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Electrovaya SC-3100

Tablet PC slate with super powers
(by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer)


Electrovaya continues to surprise us. In the many years we've been following the mobile computing industry, we've seen product lines, technologies and companies come and go. Few seem to have the staying power required to give customers peace of mind, the kind you need when you decide to go with a company, its products, its services, and you need for them to be around. For a long time.

In that aspect, at first sight, Electrovaya would not seem to rank with the likes of Fujitsu or Motion Computing -- well established companies with singleminded dedication to a vision, a product, and a market niche. After all, the Canadian enterprise is primarily known for its patented very high energy density SuperPolymer Lithium Ion technology which can provide superior battery power to any number of portable devices, ranging from cellphones to notebook computers. Yet, that impression would be wrong. Electrovaya is a pioneer in Tablet PC slates. The company has been around for a good long time, and each successive revision of its tablet slates has been more impressive than the one it replaces.

Excellence in innovative battery technology

For years, Electrovaya has been selling its PowerPads, slender battery packs that slide underneath notebooks and provide up to six times the power of a standard laptop battery. Electrovaya is also a company known to forever seek new opportunities for its innovative power technology. Electric vehicle technology, aerospace and other interesting projects, you name it. So it's no surprise that Electrovaya saw an opportunity when the Microsoft-specified Tablet PC came along in 2002. Tablet PCs need to be light and have plenty of battery power, just what Electrovaya can provide. Hence the Scribbler was born. We last reviewed a Scribbler two years ago. It was the SC-2000, a refined improvement to the older Scribblers that came with smaller screens and sported a somewhat utilitarian design. The sleeker SC-2000 compromised a bit of battery power compared to the monstrous 120 watt-hours of the original, but it charged much quicker. We fell in love with it and called it "a most impressive effort."

Ultimate refinement of a great concept

So now the SC-2000 has been replaced by the SC-3100, though the older model remains available. The changes between the 2000 and the 3000 are much subtler than the total redesign that took place between the original Scribbler and the sleek 2000. This time around Electrovaya and its Taiwanese OEM, Tatung, concentrated on refining and bringing technologically up-to-date what is arguable one of the sleekest and most impressive Tablet PC slates available anywhere. Even without Electrovaya's amazing Super-Polymer Li-Ion, the Scribbler would be a product that would make anyone's short list. With the battery, the SC-3100 becomes a product that's hard to beat in any respect.

What you get

The SC-3100 is an elegant, flexible and very attractive Tablet PC slate. It has a footprint of 11.95 x 9.2 inches -- barely larger than a standard pad of paper. It's just three quarters of an inch thick. Despite its rock-solid construction, the latest Scribbler weighs only 3.5 pounds. More than a pound of that is contributed by the massive 75 watt-hour battery. Most amazingly, this big battery is seamlessly integrated into the slate's sleek body. It is an eighth of an inch thicker than the rest of the device, but that is hardly noticeable and the battery does not protrude beyond the four small rubber feet that keep the slate in place if you sit it down on a flat surface.

Form follows function

Form follows function, a tired clichee perhaps, but certainly one that makes total sense, and the SC-3100 is a great example for that. No space is wasted, everything makes sense, everything feels right. Despite the modest overall size of the computer, the Scribbler's designers found room for the 12.1-inch display, an eighth of an inch of margin around it so you're not running into some bezel when you're using the digitizer pen along the edges of the screen, and enough space for nine hardware buttons, two speakers, a fingerprint reader, four elegantly integrated visual indicators and a five-way navigation knob.

Above: The two long sides of the SC-3100. On top from left to right one of the two USB ports, LAN and modem, a PC Card slot, and the pen garage. On the bottom two sets of docking connectors. The one in the center can be sealed with a rubber strip.

Although the tablet slate was originally conceived as an electronic notepad replacing the standard paper pad, today most people use Tablet PCs in landscape mode. That's primarily because Windows was conceived for use on a standard landscape monitor. However, an increasing number of vertical market applications are designed for use in portrait mode, and so the Scribbler's overall design is portrait-oriented. The two speakers are located at the bottom left and right, the hardware keys on top to the left and right of the display. The navigation knob is placed so it is most easily operated with your right thumb in portrait mode.

In the past, Tablet PCs meant to be used in both landscape and portrait orientation suffered from one major drawback: conventional LCDs have rather narrow viewing angles, and "striping" (whether the red/green/blue fragments of a pixel is in horizontal or vertical orientation) added to the problem of acceptable viewing both in landscape and portrait mode. In essence, most conventional LCDs are designed for use in standard notebooks, which means they work reasonably well in landscape mode. Rotated into portrait mode, the viewing angle becomes totally unacceptable. Fortunately, BOE Hydis, a Chinese display company pioneered a sensational new LCD with horizontal and vertical viewing angles of essentially 180 degrees. Most of the better tablets use the Hydis display now, and so, not surprisingly, does the Scribbler. This means that you can view the SC-3100's screen from any angle, landscape or portrait, and the screen is always totally and completely readable.

And speakable of readable, an outdoor-viewable version of the Hydis display is available as an option, priced reasonably at US$289.

The Scribbler uses a standard Wacom pen that can be stowed away in a garage on the upper lefthand corner (or bottom if used in portrait mode). If you want to, you can secure the pen to the computer via an 18-inch long lanyard. The lanyard is a spring-like spiral design that easily expands to twice its length.

