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First ThinkPad tablet set for debut

Lenovo will launch convertible version of its X41 notebook, CNET has learned. Will the product propel tablet sales? Photos: First convertible ThinkPad

The first-ever ThinkPad that converts to a tablet PC will make its debut on Monday, CNET has learned.

China's Lenovo Group is expected to announce its new X41 Tablet Series (X41T) in coordination with IBM, which developed the convertible laptop. This is the first computer released by China's Lenovo Group following its purchase of IBM's legendary PC business earlier this year.

With its signature black casing, eraser-size trackball and red and blue click buttons, the X41 Tablet Series looks like any other model of IBM's ThinkPad laptop line.

X41 Tablet Series

However, the 12-inch screen of the X41T can be rotated 180 degrees and pressed flat against the computer's keyboard, turning the notebook into a tablet computer. This was made evident in photos and internal documents supplied by IBM's Japanese laboratories mysteriously that began appearing on the U.S. Federal Communications Commission Web site late last month.

A spokesman for Lenovo said the company would be making a major announcement on Monday but declined to elaborate. The spokesman also declined to comment on the IBM papers circulating on the FCC Web site.

Internal specifications on the X41T were not immediately available, but pictures submitted to the FCC show that the X41T, like its ultra-portable X41 cousin, will have a Mini PCI card slot. The tablet PC is also expected to use an Intel Pentium M processor and run on Microsoft Windows XP Tablet PC Edition.

The new tablet PC is expected to compete with similar laptop convertible designs sold by Hewlett-Packard, Fujitsu and Tatung instead of the clipboard or slate-like tablets made by Motion Computing or Itronix.

The FCC began testing the X41T back in March because the PC has a dual antenna embedded in its LCD screen for Wi-Fi connections, as well as one for connecting via Bluetooth wireless. The first batch of X41T computers were manufactured in China; Lenovo is expected to expand production as demand ramps up.

Tablets' best days may be ahead
According to Meta Group analyst Steve Kleynhans, Lenovo's entry into the tablet PC market could boost overall tablet sales, especially with the help of IBM, whose brand historically has held significant sway over the PC market.

"The big turnaround for the tablet will happen when we think of it not as a form factor but as a feature," Kleynhans said. "Tablets are inching toward the mainstream. Are they going to be dominant in the next six months? No. But one day we will look around and notice that a large number of units of tablet PCs are being sold."

However, demand for tablet PCs has not lived up to the expectations set when the first designs debuted in 2002. Research firm IDC reports a mere million units were sold through the end of 2004, with an estimated 600,000 tablets shipping this year. By comparison, Gartner's latest estimates suggest PC shipments worldwide in 2005 will exceed 202 million units, up 10.2 percent from the previous year.

"Any company that enters the market can help add to the momentum of the category, particularly if they have a good product to sell," IDC analyst Roger Kay said.

Kay said general purpose tablet PCs haven't really taken off, mostly because home and small-office users are more used to typing than using a stylus to enter information.

"The best usage model for tablet PCs is currently in the vertical markets," he said. "These are people with stylus in hand walking around, like in a hospital or steelyard, checking off an inventory form or a hospital form."

Both analysts said the only other motivation for home and small-business users to begin buying more tablet PCs would be the price, which has been hovering between $2,000 and $2,500 for the convertible style.

"Imagine the possibility where the vanilla product costs one number and the tablet version sells for about $100 more," IDC's Kay said. "That would be a huge motivator."

Prices for Lenovo's X41T were not available. But the base price for IBM's X41 starts at $1,499 with top-end models available for $1,999.