Canadian Consulting Engineer

Tablet PCs

January 1, 2006
By Pejman Saifi, Halcrow Yolles

Launched in late 2002, the Tablet PC marks an evolution in the history of notebook computers. Tablet PCs provide the full power and functionality of a notebook PC combined with handwriting and other e...

Launched in late 2002, the Tablet PC marks an evolution in the history of notebook computers. Tablet PCs provide the full power and functionality of a notebook PC combined with handwriting and other enhancements similar to those of a personal digital assistant (PDA) like a Blackberry.

A Tablet PC is equipped with a sensitive screen that is designed to interact with a complementary pen, or “stylus.” The pen can act like a mouse and be used directly on the screen to do things like select, drag, and open files. It can be used to type on-screen using a pen-based key layout. Most importantly, the pen can work in place of a keyboard and allow you to handwrite notes and communications.

Using the pen on the screen is just like using a pen on a pad of paper. The tablet will capture the handwritten text or shapes and store them. Unlike a touch screen, the Tablet PC will not receive input information from accidental touches made by a hand, arm, shirt, or other object.

Recent improvements to the core engine of tablet PCs allow the handwriting recognizer to anticipate what kind of data to expect. Also, the recognition software can become personalized to the user’s handwriting as opposed to the user having to learn how to write characters the way the system knows it. The result is fewer conversion errors.

Another improvement is the ability to launch an in-place input panel anywhere on the active screen, wherever the user wants to write. The input panel allows the user to enter freehand text in any application, for example to complete an online internet form. Wireless connectivity is a standard built-in feature on most tablet PCs.

In August 2004, Microsoft released a new version of Windows XP specially designed for Tablet PCs called the Windows XP Tablet PC Edition. The operating system provides “deep integration” of pen support that allows for creating text anywhere within Windows XP and most Windows-compatible applications.

Tablet PC makers and developers are now targeting the architect/ engineer/contractor market because they know that architects, for example, are comfortable working with pen in hand. Should engineering firms take the plunge and invest in these techno-tools?

Currently the major software developers for the construction design industry, including Autodesk, Bentley, Nemetschek, and Graphisoft, do not have programs specifically dedicated to the tablet PC, but most of their programs still work on Tablet PCs. Less memory-intensive programs like Architectural Studio, Bentley View, and Bentley Redline give designers effective ways to draft three-dimensional objects on a tablet PC.

One company currently creating field-based applications for Tablet PCs is Kelar. It has developed front-end software called Onsite for airport facility managers. The application works with Autodesk’s GIS applications. The software lets people in airfield and terminal operations view colour-coded map, floor plans, and exteriors of airports to enable them to devise emergency procedures and evacuation scenarios.

It remains to be seen if tablet PCs will be widely adopted in the building design industry. Like many other new technologies, several issues have to be addressed such as their price (tablet PCs are still almost 10 per cent more expensive than laptops), weight (most are two to four pounds), and need for improved brightness for outdoor use.

For now, the tablet PC’s biggest strengths revolve around its office connectivity, facility for on-site reviews, systems management, and sketching. Good portability gives them a leg-up on laptops, while an excellent sketching surface gives them an advantage over PDAs.

Pejman Saifi, B.Sc., PMCP, is IT manager with Halcrow-Yolles, consulting engineers of Toronto.


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