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And, lo, the Apple tablet is handed down

The iPad combines the best bits of a smartphone and a laptop, say its creators. But there's no camera...

The Apple iPad hit store shelves in the United States yesterday, and gave shoppers their first chance to decide whether the tablet device is worth all the breathless publicity.

At Apple's flagship store on Fifth Avenue in New York City, cheers went up as shoppers finally entered the shop at 9am local time, emerging a few minutes later carrying the first iPads, a device touted as a bridge between a laptop and smartphone. Two hours after the doors opened, dozens of hopeful shoppers remained in line, while inside the store those who had already picked up their iPads cracked them open and began passing judgement.

Simon Cox, a high school maths teacher visiting from Manchester, England, immediately used his iPad to email friends and family from the store. "It looks fantastic, so nice to hold and play and touch," he said, noting that the device is smaller than he expected. "It's easier to carry around. I certainly know I'll use it when I'm out and about."

Numbers built steadily at stores around the country beginning early Friday, with shoppers waiting at locations in New York, Washington, Boston and San Francisco. But the lines were noticeably shorter than those that ushered in the iPhone in 2007. In Richmond, Virginia, about 100 people gathered at an Apple store, drinking coffee and mingling in a festive, holiday atmosphere. Matt Reidy, IT director for SnagAJob.com, said he got there at 1am and was first in line. "My wife thinks I'm crazy," said Reidy, 43. "She said I'd be the oldest person out there."

Apple unveiled the iPad in January after months of speculation, and its stock has risen steadily over the past two months. It has a lot riding on the iPad. Analysts say the company has already received several hundred thousand pre-orders, with sales estimated at anywhere from four million to seven million in the gadget's first year.

With a 9.7in touchscreen and weighing in at 1.5lb, the device resembles an oversized iPhone and runs on the same operating system. It starts at $499 (£328) in the US for a short-range Wi-Fi model, topping out at more than $800 for a 3G-enabled version.

The iPad is designed for 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 and other e-readers and e-books.

The iPad is the first in a wave of lightweight tablet devices expected to hit the market later this year. Enthusiasts have praised the its elegant screen and fast web browser, but have also pointed out that it lacks a camera, and it cannot run more than one app at a time or view popular video sites that use Adobe's Flash software. No UK launch date has yet been set, but is likely to be at the end of this month.