Since its debut late last year, the Tablet PC and its pen-driven input has been quietly making inroads into the computing world.

An offspring of slate computers, which have been around for about a decade, they are powered by Microsoft’s Windows XP Tablet Edition and come in either stand-alone

or convertable keyboard models.

With screens of around 10-inches diagonally for slates and 12 inches for notebooks to help keep weight and price down, demand has been strong, according to IDC research.

But this year may see a significant jump in sales as vendors bring the Tablet PC to bigger screens and Microsoft adds Tablet PC functionality to its Office 2003 suite.

One of the first to make that move is Acer Inc., which last week added a 14-inch digitized screen Table PC laptop to its lineup, and next month will add a similar sized convertable. They will join two 10-inch screen models, which the company says accounts for almost 15 per cent of its notebook sales.

“One of the things we’re trying to do is commoditize the Tablet PC,” declares Sumit Agnihotry, mobile product manager for Acer America Corp. Most notebook users want at least a 14-inch screen, he said, and the features of the Tablet PC operating system are increasingly seen as useful.

“In five years we plan to put a digitizer into all our notebooks.”

Pushing Tablet PC into larger-screened machines is a good strategy, says Eddie Chan, research analyst for mobile devices and PCs at IDC Canada.

“Larger screens are definitely a ongoing trend because its an easier migration path from the traditional notebook.”

“There’s growth opportunity in that space.”

Still, it’s a market so small IDC Canada doesn’t track sales separately. Tablet PCs are classed by IDC as a single-spindle, ultraportable notebook, which as a group have less than one per cent of the Canadian market.

Fujitsu is one of the few vendors with both slate and convertable units: The Stylistic ST4120 slate is a powered by a 933-Mhz Mobile Pentium III processor, while the LifeBook T3010 series of notebooks have 12-inch screens and either Intel Centrino or Pentium M processors.

Toshiba’s entry is the Portege, which runs from a 1.33GHz Pentium III Processor—M. Hewlett-Packard offers the TC1000, with four models built around a 10-inch screen and using Transmetta’s Crusoe processor

Acer hopes to up the pressure with its TravelMate 250PE line, a traditional laptop with a 14-inch screen which can be support by a fold-back bracket to prevent the unit from tipping over when the user accesses the screen with a pen. It’s for those who want to highlight or annotate on the screen occasionally, but mainly use a keyboard for input.

It’s powered by a range of Pentium 4 processors running at 2.2 GHz and up, and comes with a base 256 MB of RAM, 802.11b connectivity, a 10/100 LAN port and four USB 2.0 ports. In addition to the 40 Gb removable hard drive there’s a media bay for optical drives or a second battery. Weighing 3.8kg (8.4 lb.), prices start at $2,299, including a $50 mail-in rebate.

Next month Acer will bring out the lighter TravelMate C300 series, with a 14-inch screen that rotates around the keyboard, so it can also be used as a slate. It uses a Pentium M-1.5 Ghz processor with Centrino technology, 512 MB of RAM and comes with a 40 MB hard drive and integrated CD-RW/DVD drive. Acer says it will have an estimated street price of $3,220.

Raymond Soucy, vice-president of EMJ Data Systems, an Acer distributor, welcomed the news. “It offers a second form factor,” he said. “Some people like a bigger screen.”

Resellers should be interested in larger screen Tablet PCs,. said Agnihotry. “There’s definitely a big ROI in using tablets. Productivity increases, plus application support is coming, so resellers can target customers they weren’t able to before.

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