Tablet PCs hit the shelves

A new type of device that could topple the PC finally becomes available this week, as Microsoft Corp. releases its version of Windows for the Tablet PC, and a bevy of vendors ship the newly designed hardware that runs it.

Windows XP Tablet PC Edition powers the tablets, and Microsoft is the biggest booster of the new platform. Among the first to reach store shelves are devices from Acer Inc., Fujitsu Ltd., Hewlett-Packard Co., Toshiba Corp., and NEC Corp.

Still, Thursday's announcement carries few surprises for prospective buyers. Microsoft and its partners have been promoting the pen-based operating system and prototype Tablet PC devices for the past year.

Tablet Overview

There are two main designs: slate devices with detachable or wireless keyboards, and devices that resemble notebook PCs with displays that swivel.

"Companies have made many different choices in bringing these products to market, which I think is a healthy sign," said analyst Stephen Baker, director of research at NPD Techworld. "They are showing some innovation, and people think there is an opportunity here."

All the Tablet PCs run Microsoft Windows XP Tablet Edition, which lets you write on screen in several ways. The OS ships with Journal, a utility whose interface resembles a legal pad and simulates writing on paper. The Tablet Input Panel (TIP) is a window a couple of inches high that stretches across the width of the display--something like the pen-input window on a PDA screen. It works with any Windows application. Another input method involves using pen-enabled applications that are shipping with or will ship shortly after the first Tablet PCs.

Despite Tablet PCs' advantages, high cost, clumsy hardware design, and a dearth of compatible applications could keep them an expensive toy for early adopters such as gadget-happy executives, says Leslie Fiering, vice president of mobile computing at Gartner, a market intelligence firm.

But Fiering is bullish on the long-term potential of Tablet PCs, as usage moves from clipboard replacement for healthcare and public safety workers. By 2007, when manufacturing costs have dropped and more products are available, more than a third of all mobile PCs will have Tablet PC functionality, she says. By then, we'll be using a Tablet PC stylus to surf the Web, complete electronic forms, and annotate digital images to send in e-mail, Fiering says.

Inaugural Tablets Ship

A handful of vendors are ready with their Tablet PC entries.

Toshiba is releasing two Portégé series convertible-style Tablet PCs aimed at business and consumers, priced starting at AUD$4840.

Both Portégés feature a screen that you can unlock and rotate 180 degrees to fold down on top of the keyboard. Press a couple of buttons, and the screen image rotates 180 degrees, so you can hold the Portégé like a 4.1-pound legal pad and use a stylus to input data and navigate Windows.

The 3500 series Portégé will have a 1.33-GHz Intel Pentium III-M processor, a 12-inch display, 256MB of RAM, a 40GB hard drive, 3.5-hour battery life, and built-in 802.11 wireless connectivity, along with integrated Ethernet and a 56-kbps modem. The Portégé 3505 has the same specifications but adds a DVD-ROM drive and has 512MB of RAM.

"Digital ink is a phenomenal way of inputting data, but it is processor-intensive," says Craig Marking, senior product marketing manager at Toshiba.

Heat from that increased processor performance will be dissipated through a 2mm space between the keyboard and the 12.1-inch TFT display, Marking adds.

The Compaq Tablet PC TC1000 from Hewlett-Packard uses Transmeta's Crusoe TM5800 processor, which received a clock speed boost to 1.0 GHz for this device.

"It's got the right combination of performance and battery life for this highly mobile category," says Ted Clark, vice president of HP's new notebook business.

The Compaq's display is slightly smaller than the Toshiba's, at 10.4 inches, but it is optimized for wide-angle viewing, Clark says.

The unit's keyboard is detachable from the rest of the device, and you can store it in a carrying case or in its docking station when the device is in tablet mode. Without the keyboard, the TC1000 weighs about 3 pounds; its total weight is just under 4 pounds with the keyboard attached.

The TC1000's paperlike dimensions--8.5 inches wide by 11 inches deep by 0.8 inches thick--will make users will feel as though they are writing on a notepad. A base configuration including a 30GB hard drive, 256MB of RAM, USB 2.0 ports, and an NVidia GeForce2 Go 100 graphics card costs US$1699. A version with a built-in 802.11b card sells for US$1799.

Fujitsu has been making tablet devices for some time, and its new Stylistic ST4000 represents its 18th generation of tablet/slate products, according to Louis Jouanny, vice president of marketing and strategic development for sister company Fujitsu-Siemens' mobile pen PC division. Fujitsu's product is a slate with an infrared- or USB-connected keyboard, as opposed to the swivel-hinged device from Toshiba.

