1 Introduction

1.1 The (Pro)Gear

The Progear 1050HX+ tablet PC by FrontPath (SonicBlue) is a lovely piece of hardware. It is compact and sleek with a hi-res XGA display, fine sound, one USB and PCMCIA port each and even an IR port. Though the hardware is now a bit dated and, it is perhaps rather slow by today's standards, it remains supremely capable.

The Progear was among the first tablets, perhaps the very first, to ship with Linux as a factory installed option. In fact, for the earlier 64MB 1050HX, Linux was the only option. The later 128MB 1050HX+ also ran Win98 and have even been seen lately to be running the WinXP edition for tablets.

The marketing propaganda and technical docs reveal that Slackware 7.1 is used for the Linux version. However it might be more accurate to say that the stock Progear Linux is instead merely based on this Slackware distribution. Everything that is not needed to boot this thing and run Netscape, XTerm and a few hardware management tools was just left out. As might be expected, this includes any kind of development tool, but also man pages, lilo, ssh(d), cat, sort,.... init scripts and /etc files are quite lean as well.

This yields an elegantly slim system. The working bits turn out to total around 129Mb, including Netscape, Acrobat Reader and some others. Of course, this was the intent, I have always seen the machine promoted as a ``Browse the Web in Bed'' kind of tool. But for other uses the result is hardly versatile. As far as I can tell from the specs this is really a fully fledged, honest, real computer. It ought to be able to do better than just run Netscape for zarking out loud.

1.2 The Goal

What do I consider better?

I have long been content to use a laptop as my main and only machine. I prefer not to have to work rooted to one spot even when I do happen to be home, and, more to the point, when I am not home, I like to have the option of getting something useful done should the opportunity arise. 'Something useful' typically includes, reading (Galeon, Acroread), writing (LYX), Programming (vi, make, gcc, Anjuta), fiddling around with bits of theories and calculations (YaCaS, Maxima, Mathematica), and Music/Sound playing/notating/studying (CSound, Lilypond). Such tasks require modest hardware and so I am comfortable being a generation or two, or three, behind the latest hardware and so a 2-3 year old refurbished or EBay laptop suffices.

There are times, however, when even a laptop, though a considerable improvement over my Color NeXTstation, fails to be sufficiently portable to be able to exploit a possible opportunity to do 'something useful'. The ideal piece of gear would be small and light enough to really be able to take everywhere at all times, and be usable in places which will not consistently have a lap, desk, table, counter, high shelf, or even a sufficiently stable heap of papers and books. Most laptops are still too large and heavy to really want to carry with you everywhere at all times, and those that might be are still awkward things to be hauling around for an extended time cantilevered off one hand for even simply reading, let alone typing.

PDAs are approaching this ideal, but for now, they still lack sufficient essential resources, the essentials being primarily display and memory. Music, Programming and the CAS stuff I could consider giving up, but LYX, or an reasonable replacement, is mandatory. Even for this memory is tight and expensive and the best display to be had are generally Quarter VGA which would leave little room to work on any document, especially one with long streams of equations. Even for just displaying material, such screens would make reading all but the shortest simplest documents unacceptably tedious. A few machines, in particular the latest Zauruses, have full VGA resolution displays which are probably just pushing into the region of usability. I will evaluate such a gizmo if an opportunity comes up, but I am not likely to be particularly interested until at least SVGA resolution, ideally on a screen about the size of a paperback book, becomes mainstream.

Similarly, for just reading, neither are EBooks a reasonable solution. Only the most expensive have adequate displays and almost all are limited to displaying proprietary content and often only that content that is accessible with the built in modem.

Fortunately in the meantime tablets have become more capable and more easily available. The ProGear was the first of these that I found to be completely sufficient for display, performance and other essential hardware features for my purposes. One particular Fujitsu was not far behind, but had only an SVGA display. The ProGear has even been around long enough that it is at least one generation behind and so I was able to pick one up cheaply on EBay.

As mentioned, the stock ProGear installation is lean and elegant, but far from universally useful and so required some work to outfit it to do at least what I needed, and as much as I could of what I wanted. In the former I have been essentially completely successful, in that I do now use it as my only machine. I am able to use it for everything for which I had previously used my laptop, though there are some performance issues that I continue to try to improve. For the latter I have been mostly successful. It is trivially portable, durable and robust, though perhaps still on the too big and heavy side and also not as useable as I would like primarily because keyboards are speedy and efficient, especially relative to handwriting, so that the lack of a keyboard is a significant handicap. I have some ideas that give me great hope for improving this input bottleneck which are further discussed below along with other usability issues, and performance. Logo