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Manufacturers try out tiny tablets

The shape is shifting for tablet PCs as hardware makers including Intel, HP and Toshiba test computer buyers' tolerance for offbeat designs.

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The shape is shifting for tablet PCs as manufacturers test computer buyers' tolerance for offbeat designs.

Manufacturers are experimenting with the form and size of tablet PCs, portable computers that let users write on the screen and draw pictures.

Toshiba, for instance, is working on a slate-style tablet design that's about the size of a large postcard, while Intel researchers have put together what they call the "micro tablet," a full-fledged PC that is about the size of two credit cards.

Meanwhile, other companies such as Motion Computing are looking in the other direction and aim to bring out tablets with 14-inch screens, two inches larger than the largest ones on the market in the more immediate future.

"What most people want is to have one PC they carry around with them," said Don MacDonald, director of mobile platforms at Intel. "There's a role for tablet-type designs across every form factor."

The real question is which form factor will prevail in the current environment, he said. "Which of these experiments is going to find commercial success?"

Although volumes are low, initial sales of tablet PCs have modestly exceeded expectations. Sales so far have been the best for so-called convertible tablet PCs, such as Toshiba's Prot?g? 3500, which are similar in size, weight and appearance to small notebooks.

The primary purpose of the small, experimental tablets is to determine the boundaries of future PC designs. The machines, similar to designs at smaller firms like OQO and Antelope Technologies, are more functional and come with far more processing power than the average PDA (personal digital assistant) and are far lighter and more energy efficient than full-fledged notebooks.

Small tablet prototypes have garnered lots of interest from firms that employ large mobile sales forces, said executives.

However, it's unknown whether customers will tolerate cramped keyboards and small screens in something with a PC-like price tag, even if a docking station comes with it. Toshiba's micro tablet, which relies on a tiny hard drive and an energy-efficient Pentium M processor, could be inserted into docking stations in hotels or other public areas.

So far, customers in vertical industries, such as manufacturing, have looked favorably upon Toshiba's slate design, said Oscar Koenders, the company's vice president of product marketing. But the feedback Toshiba has received indicates that the remainder of its customers--accounting for the bulk of the company's sales--still wanted a keyboard.

"The thing we've found is it's too early for a slate-only device in the horizontal market. Nobody wants to do away with the keyboard," he said.

Fizz or fizzle?
IDC has forecast a fairly steep growth rate--within their market niche--for tablets as a whole, thanks to the early acceptance of Microsoft's Windows XP Tablet PC Edition software. The research firm says tablet PC shipments this year will reach about 675,000 units, or roughly 5 percent of the overall notebook market in the United States, up from about 150,000 in last year.

But Alan Promisel, an IDC analyst, is somewhat skeptical about the potential for micro tablets.

Although some consumers have purchased tablet PCs, the majority of buyers are businesses. That means the micro tablet would be in line to replace traditional notebooks sold to businesses, he said.

"I don't see a consumer buying something that small (the size a micro tablet). It's really a commercial PC," Promisel said. "We continue to see commercial purchases be depressed. Albeit it's improving slightly, but we haven't seen that jump in shipments."

Gauging the demand for a micro tablet during the current economic situation, while PC sales are sputtering, will be tricky. Some of Toshiba's worries include providing enough processor power, long enough battery life and instant-on capabilities, whereby the device snaps to life quickly. A machine would also have to be able to run both current applications and future Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office upgrades, Koenders said.

Creative engineering can solve most of those issues, while customer resistance likely won't be too stiff, according to Intel.

"People are beginning to develop an open mindedness (about input methods) based on keypads in phones and pagers" like the BlackBerry e-mail device, MacDonald said.

Intel, which has no plans to build the diminutive designs itself, will foster more experimentation with micro tablets by sharing the design with PC makers, MacDonald said.

A computer based on the Intel micro tablet design could be toted like a PDA, allowing a person to jot notes or enter other information with a pen or even possibly type in data on a small on-screen keyboard. But the machine would also be able to work with a full size monitor and keyboard, just like any other notebook.

The design could be morphed into a number of different devices, including a modular device that plugs into different chassis allowing it to switch jobs.

Ambitions large and small
Meanwhile, PC makers are likely to offer a new generation of larger convertible tablet PCs by later this year. These new models will be built around 14-inch screens and will include more powerful processors such as the Intel Pentium M or Transmeta's forthcoming Crusoe TM8000, along with built-in wireless networking.

Motion Computing, which, with ViewSonic and Fujitsu, was one of the few manufacturers to focus on a slate design for Windows XP Tablet PC Edition software, is likely to step up to the large screen as well, its executives indicated.

But not everyone believes the market has to be divided between small and large.

HP is searching for a jack of all trades that can fill the roll of both PDA and notebook with the Scout, which is larger than the micro tablet but comes with an 8.5-inch screen, a fold-down keyboard and a camera. The device, which measures 7 inches by 9.5 inches, also can accommodate plug-in modules, for adding an extra battery or GPS (Global Positioning System) features.

Scout is still no more than the computing equivalent of a concept car. It was built for show only, but feedback from customers will likely mean that parts of the design show up in future tablets or in iPaq PDAs, company executives said.

"The idea was to generation a concept vehicle around the concept of a 'tweener'--something between an iPaq and a notebook," said Chris Landry, design center manager for strategic design and innovation at HP's Personal Systems Group. "For us, as designers, it allows us to get a pulse, a sense for where folks see their interests."