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Centrino-based Tablet PCs on the horizon

Mar 28, 20034 mins
Computers and PeripheralsNetworkingUnified Communications

Despite the initial rush of Centrino-based notebooks into the market, Intel’s Centrino 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 platform are hitting the market at a slower pace than notebooks.

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

However, there is good news for users who are 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 onto the market, with the first devices to be based on the 900 MHz ultralow-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, senior analyst at 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 many users, the challenge from the vendors’ point of view is that Centrino adds to the price of Tablet PCs, which is already substantially higher than many notebook computers. “Centrino is actually a pretty big price premium,” he said.

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. Ltd., in Osaka, Japan, better known as Panasonic. The company has added a Centrino-based Tablet PC, the Toughbook CF-18, to its Toughbook line of rugged computers.

Priced starting from US$3,200, the CF18 is available with a 900 MHz Pentium M processor, 256M bytes of DDR SDRAM, a 40G-byte hard disk drive and a 10.4-inch TFT LCD with 1,024 pixel by 768 pixel (XGA) resolution. The CF-18’s screen can swivel 180 degrees, allowing the Tablet PC to be converted from a notebook into a tablet.

Acer, in Taipei, plans to introduce its TravelMate C110 Tablet PC in April. Similar in appearance to the company’s C100, the first Tablet PC to be unveiled with a screen that could swivel 180 degrees to change from a notebook into a tablet, the C110 is based on the Centrino platform and includes a 900 MHz Pentium M processor.

Weighing in at 1.4 kilograms (3.1 pounds) without its DVD/CD-RW combo drive, the C110 includes a 10.4-inch TFT LCD screen, 256M bytes of DDR memory, and a 40G-byte hard drive. The C110 will be priced at around $2,700, significantly higher than the roughly $2,200 price tag of 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 by the middle of this year.

The 900 MHz Pentium M, which is found in all three of these Tablet PCs, is the slowest of Intel’s Pentium M line-up, 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 why more 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 – 72,000 during the fourth quarter, according to IDC – that have been sold so far.

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

In addition, Microsoft 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.

However, 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.