Buying a Windows tablet before Windows 8 comes out? It's not a bad idea if you want the Windows 7 tablet features like running PC apps and handwriting recognition now and Fujitsu's Stylistic Q550 combines the power of Windows with a touch screen and stylus - and the new Oak Trail Atom CPU which delivers decent battery life. That comes at a price, and a price tag, that won't suit everyone, including Windows tablet fans.
The Q550 looks like a business machine with a few concessions to modern styling. The angled edges make it look thinner and the rounded corners are comfortable to hold. But the matte black plastic doesn't match the matte black glass bezel or the white grey back with reflective logo. The utility of the removable battery trumps quibbles about whether the back of the case looks messy because of it. And as Fujitsu hasn't managed to fit a well for the stylus into the case at all, leaving it dangling from a lanyard, we expect the Q550 will spend most of its time in a case which does have a slot for the pen.
Finding room for the stylus would be difficult because all the edges of the case are already in use, but it's a small omission that makes the Q550 much harder to use. On the bottom is a docking port for a cradle or keyboard, the single speaker and the power jack, which is a robust right-angled connector rather than the slim versions we're getting used to on ultraportables.
The top edge is taken up by an SD Card slot and the edge of the removable battery. On the left edge is the array microphones, single USB port, and full-size HDMI. The headphone jack and the smartcard reader are also located on the left, with the fingerprint reader set further back. The right edge of the case is taken up by buttons that make Windows more usable on a tablet. As well as the sliding power and wireless switches there are buttons to open the on-screen keyboard, flip the screen if you have auto-rotate turned off and send the equivalent of Ctrl-Alt-Del. These work before Windows loads the touchscreen drivers, and you can use them to navigate lists and press enter in the pre-boot screens, so you never feel you have to plug in a keyboard just to deal with getting started.
The Q550 isn't as light as an Android tablet or iPad, and at 800g it's a little heavier than the HP TouchPad too, but it doesn't feel it. Despite its weight, it's thinner and better balanced than most. That said, you wouldn't want to hold it in both hands to watch a full-length movie but it balances very well in one hand when you're writing notes on screen.
The Q550 is the first tablet PC we've used with Ntrig's latest combination active digitiser and capacitive touch, instead of the more common Wacom screen. Being able to use your finger and a pen on the same screen is ideal for Windows, you can hand-write notes or type on the responsive, multitouch on-screen keyboard. You can also use your finger to scroll through a Web page then switch to the pen to tap an icon too small for your finger (like the close button on most windows). We liked the virtual keyboard, because it's large enough for you to type at a reasonable speed and has useful text prediction.
When the pen is near the screen capacitive touch is disabled, so you can rest your hand on the screen as you write, which makes your writing neater and more accurate than trying to hold the pen without brushing the screen. Even so, inking isn't as smooth and fluid as with a Wacom pen (like the one on the HP EliteBook 2740p) and the touch resolution isn't as high, so while you can tap larger buttons and scroll Web pages with ease, so you will have to use the pen for many menus and icons.
There's also a grainy cast to the screen because of the Ntrig layer, which you can actually see at certain angles; that's a shame because this is otherwise an excellent, with rich, vivid colours, crisp details, good brightness and reasonable contrast in dark images. We did have a problem with reflections in some lighting conditions, but the 1280 by 800 resolution is adequate for the 10.1-inch screen (and the graphics card couldn't cope with anything higher anyway). Front and rear-facing cameras are a nice touch to go with the twin microphones for Skype calls.
The volume of the single speaker is unusually low. Hold the tablet up against your ear and the sound is clear and bright with excellent treble, clear detail in the midrange and a tolerable amount of bass with hardly any distortion even at high volume levels.
We're disappointed in the performance of the Atom Z670 CPU in the Q550, and particularly in the GMA 600 graphics - especially for full-screen video. You don't expect zippy performance from an Atom, even at 1.5GHz, with only 2GB of memory. But this is unusually slow for things we're used to finding acceptable on netbooks, like adding folders to libraries. We had no problems running Office applications until we tried using OneNote's handwriting recognition - a key feature for a tablet PC aimed at business users. It is perhaps because the handwriting sub-system runs on a separate CPU thread, we found this would briefly hang the program at frequent intervals - it recovered every time and we didn't lose data, but we were repeatedly interrupted while trying to take notes. We're also miffed that after installing Office 2010, you'll only have 3GB of storage left to use on the 32GB SSD.
Video performance is also unusually poor; 1080p video streamed from the Web had excellent detail and good colour but was jumpy. We found the same problem with 720p HD video played over the local network, especially full screen, which skipped frames and showed definite artefacts. The GMA 600 graphics didn't give us any hardware acceleration in GPU-accelerated software like IE 9. This is something that can indicate a graphics driver problem, as can the interference lines we saw at the top of some full-screen video playback. Fujitsu's update utility couldn't find a newer driver to try though and as the system only reports DirectX 9 support we don't think a driver update would improve the video performance (though we hope it would fix the visible glitches). With such inferior video performance it's small comfort that the case never gets noticeably warm and that the system is silent in operation.
The performance issues are balanced out by excellent battery life for a Windows tablet. We got a full five hours with Wi-Fi on, continually streaming music, video or browsing Web pages. That's without having to turn on any of the extreme power-saving options (which would drop performance further). Fujitsu claims eight to nine hours, and you could get that with Wi-Fi off and the eco power-saving mode on.
Bundled software is minimal, you get Fujitsu's own utilities, including a disappointing widget-driven launcher, Office Starter and Windows Live Essentials. There's also Norton Internet Security that you'll have to remove for performance reasons. At least you get Windows 7 Professional though, handy for business users.
The Q550 makes a lot of compromises and they may not be the right ones for you. You get business security features and full-size ports in compact but sturdy package - but not the full power to go with them.
Although it doesn't compete with the price of Android tablets or the iPad, it's one of the cheapest Windows tablets with both pen and touchscreen interfaces. Unfortunately, keeping the price down means it's short on memory and storage. Performance is the real problem here; the Atom Z series was promised as the right chip for tablets with full features and good battery life and here it only delivers the reasonable battery life.