Users of the original version of the tablet OS can upgrade for free at the Microsoft Web site, and all new tablet PCs ship with Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005. We tested the OS on a Toshiba Satellite R15. After booting, a setup wizard walks you through getting started in a process similar to that of XP Home and Pro. A 34-page print booklet (included) explains the basics of activating and configuring the OS, with a good Q&A section and handy setup tips in the margins--but we would have appreciated some screenshots to accompany the more complicated tasks. An interactive "Get going with Tablet PC" tour explains how to navigate menus with the pen and how to use the Input Panel to enter text. You can follow additional links to online tutorials that explain the included applications and how to improve character recognition, annotate files, and use the speech engine. All told, the company does a credible job of explaining how Tablet 2005 works and providing tips for making the most of the pen. In about five minutes, we were jotting notes, marking up documents, and scribbling away with the stylus.
The look and feel of the interface is pure XP, with the Start button in the lower-corner, a task tray along the bottom, and major icons spread across the screen. Navigating menus with the stylus is about the same as with a good-quality mouse, though Tablet PC Edition 2005 sometimes misses attempted double-clicks.
The big difference with this version of XP is the Input Panel, which lets you use the pen to enter text into any application. You can choose among three input modes: the Writing Pad offers a notepadlike straight line to write on naturally; the segmented Character Pad lets you enter letters into individual spaces for more accuracy; and when all else fails, an onscreen keyboard allows hunt-and-peck typing with the stylus. Enter the string of text, tap Insert, and your handwriting is converted to text at the cursor point in the current program. With buttons for backspace, delete, tab, enter, and space, the Input Panel is a good way to quickly enter URLs, filenames, and passwords, and you'll probably be able to dash off a quick e-mail or two.
Using the handwriting recognition software still isn't close to the accuracy and speed of typing, however, especially when composing long documents. Working with Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005 over the course of two weeks, we recorded an 85 percent recognition rate, or roughly between two and three mistakes in the typical sentence. The good news is that you can correct mistakes quickly and even train the computer to better recognize your writing. But those who failed penmanship in elementary school will have to write slowly and carefully, or their words will be misinterpreted.
While all Windows XP applications work with Tablet PC Edition 2005, the number of programs designed specifically for tablets is relatively slim. Most notable is Windows Journal, which comes with the OS and offers the digital equivalent of pencil and paper. Journal entries can be as simple as doodles or as complex as full reports. The program's search feature can find keywords even in handwritten text, making the Journal ideal for keeping a record of projects and meetings. You can also share notes as TIFF images or MHTML files.
Microsoft also offers free downloads of the Experience Pack for Tablet PC, a collection of six applets that includes a freehand paint program, a crossword puzzle game, and a program for streaming media files from a host PC to a tablet. Students can download an Education Pack with flash cards, a math equation writer, a calendar tool, and games.
To measure the OS's performance, CNET Labs ran a series of tests on both Windows XP Professional and Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005. Both operating systems were running on a Toshiba Satellite R15 with a 1.6GHz Pentium M 725 processor; 512MB of 333MHz RAM; and a 4,200rpm hard drive with 60GB of storage.