HP Compaq TC4200 Tablet PC - Our Full Review
by: Barry J. Doyle
Why buy a Tablet PC? "The pen is mightier than the sword"!
The HP Compaq TC4200 - "Solid as a Rock"
"Flimsy", "cheap", "heavy" are not the words you want to hear about a portable computer. But we hear it all the time. Thankfully you aren't going to hear these words to describe the new HP Compaq TC4200 Tablet PC. The impression you'll get when you first get your hands on the TC4200 is "solid", "compact" and "light". There is even more goodness on the inside. This Tablet PC is one of the first to feature Intel's third generation of Centrino technology dubbed "Sonoma". Yes, deep down the TC4200 Tablet PC has got "guts". Better yet, you won't find the aging Intel 845/855 chipset with (ugh, it makes me shudder to think about it) "Intel Extreme Graphics" technology. Instead the TC4200 has the MUCH improved Intel 915 chipset that incorporates "Intel Graphics Media Accelerator" graphics technology.
The specs. and build of the TC4200 sound promising. So in this review we take the TC4200 and place it under a microscope. We closely examine all the features found inside and out. We benchmark this Sonoma-powered titan in several aspects of performance to see exactly what kind of performance it delivers. Does the TC4200's insides live up to what its got on outside? Read on!
Basic Specs (our review model):
OS - Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005
Intel Pentium M 740 (1.73GHz, 2MB L2 Cache, 533MHz FSB)
12.1" (1024 x 768) display
40GB, 5400RPM Hard Drive
512MB DDR2 SDRAM
No Optical Drive
Lithium Ion Battery (6 cell/ 52Wh)
Ports: RGB (monitor) port, TV-out (S-Video), 3 USB (2.0),
External Mic jack, Headphone jack, RJ-45 LAN port,
RJ-11 modem port, docking connector
Intel Graphics Media Accelerator -- up to 128MB Dynamically Shared
Intel PRO/Wireless 2200BG (802.11b/g)
Extra Features worth noting:
Shock Mounted Hard Drive
Fast IR Port
Pointing Stick w/ 4 mouse buttons and touchpad
3 Year Warranty
TC4200 Design and Build Quality
"Solid". I can't emphasize this enough. HP deserves high-praise for the durability and compact design of this model. In hand the TC4200 feels like it won't compromise the integrity of your precious data. It won't crumble in a tight space in your bag or under a safe, tight grip. When the display on many Tablet convertibles and notebooks is closed, it makes me feel uneasy to apply any more pressure than the minimum required to prevent an "accidental" drop. The TC4200 feels exquisitely durable with the lid closed, open or when folded down into "tablet mode".
The rotating display hinge has a "lasting" feel. The entire unit is constructed of strong black and charcoal plastics, giving the TC4200 a professional appearance with a basic, yet sleek style. HP states that a special "scratch-resistant, in-mold lamination" is used to keep the unit "looking newer longer". Also included is a spill-resistant keyboard and shock mounted hard drive. Although I performed no "scratch", "drop" or "spill" test of any kind, I will just go along with HP's word and concur that the materials look like they will hold up for the long haul, and endure the many adventures of the road warrior.
This bantamweight full-featured convertible weighs in at a very reasonable 4.5lbs. The ports, switches, pen slot and indicator lights are all in logical places which makes for a better user experience. To keep the unit light and small, HP decided to forgo a built-in optical drive which I can live with. However, one slight disappointment is a lack of external stereo sound. There is oddly just one speaker on the left side of the unit. To hear audio in stereo with the TC4200, you'll need headphones or external speakers to plug into the headphone jack. Luckily the fan on the TC4200 is so quiet, you can hear the hard drive's lowly murmur over it. So at least you won't need to crank up any mp3's to cover up that kind of racket! (Oh how I hate fan noise!)
One last thing to mention in regards to the design; there is no uncomfortable heat blasting out of the vents, nor do the hand rests or the base get unpleasantly hot. The only time I noticed any heat issue is when the battery is in mid charge. Luckily this time frame is quite short and should be the only time a user might skip the use of the TC4200 in "slate mode" or resting it on the lap.
The HP TC4200 on top of the Toshiba R15 Tabet PC. This image helps to illustrate the compact "travel friendly" size of this model.
Getting to know the TC4200
Welcome to our traditional photo tour. As always, we will point out the various ports, switches and features to provide you with a sense of just what the TC4200 Tablet PC is like CLOSE UP!
The front of the TC4200 has four function indicator lights, which at different times illuminate blue, red, amber and green to indicate the various status of each individual corresponding hardware. The IR port for connecting to PDA's, cell phones and remote controls is to the right of the lights. In the center is the push-button latch to release the display.
USB port, modem port, lan, AC in, VGA out, S-Video out.
headphone jack, mic jack, "powered" USB, PCMCIA slot, Secure Digital card reader.
