Thursday, July 5, 2007


Now that my little roadblock is out of the way, I thought I'd just post a quick random post (much like the earlier on on coffee, but more topical). So, here's my way of organizing all the random stuff that is invovled in research. I may end of cutting this short and finishing up later, because the first item is important enough that it deserves its own post.

And that item is...

1) Tablet PC

As I mentioned, I do product reviews for Digital Trends in order to compensate for my gadget obsession. This allows me to play with just about any device on the market, as long as we haven't posted a review yet (and even then I can 'finagle' it is I try hard enough). I am about 7 months into using my first TabletPC, and I can say with much certainty that I will probably never own another laptop that doesn't have the tablet functionality.

The system I currently use is the Gateway CX210. 2.33GHz Core 2 Duo, 2GB RAM, 160GB HDD, ATI 1400 GPU, 14" widescreen, to be more precise. Before I get into how I use it, here's some buying advice. There are really only two options is you want a fast, capable tablet: The Gateway CX210 and the Toshiba M400. Both offer similar specs, but I found the Gateway to be cheaper, better for writing on, latches better in tablet mode, and more customization options when buying. These both offer near desktop replacement power for running things like, oh, Matlab (chugging away in the background as I type). If you are the type that likes to just have a single computer - no companion desktop, lab computer, etc - this would be the best option for you. Be aware that the screen are never as nice as the regular laptop screens, as many have been tuned for better daylight visibility and they have a second layer of coating, which causes more internal reflection or the backlight. That being said, it's not 'bad'.

If you are the type that likes an on-the-go notebook with a powerhouse desktop for gaming/analysis/video editing, then consider one of the many 12" tablets with a slower processor and lighter form factor. My 14" is about the size of a 15.4", due to the area around the screen and the extended battery pack, and weighs around 8 lbs. I do have the huge extended battery, which lets me work without suckling on a power plug for around 5-6 hours (4-5 with heavy use and no power saver options, 7-8 with all power saver options and no WiFi). The 12" variety generally have an ultra-low voltage Core Duo processor, weigh in at 4 lbs, and are available from more companies. Two nice options worth looking at are the Gateway C120x and the HP tx1000 (video) (both reviewed on DT, both got a 7, but really deserved better (long story-post a comment if you're really interested)). There are a few 'slate' tablets - tablets that are just a screen. Rather than rotating the screen around and folding back on the keyboard, these have either a detachable keyboard, or a compact USB external keyboard. A nice option here is the Motion Computing LE1700 (though overpriced, IMHO).

So, why the tablet? I knew about tablets for a while before buying one, but had heard many horror stories about memory bugs and poor performance. Then, while sitting in on a lecture by Michael Paradiso, a tablet PC owner, I watched as he presented to a class of 450 neuroscience undergrads by writing notes on a PowerPoint slide. I thought, "Wow, that really is the best of both worlds." PowerPoint, as we all know, is the devil. It inspires laziness and substitutes crazy graphics for actual content (usually). Handwriting notes are annoying to copy, hard to organize and mostly unsearchable. When it come to teaching, I'm a Luddite, really. There's something to be said about the procedural experience of teaching, and how ideas evolve throughout a lecture, and watching as the professor lays out the information as it is important. PowerPoint throws up a gob of information, the professor justifies putting it up there, and then throws up another colorful data barf. It is possible to make elegant PowerPoint presentations, it's just that very few people do it.

There's also an 'organic' aspect - I grew up writing notes, than organizing (sometimes) on the computer. The two have very different representations to me internally. I remember more of what I write, and remember more about the circumstances around organizing than actual content. The tablet lets me kinda fuse those two aspects of learning.

Okay, okay, you want more concrete examples. Fine.

Paper. I don't print out papers anymore. I don't have to rifle through stacks or file cabinets of highlighted reference material. I download pdfs constantly (*cough*Super Paper Fridays*cough*), and save them to categorized folders. Then I use either PaperPort or Foxit Reader to read them in tablet mode, like a book, and highlight right on the screen. Save them, and voila! You have highlighted papers you can email, categorize and search. I find highlighting with a pen much more comfortable and efficient compared to using a mouse.

