Via demonstrates Tablet PC

The Taiwan chip maker is using its Tablet PC reference design to make a push into the market for small form-factor PCs

Semiconductor maker Via Technologies is demonstrating a working prototype of its Tablet PC reference design this week at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) in Taipei, Taiwan, as it continues to push into the growing market for small form-factor PCs.

The tablet is Via's version of a device that Microsoft has been promoting for the mass market in recent months, driven by Windows XP Tablet PC Edition. Via's device uses Microsoft's "digital ink" system for entering data via a 10.4-inch touch-screen, weighs in at just over a kilogram and is less than one inch thick. Connectivity features include USB 2.0, IEEE 1394 and optional WiFi, or 802.11b, wireless networking.

More important might be the technology inside: Via is using the platform to promote its components for small form-factor PCs, including the C3 processor and Apollo Pro266T chipset, which supports DDR SDRAM memory. It also uses an integrated, double-sided motherboard. The low-power chips and memory allow for a small footprint and don't require a fan for cooling.

While industry analysts have their doubts about the mass-market appeal for tablet PCs, such components are finding a home in the rapidly growing market for PCs that are simpler and easier on the eyes than the traditional beige box. Via, which is the second-largest chipset maker, and rival Intel are both promoting technologies for low-powered, smaller form-factor devices.

Industry analyst group IDC says such PCs are showing the strongest growth in the desktop PC market. "Consumers are moving away from the big grey box. They want the form factor and aesthetics of a PC to fit more into their homes and their lifestyles," said Andy Brown, research manager for mobile computing at the company.

Corporations and smaller businesses are also showing increasing interest in so-called "legacy-free" PCs. "Both consumers and businesses just want to shove a PC on the network, have it easily and quickly connected, and have it not take up too much space," Brown said.

The best examples of non-traditional PC designs come from Apple, said Brown, with its iMac and eMac designs. The new iMac, for example, has limited expansion capabilities but fits all the components into a small, attractive package.

Hewlett-Packard is pushing legacy-free PCs for the enterprise, particularly in situations that require extra security and centralised management of a large number of PCs.

As for the tablet PC, IDC sees little mainstream demand for it in the near future, mainly because of the success of the notebook form factor and the lack of a keyboard on the tablet devices. However, Microsoft is working on another tablet concept, called Mira, that might have more success -- it doubles as a flat-panel PC display.

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