A thin but energetic Steve Jobs made a surprise return to the spotlight yesterday, taking the stage to unveil Apple’s new iPad and drawing a standing ovation.

The Silicon Valley legend has been out on medical leave since late January and his reappearance, in trademark turtleneck and jeans, bolstered Apple shares and reassured investors and fans worried about his health.

Defying speculation in some tabloid reports that he was at death's door, Jobs took swipes at rivals and mocked competing tablet computers. Striding back and forth across the stage, Jobs spoke passionately about the iPad 2’s features as No. 2 and heir apparent Tim Cook looked on.

“We've been working on this product for a while and I just didn't want to miss today,” the industry icon told a packed auditorium in San Francisco, holding forth with his characteristic flair and energy.

In the run-up to the event, there had been almost as much speculation about whether Jobs would appear as there was about the device itself. Jobs, who has been treated for a rare form of pancreatic cancer, had been on indefinite medical leave for an undisclosed condition.

His return to the spotlight comes at a critical moment. Apple is launching the next generation of its ground-breaking tablet just as its main adversaries are releasing their first such devices.

How it compares

iPad2
» Price: Range from $499 to $829
» Weight: 1.33 lbs
» Height: 9.5 inches
» Width: 7.3 inches
» Depth: 0.34 inches
» Technicals: Runs on 1GHz dual-core processor with iOS 3.4
» Available: March 11

Motorola Mobility Xoom
» Price: $600-$799
» Weight: 1.6 lbs
» Height: 9.8 inches
» Width: 6.6 inches
» Depth: 0.5 inches
» Tech: Runs on 1GHz Dual Core processor with Android 3.0 Honeycomb
» Available: Since February

Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1
» Price: TBA
» Screen: 10.1 inch-display
» Weight: 1.3 lbs
» Tech: Runs om 1 GHz dual-core processor with Android 3.0 Honeycomb
» Available: TBA

Research In Motion PlayBook
» Price: TBA
» Weight: 0.9 lbs
» Height: 5.1 inches
» Width: 7.6 inches
» Depth: 0.4 inches
» Tech: Runs on 1 GHz dual-core processor with BlackBerry OS
» Available: Probably March