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Tablet PCs Need More to Succeed


At first glance, the future of personal computing looks very cool--at least the way many of the big PC makers envision it. They see a world of totally mobile computers as easy to use as a pencil and paper. Or machines that control all the audio and video for an entire house. But reality may get in the way of those dreams.

Take the Tablet PC. During his keynote speech at last year's Comdex trade show in Las Vegas, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates showed off a crude prototype of a machine that's about the size of a notebook PC but lacks a keyboard. Users control it by writing or drawing on the screen. Last week at this year's Comdex, the prototypes were far less crude, and PC companies previewed products they hope to ship next year.

Some machines, like the prototypes demonstrated by Compaq and Tatung, are shaped like a clipboard, only thicker. The keyboard and mouse are external, which means users have extra things to carry around--or forget.

Acer showed off a more innovative convertible design. It looks like a standard notebook PC, but the screen twists around and lies flat against the machine's body so it becomes a Tablet PC, only thicker and heavier than others in the class.

Gates and other proponents of these machines envision people using them to take notes in meetings and class or using the stylus to make drawings they can insert into e-mail or instant messages. People at home could use them to surf the Web from the sofa. Gates is extremely bullish on the concept. "Within five years," he said, "I predict it will be the most popular form of PC sold in America."

This isn't Microsoft's first foray into tablet computing. In 1992, the company released Windows for Pen Computing. There was a lot of hype and a few actual machines, but sales were lackluster. That's not to say that it won't work this time, but don't expect to see them selling by the millions unless they're cheap enough to issue to schoolkids.

Sony showed off a fairly radical new machine with an entirely different function. Its $2,800 Vaio MXS-10 offers what Sony calls the ultimate audio-visual experience. The machine tries to make good on the PC and home electronics industries' goal to marry computing and home entertainment.

The MXS-10 is stylishly designed and packed with everything a video/audio file PC fanatic might want. It's a fully powered desktop machine with 512 megabytes of memory, an 80-gigabyte hard drive, an Ethernet port and an impressive Nvidia graphics accelerator. But it's also an accessory for your home entertainment center with a DVD-RW for playing commercial movies and burning home videos plus a mini-disc recorder for copying MP3 files or audio CDs and a TV and FM tuner.

As an added bonus, it hooks up to the cable TV or satellite box for use as a personal video recorder to record TV shows on the machine's hard drive. For $3,400, it comes equipped with a 15-inch Sony monitor, making it a complete entertainment system for a dorm room or a small apartment.

This is a terrific idea--for those who just won the lottery. A colleague who looked at this machine asked, "Where do you put it?" It's a good question.

Most people use their PCs sitting upright to surf the Web, answer e-mail, do a bit of work and, yes, play games, listen to audio and, in some cases, edit home video.

But there's a difference between a home PC and a home entertainment center. Personal video recorders are great, but stand-alone systems from TiVo, Replay and others are reasonably priced and very easy to use.

I'm not saying that Tablet PCs and computerized home entertainment systems are bad ideas, but I do think they need to evolve before they're ready for prime time.


Technology reports by Lawrence J. Magid can be heard between 2 and 3 p.m. weekdays on the KNX-AM (1070) Technology Hour. He can be reached at

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