Apple unveils iPad, basically a huge iPod Touch

Throw away the rumors, concept sketches and speculation; Apple’s tablet, the iPad, is finally real.

The 9.7-inch touch screen device is essentially what people expected it to be — an oversized iPod Touch running a modified iPhone OS — minus some of the extraneous features that some tech reporters and pundits had predicted. There’s a bookstore, but no storefront for paid magazine and newspaper subscriptions. There’s no Web camera. You can’t multitask.

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Inside, the iPad has a 1 GHz Apple A4 chip, 10-hours of active battery life and a choice of 16 GB, 32 GB or 64 GB of storage. Connectivity includes 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and optional 3G service from AT&T. A standard 30-pin connector is located on the bottom of the iPad, and there’s a speaker, microphone, accelerometer and compass. As for dimensions, the iPad measures a half-inch thick and weighs 1.5 pounds.

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Apple said the iPad will support all of the existing app store apps and developers are now welcome to develop apps specially for the iPad. Apple showed a few of these in action today, including an existing first-person shooter, called Nova, with three-finger multi-touch gestures, an optimized version of the New York Times and iPad versions of Apple’s iWork suite, which lets users edit documents, spreadsheets and presentations.

From that last example, it seems Apple wants the iPad to be a productivity computer and not just an entertainment device. Along that line, Apple plans to release a dock with a stand and keyboard for those who don’t want to use the iPad’s virtual keyboard.

Apple’s event contained few surprised, but the one shocker was the iPad’s price, starting at $499. Granted, that’s a 16 GB model with no 3G. Each successive storage capacity costs $100 more, and 3G costs another $130, so the 64 GB iPad with 3G will cost $829. The iPad without 3G will be available in two months, and the 3G iPad will go on sale in late April.

Even more surprising, however, is the cost of 3G service. AT&T is offering 250 MB for $15 per month, or unlimited data for $30 per month, with no contract required. That’s comparable to phone data pricing, but considerably cheaper than 3G data for laptops. I’m not yet convinced that the iPad is a revolutionary product, but its cut-rate data plan could definitely be a game-changer.

What remains to be seen is whether people opt for an iPad instead of a netbook. It’s certainly possible, but the low storage capacity and lack of Web cam hold the device back, no matter how fun it is to use its touch screen. I’m planning to wait it out, at least to see what kinds of apps become available, but more likely until next year’s iteration to see whether Apple can improve upon its latest creation.

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