Apple’s iPad tablet computer hits U.S. shelves April 3.

NEW YORK - At first glance, the iPad looked like a heavy, overgrown iPod Touch. After just a few months of use, however, this iPad skeptic realized it's so much more - it's one of those devices I've always needed.

When I first got my hands on an iPad for a review, I played games on it for about a month. It took me a while to realize the iPad actually fulfills a long-time tablet vision as well: It's like a sheet of paper, electronified. That's what made me plunk down $499 for one of my own once I was done with the borrowed review unit.

I knew I was waiting for a device that could replace printouts, magazines, newspapers and books in my life. At first, I didn't think the iPad was it, because it's too heavy to hold comfortably in one hand. Better I thought, to wait for a smaller device, something with a screen that measures 5 to 7 inches diagonally instead of the iPad's 9.7 inches.

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I was wrong. The iPad isn't too heavy if I support it on a bag when standing. And the screen is just big and sharp enough to display decently a letter-sized document or a reformatted newspaper page with teasers for a couple of articles.

That means the last defenses that kept dead trees relevant to me have been overcome. I canceled the print subscription for one of my newspapers and went electronic. I've also started stuffing papers I want to have with me through a sheet-fed scanner and moved the resulting files to the iPad as PDFs. It's like ripping CDs to get MP3s; the iPad is like an iPod for paper.

Replacing paper was the rationale of Inc.'s Kindle e-reader, but the multi-purpose iPad beats it at its own game.

Other reviewers have spread confusion about the selection of books available on the iPad. It's true Apple's iBook store has fewer books than Kindle store. That doesn't matter, though: You can buy and read Kindle books on the iPad, along with books from a lot of other retailers, including Barnes & Noble Inc.

What about other competing devices? A lot of manufacturers want a piece of the tablet action, and we'll see quite a few options in stores this holiday season. For instance, Samsung Electronics Inc. has shown off a 7-inch tablet called the Galaxy Tab, and according to The Wall Street Journal, U.S. wireless carriers will sell it subsidized with two-year data service contracts.

From a hardware standpoint, these could be compelling options. Samsung and others can take advantage of the same technological advances that helped Apple improve over previous tablets. They also could remedy some of the annoying omissions of the iPad, such as the lack of built-in USB and memory card ports. They'll have built-in cameras, too.

The crux, though, is the software. Competitors are relying on Android, a free software package from Google Inc. that's done well in smart phones. It's not intended for tablets, and Google doesn't promote it as such. Apple managed to move the iPhone's software to the iPad without much trouble, but that transition looks more difficult for Android.

It took competitors a couple of years to start catching up to the iPhone in a serious way. The gap will probably be shorter for tablet computers, but by getting the iPad right on its first try, Apple has a real head start.

Maybe I'm trying to justify my purchase here, but I have a strong feeling there isn't a lot to be gained by waiting for the others to catch up.


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