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Motion Computing LS800

A smaller, lighter version of Motion's flagship tablet PC slate
(by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer)

It's hard to describe the Motion Computing's LS800 Tablet PC as anything other than a shrunken version of the company's flagship LE1600 slate. Put the two side by side and the LS800's "mini-me" status within the family hierarchy becomes even more obvious. The LE1600 measures 11.65 x 9.45 inches, the LS800 is just 8.95 x 6.7 inches, or about 74% scale on average in each dimension. Look at the area it covers, and we're talking just over half; 54.4% to be precise. They don't differ much in thickness because, after all, while the LS800 has a smaller display, it is a full-fledged computer with roughly the same performance as its bigger sibling.

Some like it small

What happened her is that Motion Computing, a company that concentrates 100% on slates and is thus not distracted by alternative form factors such as notebook convertibles, found that some of its customers want a smaller slate. It's not that the LE1600 is that large. That machine occupies just a bit more space than a standard 8-1/2 x 11 pad of paper and has a nice 12.1-inch display. It's less than an inch thick and weighs just over three pounds. The LE1600 is about as close to a perfect pen slate as you can get with current technology. But sometimes, alas, it's just a bit too large, and that's where the LS800 comes in.

As unique as the little Motion is, the form factor is not an entirely new concept. Over the years we've seen many amazingly small pen computers, a good number of webpads and assorted internet devices roughly that size, and also several generations of Windows CE devices in that category. Remember the Sharp-made Norand Pen*Key 6632, the IBM Sure Point, the Mitsubishi AMiTY, the Dauphin Orasis or the Vadem Clio, to name just a few? Those were all interesting machines and quite capable given the technology of the time. They weren't very fast, but since they only had Windows 95 or Windows 98 to drive, their speed was adequate. Digitizer technology hasn't really changed much, and so the primary advances we'd be looking for in a very small form factor pen tablet are in the display, software, communications, and battery life.

Another difference between early small tablets and a product like the Motion LS800 is that most of those were either made by small manufacturers without much staying power, or imported from Japan by large companies who just wanted to see if the concept would fly. Neither approach was greeted with much enthusiasm by vertical markets that rely on longterm relationships and product support.

So what does the Motion LS800 have to offer, and how does it fare in those areas where earlier ultra-compact tablets came up short?

Scaled-down LE1600, but packs a punch

First off, the LS800 may look like a scaled-down version of the standard-size LE1600, but in terms of technology and performance it is almost at the same level. Almost, but not quite, as Motion did have to make some concessions in order to fit the components into a much smaller package and also provide adequate battery life. So while the LE1600 comes with either a 1.5GHz Intel Pentium M Low Voltage 758 or a 1 GHZ Celeron M 373, the LS800 is available only with the 1.2GHz Pentium M Ultra Low Voltage 753 processor. Both use the Intel 915GMS graphics Extreme Graphics controller and both use Intel's Dynamic Video Memory Technology with a maximum of 128MB of video RAM. Both use 400MHz DDR2 memory, but the LS800 maxes out at 1GB whereas the LE1600 models go up to 1.5GB. Both use Ultra ATA 66/100 1.8-inch hard drives, but the base LS800 has a 20GB, with 30 and 60GB drives optionally available. The LE1600 has a choice of 30 or 60GB. Both have 802.11b/g wireless and Bluetooth, but the LS800 only has 10/100 LAN capability and not the LE1600's gigabit speed. Both models have Motion's superb Speak Anywhere technology, but the LS800 has a dual microphone system whereas the LE1600 intelligently switches between two of three. And the LS800 must do with a single speaker instead of two.

Despite the difference in size, there's surprisingly little difference in connectivity. Both have two USB 2.0 jacks, VGA, RJ-45, dock, and IrDA. The LS800 saves some space with a universal audio jack that combines microphone-in and headphone-out. It also doesn't have the DVI-D custom connector or the Motion accessory port. Another concession is that LS800 users must do with a single SD Card slot whereas the larger LE1600 has that plus a PC Card Type II slot. Both have a fingerprint reader.

In terms of battery power, the LS800 has a 29 watt-hour Li-Ion pack that very neatly integrates into the overall design. The LE1600's standard battery doesn't have much more capacity - 35 watt-hours, but you can get an optional Lithium-Polymer battery that brings the combined total up to 75 watt-hours.

Smaller display

By far the biggest difference from a usage perspective is the much smaller display of the LS800. The difference between a screen that measures 12.1 inches diagonally and one that's just 8.4 inches is substantial. One is essentially a notebook display and doesn't people simply use it. The other is very noticeably smaller than anything you'd find in a notebook, and users have to adapt to it. Also, pretty much everyone has gotten used to having at lest a 1024 x 768 pixel display. The LS800's has 800 x 600 pixels, which means to get to see noticeably less. Motion could easily have chosen a 1024 x 768 display, but then text, icons and everything else would have been tiny and hard to read.

Another issue is that we've gotten spoiled by the superb BEO Hydis wide viewing angle display that's now standard in almost all higher end 10.4 and 12.1-inch Tablet PCs. Unfortunately, no such wide angle display is available in the 8.4-inch format, which means the LS800's display looks good from some angles and washes out from others. In landscape format it has a wide horizontal viewing angle and a narrow vertical one; in portrait orientation it's the other way around. We quickly got used to the smaller screen of the LS800. It took much longer to get used to the narrow viewing angle that feels annoying and limiting to anyone who has ever used a Hydis wide angle dsplay. A View Anywhere display is optional. We didn't get a chance to test a unit with that display.

