Apple Inc CEO Steve Jobs took the wraps off the iPad tablet on Wednesday, making a big bet on a new breed of gadgets that aim to bridge the gap between smartphones and laptops.

Jobs, who returned to the helm last year after a much-scrutinized liver transplant, took the stage before a jam-packed theater and showed off a sleek, half-inch thick tablet computer with a 9.7-inch touchscreen that can run movies, books, games and a plethora of media applications.

What once occupied half your living room can now be dropped in a bag, said NPD analyst Ned May. It's pulling together a variety of needs (in) a universal entertainment device.

Apple hopes to sell consumers on the value of tablet -- which will have a price tag starting at $499 -- computing after other technology companies, including Microsoft Corp and Toshiba Corp, have failed to do so in recent years.

Called the iPad, the tablet is Apple's biggest product launch since the iPhone three years ago, and arguably rivals the smartphone as the most anticipated in Apple's history.

Culminating months of feverish speculation on the Internet and among investors, Jobs took the stage at a jam-packed theater in San Francisco and, with his famed showman's flair, began displaying the device's features.

Jobs said there was a need for a new type of device that would sit between a smartphone and laptop computer, and that can perform tasks like browse the Web, play games and display electronic books.

If there's going to be a third category of device, it going to have to be better at these kinds of tasks, he said.

The iPad has a near life-sized touch keyboard and supports Web browsing. It comes with a built-in calendar and address book, Jobs said, calling it awesome.

Despite the buzz surrounding the launch and Apple's storied golden touch on consumer electronics, the tablet is not necessarily an easy sell, analysts say.

Consumer appetite for such a device category has yet to be proven, though plenty of devices such as's Kindle e-reader are vying for that market.

Shares of Apple have generally risen ahead of Wednesday's event. The stock slid rose 0.5 percent to $206.92 at mid-afternoon, within reach of its all-time high of $215.59 logged on January 5.

As iPod sales wane, Apple is looking for another growth engine and hopes to find one in the tablet. But the move is not without risk. Consumers have never warmed to tablet computers, despite many previous attempts by other companies.

In an online poll on, 37 percent of more than 1,000 respondents said they would pay $500-$699 for the tablet. Nearly 30 percent weren't interested, while 20 percent said they would pay $700-$899. (For more details, see

Analysts' sales predictions for the tablet vary widely, with many believing Apple can sell 2 million to 5 million units in the first year.