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Tablet PCs will arrive late this year. Are they the next big thing or a future footnote?

You've probably heard about tablet PCs, but you might not have seen one yet.

Microsoft Corp. and a handful of manufacturers have shown prototype tablet PCs at trade shows, but commercial versions won't be ready until Microsoft formally releases its new operating system for tablet PCs, Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, on Nov. 7. This will be just in time for retailers to load their shelves with tablet PCs for the upcoming holiday season.

Tablet PCs combine the features of ultraportable notebooks and pen-based tablet computers and must be built around XP Tablet PC Edition. Microsoft won't sell the OS separately. Microsoft chairman Bill Gates has predicted that tablet PCs will dominate the portable PC market within five years, but more conservative estimates are that shipments will total between 500,000 and 1 million in the first year and could reach 5 percent to 10 percent of the portable market by 2004.

What will they look like? In the first place, they may or may not come with keyboards. Convertible systems will employ the traditional clamshell design of typical notebook PCs, with built-in keyboards and mechanisms that enable the keyboards to be moved around or under the display to reveal a notebook-sized pen-based tablet.

Others will be designed as pure tablet devices that dispense with keyboards or let you attach them for traditional computing tasks.

Tablet PCs soon to arrive will be notebook PC-size, but will be lighter, typically around 3 pounds, and thinner, at about 1 inch or less. They will have high-resolution 10.4-inch or 12.1-inch TFT LCDs and will offer exceptionally long battery life and built-in wireless capability.

Most tablet PCs will also come with an optional docking station that supports a large-screen monitor, mouse, full-size keyboard, LAN connections and a host of other peripherals, including DVD or CD-RW drives, printers and scanners. Prices will hover at the $2,000 mark.

Son of XP

What will distinguish tablet PCs from ultraportable notebook computers or traditional pen-based machines is the new Microsoft OS. Windows XP Tablet PC Edition was built as a subset of Windows XP Professional and contains extensions that provide handwriting, digital ink and speech recognition capability. Accordingly, any true tablet PC you buy will have to include the following features:

Digital pen input. All tablet PCs running XP Tablet PC Edition will have a digital pen for controlling the computer and letting users annotate applications such as Microsoft Outlook 2002, Word 2002, Excel 2002 and PowerPoint 2002 in their own handwriting.

Input panel. The tablet PC input panel is an on-screen keyboard and writing pad that gives users a specific area for entering text into applications using their own handwriting.

Microsoft Windows Journal. This utility turns a tablet PC into a digital writing pad by letting users take handwritten notes on the fly.

Handwriting recognition and conversion. Handwriting recognition tools will help users spot and correct recognition errors before text is inserted into other applications.

Speech recognition. Applications on a tablet PC can be controlled by a user's voice, and spoken notes can be dictated and translated into text.

Document annotation. Documents can be imported and annotated with a digital pen. For example, users can mark up a Web article and e-mail it to colleagues using a tablet PC's wireless LAN connectivity.

ClearType. This provides readable booklike text. Tablet PC users can use it to read electronically published books and articles.

Gestures. The tablet PC's digital pen can be programmed to make customized gestures that replace many of the functions such as pointing, clicking or dragging ordinarily done with a mouse.

Microsoft's Digital Ink technology underlies the handwriting recognition feature of XP Tablet PC Edition. At the heart of the technology is an algorithm that tracks the pressure of the stylus, along with the coordinates and timing of pen strokes, to help determine the actual meaning of handwritten characters and words. It doesn't store handwriting as a bitmap or a series of coordinates; instead it stores handwriting as a data type with its own unique set of properties.

This way, a tablet can recognize, analyze and correct your handwriting.

Design specs

Tablet PCs will vary in such specifications as processor speed, RAM, graphics board and hard drive size, but Microsoft has set some basic design parameters concerning other items. What are they?

Active digitizers. The electromagnetic digitizer is a special panel behind the LCD that enables use of a pen. All tablet PCs must use an active digitizer with a resolution of at least 600 dots per inch, a data rate of at least 100 points per second and an accuracy of 2 mm or better. These requirements make handwriting recognition more accurate and digital ink look realistic.

Power management. Tablet PCs must respond from sleep mode within two seconds. Battery time while in sleep mode must last for 72 hours or more to ensure preservation of data. If the battery becomes exhausted while in sleep mode, a tablet PC must automatically enter hibernate mode to ensure data preservation.

Screen rotation. Tablet PCs will support screen rotation between portrait and landscape views at the push of a button and without the need to restart.

Surprise undocking. This feature allows a user to quickly remove a tablet PC from its docking station even in the middle of an application without losing data.

Legacy ports. For the sake of true mobility, tablet PCs will not include external serial or parallel ports for legacy peripherals. Faster Universal Serial Bus or FireWire ports can be included.

It's anybody's guess what the future holds for tablet PCs. Leading hardware vendors such as Dell Computer Corp., Gateway Inc., IBM Corp. and Sony Electronics Inc. are noticeably absent from Microsoft's list of tablet PC partners. Critics point out the failure of pen computing to grab public interest so far.

On the other hand, supporters claim that Microsoft's new XP Tablet PC Edition OS is the first to fully support the use of digital pens and that this opens up a brand-new, user-friendly world of mobile computing.

J.B. Miles of Pahoa, Hawaii, writes about communications and computers. E-mail him at bmiles@hawaii.rr.com.

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