Kensington lock, heat vent, wireless lan on/off, USB, customizable "quick launch" button, power switch (pull type), mono speaker.
docking port, extra battery connector, RAM compartment, primary battery, shock-mounted hard disk compartment.
pen release switch, external mic, scroll switch and of course a "control+alt+delete" button ("just in case" you experience a "rare" problem with Windows lock-ups LOL!)
The TC4200 has a 12.1 inch, XGA (1,024 x 768 pixel resolution) electromagnetic touchscreen. Although this display is not the brightest we've seen, it produces crisp and clear images. There are no blue overtones, but overall there is a slight warmth in color, so whites are not as vibrant as they could be. The display does a fair job, and most importantly produces crisp text and exhibits even lighting. The screen surface has a matte finish that provides adequate traction for writing with the pen, minimizing slippage. Our review model had one stuck green pixel in the upper left corner.
Recently, we have received a lot of questions in regards to the outdoor visibility that Tablet PC displays offer, so we took the TC4200 outside to try it out. During our test, it was a somewhat overcast day in San Diego. The following photo has not been retouched. The general consensus among three opinions was that the screen is reasonably usable outdoors.
Outdoors the display on the TC4200 (although not as vibrant) is clear and readable.
As mentioned in the beginning of our review, the TC4200 features Intel's most recent Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 900 technology. Although this new solution uses a "shared" memory architecture, the performance is significantly better than the previous "Intel Extreme Graphics" solution used with the Banias and Dothan generations of Centrino technology. With the GMA 900 video, system memory is dynamically assigned as needed using up to 128MB depending on what the current application requires. Other features of the GMA 900 graphics solution include support for DirectX 9, Pixel Shader 2.0, Volumetric Textures, Shadow Maps, OpenGL 1.4 support and more.
The GMA 900 chip is perfect for everyday computing tasks, photo editing, most any multimedia tasks and external widescreen support. However, Many DirectX 9 compliant games will run decently, but the GMA 900 is still not on par with the performance one can expect from a dedicated graphics solution from ATI or NVIDIA.
The TC4200 sound is produced by the SoundMax Digital Audio chip manufacturered by Analog Devices, INC. One of the most important audio components of a Tablet PC for most users is the built-in microphone to voice recognition and dictation tasks. The TC4200 handles these jobs well. A handy software sound utility is included that offers a microphone setup wizard and other customizations.
As mentioned in the "Design and Build" section of this review, the TC4200 has only one speaker. This speaker produces sound with good volume and respectable fullness for a notebook speaker. What a shame there aren't two speakers of this quality!
Despite the compact design of the TC4200, the spill-resistant keyboard is very comfortable to use. The keys are responsive and are easy to adapt to even after hopping on after using a full-sized desktop keyboard all day. The touchpad has a smooth, responsive surface and allows vertical scrolling. Like the IMB ThinkPad, the TC4200 also includes a tiny pointer with a dimpled rubber top for traction. ThinkPad users who move into this model will feel right at home. There are four rubber coated mouse buttons. One set is under the trackpad and a second set is placed right below the spacebar. The addition of the second pair offers extra versatility for the most demanding users. The buttons have a nice feel and don't require excess pressure to engage a response.
The TC4200 pen is manufactured by Wacom electromagnetic pen does not require batteries. The pen is a bit shorter than average, but more importantly the "right click" button doesn't cause interference with righting. The pen is housed in a slot on the left side of the TC4200 display.
Processor and Performance
The HP TC4200 is powered by the latest third generation Intel Centrino Technology (Sonoma). Our unit has an Intel Pentium M 740 (1.73GHz, 2MB L2 Cache, 533MHz FSB). This processor not only offers great performance, but runs cool and offers outstanding battery life. HP thankfully graced the TC4200 (unlike what the name might imply) with a 5400RPM hard drive which offers speedy performance. This faster drive cuts down on Windows boot times and the loading time of large files and programs.
We used SuperPI to calculate the number Pi to 2 million digits in this raw number crunching benchmark. This open source benchmark application allows the user to change the number of digits of Pi that can be calculated from 16 thousand to 32 million. The benchmark, which uses 20 iterations in the test, was set to 2 million digits.
Comparison of tablet models using Super Pi to calculate Pi to 2 million digits (plugged in):
|Notebook||Time to Calculate Pi to 2 Million Digits|
|HP TC4200 Tablet PC (1.73GHz Sonoma Pentium M)||1m 51s|
|Toshiba R15 Tablet PC (1.6GHz Dothan Pentium M)||2m 8s|
|Compaq R3000T (Celeron 2.8GHz)||3m 3s|
|Dell Inspiron 600m (1.6 GHz Dothan Pentium M)||2m 10s|
|Dell Inspiron 8600 (1.7GHz Banias Pentium M)||2m 28s|
We used Futuremark's PCMark '04 benchmarking software to compare the performance of multiple tasks on the HP C4200 to the Fujitsu ST5000 and Toshiba R15 Tablet PC's
In the PCMark '04 test, the Sonoma platform shows a notable boost over the Dothan generation found in the Toshiba R15.
