Linux-based TMTA tablet PC for $600?

How can you refuse, even if it is a close-out sale?

After reviewing Acer's Tablet PC recently I mused out loud about the viability of using a more overtly tablet-like CE device for what I think of as 'proper' Tablet PC tasks. But why wait, asked reader Per Hammer - this one looks just the ticket, and it's only $600.

I wrestled with myself for, oh, 20 minutes or so. Is this outfit for real? Do I really want to give them my credit card number? But on the other hand, if they are for real they don't seem to have very many of them left, and the instant Slashdot gets to hear about it, they'll all be gone. Per said the UPS tracking system claimed his was already in the UK, so with both of us crossing our fingers the box wasn't full of cat pooh, I booked myself a Linux-based, Transmeta-running Tablet PC.

Which to my relief arrived less than two days later, leaving me with a very pretty-looking magnesium-cased Frontpath Progear 1050HX, just over a month ahead of the official launch of the Microsoft version, and rather over a year after the launch of the Progear.

At launch the Progear scored several rave reviews, but it cost substantially more than people would be likely to pay for what is, face it, a somewhat esoteric device. Frontpath itself was spun out of Sonicblue Inc, but subsequently appears to have been spun back in again, and while I can find no notice in big letters saying "this is a dead platform," the future of Progear does not look optimistic.

That said, there are clear upsides that persuade me my Progear will be viable as one of my 'proper' Tablet PCs for quite some time to come. The model I have weighs 3.5 pounds, in exchange for which I've had to sacrifice battery life, and settle for four hours. So it's not a nuisance to tote around the house or office, but you really do have to keep the charger handy (or to have selected one of the models with a double size battery).

On first switching on it boots Linux, and presents you with a log-in screen. The quick start leaflet that comes in the box doesn't actually mention the login name (thanks people) but this turns out to be Progear (case sensitive). The device isn't intended to be switched on and off regularly; instead, you put it into sleep mode, which gives you an 'instant on' (nearly) tablet. The screen is 1024x768 XGA, and non-active, whereas the Microsoft design for Tablet PCs specifies active. There are advantages of doing it Microsoft's way, because you can do more complex things with the stylus, but you're cooked if you lose your stylus, and you lose the ability to just flick at a button with your fingernail and have something happen. Call me an idle sybarite, but I value this capability.

The device itself is pretty stripped down, with just on/off button, single USB connector, power, single PC Card slot and connectors for the extra charging cradle on the bottom. It comes with a software CD, but in order to access this you need to set up a share on a network, as there's no CD drive. Or use a USB CD drive.

On startup you get an idea of what Frontpath had in mind for the Progear, and what went wrong. It's intended to log in at to check for updates, but this domain no longer exists, and still doesn't exist even after you've set the machine up to connect to the internet. Connecting is either simple or a slight pain, depending.

Mine shipped with a Lucent Orinoco gold wireless card, which seems to be the default wireless connector for Progears, and this you set up via the highly slimline settings button. The 'advanced' settings let you set your wireless network name and WEP key, but assume you're using a Lucent-style base station. These use ASCII strings which are then translated into hex, but if you're not using a Lucent-style base station (I understand Airports are like this too, but don't quote me) then you've got a problem, because the Progear refuses to accept your hex WEP key.

You can get around this by messing around with ASCII-hex translation tables, or use a USB keyboard to get beyond the cuddly UI and fix it in the machine's Linux configuration files. Snag two can be fixed in the same way - the settings don't allow you to specify fixed IP, but assume DHCP, whereas as I'd set my Lucent base station (OK, I do have one really) for fixed IP, and didn't fancy changing it back.

Once connected, the machine was perfect for home armchair surfing, providing some kind of rivalry for my recently wirelessed Psion netBook, the upside being greater screen real estate, downsides being battery life and lack of keyboard. As seems to be standard for tablet class devices, it has a soft keyboard that you can get on screen at the touch of an icon, but I'd personally prefer some kind of mini keyboard to be built into the designs.

By plugging in a keyboard you can also use it as a 'real' computer. The basic model comes with a strange folding metal affair of a stand, so you can use this to prop it up on a desk. You can also get a four port USB charging cradle for it, and although I rejected this because I'm bigoted about the amount of crap you have to carry around with allegedly mobile devices, I'm beginning to regret this, as the basic stand presents me with deckchair-like assembly difficulties.

I'm currently searching for the right keyboard. It has to be small, USB, maybe even some kind of roll-up affair. These seem to be available mail order in the US, but I've yet to identify a UK supplier. Once I've got this I'll have a reasonably powerful, reasonably mobile computing device that'll at least do 802.11b. It may also do GPRS, either via the PC Card slot or the Irda port, but after the fun I had setting up the Nokia 7650 with the netBook I'm in no great rush to investigate this.

If you've checked out the sales site, you'll notice that there's also a Windows 98 version of the machine available, however for a device that doesn't seem likely to get much in the way of future development from the manufacturer, the Linux version seems to me to be more viable, as it's more inherently hackable (and powerful), and you can benefit from a lot of general Linux community expertise.

Currently, you can get PDF manuals from Sonicblue here, and the most useful repository of Progear tips I've found so far has been posted by Prasad Wimalasiri, here. Among other things, this wil advice you on fixing WEP problems, updating drivers and magically making the unused portion of your hard disk appear. According to there aren't many left, so this is perhaps one of those rare occasions when you can be both the first and the last on your block. And you still have time to beat Microsoft to the punch. ®