Monday, August 16, 2004

Averatec C3500 Review - Part I

[UPDATE 2/26/05: Since this is my most popular article, I have updated the driver download versions and links, corrected a previous mistake in the CPU speed of the unit, and made several updates to points where Averatec has now provided downloads for items not previously available. Look for these UPDATE tags throughout to see the changes.]

This review pertains to the Averatec C3500 Convertible Tablet PC model as sold at Costco. This Tablet PC has generated a bit of buzz because of its price point and its features. The Costco model differs from the specifications as listed on the C3500's homepage in three ways:

  • 80 GB Hard Drive (Instead of 60 GB)
  • Carry Case
  • $1279.99 Price (no rebate)

This review (Part 1 of at least 2) focuses solely on the hardware and software that can be discovered in one night of ownership. Issues such as heat, usability, battery life, and weight are not something that is easily determined or expressed after a few hours of use, so they will be covered in part II.

To put the review in perspective, I made this purchase on behalf of a student straight out of high-school going to college. Thus, the typical use would be for writing papers, with the bonus feature of note taking in the classroom. After showing a Tablet PC to this student, the features offered by the form factor and the OneNote application made it stand out from the crowd of traditional notebooks. However, my background is that of a software developer and general PC hardware enthusiast. Thus, the first two parts of the review will be mine and highly technical. The last part (assuming the student is willing) will be written from the typical non heavy-duty computer user college student.

Taking the unit out of the box, I noticed the case first, since the early message board reviews have not mentioned it much. It is a medium thickness, medium hard plastic, that is essentially a glove fit of the tablet. There are no pockets, and no storage space for anything but the tablet itself. It is also a purplish blue color. As this is not mentioned in the Averatec literature, it may be Costco model specific.

There are several images of the unit online, so I won't waste your time with putting more up here. I can confirm that there is a S-Video connector and not a composite video out that was pictured in some of the prototype models.

Plugging it in and turning it on began the typical Windows XP "finalize the setup" type stuff. I did specify an administrator password, which has a potential issue after rebooting the unit there is a logon box with the administrator name and a password error dialog that you must click OK to. Sometimes, this dialog is hidden behind the login screen, and selecting the user to login appears to hang. Use the ALT+TAB key combination to pop that window to the front, click the OK button, and continue the login process. Averatec does have an update on their webpage called "LogonFix" to correct this issue.

After booting for the first time, BEFORE going online/connecting to a network, I enabled the XP Firewall. If you do not know how to do this, I suggest Googling for it. I then grabbed Windows XP SP2 and installed it.

Once Windows was updated to SP2, I made a quick trip to Windows Update to see if there was anything else new. Turns out there are new drivers for the MSI 802.11g wireless card (released June 10, even though it is a Ralink card, see below) and the onboard SiS 900PCI network adapter (released July 11). Looking at the Windows Update history, looks like the person making the image for this tablet likely installed most if not all updates from Windows Update as of June 25th. I should have checked the installed updates previous to this point to have been sure. I installed these driver updates before checking the initial versions.

Hardware and Drivers
I always assure the latest drivers are installed before evaluating anything, so I checked with the hardware component manufacturers web sites to be sure. I hope this hardware and driver version list answers some questions related to the Averatec hardware components I have seen asked and not answered. Links are provided for the listed hardware for the geeks reading this (* means after the updates described above). [Update: Check Averatec's C3500 download site for potential updates to the below list.]

