SAN JOSE, Calif. —The early iPad reviews are in and generally glowing. But they underscore a key question about the tablet computer as today's launch approached: Does the Apple iPad herald the next generation of personal computing, or is it just another nifty device some consumers will use for entertainment?
It's not quite a laptop replacement, but it can be adequate for light typing and viewing documents and other material, the reviewers said. The iPad's virtual keyboard gets mixed marks, but the screen and the device's look and feel get a thumbs-up.
What remains to be seen is how widely the iPad's appeal will spread beyond early adopters and Apple acolytes.
"Apple has pretty much nailed it with this first iPad, though there's certainly room for improvement," wrote USA Today's Edward Baig.
Many consumers may not know whether they want the device until they get their hands on one. After a week of use, Wall Street Journal tech reviewer Walter Mossberg said he could accomplish with the iPad about 80 percent of what he can do on his laptop.
"Because the iPad is a new type of computer, you have to feel it, to use it, to fully understand it and decide if it is for you," he wrote.
The reviews suggest techies may be less attracted to the iPad than many consumers. David Pogue of the New York Times said those who do heavy lifting on their laptops and desktops are apt to find the iPad to be merely an oversized iPod Touch.
"The iPad is not a laptop," he wrote. "It's not nearly as good for creating things."
At 1.5 pounds, the iPad is lighter than most, if not all, laptops. But it's not something that slides into your pocket.
"You are taking a piece of glass with you and walking around with it all day," IDC analyst Richard Shim said of the iPad. "I am pretty careful. But I still drop my gadgets from time to time."
The early signs, though, are heartening for the Cupertino, Calif., company: Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster predicts that as many as 300,000 iPads will be sold this weekend. That compares with 270,000 iPhones sold during its initial launch. He expects Apple to sell 2.7 million iPads in 2010, though Munster says that number could be conservative.
Shim predicts that the overall consumer tablet market in 2010 will be 6 million — 4 million of which will be iPads. That's just a slice of what IDC expects portable computer sales to be this year: 205 million.
"At the same time, zero to six million units, that's pretty fast," Shim said.
Still, he says the iPad and other tablets could become just one more gadget people own and not necessarily game-changing technology.
But Trip Hawkins, founder of video game giant Electronic Arts and now CEO of Digital Chocolate, said that within a decade, there could be a billion tablet computers in the world, including iPads and Google Android devices.
"I think in the long run, this is a huge deal. This is a new architecture for computing devices," he said.
Silicon Valley futurist Paul Saffo says the tablet, and particularly the iPad, represents an inflection point in computing history.
"This is as big as the arrival of the Macintosh in the '80s," he said. "It delivered icons and the mouse. (The iPad) is the first keyboard-less device that is a serious device. The irony is the company that introduced the mouse will retire the mouse and (relegate) the keyboard to being a wonderful peripheral you will use from time to time."
Now the tech world awaits the judgment of the critics who vote with their credit cards: consumers.