X41 Tablet - First Impressions

Update: I've spent over 3 years with my X41 tablet now and I'm still using it on a daily basis, but the tablet itself has gone through a number of changes since this writeup. I'm now running Vista and having a good experience overall. Check out my initial impressions of Vista on this tablet here:

While I received my X41 Tablet (model 18666SU) a couple of weeks ago now, I've only had a couple of days to play with it. I'm currently filling the system with my primary programs, and things have been mostly enjoyable. I thought that now would be a good time to share my out of box experience with you all, along with some kinks that I've run into.

I'm also going to try out a new way to write my posts - the 'Geek Note', which will simply be a link in brackets like this: [GN1]. This will be an attempt to keep my articles more readable, while still providing my more technically inclined readers with the information they desire. So let me know what you all think about this, I hope it works.

First thing I was glad to notice as I pulled it out of the box was that it is pretty small. I carry my computer with me everyday, so any weight that I can shave off my bag is a welcome relief. This laptop will hopefully allow me to get rid of my Wacom Intuos graphics tablet, memory card reader, and paper notebook - so even with the extra extended battery I have, I'm guessing that I've shaved over a pound off my travel weight - I'm very excited.

On a whim, I just threw the battery in, opened the very sturdy lid, and hit power - it responded and started booting up. It's nice of Lenovo to package a charged battery, makes things much smoother out of the box. [GN2]

I've never used an IBM laptop before, but I've always heard about their wonderful keyboards - I now understand why they get so much praise. It is completely solid, with no 'give' or 'bouncing', and has a pretty satisfying clicking noise that isn't too loud, but exudes quality and durability. This is one ultra-portable keyboard that no one will complain about unless they use the Windows key a lot - which is strangely missing. In it's place is the tablet's function key that is used to directly activate things like brightness control and sleep state.

Then, after about 20 minutes of configuring windows, I was into my first session with the tablet. My first impression of the screen is: WOW! It has 8 brightness levels from VERY dim to VERY bright, has an exceptional viewing angle in both landscape and portrait modes (which was now activated). [GN3]

I highly recommend that you run Windows Update on this system as soon as you get it. (Dial-up users: be ready for a couple of hours of downloading - there's a lot to fix, and it's worth the wait for the protection you get.) My system ran into no problems during it's updating. [GN4] Also be sure to run Microsoft Office's update utility (Any Office program:Help Menu -> Check for Updates).

As I started fiddling around with the system, I realized that I was liking the track stick. The system does not come with a track pad, which I have mostly been accustomed to and never really liked track sticks, but this one is the best I've used. I had always found track sticks have a tendency to 'drift' after I want them to stay, but this one seems to correct itself quickly if it begins to drift a little - which is very nice. So the only thing I missed initially was the ability to tap to click that my last laptop had. After a few days now, I don't miss that part either. (Edit: Reader Brandon has told me that it does in fact have 'press-to-select', and I found the setting hidden in the Mouse Control Panel. Imagine that, a setting for the mouse hidden in the mouse control panel. ;) )

Bundled Programs

First up: Zinio. It is a program intended to replace paper magazines. Automatic digital delivery of my magazines without the weight is pretty enticing to me, so I thought I'd fire it up. After a software update, Zinio is pretty nice, and I'm going to try out a couple of months with their subscription. A full review of this software will be up after I can get some testing done. Coupled with this tablet, it's a very usable alternative to paper magazines at hugely reduced prices. I subscribed to a year of Popular Mechanics for $4.99 - not a bad deal considering the cover price is $3.99. (There was one issue I found with this program, and two others:[GN5]

I took a look at the Microsoft Tablet Experience Pack which was already installed. This pack includes a Crosswords program, Web Clipping tool, Ink Art, and Ink Desktop. The Crosswords program is great! I haven't purchased additional puzzles for it yet (which is an option) because I'm not very good at crossword puzzles and have only finished one, but it really is fun to use. It has normal and expert modes, the difference seems to be that the normal mode tells you if you've entered an incorrect letter, where the expert mode gives you as much help as a newspaper would - none.