Under the hood

The primary reason why manufacturers frequently update their products even in vertical markets is the rapid pace of technological advancement. Back in 2003, right after the introduction of the Tablet PC, Intel threw the industry a curveball with their new Centrino technology that almost immediately rendered all of the original launch-date Tablet PCs obsolete. Intel's frequent changes in its processor technologies and families continues to almost mandate periodic technology updates, whether a product needs it or not. Today, Intel's latest Centrino M processors and ancillary circuitry have become almost mandatory, especially as Vista, Microsoft's next gen operating system with its monstrous hardware requirements, looms ever larger on the horizon. Fact is that it's still very hard to determine precisely what exactly is needed to run Vista, but more power will certainly be better. And even more so, more graphics processing power.

We're happy to report that the SC-3100 packs considerably more horsepower in both of those areas than the 2000 Series models. The merely adequate 900 MHz Celeron chip of the SC-2000 has been replaced with a 1.6 GHz Pentium M-LV 778 processor, clearly providing an entirely different level of performance. The venerable 64MB Intel 8285X GME graphics controller has given way to Intel's 128MB GMCH-M915GMS package, also in a totally different league. Whether that will be enough to power Vista is unclear, and it is also not terribly important as Vista remains a ways away, and it usually takes years for a new OS to even make modest inroads in vertical markets. In addition, Vista mavericks will likely tinker with Microsoft's new behemoth on hardware other than a Tablet PC slate.

But not only processor and graphics have changed, memory has, too. The old SODIMM's are gone, replaced with 533MHz DDR2 modules. The base integrated RAM configuration consists of 256MB, upgradeable to 1280MB via an extra RAM slot. There's now 802.11a/b/g Wifi, and in case you ever need a modem, it's still there, now using the V.92 standard.

Fingerprint recognition

More and more notebooks and slates have fingerprint scanners to provide extra security. Electrovaya is no exception. The Scribbler is loaded with Softex OmniPass software that's used in conjunction with the finger print sensor. You can use any finger you want, and you can practice beforehand. Once you are ready to enroll, you let the system record the fingerprint up to eight times. OmniPass also supports other password protection methods and can also serve as an overall password management system. You can even use it as a way to manage access to websites that require logins and passwords.

Accessories

Electrovaya has always excelled in offering a plethora of useful accessories for its tablet computers. If a case is all you need, you may select from a standard portfolio, a nice leather case with a strap, or a ruggedized case that adds extra protection. The docking station may be in order if you often use the device in an office. The cradle combo is fairly substantial and allows use of the Scribbler both in landscape and portrait orientation. The cradle also serves as a port replicator with three USB port, VGA, LAN, and the ever appreciated optical drive.

Electrovaya also offers an ultra-cool keyboard (shown to the left) and screen cover combo. It's very thin, snaps onto the slate, and essentially turns the Scribbler into a notebook. Detach it and you find that this is not just your standard external keyboard but a full deskstand as well. The SC-3100 main unit snaps onto it, right behind the keys, and the body of the slate is supported by a stand that flips up from the back of the keyboard. There is no room for a trackpad. Instead, there is a small snap-on trackpad that hides away into the back of the keyboard when it is not used. Ours went onto the right side, but there is a version for lefties as well.

The QWERTY keyboard layout is full size and the keys provide very good feedback; despite its slender construction, it feels like a standard notebook keyboard. The setup is quite stable and never in danger of flipping over. And I definitely appreciate the brace behind the display that supports it near the center. This solution means that there is none of the annoying LCD flex common to all convertible notebooks with pivot hinges. A couple of drawbacks: the snap-on keyboard only allows for use in landscape orientation, and the screen viewing angle is not adjustable. With a wide angle Hydis display, of course, that is no big deal.

Software

Software is a bit of a frustrating issue with Tablet PCs. That's because Windows software is not generally very suitable for pen computers, and there aren't very many applications and utilities available that were specifically created for Tablet PCs. Electrovaya did a good job of assembling a software bundle optimized for a slate Tablet PC. It includes Corel Grafigo, Sticky Notes, Windows Journal, ink Annotation, MS Reader, speech recognition, and trial versions of Franklin Covey Tablet Planner and Alias Sketchbook (you'll want the full versions as soon as you try those two apps!).

An impressive effort

Overall, the SC-3100 is a truly excellent product. You have to hold it in your hands to fully appreciate just how slender and well-made it is. It exudes quality in a way that many other tablets do not. There is no flex whatsoever, and nothing looks chintzy or designed as an afterthought. The increased power and performance are very noticeable, and make the Scribbler suitable for any application (with a small price to pay in extra heat dissipation).

The piece de resistance, of course, is the extra-long battery life provided by Electrovaya's SuperPolymer battery. Electrovaya claims up to nine hours, and the company is now offering a 92 watt-hour battery of the same size, further distancing itself from the competition.

All of this makes the Scribbler uniquely suitable for a wide variety of vertical market applications that do not require extreme ruggedness. The healthcare market come to mind, but also all sorts of field service applications. But it can also serve as a handy and very versatile slate for consumers or corporate customers who will appreciate its good looks, light weight and overall performance.

-- Conrad H. Blickenstorfer

Type Pen slate
Processor 1.6GHz Pentium M-LV 778
OS Windows XP Tablet PC Edition
Memory 256MB expandable to 1GB via expansion slot
Display 12.1" XGA (1024 x 768) Hydis wide viewing angle TFT
Digitizer/Pens Wacom/1
Keyboard Snap-on 85-key full-scale
Storage 40 to 160 GB hard disk * external USB optical drivek(opt.)
Size 9.2" x 11.95" x 0.75"
Weight 3.5 pounds w/o keyboard
Power 75/92 WHr Lithium-Ion ("up to 9 hours")
Communication Gigabit LAN, 56K V.92 Modem, internal 802.11a/b/g wireless LAN radio
Interface 2 USB 2.0, audio/mic, RJ-11, RJ-45, VGA, 1 PC Card Type II, fingerprint scan
Price US$1,899 to $2,342
Contact Electrovaya www.electrovaya.com