Tablet PCs to debut late next year

Tablet PCs may have taken center stage during Bill Gates' keynote address at the Comdex exhibition on Sunday night, but the devices won't be available to end users until the second half of next year, Microsoft Corp. officials said.

The slate-shaped Tablet PCs are being pushed by Microsoft as a future substitute for laptops and -- with the addition of a docking station and keyboard -- desktop PCs. The lightweight devices will offer battery life of up to 4 hours or more, the Tablet PC edition of the Windows XP operating system, integrated wireless networking, and a pen-based input system that offers sophisticated handwriting recognition capabilities, among other features.

A specific date has not yet been set for the commercial release of the Tablet PCs but a launch is planned for the second half of next year, said Leland Rockoff, director of marketing and business development at Microsoft's Tablet PC group. While exact pricing also has yet to be determined, Microsoft expects to see Tablet PCs priced at between US$2,000 and $2,500 when they hit the market next year, Rockoff said.

Several prototypes of the devices were on display here Sunday, giving a taste of what Tablet PCs may offer when they go on sale. The prototypes were based on several different microprocessor families: Intel Corp.'s Pentium III-M processor, Transmeta Corp.'s Crusoe TM5800 processor and Via Technologies Inc.'s C3 processor.

Among the devices that garnered the most attention at Comdex was Acer Inc.'s convertible laptop prototype. Weighing in at under 1.5 kilograms, the Acer convertible includes a 10 inch (25 centimeter) TFT (thin film transistor) LCD (liquid crystal display) monitor that can swivel 180 degrees, converting from a conventional clamshell laptop design into a slate-shaped Tablet PC. The device, which runs Windows XP, automatically switches its display format from landscape mode while in clamshell format to portrait mode when turned into a slate.

Additional devices on display Sunday included First International Computer Inc.'s (FIC's) slate-shaped Thunder and Crystal Tablet PC prototypes, both of which run Windows XP and weigh in at less than 1.5 kilograms. The Thunder prototype is based on the Pentium III-M processor at speeds up to 800MHz and includes a 20G byte hard disk drive, 128M bytes of SDRAM (synchronous dynamic RAM) and a 10.4 inch (26 centimeter) TFT-LCD monitor. FIC's Crystal prototype is based on the Crusoe TM5800 at speeds up to 1GHz and includes 128M bytes of DDR (double data rate) SDRAM as well as a 20G byte hard disk drive and a 10.4 inch TFT-LCD monitorOther companies that had Intel- and Transmeta-based Tablet PC prototypes on display included Compaq Computer Inc., Fujitsu PC Corp., Wistron Corp., Tatung Co. and Viewsonic Corp.

In addition, Via showed off a Tablet PC prototype based on a version of its C3 processor that runs at speeds up 733MHz. The company plans to sell a C3-based Tablet PC device under its own brand during the second half of next year, said Richard Brown, Via's director of marketing.

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