The web clipping tool is very nice, it gives you the ability to circle interesting parts of your screen, annotate them, then copy that image to your clipboard to email, or do any number of things with. This program is more functional then the OneNote counterpart in that you use the stylus to circle what you want to clip, then gives you the ability to write a note on top of it, then export it to a file, clipboard, email or 'editor window'. Very nice alternative to traditional screen captures, which often require additional work before sending to it's destination.

Ink Art is a pretty nice sketchbook like program, that has all sorts of different artistic tools to draw with. I don't have any experience with the programs it competes with, but it should provide satisfactory capabilities for everyone but true digital artists.

Ink Desktop was not my favorite add-on at first. It slows down the process of switching between laptop and tablet mode by a few seconds, and isn't compatible with WallpaperGyro, a great program for switching the wallpaper automatically when you change from laptop to tablet mode. But as I gave it a try, it's more convenient then the Sticky Notes program that also ships with the tablet. Just write right on your desktop in a variety of colors, and erase as you don't need them. You can also export the image to a file and email it. It is definitly a crowd pleaser - a coworker witnessed my handwriting on the desktop and was in awe, "That's the coolest thing ever!". Well, I don't know about 'ever', but it is both cool and useful.

Battery Life & General Thoughts

At this point, I had been working for 3 hours off the battery and thought it was time to check out the power settings. By default, a battery meter is displayed in the taskbar. Clicking it allows you to change power profiles on the fly, and it's configuration program is pretty complete - giving you control over everything from how the processor is powered, to fan usage, to display brightness; with separate settings for plugged in versus battery usage. One issue I noticed was that if you turn off the battery meter display in the task bar, the tablet does not seem to automatically detect if it is plugged in or on battery power. This is frustrating because it takes up a fairly large portion of the display area, especially when in tablet mode, and doesn't leave much room for processes to be displayed. Other then that small frustration, I'm pretty happy with the power settings, and have been getting between just under 4 hours and just over 6 hours of battery life (using the 8 cell battery) depending on usage.

The only real issue I've found with the IBM/Lenovo X41 tablet has been it's wireless internet setup. By default, Windows' wireless manager is enabled, and IBM's Access Connect is running, resulting in a fight for your WiFi card. It took me 3 days to figure out why my tablet kept dropping connections, but after I disabled Windows' control, things smoothed out considerably. (If you're having connection issues see: [GN6]) IBM's Access Connect is a full-featured program. Not only can you setup profiles for different locations' wifi points, but it automatically detects which location you are at depending on what SSID it connects to, and sets up security levels, IE preferences, file sharing, default printers, firewall settings, wireless power settings, and proxy settings. Once working, it's VERY NICE.

Lastly, the fingerprint reader was calling my name, so I activated the famed IBM security sub-system. After enrolling a number of fingers successfully, I activated fingerprint authentication for windows login. Once you get the hang of the motion, it is much faster than typing in my high-security password. There is a context menu available when browsing folders to encrypt files on the folder and file level - which uses 256bit AES encryption which was recently approved for TOP SECRET level communications by the NSA - so you can rest assured that files you encrypt will not be unlocked without a password (or TRANSLTR, for you Dan Brown fans).

Overall, things have been extremely smooth these past two weeks. I'm getting my main programs up and running without issue, and a few kinks aside, the user experience has been phenomenal. [GN7] I'm going to get more in depth into some of the other features and programs as I become more comfortable with them. All-in-all, I have to HIGHLY recommend this system to anyone that is looking for an ultra-portable laptop. Even if you're not sure about the Tablet PC thing, it's premium over the normal X41 is only about $100, and half a pound on the weight, but it's built like a rock. Every part of the device is of very high quality and there is no rattling at all. I can't wait to explore a little deeper into this tablet, it's already exceeding my highest expectations.