The pen may be mightier than the sword, but for decades the keyboard has ruled the notebook roost. The two try to get along in a tablet PC, which provides the best of both mobile worlds.
While there are slate tablet designs that do without the keyboard altogether, most tablets are convertibles. They replace the traditional notebook display with a touch-screen mounted on an articulated hinge that allows the panel to swivel and fold over the keyboard. This creates a space for viewing and writing.
Tablets are great for scribbling notes at a meeting, sketching your killer new product idea or drawing a map for a new factory, and then flipping the screen over and typing a memo about it. However, this genre of notebook has caught on only in niches, such as sales teams and schools.
The weak reception by most buyers has a lot to do with the $200 to $500 that tablets tack on for the extra engineering, hardware and software required. Look for the first generation of tablet netbooks later this year that will cut prices to the bone.
Most tablets require a special electromagnetic stylus with which to write. The stylus seems especially easy to lose and costs about $35; it's a good idea to get an extra one. Some manufacturers include ways to physically tether the pen to the unit, but that can look like a ball and chain.
While some tablets are as small as the Fujitsu LifeBook U820 UMPC, most have 12.1 to 14.1-inch screens powered by video engines that draw on system memory. These screens require an extra layer to make them sensitive to the stylus, which can make them appear fuzzy compared to standard displays.
There is an important option to consider when buying a tablet. Many manufacturers offer a special screen that doesn't get washed out in direct sunlight. This makes a tablet the perfect companion for outdoor workers, such as a phone installer or someone who surveys property.
There's no denying that notebooks are fragile; normal daily use by an energetic traveler is often enough to trash even the best-made system. By contrast, rugged systems have been designed to be stronger, less prone to damage and more reliable even in the harshest conditions, including extreme heat, cold, moisture or dryness or during heavy vibrations. That's why you see them in all kinds of demanding environments, from police squad cars to construction sites to soldiers' backpacks in Afghanistan.
Rugged machines come in when mobility is a must and failure is not an option. Manufacturers of rugged laptops often put their systems through rigorous testing -- including dropping the system 3 feet, spraying it with water, trying to shake it to pieces and other insults -- to meet the U.S. Department of Defense's MIL-STD-810 criteria for survivability in military operations.
But not all rugged notebooks are created equal. To begin with, there are fully rugged systems, such as the Panasonic ToughBook 30 and General Dynamics Itronix GoBook XR-1, that start with a stout magnesium frame for mounting components that can take the slings and arrows of outrageous abuse and come back for more. The base and lid are often clad in super-strong magnesium, the ports have doors or rubber seals to keep out the elements, and sensitive components, such as the hard drive and screen, are shock mounted to take a beating.
All that armor adds up to a case that's an inch thicker and often two pounds heavier than comparable non-ruggedized systems. That's why many come with a handle that makes carrying the rugged notebook a little easier.