Wednesday’s Apple event: Ready for a new iPad?

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(CNN) — If, as expected, Apple unveils the newest in its line of hugely popular iPads on Wednesday, it will be the first look at how the company plans to maintain a stranglehold on a tablet computer market it essentially created two years ago.

The rumored device has been prematurely dubbed the iPad 3, although more recent speculation has centered on iPad HD, a name that would accentuate its expected high-definition display screen.

As is par for the course when big things are afoot at Apple, the company hasn’t confirmed what will happen at Wednesday’s announcement, set for 1 p.m. ET in San Francisco.

But it has been almost a year since the iPad 2’s release, making the timing right for a refresh. And the media invitation to the event shows someone tapping what appears to be an iPad with a crystal clear display and the text: “We have something you really have to see. And touch.”

That seemingly teases what has surfaced in reports out of China, where Apple products are made: a high-definition, 2048-by-1536-pixel display that would be a major leap from the iPad 2’s 1024-by-768 screen.

According to news reports and leaks (and, sometimes, mere speculation), the other best bets for upgraded iPad features include the addition of Siri, the voice-activated “digital assistant” on the iPhone 4S, a camera that’s dramatically improved from the less-than-stellar version on the iPad 2 and a quad-core processor better suited to running video games.

Some observers also predict the new device will run on 4G wireless networks, instead of the current iPads’ 3G.

When the iPad was introduced in early 2010, tablets already existed, but none had become popular with mainstream consumers. Some analysts wondered if there would be a market for a device that falls somewhere between a smartphone and a laptop but doesn’t fully replace either.

The answer was a resounding “yes.” The company has sold more than 55 million iPads worldwide to date.

Before his death in October, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs predicted that 2011 would be the “year of the copycat” in the tablet space. In large part it was, and that was bad news for Apple’s rivals, as competitors from HP to Samsung to Motorola tried unsuccessfully to offer a viable alternative to the iPad.

A new iPad would arrive in a somewhat trickier landscape.

By going smaller and simpler, Amazon made a splash with its Kindle Fire over the holidays, while rival bookseller Barnes & Noble countered with its popular Nook Tablet. Both devices start at $199. The new Acer Iconia A500 offers more memory than the iPad 2, while other companies have begun flooding the market with devices that are smaller and cheaper than Apple’s standard-bearer.

Just last week, Microsoft rolled out its Windows 8 operating system for tablets, suggesting that Windows-based tablets could be making a serious run.

The upstarts have many analysts wondering whether Apple could either roll out its own smaller, simpler iPad or, perhaps more likely, offer a steep discount on one of the older models, putting it head to head against the Nook and Kindle Fire.

Apple surprised many observers last year when the iPad 2 was priced the same as the original iPad — ranging from $499 to $829, depending on 3G capability and storage capacity.

— By Doug Gross, CNN

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