What you should know about Apple's tablet

The iPad is definitely a bigger iPod Touch, with desktop-like UI capabilities and apps added

After all these months of speculation, the iPad is now official: An oversized iPod Touch essentially, with access to the same capabilities of an iPhone (minus the phone) such as Web browsing, video and music playback, e-mail, contact management, game-playing, and map-based navigation.

And it uses a touchscreen as the keyboard; in his demo, Apple CEO Steve Jobs -- no doubt mindful of the many users who hate touchscreen-based virtual keyboards -- composed an e-mail on it while sitting in a living-room-style leather chair, to suggest that the touchscreen keyboard on a device the iPad's size should be little different than using a standard tactile keyboard. But Apple will also offer a dock that contains a physical keyboard, and you can connect an Apple wireless keyboard to it via Bluetooth.

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Like the iPhone and iPod Touch, it runs the iPhone OS -- and so most iPhone apps should run unmodified on it as well. There's even an on-screen "2X" icon to scale up the existing apps to fit the iPad's 9.7-inch screen.

So what's significantly new? Not as much as one would have expected given the all hype. But the combination of technologies and apps suggest that the iPad could provide an alternative to netbooks and cheap notebooks for basic productivity needs while bringing all the entertainment and media capabilities that have made the iPod and iPhone such big hits.

The New York Times showed off a version of its news app designed for the iPad -- it's an app like the Times' iPhone edition, not the standard Times Web site (which you could also browse in a desktop-like experience on the iPad). That means you can access content when offline after it's been downloaded, but it supports the more familiar newspaper layout conventions of columns, except that you can rearrange them in a sort of My Yahoo way.

And Apple has added -- as long rumored -- an e-book reader called iBooks for books and publications, along with an iBook Store that is nearly identical to the iTunes Store to purchase books and other print-type media. The goal is to make printed media as available in an on-demand, paid way as iTunes has done for music and is trying to do for video. Unlike the Kindle, which Jobs cited as an inspired first entry, the iBooks app supports color images and text, not just black-and-white. You can even change the font. The books are in the EPUB format, not an Apple-proprietary one, so widely used tools like Adobe InDesign can be used to create them.

Apple has also created a version of its iWork desktop productivity suite for the iPad -- that could make the iPad a competitor to both Windows netbooks and Apple's own MacBooks as an entertainment device that also doubles as a lightweight productivity device. Each app -- Pages, Numbers, and Keynote -- will cost $10 each and be compatible with the Mac OS X versions. The iPad versions of iWork can open both Microsoft Office and iWork files, but save only to the iWork and PDF formats. So sharing with Office users won't be as easy as it is on the desktop version of iWork. Also, the photo management app on the iPad takes advantage of the larger screen to let you create and slideshows on the iPad, something that would be helpful in product presentations.

As for the specs, the iPad is a half-inch thin, weighs 1.5 pounds, has an accelerometer and compass, has a 9.7-inch multitouch display, includes both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth local wireless networking, and runs on an Apple-proprietary CPU called the A4. Apple claims 10-hour battery life. The iPad can dock into keyboard and external screen.

Apple will sell six models: one set with 3G radios built in, and one set without. Each set will offer flash memory capacities of 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB. Prices range from $499 to $829; the 3G versions will cost $130 more than the non-3G versions. Data access plans for 3G networks will be available starting at $15 per month for 250MB of data usage, and $30 per month for unlimited data usage, on AT&T's network (not on Verizon Wireless's as rumored). The plan includes Wi-Fi access at any AT&T hot spot.

In a first for an Apple iPhone OS device, the iPad's SIM card is removable, opening up the possibility that you can use it on the GSM-compatible carrier of your choice. But the three supported spectrum bands for the 3G models (850MHz, 1900MHz, and 2100MHz) don't include the spectrum band used by T-Mobile in the U.S. (1700MHz). However, they cover the common 3G bands used in Europe.

The iPad should be available by April for the non-3G models and by May for the 3G ones, Apple says.

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