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SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Chinese pirates hawking a new crop of Apple Inc iPad knock-offs are hoping the real product's global launch will provide much-needed publicity for their slow-selling wares.
They could find the sailing anything but smooth, however, as increasingly sophisticated Chinese consumers are seeking the real deal of a product known for its hard-to-copy performance as much as its easier-to-replicate looks.
This week at an outlet in one of Shanghai's top computer marts, the owner surnamed Li was trying his best to sell a new iPad clone, called the iRobot, passing it off as the iPad's identical twin.
"It is expensive and it just arrived from Shenzhen. We haven't sold many of these yet, maybe only two a day," said a congenial Li, surrounded by an array of Apple-branded products of unknown origin, including three types of iPhone.
"So far, not many people know about the iPad, but after the Apple launch a lot of people will want one. If they can't afford it, they will buy the fake," he said.
The iPad officially went global on Friday with launches in Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, and Switzerland. It is set to come to Hong Kong in June, but no China date has been set yet.
An Apple spokeswoman in Beijing had no information on when the iPad would be available in China and no comment on the fake iPads.
Pirates hope to capitalize on their lower prices and earlier availability to woo Chinese customers, but have met limited success so far.
While Li's iRobot costs $400 -- less than the starting price of $500 for the real iPad -- his iRobots and other iPad wannabes also come with a range of distinctively non-Apple traits such as cheap plastic casings, memory card slots and USB ports.
Such differences, along with lower performance in factors such as boot up time and ease of use, are turning off a growing number of potential Chinese customers to the bootleg products.
Zhou Xi, 26, a marketing executive who already owns an iPhone, said he would buy an authentic iPad or none at all.
"Look, people who have tried the real thing don't buy the fakes," said Zhou, a self-professed Apple lover slickly clad in tight jeans and aviator shades, as he shopped for a case for his iPhone at one of the mall's Apple shops.
Xiao Yi, a 23-year-old office worker, said she immediately thought of an iPad when looking for the top prize to give away at an upcoming company dinner.
"I don't know much about Apple and the brand, but I know it is a new product so I thought it would be impressive to give away," Yi said browsing through iPhone accessories at an Apple store at the upmarket electronics mall in Shanghai.
She said she had not decided yet on whether to settle for a fake iPad instead.
Another shop salesman at the mall said demand for real iPads was high, with at least 10 people enquiring about them.
"The piracy problem is not that significant because of the functionality of the real one," said Mirae Asset analyst Dean Li. "Apple has strong brand power. No matter how expensive, Chinese consumers won't care about the price problems," he said.
But not all Chinese have bought into the Apple ethos, reflecting the uphill climb the company and other Western brands continue to face in their battle against Chinese pirates.
Xiao Ling, a 20-year-old sales girl at a shop that claimed to be an authorized Apple distributer, said all products sold from her store were authentic, but her own tastes are less discerning.
"I will definitely buy the fake one, the real one is too expensive, plus it is all the same, only with the fake your don't have to pay for the apps," she said.