Three HP Slate-like webOS tablets coming at CES? We're not so sure.

Well, this is certainly an interesting, if not bewildering rumor. Obviously, we've heard that HP is working on webOS tablets for 2011 -- it's planning to double down on Palm OS, remember? -- but our friend Clayton Morris at Fox News has heard that some of these PalmPads could be coming as early as CES in just two weeks. So, what's said to be coming? Apparently, HP will introduce three tablets based on webOS 2.5.1, but the very puzzling part is that they will be "spin-offs" of the HP Slate, and as you can see in the image above, are said to look almost identical to the current Slate. Yeah, it even seems like that Ctrl + Alt + Delete button and slide-out certification tab are still present, though we're told there's also a Pre-like "multi-switch." We're highly skeptical of that image being a true render of the hardware since it's exactly the same as older HP Slate service manual line drawings (check one out below), but according to the report, the trio of PalmPads will be thinner than the iPad with rounded edges, pack Sprint 4G connectivity, weigh 1.25-pounds, have both mini-HDMI and USB 3.0 ports, and at least one will have a 9.7-inch display. Also, just like the HP Slate, there'll be two cameras -- a front-facing 1.3 megapixel lens and a 3 megapixel rear-facing unit. Lastly, there's said to be a straggling fourth tablet aimed at university students, though it apparently won't be on hand at CES.

We're obviously very intrigued by the specs -- USB 3.0, really?! -- and the fact that HP may not change the look and feel of the Slate all that much, but we'd be very very surprised if this were all to happen at CES. Firstly, we've heard a number of times that HP wasn't planning to release a tablet until later in 2011, and to wait this long to simply slap webOS into the HP Slate's shell seems almost foolish. What's more, repurposing the Slate means HP either ported webOS to Intel and threw battery life out the window, or completely swapped out the Slate's Intel-based internals for an ARM chipset without changing the exterior design at all. Needless to say, both options seem like completely inefficient and muddled ways to get a tablet onto the market.

On top of all that we feel obligated to point out that we've yet to receive an invitation to any sort of HP / Palm event at CES -- in past years, we've received invitations to both Palm and HP events long before the middle of December -- and we've been reliably informed that HP's floor presence at the show is smaller than in recent years. That just doesn't seem like you'd blow out a huge four-device tablet launch, does it? Rest assured that we'll clear our schedules for an HP / Palm event in a second, but something about an early January reveal just isn't adding up right now.

Nilay Patel contributed to this post