Notes. I go to a decent number of meetings. Decoding meeting, lab meeting, in-house seminar, guest speakers, project update meetings, advisor meetings, journal clubs, etc. Using Microsoft OneNote, I have a separate notebook for meetings, with a separate section for each one. I can sit back, and take notes during the meeting, draw out diagrams, record audio of the meeting (I do this sometimes if I'm really sleep deprived and delete the recordings as a matter of security after I listen to them), and sync it up with the actual written notes. If I have a meeting with an advisor, I can copy bits of emails, write some notes, drop in a diagram/figure/video clip, and have a nice outline of what I want to talk about. If I want to call up something we talked about in the past, but can't remember when, I just search through the old notes with the find command (notes are kept as handwriting, but text recognition runs in the background). And, most importantly, because I use the tablet for nearly all aspects of student life, I always have all my notes, and all my papers with me. If I get inspired, or suddenly come up with a question/to do item, etc, - bam! Tap one button, tap my to-do notebook, and write it down. If you're as scatter-brained as I am, this is invaluable. (No more tiny notes in margins, or the back page, or the cover in my spiral notebooks). Try taking notes in any math/stats class with a regular laptop. I dare you!

Diagrams. How many times have you been trying to explain something, and said, "if I could just draw it out, it would make more sense." Now you can. Even better, IMO, is that when you're just brainstorming, you can draw things out, draw arrows from one point to another, erase mistakes instantly, and save as many iterations as you like.

Everything at your fingertips. Remember PDAs? I say remember because PDAs are pretty much non-existent now - swallowed up by the smartphones. I loved my PDAs - Apple Newton 2000, 2100, Palm III, Palm V, Sony Clie NR70V, NX70. Now I have a SonyEricsson P910a smartphone, and as nice as PDAs/smartphones are, they simply can't compare to having a full PC on you. You are always stuck in the Land of Compromise. Because the tablet is so useful, there are few times you'll find yourself without it (which is why you might want to consider a light model). I didn't mention it above, but there are also the Ultra-Mobile PCs (UMPCs) which have drastically reduced processor power, touch screens, and full versions of Vista in a super small form factor. Most have 8" screens. I got to play with the Sony Vaio UX mini-laptop before its US release (got lots of stares int eh coffee shop), and I have to say they actually are capable machines, though you lose many of the tablet benefits due to the tiny screen. My point is that while convergence of devices is great, there are always major trade offs. Once you use a full blown Tablet PC, a PDA seems sadly incapable.

Here's what a typical day is for me. Wake up, throw the tablet in a bag and head out to coffee shop or campus. If campus, probably a meeting - take notes on tablet, check to-do list, download papers, possibly present presentation, fire off emails. If coffee shop - spin tablet around into portrait mode and read a paper or two, highlight on the screen, jot down a few thoughts in OneNote, make note for next advisor meeting, fire off emails, update blog, do some coding. I use FolderShare to automatically sync all my files between my desktop and tablet. So when I leave the coffee shop, any highlighted papers are synced and so are the new scripts I wrote. I get home, start an analysis session on my desktop, check my personal to-do list, add a few things, erase a few, reorganize what I need to do and make a schedule for the rest of the day. Run off to another coffee shop/campus and write out some notes for my prelim. Reorganize by dragging and dropping. Sketch an outline, covert to text, drop into Word (or if for a presentation, PowerPoint). At night, lay down in bed and read a paper and highlight or an ebook, or a watch a downloaded show. For the entire day, I only have to carry one thing around, and all my important documents are automatically backed up to my home PC in case anything happens on the road.

Is this impossible to do on a regular laptop? Of course not. But, just like the iPod was nothing special except a nice interface on old technology, the same goes for the TabletPC. Tablet functionality is built into the core of Windows Vista, and the improvements over XP in this department make it a must (Bill Gates uses a tablet for meetings, so you know he gave his $.02 to the developers). The handwriting recognition is the best I've seen, and the system adapts to your style. There are all sorts of fun little tweaks, like swiping your stylus upward quickly across the screen will scroll the screen (just like the iPhone).

Ah, I knew I would dwell on that too much. For more tablet info, check out Student Tablet PC. I <3 that site.

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