stop damage from scratching.

The big disadvantage with both machines is that neither comes with optical drive bays. The Toshiba Portege at least makes a provision for it; there’s a slot for a second battery, hard disk or optical drive, but HP haven’t even bothered with the Compaq. It’s a very strange decision on the part of both manufacturers. In a world where 99% of the (legitimate) software we install comes on CD or DVD, leaving a drive out of any computer system is frankly bizarre.

Maybe you’re content to just use WordPad and Solitaire, but a spiral notepad and a deck of cards are much cheaper. The alternative is to install software over a network, which is fiddly and out of reach if you’re a beginner or you aren’t going to be connecting to a network; or buy an external CD burner, which means you’re up for a few hundred dollars extra before you even leave the store.

After test-driving both machines, it’s clear that tablets still face an uphill battle. There just aren’t many instances where scratching notes can be made better on a screen with a stylus than on a notepad. Plus, the argument that a tablet converts your notes to ASCII text for later editing doesn’t really wash — the amount of text you’d have to jot for it to save you time by converting it is much more than you’re likely to write walking around with a notepad and pen. A notepad’s also two kilograms lighter than either machine, so don’t think you’ll be walking around your building site or hospital all day drawing sketches and taking notes.

Character recognition is getting better, but making sure you’ve written the right thing by going back to correct words after they’ve been converted to ASCII takes twice as long as just scribbling them on paper, so anything faster than jotting at your own pace is going to be trouble.

However, in both cases, the screen swivels and flips, the display reconfigures itself to the new position and you have a fully functioning laptop. Both models have adequate features for the laptop shopper, although the Toshiba Portege wins over the Compaq for the better chip set up and extra security.

The decision basically comes down to whether having a tablet built into a notebook is a novelty you’re willing to pay between $500 and $1,000 for, or whether it’s something you’ll get a lot of use of and is therefore worth the money. Our advice; test drive one under real life conditions — they’ve come of age and if you find you do have use for one, now might be the time.

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