BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : JULY 10, 2000 ISSUE
TECHNOLOGY & YOU

The Shape of PCs to Come?
The new Qbe tablet from Aqcess is a flawed design pioneer that deserves attention

Not long ago, it seemed that desktop computers were destined to become completely indistinguishable beige boxes. But since the introduction of Apple's iMac two years ago, a new emphasis on design and new technologies has made hardware more interesting.

It's no longer a world where you have to choose between the traditional monitor-computer-keyboard desktop setup or the clamshell notebook. The new Qbe tablet computer from Aqcess Technologies (www.qbenet.com) may be a harbinger of shapes to come. The Qbe relies on data-entry technologies that aren't quite ready for prime time and is further handicapped by some poor design choices, but it is an interesting design pioneer.

The Qbe Cirrus that I tried is a box about 14 in. long, 10 in. wide, and 2 1/2 in. thick. The top is mostly covered by a 13.3-in. touch-sensitive display, and there's a built-in video camera at the top. The Qbe runs on a 400-MHZ Pentium II, features a 12-GB hard drive and 128 MB of RAM, and costs a steep $4,745. The less expensive Celeron-powered Genus model fetches $3,995. Both use Windows 98 and run standard PC software.

The Qbe is designed to be used on your lap or any horizontal surface. It stands up with a removable prop called a ''porticle,'' which includes a full complement of parallel, serial, and other ports. With the prop and a keyboard and mouse attached, the Qbe is basically a variation on the desktop PC. Used as a tablet, however, it's something quite different from either a desktop or a notebook.

In the tablet configuration, use of the keyboard and mouse is not very practical. You can move the cursor around the screen with either your finger (Aqcess thoughtfully includes a screen-cleaning cloth) or a special tethered pen. But the problem is entering data. The Qbe offers three choices, none fully satisfactory. First, you can write on the screen with the pen, using ParaGraph's PenOffice software. Unfortunately, handwriting recognition doesn't work a lot better than it did in the days of Apple's much-ridiculed Newton. In the case of the Qbe, the accuracy problem is made worse by a noticeable delay before the writing actually appears on the screen. Having the option of a more accurate shorthand, like Palm's Graffiti, would be a big help.

The second method is to use the speech-recognition software included with the Qbe--Lernout & Hauspie's Voice Xpress. It does pretty well after you invest some time in training, but to get it to work I had to use a Telex digital headset to bypass the apparently defective audio system.

The final method is typing on a touch-sensitive keyboard that can pop up to cover the bottom quarter of the screen. The keys are big enough to hit with your fingers, and while touch typing is out of the question, the keyboard works well enough for limited amounts of data.

COOLER, CHEAPER. Beyond the data-entry problems, the Qbe has some design issues. At six pounds, it weighs heavy on your lap, especially since the Pentium heats the magnesium case up to an uncomfortable temperature. The Qbe can run on battery power, but only for about 90 minutes at a time, so you won't want to get very far from a power outlet. And this is a device that really wants a wireless connection to the Internet, since the tablet design is ideal for Web browsing.

Better, lighter, cooler, and cheaper tablets are on the way. Aqcess hopes to have a three-pound, $1,500 unit this fall. Later this summer, Qubit Technology plans to ship a much-delayed 2 1/2-pound Web-browsing tablet featuring a wireless link to the Internet.

The idea of tablet computers is not new: Companies such as Fujitsu and Ricoh have shipped them for some time. But they have been specialized devices, intended for industrial use. Qbe, for all its flaws, brings the tablet home. As entertainment and Web browsing displace word processing and other traditional applications, many computers are moving from the home office to the home entertainment center. And a tablet can be a more natural design than a desktop or laptop for Web browsing, playing games, and, especially, reading e-books. The Qbe is a flawed first attempt, but the approach makes a lot of sense.

BY STEPHEN H. WILDSTROM


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