Not only does Apple Computer design products that pack in the wow factor, they also know how to create the wow in marketing. Apple’s latest offering, the iPad tablet, is a case in point. 

Long before the product was announced or even had an official name, the rumor mill was busy grinding out hints and clues, creating a groundswell of anticipation among the Mac faithful. The announcement itself generated a lot of breathless news coverage as did the actual launch. Finally, the device has been flying off store shelves, selling more than 300,000 the first day and more than half a million in the first week. In addition, iPad users downloaded more than a million applications and more than 250,000 e-books the first day. Those kind of sales have generated even more panting. Apple’s announcement that it would have to postpone the international launch of the device for a month led to news stories such as the sale of a $499 iPad on eBay for $5,500 to a purchaser in Britain.

Apple’s combination of industrial design genius and marketing prowess remains a powerful advantage for the company. Its first foray into mobile phones, the iPhone, has not only been a runaway success in the hypercompetitive mobile market, it has also  transformed the way people use their mobile devices with its touch screen and more than 140,000 applications that can do everything, including starting your car.

But back to the iPad. Sure it’s a great-looking device with a beautiful screen, but the question is, what are you going to do with it? Read books, watch videos, listen to music, play games? While you can email and browse the Internet, the iPad seems more suited to leisure than work, particularly if your work requires writing a lot of documents or dealing with spreadsheets. Apple promises a keyboard dock so you can park your iPad above a physical keyboard, but a regular notebook computer may be the better bet for work. Another point to keep in mind, the lower-priced iPads offer only Wi-Fi connectivity. For 3G wireless, you’ll have to make sure to get the right model and wireless data plan. Still, the iPad is a brilliant entry by Apple into a niche market that has yet to take off among the general public.

Tablet computers generally come in two flavors: the one-piece slate models like the iPad, and the swivel screen, convertible laptops, in which the screen lies over the keyboard to turn into a tablet. Lenovo’s ThinkPad x200 tablet series fits into this niche, as does Hewlett-Packard’s EliteBook Tablet PC, both of which feature multi-touch screens. Toshiba’s Protege M780 convertible laptop has a single-touch screen in which your finger is used in the same way as a mouse.

In the slate arena, the iPad has clearly made the biggest splash. Smartphone maker Nokia, however, had an earlier tablet line introduced four years ahead of Apple’s model; although, that was more like a big smartphone than a tablet computer. The latest model, the N900, is kind of like a large slider keyboard phone. Tablets also have been available from Archos, Fujitsu and Samsung.

Apple also faces some competition from very big rivals. Lenovo has a hybrid tablet, the IdeaPad U1 due out in June, with a screen that detaches from the keyboard base to run as a standalone tablet. Hewlett-Packard intends to release a tablet called Slate this year, and Dell plans a family of tablets. Google was rumored to be considering a tablet computer based on the Android mobile operating system.

So, while Apple gets all the press, the market may become quite crowded very quickly.

For someone considering a purchase of a new tablet, the main question is what do you want to use it for? If you’ve just gotta have it, then the sheer joy of ownership should suffice. If, however, you have specific tasks in mind, the best course of action is to match the machine with your needs. It comes down to that old customs agent question, “Business or pleasure?”

The Media Star
Apple iPad, 9.7-inch touch screen, Wi-Fi model, from $499 to $699; Wi-Fi and 3G, $629-$829.

The Windows Tablet
Archos 9 PC Tablet, 8.9-inch touch screen, Windows 7, camera, $550

The Detachable
Lenovo IdeaPad U1 hybrid, about $999.

The Convertibles
Lenovo IdeaPad S10-3t, 10.1-inch multi- touch screen, Windows 7, $549.
Hewlett-Packard EliteBook 2740p, Windows 7, multi-touch screen, $1,600.

In the Wings
Hewlett Packard Slate, about $549