In terms of cost, the basic LS800 lists for US$1,699, which is the same MSRP as the Celeron version of the LE1600 (the Centrino models start at US$2,199).

The right stuff

The moment you pick up a LS800 and start using it you realize that there's a reason why Motion Computing rose from startup to a heavyweight in the Tablet PC slate market within just a few years. The Motion people got it right with their very first model, and each successive one has only gotten better and better. It's little things that matter and make or break a tablet product when it comes to everyday usability. For example, the display in many tablets is such that the pen cannot go beyond the immediate border of the display. Anyone who has ever used a Wacom digitzer knows that the cursor tends to be difficult to control unless you can move the pen a bit beyond the actual edge of the screen. Motion knows that and added a good eighth of an inch in all four directions.

Other things that can be quite distracting in a tablet are excessive heat and noise. Here again Motion did a great job. Thanks to generous heating vents at the bottom and along three sides of the LS800, the slate never heats up very much. It does get warm after a while, but not so much that it becomes uncomfortably hot to hold. And it does that while remaining totally silent. If it does have a fan, it either never came on or it was so quiet that we never heard it.

I've never been a great fan of Motion's hardware control arrangement that consists of a four-way control oval with an enter button in the middle, flanked by four function buttons. The function buttons rotate the display in 90 degree increments, bring up the very handy "Motion Dashboard" that lets you configure almost all aspects of the slate, A third activate the Tablet and Pen settings, and the fourth didn't seem to do anything. Why am I not a big fan of this arrangement? First, because the silvery buttons produce glare and the embossed icons are hard to read. Second, because the four-way disc is hard to operate.

Useful accessories

Like all Motion slates, the LS800 can be ordered with some very useful accessories. There's a protective "bump case" that'd be high on my list. If you intend to use the computer in the office and with a keyboard, the US$179 MobileDock is a must. It consists of a docking cradle, a dock base and a travel stand. It also adds gigabit Ethernet, and also separates the onboard combo audio jack into proper microphone and headphone jacks. All other ports are replicated. About the only drawback is that you can only use it in landscape mode, but that's what one mostly does on the desktop anyway. You also have a choice between a fairly costly ($139) Bluetooth keyboard or a more economically priced ($49.99) USB keyboard.

Interestingly, Motion chose to equip the LS800 with a full-size pen that can even be tethered to the device. Those who are familiar with the fairly sleek standard Wacom pen may find the Motion pen almost too big and heavy, and it rattles, which makes it feel cheap (of course, all Wacom pens rattle). On the other hand, it has a rubber grip and handles just like a quality ballpoint pen.

I mentioned the $89.99 Bump Case, but should warn that while it protects the LS800 from everyday bumps and such, it is not a harsh environment case, and neither is the LS800 a rugged computer. It is definitely well made and very durable. The housing feels like magnesium, but is actually made of lightweight carbon fiber which has a metallized coating applied to it. The display has a fairly thick protective shield. Both indicate that the LS800 is definitely a tool for the job that can take some abuse, if you keep the abuse within limits.

Software bundles

On the software side, the LS800 comes with Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005. Motion adds a bunch of very useful utilities , such as the Dashboard, Windows Journal and Sticky Notes, and speech recognition. The Motion Pak (a steal at $34.99 and absolutely mandatory) adds Office OneNote 2003, Microsoft Reader to Tablet PC, FarStone Technologies VirtualDrive, Streets & Tipss, Alias SketchBook Pro, Sunbelt Software CounterSpy and TCB Networks Shorthand. The Motion Office Pak adds Microsoft Small Business Edition 2003 software (Word, Excel, powerpoint, Outlook, Publisher, and Business Contact Manager) and, thanks to Microsoft's monopoly position, runs $319.99. There is also a special $99.99 Motion Medial Pak that includes enhanced recognition of medical terms, Dorland's Electronic Medical Dictionary, and Dorland's Electronic Medical Speller.

A little powerhouse

Bottomline is that with the Motion LS800 you get an extremely well designed and engineered slate computer that offers almost all the power, performance and flexibility of the larger LE1600 model. This is a full-featured Windows machine. There are some compromises, of course, but they are minor with the exception that the smaller 8.4-inch display does not come in a wide viewing angle version. On the other hand, while you often have to pay extra for ultra-compact size, Motion is pricing the LS800 very reasonably.

Given all this, the LS800 is a good match for many applications. It certainly comes in handy wherever size and weight are an issue. This slate is so small that it fits almost anywhere. It is also tough enough so you don't have to baby it. It's a real Tablet PC slate computer, just much smaller than most.

--Conrad H. Blickenstorfer

Update May 8, 2007: Motion Computing announced the availability of a 1.8-inch 32GB solid state drive (SSD) for the LS800. With this flash-based memory option to a standard hard drive, Motion makes available a more durable and better-performing storage alternative without spinning discs and read/write heads or any moving parts. The solid state drive has the same shape and size as a hard disk and uses the same connector. According to Motion, the SSD reduces power consumption to give the LS800 about 10% more battery life, and tests also show the LS800 runs approximately 40% more efficiently and has faster data access. Aeronautical customers will appreciate that SSD-based LS800s can operate at altitudes up to 40,000 feet, as opposed to a 10,000 foot ceiling. The SSD drives cost US$599. Current LS800 customers can upgrade their machines to include an SSD by working through one of Motion's Certified Maintainer partners.

Update January, 2008: Motion announced that it will EOL (end of life) the LS800 platform by January 1, 2008 or while supplies last. Support and service will be available until December 31, 2010.