  • SiS Northbridge chipset M741
  • SiS Southbridge Chipset 963/963L (multiple chipsets listed at this link, make sure you are at the correct section)
  • SiS Video - Mirage - Driver version 3.60a [UPDATE: 3.65 is available from SiS dated 1/11/2005 - also, a version 6.14.10.3600 (which might be older than the SiS one previously mentioned) is on the Averatecs web site and purports to fix some issues. If updating to SiS's latest version doesn't do the job, try the version at Averatec's download site.] The on board video uses 32 MB of the total system RAM.
  • SiS AGP version 7.2.0.1170 (SiS's 1.17e), 7/18/2003 [UPDATE: 1.19a is available from SiS dated 1/25/2005]
  • SiS 5513 IDE The Microsoft SiS IDE driver comes installed [UPDATE: (v2.04a is available from SiS, dated 11/18/2003) CAUTION: Be prepared to roll back the driver, as an earlier SiS version prevented a successful resume from hibernate mode.]
  • *SiS 900 Fast Ethernet Controller v1.16.0.8, 7/11/2003 [UPDATE: v1.18 is available from Sis, dated 12/6/2004) ]
  • UC-Logic Serial Pen Tablet to HID Driver v5.1.3.2, 5/4/2004. This means the digitizer is likely this model. The pen is likely similar to this one. The drivers on UC-Logic's website appears to be for their tablets, not for these modules. [Update: Check Averatec's C3500 download site for an update to v. 5.1.3.3 which may fix the disappearing floating input panel bug. One poster also claimed that a fix for this was posted on Windows Update.]
  • LCD Screen - 12.1" LCD that is identified as a Generic type ("Default Monitor"). The max resolution is 1024 X 768. I remember seeing a post where someone states they could take it to 1280 X 1024, but the only thing that does is make the screen scroll.
  • Hard Drive - Hitachi TravelStar 80GN (ATA-6, 4200 RPM, 12.0MS, 8MB Cache)
  • DVD/CD-RW Slimtype COMBO SOSC-2483K, likely manufactured by Lite-On
  • Alps Pointing device (12/5/2003, v5.5.1.2) [UPDATE: Version 6.0.305.5 is available from Toshiba.] Even though the driver is provided by another vendor, the control panel is much improved.
  • Modem - Motorola SM56 Data/Fax modem (v6.07.06, 4/27/2004) [UPDATE: v6.08.01 is available from Motorola's website.]
  • *Wireless - Ralink Technology 11g-RT2500 MiniPCI (6/10/2004 v 2.2.6.0) [UPDATE: v3.0.1.0 (1/20/2005) is available from Ralink's website]
  • PCMCIA is identified as a generic cardbus controller
  • Processor - Mobile AMD Athlon XP-M 2200+, runs at speeds between 400 Mhz to 1.667 GHz depending on AC vs. battery and system load. [UPDATE: Thanks to the anonymous poster for correcting my mistake here.]
  • Sound - Realtek 650 chipset AC97 Audio (v5.10.0.5580 5/14/2004) [UPDATE: Version A3.69 dated 2/1/2005 is available at Realtek's website]
  • USB - SiS 7001 PCI to USB Controller using Microsoft drivers
  • RAM - 512 MB physical, 480 MB available to Windows (remember that 32 MB is set aside for the video RAM)
  • built-in microphone which is located towards the base of the screen below the pen holder. This feature is not mentioned in the Averatec specifications.

Sadly, none of these drivers are posted on Averatec's website, nor provided on a disc with the Tablet. Although most of the drivers are available from the manufacturer of the component, some of them (ALPS touchpad and UCLogic's screen/pen) are not available from the component manufacturer. This makes restoration or a "from scratch" installation of Windows XP impossible. This same issue exists with the included applications, which I will cover later. [Update: Check Averatec's C3500 download site - the digitizer and touchpad drivers are now available there - Kudos to Avertec for posting most of them. See above for an update to the touchpad driver]

Software
As for included software, the Averatec has a basic configuration. It does not include the Office suite - just the OneNote application which is a part of the Office 2003 product suite. A complete listing of software is below:

  • OneNote 2003 (w/o SP1)
  • 1stMenuApplet (by FIC) 3.0 Alpha8 (Can't find this application or updates anywhere) [UPDATE: Check Averatec's C3500 download site - this is possibly what is in the Tablet Buttons download]
  • Roxio Easy CD/DVD Creator 6 Basic [UPDATE: Check Roxio's site for newer patches]
  • Adobe Acrobat Reader 6.0.0 [UPDATE: Please update this application, as 6.0.0 has some security issues. The latest version is 7.0. I highly recommend grabbing the PDF SpeedUp program after updating to reduce load times.]
  • Cyberlink Power DVD 5.0 (Update available to build 1203 7/26/2004)
  • Norton Antivirus 2004 (6 month trial edition)
  • Windows XP SP1 Tablet PC Edition
I upgraded the Antivirus software prior to applying XP SP2. This update included Symantec's WMI fix, which is supposed to make Norton Antivirus integrate with the security center feature of the latest Microsoft Operating System upgrade. Sadly, this did not seem to work correctly. I would advise people to install SP2 then run LiveUpdate to upgrade Norton. This may make the two play nicer together. I would be careful on sending this to college with the 6 month Antivirus subscription. Look at some sale flyers to find a deal on an antivirus program - usually you can find Norton or similar in free-after-rebate deals. Alternatively, you can grab a free copy of AVG or Avast. [UPDATE: I also highly recommend an antispyware application, such as Microsoft's free solution. To prevent spyware in the first place (although as the popularity grows, the spyware will follow) try Firefox as your new default browser.]

It goes without saying you should update Windows to SP2 ASAP. This upgrades your Tablet OS to the "Lonestar" or 2005 version, in addition to the security and reliability enhancements in Windows XP SP2. At the time of this posting, this should be available to all users via Windows Update.

