Toshiba Portege R400

Tablet PCs are still trying to make inroads into the market. Somebody must be buying them, but they’re a niche product few mainstream users would consider essential — especially those already with a handwriting device called a pad and pencil.

Of course, the pad and pencil becomes so much more when you have a tablet computer, and with occasional marketing assistance in the form of endorsements from Microsoft behind it, the tablet is unlikely to go away.

The latest entry into the field is the Toshiba Portege R400, one of the first tablet PCs built especially for Windows Vista, and one that makes good use of Vista features including the new Journal software that recognises handwriting when the device is in tablet mode.

It looks great, nothing at all like the black/silver laptops of the metallic age. The casing is entirely plastic, a stark black and white that makes it look a little like an attractive kitchen appliance. When you open the laptop, simply twist the screen (in one direction only) and fold it back down in the open position and the Portege should immediately reorient the display image for your changed working mode.

We saw ‘should’, because it didn’t always recognise the change to tablet mode and instead you have to hit the button the reorients the display manually. But once you’re in the tablet zone, the active stylus is fairly accurate and Windows Journal’s handwriting recognition technology is very good at translating your scrawl into editable text.

One of the most intriguing features is the front-mounted, one-line LED display. Click a button beside it and you’ll get the time, your current battery capacity and more. Every time you get an email or calendar notification the tiny screen comes to life to tell you about it. It works even when the system’s in sleep mode, syncing to your calendar data or email over a local network or even a 3G card. It’s one of those things you can imagine becoming standard on all or at least most laptops — like the fingerprint reader and email button.

The Portege R400 isn’t without downsides. The most glaring is no optical drive whatsoever, and at over three thousand dollars most prospective purchasers will expect one. There’s also an old PCMCIA slot rather than the new Express card slot all laptops are adopting.

A dual core 1.2Ghz Intel Centrino processor, 80Gb hard drive and 2Mb of RAM is fairly standard in a laptop, but one you’d only pay between $2-3,000 for at the moment. If your job or the way you like to work warrants heavy tablet use you might feel justified paying nearly $4,000, but subsequent models are likely to overcome the deficiencies of the R400.

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