The lowdown on tablet PCs

What is it? A tablet PC pairs an electromagnetic pen or stylus with a touch-sensitive screen for controlling user input. Slate versions dispense with a keyboard and operate entirely with the stylus. Convertible versions come with a keyboard and can be used as a notebook or slate PC.

How much do they cost? A Tablet PC can be had for as little as $1,200, although expect to pay $1,600 to $2,100 up for one with all the features you want.

What are the tradeoffs between slate and convertible versions? The most obvious difference is the most significant: Slate versions don't include a keyboard; convertibles do. Slate users who absolutely require a keyboard can easily add an external version via one of the cleverly placed USB ports along the unit's side or back.

Is it really better than a traditional subnotebook? A tablet PC is better if you want to use the advanced features provided by the Microsoft Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005 operating system such as brought in a host of compelling new features such as slate-based input, upgraded speech recognition, advanced handwriting recognition program and support for ClearType technology. They aren't if all you want to run are traditional Windows applications.

Must-know info? Despite a strong and growing following, sales of Tablet PCs may never overtake those for traditional subcompacts. But they come closer than any other format to representing Bill Gates' vision of computing, and as prices drop to about $1,500, they will likely find a solid niche in the computing scene.

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