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A rocking cradle

Now that Tablet PCs are within roughly the same price range as regular notebooks, they are becoming much more of a corporate big deal.

My workplace recently introduced a wave of Tablet PCs to a group of people who have been using bulky desktop computers for their entire computing lives. Only a trickle of these machines reached my department, but it’s been enough to revolutionize the workplace. If nothing else, everyone who sees them wants them–and that kind of envy always begets revolution.

Now that Tablet PCs are within roughly the same price range as regular notebooks, and most Tablets have a built-in keyboard, they’re becoming much more of a corporate big deal. They’re energy-efficient, light, and you can twist them round to hide the keyboard, and use a special pen to write in whatever you want.

But to anybody who’s gotten used to a keyboard (someone who’s written six or seven trillion words on them, for example), using a pen again is disconcerting–especially if you’re running Windows.

The keyboard is mightier than the pen

So I’m a keyboard buff…and a full-sized keyboard too, thank you very much, not one of those dinky notebook keyboards without a real numeric keypad. I can’t switch between open programs without hitting Alt+Tab. I always close applications with Alt+F4. And when I want help, I reach for the F1. It’s just how I’m wired. And although my first word processor was a fountain pen, I prefer using a mouse as a pointing device. And I have a USB printer and a PDA synch cable to plug in as well. That’s four things to plug in when I settle back at my desk for some real computing work. And of course, there’s the lift-and-twist motion necessary to get the tablet’s screen vertical enough to work with.

Fortunately, I stumbled on a package that will handle all these aggravations in one sweep. It’s a USB docking station and adjustable notebook stand called the Xbrand Adjustable Laptop Cradle. This dandy stand comes in two flavors–one for $70 that’s just a stand (albeit a stylish and functional one), and another for $120 that’s a stand and four-port USB hub. In effect, it’s a universal docking station that works with any notebook computer, but I found it works especially well with Tablet PCs.

Coming in to dock

Here’s the scenario for using the Xbrand cradle. The first time you use it, you hold down a catch at the front and slide the back of the stand along a curved track. Once it’s in place, you release the catch and it’s secure. The stand is made of non-slip material, so even a fully extended widescreen notebook should stand firm on it. Of course, unlike dedicated docking stations, the Xbrand cradle doesn’t have a literal dock you can just slip your notebook into, connecting it with a power source and data ports. So once you’ve placed the notebook, you need to plug in the power cord and a USB cord for the built-in four-port hub. This proved to be the biggest problem with my Gateway M275. The USB port on its underside sits right next to the Ethernet port. Since I use a wireless network at the office, I don’t plug anything into the Ethernet port–except, four times out of ten, the USB cable. It sits there, not connecting with anything, until I realize that the keyboard and mouse aren’t having any effect on the screen and I move the USB cord over an inch. Other than that, the Xbrand cradle works like a treat.

Of course, it’s not a true docking station, in the sense that IBM, Dell, and Gateway have docking stations for their lines. There’s no smooth sliding into dock for instantaneous port replication and power supply. You will always need to plug in at least two cables to get power and port replication, and sometimes three for a network connection. But unlike true docking stations, the Xbrand cradle is less than $150, looks stylish, and will still be useful after your current notebook has gone the way of the luggable Compaq Portable 1983 model.

The Xbrand Laptop Cradle model without the USB ports, the model XB-1001-00, sells for $69.95, but it’s just a glorified stand. The four-port USB 2.0 version (model XB-1002-00) is only $50 more, and has the clear advantage. Both can bought through the retail channel, from direct sellers and resellers including CDW, Dell and Insight, and directly from the manufacturer, Ambir Technology >

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