If a new product unveiled this week by Freescale Semiconductor is any indication, 2010 could be "the year of the tablet computer." Just in time for the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) opening Thursday in Las Vegas, the company has launched a seven-inch touchscreen tablet computer that it described as "the future of the smart-book category."

The new product, available with either Android or Linux operating systems, will be priced at $199. Freescale is promoting its instant-on capabilities, persistent connectivity, and all-day battery life, and said it expects products based on this design to be available by the summer.

First in SABRE Series

The tablet is built around Freescale's i.MX515 processor, which uses ARM Cortex-A8 technology, as well as the company's MC13892 power-management IC, SGTL5000 audio codec, and MMA8450Q three-axis accelerator.

Available in a selection of colors, the tablet includes Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and optional support for 3G. Users can add an external keyboard and mount the tablet on the keyboard as its display.

The tablet is the first platform the company has offered in its SABRE (Smart Application Blueprint for Rapid Engineering) series, which utilizes feedback from an end-user research study undertaken with Savannah College of Art and Design's industrial-design program. The tablet is being offered to OEMs who want to jump-start a tablet line.

Henri Richard, Freescale's senior vice president for sales and marketing, said the new tablet is "specifically designed and optimized to support common online activities, including social media, high-quality audio/video playback, and light gaming." He added that Freescale intends to play a vital role in propelling the mainstream adoption of smart-book devices.

Laura DiDio, an analyst with Information Technology Intelligence Corp., said the success of Freescale's tablet could depend on the reaction to the possible release of a tablet computer from Apple. "A lot of people are waiting to see the Apple tablet," she said, "and seeing what Google might offer."

'A Preemptive Strike'

There has been rampant speculation that Apple will release a tablet computer sometime this year, with some reports even speculating that the name will be iSlate. Recently, the reports have gotten more detailed and numerous, but the question is still whether there is fire in all that smoke.

DiDio thinks Apple will release a major new product line in the not-too-distant future. "Given that CEO Steve Jobs is now back on his job," she said, "the likelihood of their not responding with a tablet-like device is minute." The key questions, she said, are what will it look like, what will it cost, and what will it do? She also noted that Apple has rented a major convention center for an announcement on Jan. 26.

The Freescale tablet, DiDio noted, is colorful, a great price, and fits the form factor between a smartphone and a netbook. By releasing it now while everyone is waiting for Apple's move in this category, she pointed out, Freescale is "trying to do a preemptive strike."

Michael Gartenberg, a vice president at Interpret, said 2010 is "definitely starting out like it might be the year of the tablet -- or of the tablet rumor."

Most of the rumors put the price of an Apple tablet at several times that of Freescale's. But, Gartenberg noted, there were less-expensive smartphones when Apple shook up the smartphone market with its iPhone.