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What to expect from the iPad

By Paul O'Reilly

As expected, anticipation for the new iPad has hit fever pitch as it goes on sale this Saturday in over 280 Apple stores worldwide. The masterful build-up and the media frenzy once again prove that when it comes to a product launch, nobody can put on a show like Apple.

Whether the iPad itself can live up to the hype is a different matter. Despite its unparalleled successes with the iPod and the iPhone, Apple realizes that the messaging for the iPad has to be different.  This isn't a replacement or an upgrade for something we already have, like a portable music player or a cell phone. This is an entirely new class of gadget - one that we didn't realize we needed until Steve Jobs started telling us it was going to change our world!

The 'game-changer' tag has sparked a heated debate in the tech industry press and has left some mainstream reviewers hedging their bets. David Pogue, writing in the New York Times, even went so far as to produce two different reviews: one for techies – who, he suggested, would hate the device – and one for the regular consumer, who would instantly fall in love.

Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal was clearly impressed, agreeing that the iPad was indeed a game-changer and describing it as pretty close to "a laptop killer". Others took the opposite view, suggesting that you can get a better-equipped laptop for far less money. "Besides," as Pogue wrote, "if you've already got a laptop and a smartphone, who's going to carry around a third machine?"

So, apart from its novelty value and the usual Apple style and quality, what does the iPad have that you need? What does it offer that you don't already have?

Perhaps the best description of the iPad is to call it an all-in-one portable media player: It takes the best-of-the-best media gadgets out there and consolidates them all into one fun, friendly and beautifully designed device. You have an iPod? This can do everything your top-of-the-range iPod can do and much, much more. A netbook? The iPad handles e-mail, the Internet, photos and video at lightning speed. A Kindle? The iPad is the perfect e-reader, albeit one with a restricted library and yet another proprietary format.

But does that mean you can abandon all your other devices and just carry around the iPad? Not quite. There is also a lot the iPad can't do. It can't make phone calls; it can't take pictures; it can't shoot video; it can't handle multi-tasking; and it can't play flash, which makes much of the video you currently find on the Internet unplayable.

And then there's the price. Although Apple lists the iPad as starting at $499, that's for the 16GB Wi-Fi only model. If you plan on storing and watching a lot of movies, then you may need to quickly upgrade. The 32GB model is $599 and the 64GB model runs to $699.

But wait, there's more. The Wi-Fi plus 3G models won't be available until later this month and the 64GB 3G model will cost a whopping $829, before the cost of a data plan. That's a lot more than you would pay for a state-of-the-art 250GB full-service laptop.

That doesn't mean the iPad won't be a success. Far from it – it's estimated to sell as many as 10 million units by the end of this calendar year. But while it may be the best portable movie player in the world, it's currently more remarkable for what it can't do than for what it can. The smarter bet might be to hold off until the price comes down or you can finally shed some of those other devices. You can be sure that the next-generation iPad is only just around the corner.

Is the iPad appropriate for your kids? Next week, we take a look at the iPad's parental controls.

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