With touch-screens these days capacitive digitizers work when the user disturbs an electromagnetic field on the screen's surface with a finger or specialized stylus pen. They respond to the lightest of touches and can handle several inputs at once, which means you can use complex gestures, like those supported by Apple's iPhone. Want to enlarge an image? Pull your thumb and forefinger apart. Need to rotate it? Pivot your forefinger around your thumb.
Capacitive digitizers also make for more accurate handwriting recognition. Though character recognition is still not perfect, it has improved enough that most users can successfully enter Web addresses and write lists and words or short phrases.
In the meantime, the first round of Win 7 touch machines has arrived. In this review, I look at three: Fujitsu's LifeBook T4410, HP's TouchSmart tx2z and Lenovo's ThinkPad T400s.
How we tested
To see how these systems measure up, I tried out each display with my finger, pen or both. Forgoing the keyboard and touchpad, I visited a number of Web sites, moved windows around, manipulated images, played games and -- despite being artistically challenged -- doodled.
I also measured, weighed and examined each unit, and followed that with an intense workout with the PassMark PerformanceTest 7.0 benchmark. The test stresses every component and provides an overall score. Finally, I gauged each system's wi-fi range in a typical office setting and ran each battery down while listening to an Internet radio station.
From its clean design to its down-to-earth configuration, the Fujitsu LifeBook T4410 is all about business, though it's just as good for Web browsing on a couch as it is for getting a client to sign a deal or fill out an online form. On the downside, the LifeBook is saddled with an oversized AC adapter, and it's the first notebook I've seen that has a dust filter, which requires maintenance.
At 1.4 by 11.7 by 9.1 inches, the black and silver system is a little thinner and narrower than the TouchSmart tx2z. Its 4.5-pound weight matches that of the ThinkPad T400s; the LifeBook can slim down to 3.9 pounds by leaving its optical drive behind.
Its undoing, however, is its AC adapter, which is nearly double the size of those that come with the T400s and tx2z and brings its travel weight to a heftier 5.3 pounds.
As a convertible tablet, the LifeBook's lid hinge allows the screen to swivel and fold flat, although you'll need to flip a small latch to lock it in place, something you don't have to do with the tx2z. Like the tx2z, the LifeBook has a 12.1-inch screen, but this one uses a Wacom capacitive multi-touch digitizer.
The system comes with a handy pen that has a digital eraser, a nice touch that's absent on the tx2z's stylus. And regardless of whether you're using a finger or the pen, the LifeBook's multitouch action is smooth and accurate. It worked well just as well sketching something as zooming in on a Web page.
Fujitsu's Touch Launcher gives you eight large icons on the side of the screen for instant-access tapping. It works in both portrait and landscape modes and is smart enough to change its mix of apps when Internet Explorer is opened, with icons for Favorites and opening and closing tabs. In portrait mode, it does take up one-fifth of the screen, however.
The system has a cool ambient light sensor that can adjust the screen brightness to suit the environment. The sensor only works with Windows 7 and takes a few seconds to react, but as the room gets brighter so does the screen. It's also the brightest screen of the three.
Around the system's edge is a good assortment of connections, including three USB ports, an external monitor port, Ethernet, headphone and microphone ports, a FireWire port and an HDMI port for driving a large screen monitor or TV. The system includes 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi via an Intel Wi-Fi Link 5100 wireless network adaptor. There's also an ExpressCard slot and a flash card reader; the card reader only works with SD and MS modules, however.
The configuration of the $1,650 LifeBook model I tested was not all that impressive. It was powered by a T8700 2.5GHz Core 2 Duo processor with 3MB of cache. It also came with a 160GB hard drive, 2GB of RAM and a DVD Multi drive. (The $1,199 base system is powered by an Intel T6670 2.20 GHz Core 2 Duo processor with 2MB of cache; unlike the review unit, which lets you use either a pen or a finger, the base unit only accepts pen input.)
The LifeBook rated a performance score of 775.6 and Wi-Fi range of 100 feet -- both in the middle of the three systems tested here -- but the LifeBook's 3-hour 11-minute battery life led the pack, if by only 13 minutes.
In the final analysis, despite some quirks, the Fujitsu LifeBook T4410 did a great job as a convertible tablet.
HP's TouchSmart tx2z convertible tablet is nothing if not good looking. The system's curved, swooping design creates several nooks for ports and controls along the edge of its black case, which sports an intricate silver pattern.
Slightly thicker and wider than the LifeBook, the TouchSmart can be transformed from a keyboard-equipped notebook to a pen-centric tablet by rotating the screen and folding it flat. Unlike the LifeBook, the TouchSmart doesn't require a latch to lock the screen in place.
The basic system, which starts at $800, comes with a 2.2GHz AMD Turion X2 dual-core processor (unlike the other two systems reviewed here, which have Intel chips). It also includes 2GB RAM, a 320GB hard drive, a DVD Multi disc burner and a tiny remote control that can be kept in the ExpressCard slot.