Likewise, Microsoft has made tons of enhancements to OneNote. Going to the Office Update site should allow you to easily update this to the latest version. However, Averatec left us with a problem - early models of this Tablet do not include the CAB files this update requires, nor is there a stand alone installation CD. Since I am a MSDN subscriber, and have access to this application, I was able to update it. However, those of you that do not have the same luck as myself will need to try downloading the full file version of the service pack (larger of the two downloads at the bottom of the page). Please leave some feedback as to if this worked for you.

The 1stMenuApplet program is what is used to control the hardware buttons. Unfortunately, it resides in the startup folder. Some people like to remove applications from there, but don't remove this one if you want the HW buttons to work! Also, don't uninstall it by accident, as this is not provided separately. This application is completely unusable due to its horrendous UI, and the readme found in the program directory indicates it is written by FIC and is an alpha version. I'm hoping that a newer and more usable version of this software is provided at a later time. [UPDATE: Check Averatec's C3500 download site - this is possibly what is in the Tablet Buttons download, although it states it is the initial shipping version, I am not 100% certain that this is the case.]

Lastly, the BIOS (Yes, I'm calling it software) is made by Insyde. This is the most plain-looking BIOS I have ever seen. Virtually no settings can be altered aside from boot device order. Some people have speculated the video is capable of 64 MB shared memory, and the chipset specs appear to confirm this. However, the BIOS does not allow you to configure this amount. Perhaps future revisions of the BIOS will allow this.

Benchmarks
I'm not a fan of benchmarks, but they can be a rough way to make comparisons. The methodology is simple: Two runs of the benchmark are done. One run with the AC power plugged in, one with the battery power. The software used is the PCMark 2004 Free edition. Drivers, applications, and OS are updated to the latest version as described above.
  • AC power: 2013 PCMarks
  • Battery: 2019 PCMarks
General Construction and layout
I found the unit to have a solid feel. The hinge also feels solid. The keyboard feels like most notebook keyboards, and I was able to type on it w/o missing keystrokes (My hand would be classified as "large" bordering on "extra-large" if you go by the manufacturer of most types of gloves).

There is nothing horrible about the layout, like most notebooks, the special keys are fairly inconsistent and reside in different places.

Wireless Networking
The wireless networking component can be turned on or off by using a switch. I believe this is to reduce the battery consumption of the receiver continuously scanning for an Access Point. One thing I noticed is even when the C3500 is near the AP (Excellent signal strength) Windows continuously pops up the "...is now connected" message. I am not sure if this is because the connection is constantly being broken and re-established or because Windows likes to annoy us with useless messages (ala Clippy). I will run a socket test application I wrote eons ago to determine what the problem is (if any) and report back in part II.

Overall initial impressions
I am quite disappointed that Averatec has not made the drivers and applications that are part of the restore image available as stand-alone install executables. This limits the end user's ability to repair themselves in the situation where inadvertent circumstances end up destroying the installed drivers or applications. Thus, the only way to recover from this is a fresh recovery image of the tablet with the user losing installed applications and data. [UPDATE: These are now available on Averatec's C3500 download site]

Secondly, although this is related to the first point, the Windows CAB files and OneNote cab files (installation files for reinstallation or patching) are extremely important, yet they are not provided. Averatec would do well by providing CD's containing these missing bits to the customers who bought early models without these installed. If the student were a web designer, IIS (the web server that ships with the OS) could not be installed with the CDs and computer as provided by Averatec.

On the plus side, the Averatec customer support rep I spoke with appeared to speak English as his primary language (contrary to some other posts I have read), and was able to answer the OneNote update question regarding the missing CAB files after a short delay. He did not point me to the full file download, although I am not sure if this will work or is an acceptable workaround (please let me know if this is the case). 24 hour tech support is provided.

In Part II of this review (expect it inside a week), I will cover more specifics of the performance of the hardware. Factors such as heat, boot time, battery life, included microphone performance, wireless networking distance and reliability, digitizer/pen sensitivity, and weight will be addressed. If there are any further questions as to the hardware or software not addressed in this article, please leave a comment as to what you want addressed and I will update Part I and add it to the Part II review. As a side question, what software should I add to this in addition to Microsoft Office student edition that would be useful for a college student?

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

I bought an Averatec tablet laptop. I did most of what you mentioned. One thing that did not work correctly is the floating input panel. I was not able to tap on the icon. Whenever I tried to tap it, it disappeared. I was able to make the floating input panel to show up by moving the pen over it and clicked on the left button on the touch pad. However, it was useless because as soon as I tried to write on the panel, it went away. Not sure if you had the same problem or not.

