Sony previews new Airboard tablet PC

Sony took the wraps off a new model of its Airboard portable IT television Tuesday at the CEATEC exhibition just outside of Tokyo, and hinted that the possibility of a U.S. launch is being studied.

The company was tight-lipped about the new model, which was shown as a prototype, and wouldn't provide any clues about when it will go on sale, although Satoru Maeda, senior general manager of Sony's Personal IT TV Division, said people will be "surprised when they hear about the new functions."

The Airboard first went on sale a year ago in Japan. Equipped with a 10.4 inch (26.41 centimeters) color LCD (liquid crystal display), the Airboard unclips from a base to resemble a tablet PC and gives users the ability to access the Internet, send and receive e-mail or watch television from anywhere within range of the base station. Sony puts the range of the IEEE 802.11b wireless network at about 30 meters -- meaning house-wide coverage should be possible in all but the largest homes.

Many of the first customers were older people, Maeda said, although the Airboard's popularity spread to users in their 20s, particularly women, as it became better known. "We changed the design so it would appeal more to young ladies," Maeda said of the new model.

The original Airboard has not gone on sale anywhere else in the world and Sony quickly pulled its closest product, an Internet access device called the eVilla, from North American shelves in late August -- just two months after it went on sale -- citing its failure to live up to expectations.

"I want to introduce this in the U.S. as soon as possible, but this year is impossible because of the economy," Maeda said, although he was similarly tight-lipped about whether a launch was planned for next year.

Photograph: Sony's Airboard portable television.

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