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Acer swivels in with Tablet PC

Acer is preparing to release its first Tablet PC on 4 November at Microsoft's official launch of the new computer format, writes Eric Doyle.

The specifications of the Tablet PC genre are based on a new operating system from Microsoft which primarily adds pen computing and voice recognition to the Windows XP interface. This defines the Tablet PC as a cross between the handheld Pocket PC and notebooks - a computer that can be used like a clipboard.

Although Microsoft's original design for the Tablet PC looked like a thick clipboard, Acer is hedging its bets by combining a Tablet PC screen with a standard notebook. The screen opens in the normal way, like a clam shell, but it can then be rotated through 180 degrees and laid back flat, screen uppermost, over the keyboard to provide a writing surface.

Jessica Figueras, an analyst at Ovum, said she does not expect to see sales of the Tablet PC boom but believes it will gradually find a niche as suitable applications are developed. "It is not just the device that buyers have to think about but also the pen-enabled software," she explained.

"I can see applications in retail, in hospitals and on the factory floor where information is currently written on a clipboard and then typed into a computer. These processes will have to be translated into computer applications."

The prototype from Microsoft also highlighted the problem of the screen being unprotected. "Ruggedised systems are usually the last thing suppliers think about, but the screen will have to be hardened or protected if these devices are used in heavy industrial environments," said Figueras.

She pointed out that the Acer Travelmate C100 Tablet PC overcomes some of these concerns about resilience but only when the notebook is closed. Because they will be used in situations where users are not deskbound, there is a danger that the computers will be left open in precarious situations. With touch screens expensive to replace, worries about breakage could inhibit take-up.

Acer's first stab at the Tablet PC market is to provide an evolution from a notebook based on the Mobile Pentium III chip. Wireless connectivity is optional with the C100 but in a true Tablet PC, without a disc drive, such a link would be mandatory.

The 1.4kg computer uses a 10.4in screen and, acknowledging that security is an issue with mobile devices, the system is fitted with a smartcard reader. When the card is removed from the machine, it is locked. Data stored on the C100 can also be encrypted by clicking on a save option.

Pricing will be announced at the Tablet PC launch.

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