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A Tablet PC Could Soon Be in Your Future

The Fujitsu LifeBook T4215 might win you over.

Joel P. Bruckenstein, 05/10/2007

Over the past several years, I've received a number of requests to take a serious look at tablet PCs, but I could never bring myself to do it. Conceptually, the idea of integrating tablet PCs into the life of advisors had some appeal, but the poor design of early models combined with software limitations convinced me that there was little chance of tablet PCs gaining wide acceptance in the financial service industry.

Now, for the first time, I'm sensing that the tide may be about to turn. While I'm not ready to predict that all financial service professionals will soon be toting tablet PCs, I do get the sense that, if used intelligently, tablet PCs could have a positive impact on the productivity of many readers. So, for the first time, I've decided to review a tablet PC: the Fujitsu LifeBook T4215.

I selected the Fujitsu LifeBook for a number of reasons. First, Fujitsu is one of the leaders in the tablet PC field. The company has been designing and producing tablet PCs for more than 15 years. Fujitsu appears to be doing particularly well in the health-care niche, one of the few Tablet PC success stories. Since practice management commentators in our industry often draw parallels between running a medical practice and running a financial practice, I thought that Fujitsu's understanding of the health-care industry might, to some extent, be transferable to financial services.

I was attracted to the LifeBook T4215 in particular because it is a reasonably sized convertible. This means that when you want it to, the T4215 can look and behave exactly like any other thin and light laptop PC; however, within seconds, you can convert it into tablet PC mode. In theory, then, users can get the best of both words: a regular PC and a tablet in one neat package. But would the theory hold true in practice?

Before we get into what I discovered, let's talk a bit about specifications. My test unit came equipped with an Intel Core 2 Duo T 5600 Processor (1.83 GHz), 2 GB of RAM, a 12.1 inch screen, an 80 GB hard drive, tri mode Wi-Fi (A/B/G), Bluetooth, and a biometric reader. The operating system was Windows XP Tablet PC Edition.

The initial setup was similar to any regular PC. You boot it up, follow the wizard perform the basic configuration, and in the case of Windows XP, download something like 50 updates and security patches. Once that is done, I clicked an icon, as instructed in the manual. This allowed me to install additional software provided by Fujitsu. This included a Fujitsu menu, some Fujitsu controls, and the software to use with my fingerprint reader. Next, I performed a finger scan so that I could log in to my PC with the biometric device as opposed to a password.

From a welcome screen, you can get a quick introduction to using the tablet pen to enter text, or you can take an interactive tour of the tablet PC. To use the PC as a tablet, you swivel the screen around, so that it lays flat against the keyboard, with the screen facing the user. Once you get the hang of it, using the stylus is easy. Tapping the screen equates to a left mouse click. Holding down a button on the stylus while tapping the screen is the equivalent of a right mouse click. I found the stylus generally to be accurate out of the box. If it is not, there is a utility to help you calibrate it.

From the moment you enter the Tablet mode, you begin to experience some of the little extras that Fujitsu has engineered into its systems. The first is the bi-directional swivel hinge. On all other convertible PCs I've seen, the hinge only swivels one way. If you try to swivel the wrong way, you risk damaging the hinge and the screen. With the T4215, the hinge, which appears to be sturdy, swivels smoothly in either direction.

Once you snap the screen down into the tablet mode, the Fujitsu software is smart enough to sense what you are doing, and it assumes that you will want to screen to shift from the landscape mode to the portrait mode. At the same time, it locks down the CD/DVD drive to avoid accidents and the tablet PC input panel appears along the bottom of the screen. Of course, if you do not like the default settings, you can modify them.

The tablet itself is well designed. The 12.1-inch screen has a special coating that makes it readable in a wide range of lighting conditions, both indoors and outdoors. The stylus/pen holder sits at the bottom of the screen when in the tablet mode (on the left of the screen in the laptop mode). It felt comfortably in my hand. The fingerprint sensor is to the right of the pen. In the far upper right is the power button.

Under that, there are five security/tablet PC buttons. These serve multiple purposes, depending on the status of the PC. When you activate the Tablet PC, or resume from the standby mode, these buttons can be used for security. Once programmed, the user is required to press them in a specified order to unlock the PC. When in the pre-logon stage (the Widows screen is displayed), the buttons serve as shortcuts for functions you are likely to require, such as the tab key, the enter key, the Alt + Ctl + Del key combination, and screen rotation.

On the lower right, there is a little LCD screen that contains status indicators. These include things like battery level, external power, wireless LAN/Bluetooth status, security, etc.

