Versa T400

In a scene in Star Trek IV, Enterprise engineer Scotty (during an expedition to the late 20th century along with the rest of the crew), tries to address a computer by speaking to it. When the bemused operator shows him the mouse, he tries to speak into that. When it’s finally explained to him he says with amazement ‘A keyboard? How quaint”

Science fiction authors and film makers can almost always recognize the future, but it’s not as easy to bring it about. An incredible invention in IT will make a developer (or marketing executive) jump up and shout ‘Eureka’, but the first appearance of tomorrows technology on today’s marketplace is usually a failure; simply because the first appearance of any technology is inherently before its time and almost certain to leave only the legacies of a great idea and a bankrupt startup. It’s true the iPod set the world on fire and bought personal mp3 players into the mainstream, but in five years time they’ll be another expensive anachronism like the original $1700 CD burners are now.

The Tablet PC is an astounding piece of machinery and many of its features bring to life the ideas for future technology we’ve seen in movies for the last 10 years, so it’s not a big stretch to call it the next evolutionary step in personal computing since the affordable home/office PC circa 1987. Everything in the industry is pointing towards convergence of devices and the ability to work on the go, and the computer of the far future will be as close as ever to a sheet of virtual paper — affordable, compact, light, and without constraints we’re used to now (such as a keyboard or mouse, which notebooks replicate using track pads that are a long way from achieving the usability we enjoy from a desktop-bound mouse).

So whether the NEC Versa T400 will go down in history as one of the forerunners of a new era or end up like the Apple Newton (one of the bankrupted and discontinued forerunners of a new era) remains to be seen.

But the future, as they say, is now, and if you just want to own the coolest computer anyone at work or home has ever seen, the T400 is for you.

Nothing more than a one kilogram, A4-sized sheet, it has a sleek and sexy look that’ll make you feel the same just carrying it around. NEC are aware of the limitations of tablet computing however, and the easily-attached USB keyboard has a dinky little trackball and mouse buttons for working with text (which still comprises most of what we do every day).

But it’s where the tablet capabilities come to the fore that the T400 becomes so much more than an LCD screen on a stand with a tiny keyboard. The handwriting recognition is about 95% accurate (if you print rather than write), and the speech recognition, while hit and miss to start with, is designed to improve as the software ‘trains’ itself in hearing your voice.

All the writing-on-screen and speaking-your-text capabilities would be worthless without adequate operating system support, however, and Microsoft have done an admirable job providing the software front end to enrich your tablet experience.

The two special components of Windows XP Tablet Edition are the input panel and Windows Journal. The former is an application that appears at the base of the screen where you can input text by writing it with the tablet pen, type on a virtual keyboard or use the speech recognition. Windows Journal is a software-based notepad where you can scrawl notes, draw graphs and doodle while you’re on the phone — and you can save them all like any other file.

It’s not going to light any fires hardware-wise. Basic gaming, image manipulation and a bit of office-style activity drained the battery in under three hours, but with built-in wireless, a 933MHz Mobile Pentium 3 chip, 3 USB ports and 256 Mb of RAM, it’s more than enough for the average office user who doesn’t need to push it too hard.

But if you judge it on looks, style and cool alone, it’s miles ahead of any other portable computer around, and at only $2000 from some outlets, you can afford to make your desk a laboratory experimenting with the future.

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