RJ

Steven Bone said...

>Whenever I tried to tap it, it disappeared.

Yep, RJ, I had the same issue. I never was able to figure out what was going on, and didn't have time to play with it much before giving up the Tablet to the college student. I tried to focus on the hardware, which was the thing I saw the most lacking information on.

One of my coworkers picked one up, and he sent me some comments today that I hope he posts or doesn't mind if I add to part II of the review. One thing he mentioned was the failure of the onboard modem to connect intermittently. I can only comment that I have tried it, it dialed and connected once or twice, but that is about it. If anyone has issues related to this, please post them.

One thing you gotta check out is Microsoft's Bert Keely from the Tablet PC team that made some interesting mods to his Tablet. Not surprisingly, he is amazing with it. Maybe this answers your question... http://channel9.msdn.com/ShowPost.aspx?PostID=16964

Anonymous said...

Two points:

1. The processor speed is not 1.12GHz. That is one possible speed, but the processor can adjust to several speeds between 400MHz and 1.667GHz. Depending on the current processor load, the speed indication will change in the "My Computer" properties.

2. There is a fix available from Averatec for the disappearing TIP issue in XP SP2. You can email support and they will send you a new driver, or you can download it from http://www.daltonrooney.com/download/av3500_digitizer.zip.

Also, on the tabletquestions.com forum, I have posted a step-by-step plan for modifying the Averatec image CDs, discovering the Ghost password in the image files, installing Linux and XP Tablet in a dual-boot configuration, and how to get several features working under Linux. You can read it here: http://www.tabletquestions.com/showthread.php?t=3046

Anonymous said...

windows update now has the fix.

/////////2. There is a fix available from Averatec for the disappearing TIP issue in XP SP2. You can email support and they will send you a new driver, or you can download it from http://www.daltonrooney.com/download/av3500_digitizer.zip.

Anonymous said...

http://www.daltonrooney.com/download/av3500_digitizer.zip must have been tken down, the link is bad. is there another location for this file?

Steven Bone said...

You can try Averatec's download site for the 3500. I noticed that they put up some of the initial programs and drivers shipped with the unit (kudos!), plus an updated digitizer dated 11/15/2004. I don't know if this is the same (or newer) version than what Dalton had, but worth a shot.

Averatec C3500 Download Site

Anonymous said...

I found your review very helpful. Thanks alot... it is much more than I can get from Averatec web site or from their support staff.
ER

Anonymous said...

I just changed the video memory on my system to 64Mb through the BIOS. I don't know if mine may have a different version of the BIOS than yours, but it was very easy to change under the Memory tab.

Justin

Anonymous said...

I have contacted Averatec's support on four different occasions and found their follow up and promises lacking. What has been your experience with support from the Call Center?

Kramer said...

After about a year of owning my C3500, I have to say "You get what you pay for."
The shell has hairline cracks on one corner where your left wrist sits and in one corner on the top where the screen latch is. They are unrepairable and as long as they do not expand, I won't worry about it. I do not travel with it often and do not remember ever dropping it. I also have a well insulated laptop bag.

The other issue that I cannot get resolved with Averatec is that I still get a long beep on post boot when the unit is cold. Averatec says I have to send it in. A recommendation to re-seat the BIOS battery did not work. And since I opened the case to do this, I have voided the warrantee. All my settings stay saved, but I have to turn down the volume until it finishes booting and goes into Windows to avoid the long, annoying beep.

Speaking of sound, I also have issues from time to time where the sound when in Windows is completely off. All I have to do is click on the Windows Volume in the task tray and click on any volume slider and it begins working again. Weird.

All drivers are current.

The other weird thing is if you switch the screen orientation, you MUST recalibrate with the Stylus or it will be way off.

Battery life has also been minimal at 2 hours with the best powersaving features turned on until I consider the unit unusable.

The machine is still working otherwise, and after tweaking Windows Tablet Edition via Burt Keely and the channel 9 link posted previously, along with some whitepapers, the stylus and laptop overall still work sufficiently.

For the price, this machine is adequate, but with all of the nuisances, I think I would have spent a little more to help avoid them.

Anonymous said...

The other issue that I cannot get resolved with Averatec is that I still get a long beep on post boot when the unit is cold. Averatec says I have to send it in. A recommendation to re-seat the BIOS battery did not work. And since I opened the case to do this, I have voided the warrantee. All my settings stay saved, but I have to turn down the volume until it finishes booting and goes into Windows to avoid the long, annoying beep. <--- i have the same problem with mine