The Stylistic ST4000 uses an Ultra Low Voltage Intel Pentium III running at 800 MHz, with Intel's SpeedStep technology regulating the power consumed by the processor during pauses in use as brief as the time between keystrokes, Jouanny says. Users can expect between 4 and 5 hours of battery life during normal use, and the device weighs 3.1 pounds.

Fujitsu will sell a docking station with a modular CD-rewritable/DVD-ROM drive separately from the slate, which will cost US$2199 in its base configuration with a 20GB hard drive, 256MB of RAM, and a one-year warranty. The company wanted to provide as much of a desktop experience as possible for users of the product, while still developing a lightweight and portable device, says Tom Bernhard, director of strategic product planning for Fujitsu.

Acer is releasing its TravelMate C100 convertible notebook, which has a monitor that can swivel 180 degrees for conversion into a tablet. The AUD$4999 system runs on an 800-MHz Intel Pentium III-M processor. It comes with 256MB of RAM and a 20GB hard drive, and sports a 10.4-inch screen with 1024 by 768 resolution.

"I see this really as an opportunity for us," said Stan Shih, Acer's founder and chair. He estimates that more than 20 percent of Acer's laptop revenue in 2003 may come from Tablet PCs.

Several Japanese vendors previewed their Tablet PCs at the World PC Expo in Tokyo earlier this month.

NEC will use the Pentium III-M processor in its tablets, too, while Paceblade Technologies opted for an 867-MHz Crusoe TM5800.

Mixed Predictions

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates has predicted that the Tablet PC will account for the majority of PC sales within five years.

"I think it is really unknown at this point how big the market is," says Michael Dell, chairman and chief executive officer Dell Computer, which so far has no plans to ship a Tablet PC device of its own.

"Dell, of course, likes to participate in high-volume markets; and until we can determine the size of the market, we are not ready to decide at what level we will participate," he says.

Other interested observers are more optimistic. "Over time, it is my expectation that the capabilities of tablets will permeate all form factors in the mobile market," says Anand Chandrasekher, vice president and co-general manager of Intel's Mobile Platforms Group.

"Tablet PCs are still an unknown quantity," says Roger Kay, an analyst with the market research firm IDC. He questions whether Tablet PCs can become more than a niche product. "At first consumers will see them as ergonomically clumsy or oversize PDAs," Kay says.

IDC offers both best- and worst-case scenarios for Tablet PCs. At worst, Tablets PCs will struggle in the market, selling about 575,000 units in the United States in 2003, rising to 1.9 million units in 2006. At best, IDC forecasts, sales will hit 800,000 units in 2003, and reach 7.3 million in 2006.

Keep Pushing

The Tablet PC is not Microsoft's first attempt to drag pen-based computing out of its comfortable home in niche vertical markets, such as hospitals and delivery companies, and into the mainstream. Microsoft previously pushed Windows for Pen Computing, which rolled support for pen-based input and displays into Windows 3.11, released in 1990. Windows 95 also supported some measure of pen input. Other abandoned pen-and-tablet computing precursors include Apple, General Magic, and Grid.

"The performance of PCs at that time was not enough, so you could not use active pen; so it shifted toward a passive pen," says Yuji Isobe, general manager of the Ubiquitous Platform Division at Fujitsu.

Notwithstanding the previous flops, Microsoft and its hardware partners have some advantages, including today's improved processing power, better handwriting recognition, and reduced costs of technology. Earlier incarnations of the Tablet PC depended too much on custom hardware configurations, notes analyst Fiering. The current crop of Tablet PCs are compatible with the dominant Wintel platform of Intel processors and the Windows OS.

Who'll Use 'Em?

Dr. John Halamka is a target user. As chief information officer of CareGroup Health Care Systems, he is responsible for choosing the equipment used by some 3000 doctors and 12,000 medical staffers at six hospitals in the Boston area. Tablet PCs interest Halamka because doctors, who have notoriously bad handwriting, need a foolproof way to record data about medicines, dietary needs, and other patient requirements.

The screens of handheld computers such as the HP IPaq are too small for the order-entry applications that doctors use, Halamka says.

"The sweet spot for doctors is to give them something the size of a clipboard that doesn't weigh as much as a laptop," he says. CareGroup currently uses Dell C400 laptops that are wheeled around hospitals on trolleys.

The first Tablet PC might not make the cut, however. At around 3 pounds they are probably too heavy, and their price tags are a bit too steep to permit widespread use, Halamka says. The hospital needs devices priced at about $1000, he says. "The second generation of the Tablet PC is probably what we'll really want," he adds.

Tom Spring and Rebecca Freed of PCWorld.com contributed to this report; additional reporting by IDG News Service correspondents Tom Krazit, Sumner Lemon, James Niccolai, Martyn Williams, and Joris Evers.

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