Centrino-based Tablet PCs on the horizon

Despite the initial rush of Centrino-based notebooks into the market, Intel Corp.'s new platform isn't just about notebooks.

Built around Intel's Pentium M processor, announced earlier this month, and an Intel wireless LAN chip set, Centrino is also finding its way into Tablet PCs. But Tablet PCs based on the Centrino technology are hitting the market at a slower pace than notebooks.

When Intel launched Centrino on March 12, vendors rolled out a slew of new notebooks based on it (see story), but Tablet PCs were largely left out of the picture.

However, there's good news for users looking for a Tablet PC that includes Centrino with the Pentium M, which Intel says offers longer battery life and higher performance, albeit at lower clock speeds, than the company's other mobile processors. Centrino-based Tablet PCs are making their way into the market, with the first devices to be based on the 900-MHz, ultra-low-voltage model of the Pentium M, according to vendors.

"Centrino matches really well with what many tablet users are looking for," said Jim O'Brien, a senior analyst at Framingham, Mass.-based research firm IDC, pointing to the Pentium M's lower power consumption and the wireless LAN access afforded by the platform.

While those capabilities are attractive to users, the challenge for vendors is that Centrino adds to the price of Tablet PCs, which are already more expensive than many notebook computers. "Centrino is actually a pretty big price premium," O'Brien said.

But that hasn't stopped a few companies from putting Centrino into their Tablet PCs.

One of the first PC vendors to put out a Centrino-based Tablet PC is Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. in Osaka, Japan, maker of the Panasonic brand. The company has added a Centrino-based Tablet PC, the Toughbook CF-18, to its Toughbook line of rugged computers.

With prices starting at $3,200, the CF-18 is available with a 900-MHz Pentium M processor, 256MB of double-data rate (DDR) synchronous dynamic RAM, a 40GB hard disk drive and a 10.4-in. thin-film transistor (TFT) LCD with 1,024-by-768-pixel resolution. The CF-18's screen can swivel 180 degrees, allowing the Tablet PC to be converted from a notebook into a tablet.

Acer Inc. in Taipei, Taiwan, plans to introduce its TravelMate C110 Tablet PC in April. Similar in appearance to the company's C100, which was the first Tablet PC with a screen that could swivel 180 degrees, the C110 is based on the Centrino platform and includes a 900-MHz Pentium M processor.

Weighing in at 3.1 lb. without its DVD/CD-RW combo drive, the C110 includes a 10.4-in. TFT LCD screen, 256MB of DDR memory and a 40GB hard drive. The C110 will be priced at around $2,700, significantly higher than the roughly $2,200 for the C100.

Motion Computing Inc. in Austin, Texas, has also announced plans to offer a Tablet PC based on the Centrino package, with a 900-MHz Pentium M processor slated by the middle of this year.

The 900-MHz Pentium M is the slowest of Intel's Pentium M line, which includes six processor models running at clock speeds up to 1.6 GHz. But many Tablet PC users may be less concerned with processing power than they are with extended battery life and wireless LAN access, O'Brien said.

"The main point is that you're not looking at power users for Tablet PCs at this point," he said. "Connectivity is more what people are looking for."

Nevertheless, most Tablet PC vendors have yet to roll out models that use Centrino, instead sticking with existing Tablet PCs based on the Pentium III-M processor. The reasons many vendors have yet to introduce Centrino-based Tablet PCs include a combination of the higher price of the Centrino platform and the relatively low numbers of Tablet PCs sold so far -- 72,000 during the fourth quarter, according to IDC.

"[Getting out Centrino-based Tablet PCs] probably hasn't been a priority at this point," O'Brien said. "When you look at tablets, it's really such a small portion of the whole market. It's not really in the vendors' interest to spend all that development time."

In addition, Microsoft Corp. has placed high hardware requirements on Tablet PC vendors, he said. "I think that vendors were more comfortable doing their tablets with the processors that were already out there," he said.

As the year goes on, more vendors could introduce Centrino-based Tablet PCs, especially if Intel reduces the price of the Centrino platform and Tablet PC sales pick up, O'Brien said.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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