Equipped with its standard 6-cell battery, the base TouchSmart system weighs 4.6 pounds, a couple of ounces more than the others. This rises to 5 pounds with the optional 8-cell power pack that came with my test machine. With the larger battery and the AC adapter, the TouchSmart has a 5.8 pound travel weight; it has a three-prong electrical plug that might pose a problem if a three-prong outlet isn't available.
The $995 review unit also came with 4GB of RAM and a 2.4GHz AMD Turion X2 Ultra processor. The Ultra is competitively priced, but uses significantly more power (35 watts) than an Intel Core 2 Duo processor (25 watts).
Equipped with an N-trig capacitive overlay on top its 12.1-inch display, the tx2z works well with finger motions or with the included pen. The screen has an odd sparkling quality to it, but I found it to be responsive, accurate and able to handle multi-touch gestures. It could streamline tasks like copy (diagonal swipe to the upper right corner) and paste (swipe to the lower right corner).
On the downside, the TouchSmart ran hot, which heated the pen up when it was stowed in its slot, and the pen lacks the handy digital eraser that's on the Fujitsu's stylus.
While the TouchSmart has, along with its Ethernet jack, a modem jack (an increasingly rare feature), it lacks the LifeBook's HDMI and the Lenovo's SATA connections. It has three USB ports, an external monitor port, an ExpressCard slot and a versatile Flash card reader that reads SD, MS and xD cards. In addition to its wired LAN, the TouchSmart offers 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi.
Audio is the TouchSmart's strength, with a Realtek sound chip, two headphone jacks and a SPDIF audio connection for digital external speakers. The built-in speakers can pump a good amount of volume and deliver surprisingly rich sound.
The TouchSmart's performance was adequate -- it earned a 561.2 on the Performance 7.0 benchmark, which was 40 percent off the pace of the T400s and the slowest of the three. With more than twice the capacity of the T400s, the TouchSmart's 9,800 milli-amp hour battery ran for a disappointing 2 hours and 58 minutes on a charge.
Digital couch potatoes can ignore the TouchSmart's keyboard and take advantage of its high-end audio, remote and precise fingertip control. At $995, the review unit undercuts the price of other touch systems, making it the closest thing to a technological bargain I've seen.
Rather than package touch-screen technology in an unfamiliar tablet, Lenovo's ThinkPad T400s puts it in a familiar notebook format. Unfortunately, it's expensive and lacks a pen for precise work.
At 4.5 pounds, the touch screen-capable T400s is only about an ounce heavier than the standard T400s model. It boasts a 14.1-inch screen and measures 13.2 x 9.4 x 1.1 inches, making it slimmer than either of the other two. With the 10-ounce AC adapter, it has a travel weight of 5.1 pounds, several ounces less than the Fujitsu T4410, which has a smaller screen.
The ThinkPad's screen uses N-Trig's capacitive digitizer to interpret finger movements and complex gestures.
The screen has a comfortable feel when fingering around, although I couldn't resist the temptation to brace the screen lid with my left hand while tapping with my right. The hinge can conveniently fold flat for working horizontally on a tabletop, but it isn't quite as comfortable as working on a tablet.
Because the ThinkPad doesn't have a pen, fingers dominates the input equation. This is fine until you need precise control, such as when writing or drawing. Fingering works well with the unit's SimpleTap software, which comes up when you tap the screen with two fingers. Several large tiles appear that correspond to major hardware functions, like turning on the microphone or Web cam. It's fun to fling them around and watch them bounce off the screen edge. They can be snapped to a grid, and it takes a few seconds to add or delete any.
While the ThinkPad's processor matches the LifeBook T4410's 2.5GHz speed, the ThinkPad's T9600 Intel Core 2 Duo chip has 6MB of cache (twice that of the T4410). Add in the system's 4GB of RAM (it can hold 8GB), a 128GB SSD and a DVD multi drive, and you have a $2,455 machine that's built for all-out performance. (The $2,000 base unit comes with an Intel SP9400 Core 2 Duo 2.40GHz processor, 2GB RAM and a 120GB hard drive.)
In addition to 802.11a/b/g/n (via Intel's Wi-Fi Link 5100), the ThinkPad has wired Ethernet. Unfortunately, you'll need to decide between having an ExpressCard slot or a flash card reader, a choice that you don't have to make with either of the other two systems.
With its powerful processor and SSD drive, it's no surprise that the ThinkPad T400s was a speed demon, with a PassMark 7.0 Performance score of 939.9, making it one of the fastest notebooks I've seen. The price to pay for that is an uninspiring 2 hours and 31 minutes from its 3,900 milli-amp hour battery. It had a Wi-Fi range of 95 feet, the shortest of the group.
Its $2,455 price tag means that the ThinkPad T400s has a $400 premium over a non-touch T400s, and is the most expensive of this group. An excellent high-performance system that shows the potential of touch technology, the T400s needs a pen for when the finger is too blunt an instrument.
My choice would be the Fujitsu T4410, a digital jack-of-all-trades that does everything well -- just not spectacularly. Its size and weight was comfortable and it was just as good for typing as it was for writing.
Brian Nadel is a freelance writer based near New York and is the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.