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Grooming tablet PCs for the masses

China's TDV Vison plans to bring a tablet to market on three continents for $900 in September. HP, meanwhile, is set to start a retail push for the devices.

The tablet PC is trying to go mainstream.

China's TDV Vison plans to market a tablet PC in Europe, North America and China for $900 in September. Hewlett-Packard, meanwhile, is set to start selling its own tablet to consumers through retail in a pilot program. To date, HP has targeted its tablet at corporate customers.

Tablet PCs are portable computers that let people input data by writing on the screen. Microsoft jump-started the product category in late 2002 with its Windows XP Tablet PC Edition.

Some tablets, such as those from Acer and Toshiba, resemble notebooks and come with built-in keyboards. Others, such as those from Motion Computing, look more like an Etch-a-Sketch toy. HP's comes with a docking station so it can be used as a desktop writing slate.

Sales to date have been slightly better than expected, but expectations have been low.

"It is still pilot programs. It is still vertical market. We haven't seen a push into the horizontal markets," said Alan Promisel, an analyst at IDC.

Although more mainstream acceptance won't likely begin until next year, manufacturers are expected to come out with new models in the next few months and are likely to start cutting prices, Promisel said. Tablets running Microsoft's operating system, which require additional hardware to enable the handwriting function, sell for $1,650 to $2,300.

TDV's model, the V800XPT, will come with an 8.4-inch screen, a 30GB hard drive, 128MB of memory and an 800MHz Transmeta Crusoe chip. Like HP's tablet, the TDV machine relies on the Crusoe, which generally costs less than Intel chips.

"We think they (PC makers) can grow demand for tablets in higher education," said Mike DeNeffe, director of marketing for Transmeta.

Like PC maker Lenovo (formerly Legend) and consumer electronics maker Haier, TDV is one of a small but growing number of Chinese companies looking at ways to establish a brand-name foothold outside of China. Whether these companies can succeed remains to be seen. Taiwanese companies such as Acer have tried, and mostly failed, to establish strong brand names in foreign countries.

TDV is a subsidiary of the Pou Chen Group, which is one of the world's largest sports shoe manufacturers. The group also has other technology investments.