There may be plenty of media buzz about Apple’s expected tablet launch next week, but only a small number of people surveyed in advance are likely to buy one. A poll of 3,314 consumers released this week by ChangeWave Research found that four percent said they are likely to buy the Apple tablet, while 14 percent were somewhat likely. That’s not bad considering no one outside Apple’s Cupertino, Calif., headquarters has actually seen the device.

But clearly Apple has some brand building to do, and with low-cost netbooks, smartbooks and Amazon’s Kindle to compete with, Wednesday’s launch will have to quickly set the new device apart from the pack.

“Consumers are on a quest for value, and that’s one reason the netbooks and smartbooks have been so popular in the $300-500 range,” said Steve Koenig, director of industry analysis for the Consumer Electronics Association. “They offer a lot of features that consumers want and adequate performance .”

“The key to getting consumers to open their wallets is continuing the value proposition of the tablet above and beyond standard netbooks, and that may be a challenge to articulate,” he added. “Consumers have limited experience with touchscreens and the key is really communicating why you should pay more to a have [an Apple] tablet.”

Sticker Shock

Industry analysts expect that Wednesday’s new Apple product will be the iSlate, a Wi-Fi device with a 10-inch touchscreen, a 3-D interface, a virtual keyboard designed to easily interact with the iTunes Store and the App Store, and available in March. Apple is reportedly making deals with numerous entertainment providers for content. Some analysts say the device will likely cost in the $1,000 range, or slightly cheaper than a MacBook.

The ChangeWave survey and another by Retrevo Pulse, a consumer electronics shopping site, found that most consumers would not pay more than $700 for the new device.

ChangeWave’s survey said only 37 percent would pay more than $700, while Retrevo’s survey of 500 consumers found only 30 percent had pockets deep enough to shell out more than $700. ChangeWave survey found that three-quarters of the respondents would pay more than $500.

But ChangeWave also looked at recent buying patterns and found that in August 2005, when Apple announced it would use the Intel chip in its computers, its survey of potential Apple buyers was “strikingly similar” to that of the iSlate survey. The Intel chip caused a huge boost in Apple sales.

“While this, in and of itself, doesn’t guarantee success — and the product has yet to prove it’ll live up to super-high consumer expectations — it does show the enormity of the Mac tablet’s potential to alter the dynamics of the PC market and related markets (e.g., e-reader/e-book market),” ChangeWave said in its report.

Customer Support Is Key

Koenig said that despite how it stacks up against competitors, the Apple tablet will have a certain built-in demographic because the company has built “cachet and status” into its brand.

“Also, their computing solutions are well-designed and easy to use and, despite typically higher prices, they communicate value to a lot of consumers,” he said. “Apple has also done a very good job making support available through the Genius Bar. You can walk into any Apple store and get training, as opposed to a manufacturer like Dell where you have to call an 800 number.”

Wish List

The Retrevo survey, conducted Jan. 16-20, also looked at what consumers want and don’t want in the tablet. Seventy-five percent said long battery life is a priority, while 35 percent want 3G compatibility, and 28 percent want a well-stocked e-book store.

As for the deal-breakers, 44 percent said a required monthly data plan would turn them off, while 34 percent cited an AT&T -only locked carrier plan (which has been an iPhone problem), and 22 percent said a lack of e-books would make them look elsewhere.

In an interesting sociological finding, women were more interested in e-books than men, 38 percent versus 25 percent. Asked their preference for operating systems, most didn’t care, with only 17 percent preferring the iPhone OS and 18 percent choosing Mac OS X.

Asked what feature would be most attractive, 37 percent told Retrevo they would like to see solar charging, more than video conferencing (24 percent) and double screens (19 percent). Taken together with the 75 percent who want longer battery life, this suggests the power supply is a growing concern for mobile computer users.