* Goes on sale at 9 a.m. Saturday
* Lines expected at Apple store
NEW YORK, April 3 (Reuters) - Apple Inc's AAPL.O iPad hits store shelves on Saturday and consumers at long last get to see for themselves whether the tablet device is worth all the breathless publicity.
The iPad goes on sale at 9 a.m. at the company's more than 200 retail outlets in the United States, along with many Best Buy BBY.N stores.
Wall Street is curious to see if the device -- touted as a bridge between a laptop and smartphone -- can win a mass following like the iPhone has, and will be monitoring crowds at Apple stores this weekend to gauge its appeal.
The afternoon before the much hyped tablet computer went on sale, a smattering of customers lined up at stores in New York, Washington, Boston and San Francisco, in marked contrast to the thousands that ushered in the iPhone in 2007. [ID:nN02154287]
With many able to pre-order the gadget since mid-March, there was little reason to stand in line ahead of Saturday’s 9 a.m. launch. Those who ordered early enough online get their iPads on Saturday, via pickup at a store or home delivery.
Analysts say the company has already received several hundred thousands in pre-orders, with sales estimated at anywhere from 4 million to 7 million or more in the gadget’s first year. [ID:nN29117228]
MUCH AT STAKE
Apple unveiled the iPad in January after months of fevered speculation, and its stock has risen steadily over the last two months. [ID:nN27203955]
It has plenty riding on the iPad, which it calls a new category of device: a lightweight media consumption device that tries to fuse the best attributes of a smartphone and a laptop. [ID:nN29117228]
The iPad’s touchscreen measures 9.7 inches. At 1.5 pounds, the device resembles an oversized iPhone and runs on the same operating system. It starts at $499 for a short-range Wi-Fi model, topping out at more than $800 for a 3G-enabled version.
The iPad is designed for using media of all sorts, including games, video, pictures, electronic books and magazines. It can access roughly 150,000 already existing iPhone apps, as well as new ones freshly designed for the iPad.
Apple is also launching its own digital book business to compete with the Kindle from Amazon.com Inc AMZN.O and other e-readers and e-books.
The iPad is the first in a wave of lightweight tablet devices that are expected to hit the market later this year from rival vendors, including Hewlett-Packard Co HPQ.N and Dell Inc DELL.O.
The big question is whether the iPad can attract a mainstream following beyond the first few months of excitement and into next year.
Technology enthusiasts have praised the iPad's beautiful screen and fast Web browser, but also have pointed out some missing pieces. It lacks a camera, cannot run more than one app at a time, and it cannot view popular video sites that use Adobe's ADBE.O Flash software.
Reviewers at The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal said the iPad works nicely for Web surfing and multimedia -- but may appeal less to people who need computers for more heavy-duty chores. [ID:nN01128173]
Saturday’s iPad launch is only in the United States, and only for the Wi-Fi model. It will be available in nine other countries later this month. (Reporting by Gabriel Madway; Editing by Edwin Chan and Jan Paschal)
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