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New-And-Improved Tablet PCs Generate Buzz In The Market

Significant improvements in the most recent Tablet PCs, including increased mobility, lighter weight, longer battery life and improved screens, are pushing the devices into new markets and opening additional opportunities for solution providers, according to the CRN Test Center.

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MICHAEL GROS
Associate Editor

The first major innovation to hit Tablet PCs was the development of Intel Centrino mobile technology. The key benefit of Centrino is not its 802.11b wireless connectivity, as all Tablet PCs include wireless access, but its Pentium M processor optimized for mobile computers. The Pentium M provides up to 30 percent longer battery life and 15 percent faster performance than the Pentium 4, according to Intel.

CENTRINO TABLET PCs
The Test Center examined three Centrino Tablet PCs. Acer's TravelMate C110, which is a convertible Tablet PC, and Motion Computing's slate-style M1300 are the second iterations from those companies but are the first to include Centrino. Sharp Systems, meanwhile, recently entered the Tablet PC market with the convertible Actius TN10W.

The three Tablet PCs have processors of 900MHz, 1GHz and 1.1GHz, respectively. The Sharp Actius has a maximum hard-drive space of 30 Gbytes, while the Acer TravelMate and Motion Computing M1300 have maximum hard-drive space of 60 Gbytes.

The Acer TravelMate includes a 10.4-inch screen and weighs 3.2 pounds. The unit has a three-hour battery life, which is on the low side, but is a bargain at $1,899. Wireless connectivity is a significant drain on battery life, and the TravelMate includes a switch that temporarily disables its wireless interface.

Motion Computing's M1300 has an expansive 12.1-inch screen, weighs 3 pounds, has a four-hour battery life and costs $2,099.

The Sharp Actius has a wide-angle 12.1-inch screen, viewable from up to 160 degrees in any direction, and weighs a hefty 4.2 pounds but has a generous five-hour battery life. It costs $1,999.

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New Tablet PCs, including (from l. to r.) Fujitsu's Stylistic ST, with an indoor/outdoor screen; NEC's Versa LitePad, weighing 2.2 pounds; and Acer's Centrino TravelMate C110, are opening new markets.

NON-CENTRINO TABLET PCs
The majority of first- and some second-generation Tablet PCs use Intel ultralow voltage Pentium III M CPUs. Test Center engineers reviewed three non-Centrino Tablet PCs from NEC, Electrovaya and Fujitsu. The units have processors of 933MHz, 866MHz and 800MHz, respectively, and hard drives of up to 20, 30 and 60 Gbytes.

Although a 3-pound Tablet PC is still heavy for most mobile workers, NEC solves this problem with its aptly named Versa LitePad, a slate design. At 2.2 pounds and 0.6 inch thick, the LitePad is the thinnest and lightest Tablet PC available, and has the feel of a pad of paper. However, the LitePad has a three-hour battery life, which seriously limits its use.

The LitePad has a 10.4-inch wide-angle screen and costs $2,399. A switch on the LitePad's frame allows users to temporarily disable the wireless interface, and a light indicates when it is off. Wireless access is received via an external antenna, which helps reception, but the antenna is housed in a flimsy external arm that can easily break off.

A short battery life severely limits Tablet PC adoption by mobile users. Electrovaya, known for its long-lasting PowerPad slab batteries, solves this problem with its Scribbler slate-style Tablet PC, featuring a 12- to 16-hour battery life. The Scribbler has a 10.4-inch screen, weighs 3.9 pounds and costs $2,899. However, the unit is awkward to hold, and button and port access was poorly designed.

The slate-design Fujitsu Stylistic ST can be used either outdoors or inside, boasting a 10.4-inch XGA TFT reflective front light display that is easy to see even in direct sunlight. The Stylistic costs $2,199. Only 1 pound heavier at 3.2 pounds and slightly thicker than NEC's LitePad but with a significantly longer battery life of 4.5 hours, the Stylistic offers the best value for mobile workers.

Docking stations, stands, USB keyboards and external drives are available with many Tablet PCs. Motion Computing introduced an innovative hardtop keyboard that attaches to its Tablet PCs and adds a notebook-sized keyboard with a point-stick, which also can serve as a stand. When not being used, the keyboard attaches to the back of the unit or can serve as a cover.

The majority of today's Tablet PCs are slate designs and are extremely vertically focused. But the Test Center predicts the market eventually will see more convertible models, devices that are more designed for the user, lower prices and ultimately higher adoption in the general-business market.

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