As I began to use the T4215, it became apparent to me that much more thought has to go into the purchase of a tablet PC, than, say a desktop PC. That is because in order to maximize the value of a tablet, you really need hardware and software that complement each other. For example, the T4215 has a built-in microphone, so that you can dictate into the tablet without any additional equipment. This arrangement works okay, but it is further enhanced by the included software utility that lets the user optimize the microphone settings for individual or conference situations. Of course, those who plan to dictate on a daily basis might want a Bluetooth headset and first-rate third-party dictation software such as Dragon Naturally Speaking.

The fingerprint reader is a useful piece of hardware, but it is enhanced by the included OmniPass software. This software allows users to create a master password, in this case a fingerprint. Once the master is created, you can enter information (user names and passwords) about protected applications and Web sites you use. You can then use a fingerprint scan to access all listed Web sites and applications. In addition, the software allows users to create encrypted files, which can only be viewed with fingerprint authentication.

Battery life was very good. I got about four hours to a charge. The primary batteries are hot swappable, so if you buy a second primary battery and the first one dies, you have about five minutes to plug into an outlet or slip in the replacement without losing any data. For those who need even more time between charges, the DVD drive can be swapped out for an optional secondary battery.

It is apparent to me that the T4215 is a well-designed tablet PC, but the question remains: How useful is it to a financial service professional? It depends.

If you currently use a whiteboard or draw diagrams in meetings, tablet PCs are appropriate. You can connect your Tablet wirelessly to an LCD projector or to a large screen, and you can doodle to your heart's content.

If you take notes at client meetings with a legal pad and a pen, for example, a tablet PC could be a huge step forward for you. I found that "writing" on virtual lined paper within OneNote 2003,  part of the Microsoft Office suite of applications that was pre-installed on my PC, was just as comfortable as writing on paper. One advantage of writing within OneNote is that all of my notes are automatically saved, and if I create a tab or a folder for each client, the notes are much easier to find at a later date than a traditional system. Another advantage of OneNote is that it can "read" your handwriting, so you can search through your notes for keywords.

Another advantage of OneNote is that I can embed audio right within the note. For example, if I'm talking to a client, I can record the conversation, embed it in the note, and take written notes that are synchronized with the recording. The only potential downside to this is that for lengthy meetings, the audio files can be quite large, but for shorter conversations, or to capture selected relevant points, they work great. PAGEBREAK

Aside from the increased functionality a properly equipped tablet PC offers in client meeting, there may also be a more subtle, psychological advantage to using them. Personally, when someone sits across from me taking notes on a laptop PC, it makes me feel like there is a barrier between us. When I asked Olivia Mellan, an expert in money psychology about this, she told me that it is highly possible that clients would be put off under such circumstances. Mellan says that the boomer generation are likely to feel more comfortable without the barrier. Since most advisors are targeting boomers, a tablet PC might be a more appropriate computer for use during client meetings than a traditional laptop.

OneNote also includes a feature called SideNote. Side notes are little virtual sticky notes that can do most of the things that a regular OneNote can do, such as recording a voice note. When you close a SideNote, it is automatically saved in a SideNote tab within OneNote.

I found that on a traditional PC I only had limited use for SideNote, perhaps because I had other places to store much of the information that others might enter there. With a tablet, however, SideNote became much more attractive to me because I could scribble little written notes, or even record little voice notes. OneNote offers the capability to record video notes too, but I didn't have time to try out that feature.

While tablet PCs in general, and the Fujitsu T4215 in particular, are already in a position to pay dividends for advisors, the development of additional software would make tablet PCs much more appealing than they already are. In the health-care field, applications have been developed that make medical personnel more efficient. This, in turn, has led to the purchase of more tablet PCs by health-care professionals. If the right applications were developed for financial professionals, it is a safe bet that many more of us would be buying tablet PCs.

For example, if someone designed forms and risk tolerance questionnaires that could easily be pre-populated and completed using existing data, drop-down list, and check boxes, I could see an immediate payback through productivity gains. If the information put into the forms could then be transmitted seamlessly to the central server, additional gains would accrue.

As Microsoft's Vista operating system is more widely deployed, it may also help tablet PCs gain wider acceptance. According to Fujitsu, Vista's handwriting recognition capabilities and voice recognition capabilities are superior to those of Windows XP.

For now, I'd say that a Tablet PC is not a necessity, but if you can afford to spend a little bit more, a convertible PC such as the Fujitsu T4215 could be a wise investment. You get a very powerful, full-featured, and capable business laptop that is light enough to carry around without breaking your back. The fact that it doubles as a very good tablet PC is an added bonus. In addition, this particular tablet, as well as most other Fujitsu business tablets, are produced in Fujitsu's own factory. This should result in superior quality control  as opposed to many other vendors that outsource manufacturing.

The next time I'm in the market for a laptop PC, a Fujitsu convertible such as the T4215 will be on my short list of potential purchase candidates. I suggest that you evaluate one the next time you're in the market for a laptop, too.

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