NEW YORK - Apple Inc. shares hit an all-time high yesterday after a published report suggested the intensely scrutinized yet secretive company may be getting ready for a major product announcement.

Citing unnamed people familiar with the preparations, the Financial Times reported on its Web site Wednesday that Apple has rented space for several days in late January at an arts center in San Francisco.

The company is famed for its highly staged launches. Chief executive officer Steve Jobs has used past events to introduce groundbreaking - and lucrative - gadgets such as the iPod and the iPhone.

Although the Cupertino, Calif., company has not acknowledged working on a tablet computer - it is notorious for keeping forthcoming product plans closely guarded - analysts expect the company's next blockbuster to be something of a cross between a laptop and an iPod Touch, which is essentially an iPhone without the calling features.

Apple did not immediately respond to a request yesterday for comment on the newspaper report.

In a note to investors this month, Oppenheimer's Yair Reiner said Apple could have a tablet out by late March or April based on checks with contacts in the United States.

Brian Marshall, an analyst with Broadpoint AmTech, said he expected the device to launch late in the first quarter, but he said yesterday's rise in Apple shares had more to do with investor behavior at the end of the year.

He said that after cashing in from the rise in Apple shares over the last few months, "people are coming back to the well," betting the stock will head even higher in 2010.

Apple shares rose $6.94, or 3.4 percent, yesterday to close at $209.04. At one point during trading, they hit an all-time high of $209.35, topping the previous record of $208.71, set Oct. 21.

Apple shares, always volatile, have recovered from a 52-week low of $78.20 in January, helped by consistently growing profits.

Even during the worst of the recession, people continued to buy iPods, iPhones, and Mac computers. In its most recent quarter, the company reported a 47 percent jump in net income to $1.7 billion, on revenue of $36.5 billion.

With a market capitalization of more than $182 billion, Apple is now bigger than rival computer-makers Dell Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. combined. Dell has a market cap of about $28 billion, while HP is at $124 billion.