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Throwing Darts to Beat the iPad

Why unveil an iPad Killer when you can display four of them at the same time? That's what Jonney Shih, chairman of ASUSTek, did yesterday in a CES press conference at the Aria Resort and Hotel in Las Vegas.

Thus begins the Year of the Keyboardless Computer. Last year, Apple went it alone with the iPad at a time when all the other computer manufacturers insisted that everybody wanted physical keyboards and styluses with their large-scale mobile devices. Now that Apple has sold millions of iPads, everyone's jumping on the bandwagon.

Asus, holding one of the earliest CES press conferences this year, wasn't content to bring out just one device to compete with the iPad -- it's bringing out four: the Eee Pad Slider, Eee Pad Transformer, Eee Pad MeMO and Eee Slate EP121.

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Shih and his company are certainly trying to cover all the bases with this lineup. The Slate runs a version of full-blown Windows 7 Home Premium. The MeMO, Slider and Transformer, on the other hand, will run Android's 3.0 operating system when it is released.

The key to any proposed iPad Killer is a device that beats the iPad in features. If Asus's entries were all put together, they would create a formidable challenge to the iPad: a slide-out keyboard, a dual-core CPU, front and rear digital cameras, full support for Adobe Flash, HD playback and giant 12.1-inch screen.

Of course, no one Asus machine manages to have all of these features in one machine. They spent the last few minutes of the press conference showing off an animation of the perfect iPad killer: a perfectly clear device that easily adjusted in size as needed, with boundless computing power and, undoubtedly, battery life.

As fantasies go, it was entertaining, like the demonstrations of picture phones at the 1964 New York World's Fair.

But there was nothing entertaining about the four tablet devices Asus hopes will deal a death blow to the iPad this year. Shih delivered Asus's alliterative mantra of "Inspiring innovation, Persistent perfection" early in his talk, but there was nothing really inspiring or innovative about these products.

Each, in fact, is a step back from the innovation of the iPad. Shih apparently couldn't demonstrate the Slate without using the pop-out stylus. The MeMO, too, has a stylus. The battery life of the Slider, the one closest in physical size to the iPad, is not mentioned -- not a good sign. And the Transformer beats the iPad's battery life, but only after attaching a special keyboard, turning it into a bulky notebook instead of an ultralight slate device.

If there is any message in the Asus announcement, it's that it takes four Asus devices to beat the iPad.

The Slate is the most expensive product of the bunch. It'll be available this month, but at a $999 price that will surely result in slow sales. The other three are priced more in line with existing and already-announced tablet devices, but because of their reliance on an Android operating system that is not yet available, they won't show up until later: the Transformer in April, the Slider in May and the MeMO in June. Many believe that Apple will show up with their second generation iPads by that time, introducing features that will make up for the first generation product's deficiencies.

Shih's quaint broken English provided moments of levity during the presentation. At one point, he claimed his new products were perfect "for the new Cloud Computing error."

To think of it, he may have that part perfectly right.

Disclaimer: My wife owns stock in Apple. That's perfectly fine by me.

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Born at a very young age with no foreknowledge of the event.