Microsoft's launch of the Tablet PC operating system promises greater flexibility for mobile desktop users.
Many hardware vendors have announced Tablet PC devices based on the latest operating system today but 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. "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 but with displays that 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 and a few products based on Transmeta's Crusoe chips, Baker added, "I don't think these things are going to be sold on the basis of power."
The niche businesses that adopt the tablets for their workers, such as health care and large sales organisations, 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 hope 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.
Among the devices launched this week are:
The Protégé 3500 Series Tablet PC features a 1.33GHz Pentium III-M processor from Intel, 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 12.1in thin film transistor (TFT) 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 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 as another method of wireless Internet access.
The Portégé 3500 will be available worldwide from today (7 November). A base configuration will cost £1,699 with a 12.1in TFT display, 256Mbytes of RAM, a 40Gbyte hard drive, and several expansion slots including Compact Flash, Secure Digital, and universal serial bus (USB) 2.0 ports. It measures 11.6in wide by 9.2in deep by 1.2in 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 uses the Crusoe TM5800 processor from Transmeta, 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 10.4in, but it is optimised 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 1.35kg with the keyboard bringing the total weight to nearer 2kg.
Users will feel like they are writing on a notepad with the TC1000's paper-like dimensions, 8.5in wide by 11in deep by 0.8in thick. A base configuration including a 30Gbyte hard drive, 256Mbytes of RAM, USB 2.0 ports and the GeForce2 Go 100 graphics card is available from £1,333.
Fujitsu has been making tablet devices for some time, and its Stylistic ST4000 is its 18th generation of tablet/slate products, the company said. It 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. Users can expect between four and five hours of battery life during normal use. The device weighs 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 (£1,384) in the US in its base configuration with a 20Gbyte hard drive, 256Mbytes 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 executives is launching a tablet this week. Motion Computing's M1200 tablet will use an 867MHz Pentium III-M, 128Mbytes of RAM and a 20Gbyte hard drive in its base configuration. It will have a 12.1in display.
Several Japanese vendors previewed their tablet PCs at the World PC Expo in Tokyo earlier this month. ViewSonic, Acer, and NEC will use the Pentium III-M processor in their tablets, while Paceblade Technologies opted for the Crusoe TM5800 running at 867MHz.
Chinese hardware manufacturer Legend 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 12.1in TFT display. The machine is rated for four hours of battery life under average usage, and comes with a 20Gbyte hard drive and 128Mbytes of RAM.
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