A Student’s Survival Guide to Tablet Computing

by Reads (12,152)

by Shaun Mahal

Whether it’s working with peers on time-sensitive team projects or reading hundreds of PDF’s and online articles, computing plays a crucial role in today’s demanding academic and professional environments. With increasing popularity, both students and professionals alike are discovering the features and uses of Tablet PCs in their daily lives.

Check out part one of this all-in-one-guide to learn how to successfully use a Tablet PC for your everyday activities as a student or young professional. Learn what makes a Tablet PC different, what you should consider before buying, how to fully utilize your tablet and much more. Read along as Shaun Mahal explains his experiences using a Tablet PC as a college student for a year, and find out how using a tablet can improve your academic or professional life today!


Like many students, I fear the phrase “take out a piece of paper to turn in.” Of course, I dread the unexpected quiz, but to worsen my predicament on most days I don’t carry any paper. It’s not that I’m unprepared for class, and I’m not the poster boy for “going green”, but rather I use a tablet for my schoolwork.  Using a tablet, I can carry my notes from all of my classes, e-books, supplements, articles and anything else I need. My tablet holds everything I need while weighing about as much as my intro chemistry book.

Not only can I type notes like on a traditional PC, but I can also draw graphs, charts, graphics, import material from websites and seamlessly integrate them all into my notes. My tablet allows me to be more productive, stay organized, and keep my academic life on track better than a mess of papers ever could. The transition to successfully utilizing a Tablet PC in school has been rewarding, but it takes consideration and planning.

Selecting the right hardware and software, accessories like bags and power supplies and learning how a tablet can make complex tasks easier are just a few of the things that should be considered before making the switch. The key to effectively using a Tablet PC is simple: it needs to provide functionality that is easy to use and improves the quality of work.

Decision to Buy: The digital student

My decision to buy a tablet essentially came from my desire for a more convenient way to manage my academic life. After my first year at college, I found myself in the market for a new PC. I wanted something that could do more than the typical laptop and I wasn’t’t excited by any offerings from the sea of Toshiba’s, Dells, HP’s and MacBooks. They all had attractive features and sleek designs but none offered a better way to do all the things required of a student.

Using a laptop in high school, I could take notes that were more comprehensive, legible and better organized than my hand written notes, and I could take them quicker. I wanted the same type of time-saving benefits from my new laptop. I looked Online, in stores, and around my group of friends and family and ultimately I decided that a tablet would give me many of the advantages I was looking for.

When deciding to buy a tablet, it’s important to know what factors to consider. You will be carrying your tablet everywhere and presumably using it constantly, it is important to consider the tablet’s physical dimensions, weight, durability and its battery life.

Hardware Setup: IBM/Lenovo X61T

After Online and in-store research along with observation from my friends and family, I decided to go with IBM/Lenovo’s X61T with the following specs:

  • OS: Microsoft Windows Vista Business
  • Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo L7500 @ 1.60GHz
  • RAM: 2GB, with 1GB flash cache
  • Hard drive: Hitachi 120GB @ 5500rpm
  • Weight: 4lbs
  • Wireless: Wireless a/b/g/n, Bluetooth
  • Battery: 8-cell extended back battery – no CD/DVD drive (to save weight)

Software and Functionality: Using a tablet and getting the job done

Native Features:

The tablet easily swivels on its hinge into tablet mode in less than four seconds, and within eight seconds, the tablet has reoriented itself into your chosen default layout mode (landscape or portrait). This model comes with an auto-sensing accelerometer that changes the layout as the user changes the tablet’s position in their hands. A feature also available in some older Sony products and more recently, on the coveted iPhone. Interestingly, this feature proved itself to be more trouble than it is worth because it is constantly turning the screen if you’re say standing and holding the tablet.

Consequently, I elected to disable the auto-rotation within a week of receiving my tablet. When in tablet mode, the removable stylus that otherwise fits nicely into a sleeve in the side of the PC becomes the mouse. To input text, the user clicks on a small bar located on the side of the screen to call Microsoft’s writing area, the so-called “Tablet PC Input Panel.” This offers three options for inking: freehand on lines similar to paper, blocks for individual letters or the option of a virtual keyboard – particularly useful when entering online passwords requiring odd characters. The writing surface has good tactile feedback and has a very natural feeling when writing on it. The Microsoft Input Panel continually learns writing behavior and patterns, and requires no special writing style. It’s very easy to pick up a tablet and begin writing on it naturally.

The stylus sits within a spring-loaded silo built into the side of the tablet near the base of the keyboard, and can be used as a replacement for the mouse in any environment. The pressure-sensitive stylus has an assignable button for right clicking, and it can be programmed to behave differently if held down, or double-tapped. To erase any mistakes like a pencil, simply turn the stylus and erase with its pressure-sensitive eraser. The stylus feels comfortable in the hand, especially compared to other styli. Although it’s neat and fun to use, beware because a replacement stylus runs about $50 from the Lenovo site. 

Like any PC, especially for students, a good office suite is essential. I’m currently using Office 2007 Professional. OpenOffice is an excellent alternative for open-source-minded folks. In addition to the standard office suite, I make extensive use of another Microsoft offering: Microsoft OneNote 2007. Although not included in most standard issues of MS Office, this gem is definitely worth its price. 

Coming Up: OneNote Usage, Tablet Tips and Tricks, Battery Life

In the next "A Student’s Survival Guide to Tablet Computing" article, Shaun Mahal will be discussing his OneNote experience, tablet tips and tricks for maximizing battery life and performance. These are important features every user should know about. Battery life is very important to students on-the-go and OneNote is a program many can’t live without once they use it. So, stay tuned for the second part of our "A Student’s Survival Guide" series in the next week.



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