Next we tested the hard drive performance. Using "HD Tune" we tested the 60GB, 5400RPM hard disk read and write access benchmarks.
For comparison, note the results of the 60B, 4200RPM hard drive we tested on the Toshiba R15 Tablet PC:
Overall the 5400RPM drive on the HP TC4200 resulted in a .5 millisecond improvement in access time and a stunning 4.5 megabyte per second gain in average data transfer rate.
Heat and Fan
In comparison to my Apple PowerBook, the fan on the TC4200 is the quietest I have "not" heard. The fan on this model rarely turns on until the processor reaches well-above 50 degrees Celsius. Even when the fan engages, it is whisper quiet, a characteristic that is unfortunately uncommon with many PC notebook fans.
Our TC4200 includes the integrated Intel Pro Wireless 802.11b/g card. The wireless on this model has exhibited excellent range and reception. HP also includes a little "HP Wireless Assistant" software utility which can prove either helpful to some or annoying to users who are used to using the Intel and/or Windows software to configure wireless. This little utility can be easily disabled should there not be any need for it. Concerning other wirelss hardware otions, the TC4200 can be configured with an 802.11a/b/g model card and a bluetooth module as well. Whatever your wireless needs are, the TC4200 can be customized to meet your demands.
The 6-cell 52 watt hour battery provides about 4.5 hours of constant "typical" use with the wireless turned on and the screen set at 100% brightness. Like HP's high-end IPAQ PocketPC models, the TC4200 also features an "ambient light sensor" that can help to conserve battery power automatically. However, since the unit offers plenty of time between charges for my needs, I have always kept the display at a nice comfortable 100% brightness.
Using Battery Eater Pro we tested the TC4200 under extreme conditions to find out what the minimum and maximum ranges of discharge can be expected under specific circumstances. We conducted to discharge test. The first by taxing the CPU, hard drive and video (with wireless on and screen at full brightness). The second test a basic simulation of "reading text" (wireless on/ full brightness). Our findings were quite interesting.
With the display set to full brightness, wifi on and all hardware taxed, we managed to kill the battery in less than 2 hours, but...
By simulating the reading and scrolling of text under the identical screen brightness and wifi on conditions, we achieved a stunning 9.5 hours!
It is safe to say that under typical conditions, users can expect to enjoy 4.5 hours or more with the standard battery.
If you are planning to keep your financial, contacts, corporate data and other sensitive data stored on your Tablet PC hard drive, just think of the threat should your computer be lost or stolen! HP has integrated some excellent security tools and options into the TC4200. In locking the machine at boot or simply adding customized levels of security to specific directories, drives and applications, the HP ProtectTools Security Manager has seemingly infinite features.
HP includes their "ProtectTools Security Manager" bundle that offers multiple security options.
Even a Smart Card and/or fingerprints can be registered to really put the lock on any possible intruders. These are invaluable features for the traveling user with the most sensitive data stored on the TC4200.
Using the "Credential Manager" applications can be registered to prevent unwanted access. This extra security goes well beyond the any measures included in Windows XP.
Service and Support
The HP TC4200 is backed by a 3 year warranty. For this review, I placed my "traditional random support call" to HP at 1-800-474-6836. I called the number at 8:31 a.m. (PST) on a Friday morning. I went from the recording to an actual human being is 1 minute and 21 seconds. I was warmly greeted by a gentleman named "Richard" who was eager to offer assistance. Great job HP!
HP also offers a live chat support option via the website as well.
"Back in Black
Brian Johnson sang it just right! Over the last year or so, I have questioned whether or not HP would continue to deliver well-designed, full-featured and well-supported mobile products. With the apparent decline in quality and innovation of its Pocket PC devices, and notebook computers I began to lose trust in the legendary brand name. However, if the HP TC4200 is any reflection of what's to come down the pike from a somewhat reorganized management heading the corporate giant, my trust and attention to HP products will become rapidly revitalized.
The HP TC4200 starts at a respectable $1,599 that will buy you a solid, business-class, full-featured Tablet PC convertible. With no hesitation I would recommend this model to consumers looking to get extreme value without compromise. The TC4200 is strong, powerful and built for the road. This model exudes the dependability and stability of the best desktop in a portable package. If you are looking for a reasonably priced, portable convertible Tablet PC that has got the right stuff, the HP TC4200 is a prospect that should be at the top of your list!
Impeccable design and good all around features
Solid construction, compact design
Tablet functionality/user experience is great
Outstanding value and quality
Single external speaker
No built-in optical drive
Barry J. Doyle
Editor in Chief
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