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Duo converts laptops and monitors into tablet PCs

The Duo converts any laptop or monitor into a tablet PC, featuring annotations, handwriting to text, drawing, and traditional note taking on paper, viewable on-screen.

As consumers hold their breath for the rumored Apple tablet, KCI Communications has an immediate and possibly better solution for those who can't wait to get touchy-feely with their screens.

The Duo turns monitors and laptops 17 inches or smaller into a tablet. A small device that acts as a "base station" clips onto the top of the monitor, continuously picking up the user's input with the Duo pen. Lee Jae-jun, head of research and development at KCI Communications, explains the technology: "The pen's coordinates are calculated by the amount of time it takes for the infrared and ultrasonic waves to be reflected from the base station."

The user can write or draw directly on the screen in eight different languages, marking up Web pages, documents, or PowerPoint presentations while using the pen to navigate through the desktop. One of the more remarkable features is that the Duo also converts into a ballpoint pen, letting the user take notes on traditional paper and watch them appear in the included NoteTaker software.

Earlier this year, we reviewed Canson's Papershow, a dedicated paper-to-screen device that's mostly aimed at professionals who want to conduct interactive PowerPoint presentations. A similar gadget is the LiveScribe Smartpen, which is geared toward students, linking audio to written text. But the Duo appears to be is the first device to capture ink and convert a plain monitor into a touch screen.

I haven't done a hands-on review of the device, but I do suspect a couple of issues. If using a laptop, it's highly probable that writing and tapping the screen would cause it to sway, forcing the user to grab one side of the screen with the available hand. This isn't necessarily a deal breaker, but it doesn't make for a very ergonomic design. Another issue surrounding laptop use is the possibility of the base station draining the battery life, as it's powered via USB.

These issues aside, the Duo is still a steal at $119.99, shipped. With dropping prices in the laptop market, the Duo makes it possible to have just about the cheapest tablet PC yet. Since it automatically synchronizes with the Windows Vista and Windows 7 tablet software, it's almost identical to ready-made tablets, save for the base station.

By November, the Duo will work with monitors up to 22 inches, and will be available for Macs.