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Do we need the iPad?

AFTER months of hype, the iPad finally arrived into Irish stores last week. I got my hands on one and have spent most of the last few days seeing if it lives up to the publicity. Or more importantly, is it worth shelling out your hard-earned cash for, especially if you already have a portable computer and a smart phone? This is what I learned:

It's very pretty: Apple made a break from the lumpy design of MP3 players with their original iPod and the iPad is probably their most stunning looking device yet.

The metal casing is smooth and cool to the touch and there's a pleasant weight to the glass-fronted ensemble few tablets can match. The aesthetics are only broken by a few buttons and inputs. It feels and looks good and almost every person we've had through the office has wanted to pick it up.

But design isn't everything: While those curves will be the envy of your friends, its slick design means there's no room for inputs like USB ports and SD card slots.

This means no external webcam, USB keys or keyboards. And snappers who want to take advantage of the glorious screen will have to fork out an extra €30 for a camera kit which doesn't support compact flash cards. But that doesn't matter because the iPad won't display RAW image files anyway.

The syncing odyssey: After you've rescued the iPad from its packaging, the first thing you'll want to do is sync it with your existing media collection.

The pitfalls of iTunes is an argument for another day but if you're an iPhone or iPod touch user, you'll easily be able to transfer your movies, music and applications once you sync it. Plug in the connector and start the syncing process.

A media window: The star of the show is the iPad's 9.7in display. It is vibrant and crystal clear, particularly with apps purpose built for the bigger device.

But the main advantage is its size, especially for those used to the 3.5in screen of the iPhone.

My God, it's full of apps: The iPhone has over 150,000 apps and while some will run on the iPad, they work through a clunky, zoomed interface.

At the time of writing, the total number of compatible iPad apps is nearing 17,000. Purpose-built apps often include updated HD graphics.

But there's a lot of fluff in the App Store, including casual game tie-ins for the latest cinema releases.

Too many apps?: It's a definite case of quantity over quality on the App Store right now but here's a few apps which have impressed us already.

Marvel App: Sure the iPad can do movies, music and photos but arguably its best application is as a reader and comics make it truly shine. The Marvel App is free to download and comes with six free books, with additional titles costing from $2 (€1.53).

Wired: The popular American technology magazine has made the transition to the iPad with revolutionary interactive content.

Epicurious: A free guide with thousands of recipes, complete with mouth-watering images, full instructions and ingredients.

Aurora Feint 3: Free, gorgeous and addictive, what more could you want in a game? AF3 is a block-matching game with a fantasy story and fast paced battles that forces you to rotate the iPad in order to make chains to stay alive.

It's not a laptop replacement: The apps mentioned above are all fun but the iPad doesn't excel at improving productivity. Yes, you can check your email and the onscreen keyboard is fantastic -- much more responsive than we were expecting -- but this is not a laptop replacement; it's an entertainment device for people on the move.

Keeping mobile: Speaking of being on the move, the standard iPad just sports Wi-Fi and while many people have wireless at home, the availability of free hot spots in Dublin is not exactly stellar.

Wi-Fi and 3G models start at €599 but users will also have to pay for data charges with their mobile network. O2, Vodafone and 3 offer rates. The cheapest daily offer is from O2 -- €3.97 per day for up to 500 MB -- and 3 have the best monthly rate; €20 for up to 15 gigs. Apps are usually 5MB or less but you'd still be best advised to grab them while you're in a Wi-Fi area to save your data allowance. That said, I've been using it nonstop since I got it and haven't come close to the daily limit.

Not so magical movies: The 4:3 aspect ratio is perfect in portrait mode for web pages, books and comics but flip it to landscape and load up a movie and you'll find those dreaded black bars top and bottom. You can zoom but you'll lose a startling amount of the image, particularly in movies shot in 2.35 widescreen.

So should you get one? If you are already dedicated to Apple and have succumbed to the stranglehold of iTunes, you'll be at home with their latest effort.

Less technically minded individuals will love the intuitive interface and graphics. There's no denying it's a wonderfully crafted portal to your online world. But if you're not interested in watching cropped movies or playing an endless parade of casual games or have a mobile internet solution in place, there's little here to make you change your mind.

Apart from that wonderful screen and the constant thrill of touch, it's a tablet geared towards browsing the net that doesn't support Flash content. YouTube will play but needs a third-party application, RTE.ie has big gaps and any non-YouTube flash videos simply leave a void.

The iPad is a luxury item, wanted rather than needed and performing the same tasks for a higher price, while pretending to be "revolutionary". It's not. It's a glorified toy, but maybe that's what people want.

Pricing from €499 (16GB/Wi-FI) to €799 (64GB/Wi-Fi/3G) and available from Apple-approved retailers