Tablet PC devices show innovation, market opportunity

Hardware vendors around the world are launching Tablet PC devices based on Microsoft Corp.'s new operating system Thursday, capitalizing on the chance to sell a new device into a stagnant market of disappointing PC sales. But while many companies are embracing the new Windows XP Tablet PC Edition software, some are certain to fail as users determine which devices will pass muster, according to analysts.

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

The two main designs are slate devices with detachable or wireless keyboards, and devices that resemble notebook PCs and whose displays swivel. "Initially, products that offer you multiple capabilities will do best. Exclusive tablets are going to be a much tougher sell, at least in the beginning," Baker said.

Despite the use of various processors from Intel Corp. and a few Transmeta Corp. Crusoe chips, "I don't think these things are going to be sold on the basis of power," Baker said. The niche businesses that adopt the tablets for their workers, such as health care and large sales organizations, will make their purchasing decisions based on usability more than anything else, he said.

Pen-based computers have historically remained on the sidelines for average computer users, but Microsoft and its partners are hoping that trend ends with the launch of Tablet PC operating system.

"The customers who these products are targeted toward will be willing to pay for the product if they see value," Baker said.

A selected list of devices launched this week follows below:

-- Toshiba American Information Systems Inc.'s Portégé 3500 Series Tablet PC features a 1.33GHz Pentium III-M processor from Intel Corp., the fastest processor included in an Intel-based tablet, according to Toshiba. "Digital ink is a phenomenal way of inputting data, but it is processor intensive," said 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 (thin film transistor) display, which swivels to cover the keyboard when the device is in tablet mode, Marking said.

Toshiba chose a notebook PC-type design for the 4 pound (1.8kg) device. The company also included integrated Bluetooth and 802.11b wireless communications capabilities built into the device, and they will be reselling 3G model data cards from Sprint Corp. as another method of wireless Internet access.

The Portégé 3500 will be available worldwide as of Thursday. A base configuration will cost $2,299 with a 12.1-inch TFT (thin film transistor) display, 256M bytes of RAM, a 40G-byte hard drive, and several expansion slots including Compact Flash, Secure Digital, and USB (universal serial bus) 2.0 ports. It measures 11.6 inches wide by 9.2 inches deep by 1.2 inches thick (29.46cm by 23.37cm by 3.05cm), and is rated for up to 3.5 hours of battery life.

-- The Compaq Tablet PC TC1000 from Hewlett-Packard Co. uses the Crusoe TM5800 processor from Transmeta Corp., which received a clock speed boost to 1.0GHz for this device. "It's got the right combination of performance and battery life for this highly mobile category," said Ted Clark, vice president of new notebook business at HP.

The display is a little smaller than Toshiba's, at 10.4 inches, but it is optimized for wide-angle viewing, Clark said.

The HP keyboard is detachable from the rest of the device, and is designed to be stored in a carrying case or its docking station when the device is in tablet mode. Without the keyboard, the TC1000 weighs about 3 pounds (1.35kg) with a total weight of just under 4 pounds with the keyboard attached.

Users will feel like they are writing on a notepad with the TC1000's paper-like dimensions, 8.5 inches wide by 11 inches deep by 0.8 inches thick. A base configuration including a 30G-byte hard drive, 256M bytes of RAM, USB 2.0 ports, and the GeForce2 Go 100 graphics card from Nvidia Corp. costs $1,699, and it is available directly through HP at its Web site. A version with a built-in 802.11b card also sells for $1,799.

-- Fujitsu Ltd. has been making tablet devices for quite some time, and its new Stylistic ST4000 is its 18th generation of tablet/slate products, said Louis Jouanny, vice president of marketing and strategic development for sister company Fujitsu-Siemens Computers (Holding) BV's mobile pen PC division. Its 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 800MHz, with Intel's SpeedStep technology regulating the power used by the processor during pauses in use as short as the gap between keystrokes, Jouanny said. Users can expect between 4 and 5 hours of battery life during normal use, and the device weighs 3.1 pounds (1.4kg).

Fujitsu will sell a docking station with a modular CD-rewritable/DVD-ROM drive separately from its device, which will cost $2,199 in its base configuration with a 20G-byte hard drive, 256M bytes 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, said Tom Bernhard, director of strategic product planning for Fujitsu.

-- A startup founded by ex-Dell Computer Corp. executives is coming out with its slate tablet this week. Motion Computing Inc.'s M1200 tablet will use a 867MHz Pentium III-M, 128M bytes of RAM and a 20G-byte hard drive in its base configuration. It will have a 12.1-inch display, weigh slightly less than 3 pounds in its base configuration, and cost around $2,000, according to a company spokesman.

-- Several Japanese vendors previewed their Tablet PCs at the World PC Expo in Tokyo earlier this month. ViewSonic Corp., Acer Inc., and NEC Corp. will use the Pentium III-M processor in their tablets, while Paceblade Technologies Inc. opted for the Crusoe TM5800 running at 867MHz.

-- Chinese hardware manufacturer Legend Group Ltd. is also getting into the tablet PC game by the end of November. It showed a prototype device in Beijing in September that featured an 866MHz Pentium III-M processor and a 12.1-inch TFT display. The machine is rated for four hours of battery life under average usage, and comes with a 20G-byte hard drive and 128M bytes of RAM.

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