Tablet PCs are essentially 3- to 4-pound "ultra-portable" notebook PCs with touch screens, wireless Internet connections, and speech and handwriting input. Some, known as convertibles, have screens that can rotate 180 degrees and fold down to create a tablet. Others follow a more traditional, tablet-only route.
HP's Compaq Tablet PC TC1000 does both. The machine can be used like a notebook or like a tablet, thanks to a special detachable keyboard, and can also serve as a primary PC through a docking station.
HP designed the machine to be small and modular to solve some of the problems of the tablet.
A person can carry the tablet portion of the HP computer, which weighs 3 pounds, into a meeting to take notes, view documents, and write e-mails and short messages using the touch-screen pen. Software available from Microsoft and third parties will allow tablet PC users to use wireless networking to shoot pen-based instant messages and e-mail back and forth and collaborate on documents.
But when consumers want to draft a longer document or an e-mail, they can attach the keyboard and use the device like a traditional notebook.
Back at the desk, the tablet can be placed into its docking station to be used with a desktop keyboard, a mouse and a large monitor. But it can still operate as a tablet, rotating to allow a person to use it to take notes while on the phone.
"The outcome is a brand-new category of devices--a brand-new form factor you won't see anywhere else," said Ted Clark, vice president for notebooks at HP's Personal Systems Group. "It's the combination of all these together, meaning the pen and the keyboard, that makes this useful."
But HP admits tablet PCs won't appeal to everyone at first.
The HP tablet PC is aimed primarily at business customers--people who want a highly mobile notebook but who understand the trade-offs necessary to achieve it, including the smaller screen and more cramped keyboard.
"We're not saying we're going to replace Pentium 4 desktops or notebooks with 15-inch screens," Clark said.HP's Compaq Tablet PC TC1000 is based on a 10.4-inch screen protected by tempered glass and includes a full-sized pen and a detachable keyboard.
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HP believes around 3 pounds is just right for customers who will carry the tablet PC with them throughout the day. The company has also experimented with somewhat smaller tablets with 8-inch screens.
At $1,799, the HP machine costs about $200 more than Compaq's Evo N200 notebook, which it will.
It is close in weight to other Tablet PCs, such as Acer's C102T or ViewSonic's V1100, but it beats machines like Toshiba'son price.
Toshiba's Portege 3505 is a larger machine, with a 12-inch screen, and weighs about 4 pounds. It comes with a 1.3GHz Pentium III processor from Intel, both 802.11 and Bluetooth wireless networking, 512MB of RAM, and a 40GB hard drive. The machine will sell for $2,499, according to information posted on CompUSA's Web site last week.
HP and other tablet PC makers believe that over time either consumers will be drawn to the devices or notebooks will simply begin to adopt some of the capabilities of Microsoft's Tablet PC software, such as handwriting recognition.
But the ultimate success of tablet PCs will be limited by price. The average price for a consumer notebook purchased at retail is around $1,475, according to recent data from NPDTechworld.
"There is quite a bit of interest right now" in tablet PCs, said Don MacDonald, director for mobile platforms at Intel. "We've seen quite a lot of interest in the business space in convertibles...(but) price points will determine how pertinent these will be for the consumer."