iPad hits stores today: will it live up to the hype?

Some buyers are holding back on purchasing the device for lack of features

Apple has asked people to drop their netbooks and go with the "magical" iPad, which will be uncloaked in U.S. stores on Saturday morning. The excitement around the device is high, but will it live up to its hype?

Apple has a history of changing the consumer electronics landscape with products like the iPod and iPhone, and the iPad could have a lasting impact on computing, analysts said. Initial signs suggest the iPad will be a success, with financial firm Broadpoint Amtech on Thursday predicting Apple will ship 4 million iPad units by the end of the calendar year.

The device could spawn new ways to deliver content like video, news and e-books to users, analysts said. However, some potential buyers are holding back, arguing that the iPad lacks features that limit its use as a multimedia device.

The iPad has a 9.7-inch touch-screen display and uses an on-screen keyboard for typing. It can be used for tasks like Web browsing, sending e-mail, reading e-books and playing movies and games. Apple claims the device fits somewhere between an iPhone and a MacBook.

The initial iPads going on sale on Saturday will only include Wi-Fi, with prices ranging from US$499 to $699, depending on storage. Models becoming available later this month will include 3G mobile broadband, with prices ranging from $629 to $829.

Initial reviews posted this week have praised the iPad for its speed, battery life, and multimedia and e-reading capabilities. Apple claimed 10 hours of battery life on active usage, but some reviewers clocked up to 12 hours of battery life after video use. Powered by Apple's A4 chip, the device can play back 720p high-definition video.

However, the device has its drawbacks, including the lack of a video camera and support for Flash, which enables video on the Internet. Compared to a netbook, the lack of a keyboard also has been viewed as a drawback, as it stops users from using it as a full-fledged PC.

"I don't believe it has the amount of functionality needed to replace something like a laptop," said Nicolas Dinatale, a Web project manager and independent consultant. "If I have a laptop and a smartphone, why would I need the iPad?"

Apple's lack of Flash support is also surprising, considering the device was meant for consumption of media, Dinatale said.

"They are trying to force change in the market with their power and influence, while consumers are happy and content with Flash. They should have supported it out of the box," Dinatale said. Users are also chained to Apple's proprietary multimedia and application stores for "every little thing."

Another user has decided to wait till Apple adds more features.

"I would be willing to wait a year for the iPad with 3G and a video camera," said Steve Grove, a server administrator at the U.S. Department of the Army and student at American Military University. "I still have a regular 3G iPhone, waiting on a 4G or CDMA version, so I have no issue waiting," he said.

Grove is also waiting for more Internet sites to move forward to HTML5, which is a Web standard that could deliver content like video to the iPad. Apple recently published a list of "iPad-ready" Web sites that support HTML5, including CNN.com, Reuters and video-sharing site Vimeo.

Despite the drawbacks, the device could potentially change the face of computing as it matures, analysts said. It could also create some problems for netbooks and traditional laptops on the way, analysts said.

The iPad will be best used as a device for consuming content, which consumers increasingly appear interested in doing with their mobile devices, said Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis at NPD. The iPad is targeted at providing an even better experience than laptops in Internet surfing and e-mail, Baker said.

"What Apple has done right today is created version 1.0 of this device to get first-mover advantage and ... set the standards as we move into that content consumption environment," Baker said.

The strong multimedia features are amplified by the range of content and applications that will be available at iPad's launch, including thousands of movies and TV shows, said Brian Marshall, financial analyst at Broadpoint AmTech, in a research note on Thursday.

Around 8,500 movies will be available for the iPad, including more than 2,500 in high definition. More than 55,000 TV show episodes will also be available, Marshall said. CBS and ABC will stream shows to the iPad.

Top book publishers including HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Penguin Group and Macmillan will make e-books available. Electronic textbooks will be available from McGraw-Hill, Houghton Mifflin, Pearson and Kaplan, and news content will be provided by publishers including The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press.

A lot of developers are also rushing to make applications available for the iPad at the time of release. Netflix will make available an application for consumers to view streaming video. Ebay on Thursday said it would come out with an application that will use iPad features to enable mobile commerce.

But Apple may need to educate users on how to effectively use the iPad as a content-consumption device, wrote Forrester Research analyst Sarah Rotman Epps in a blog entry on Thursday. Up to now, tablet devices have not made much headway into the broad consumer market, despite the growing popularity of devices like Amazon's Kindle.

The device could provide a road map for where computing is going in the form of "curated, cloud-based experiences that are mesmerizing to watch, and to touch," Epps wrote.

"In three years, we'll look back and marvel not at how many units Apple sold, but at the way Apple changed computing," Epps wrote.

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