Apple refreshes, renames iPad as 'Air,' goes Retina on the Mini

Whole host of announcements, from new iPads and cheaper MacBook Pro laptops to free OS X Mavericks upgrade

Apple today unveiled a revamped and renamed 9.7-in. iPad, calling it the "iPad Air" to reflect its thinner, lighter form and to evoke the thin MacBook Air laptop.

The company also refreshed the iPad Mini, the 7.9-in. tablet it launched a year ago, by adding a higher-resolution 2048 x 1536 display -- dubbed "Retina" by Apple -- and bumping up the price to $399.

Tuesday's event was Apple's first invitation-only presentation to be publicly webcast since October 2012, and just the fourth ever.

"This is the biggest step yet in the iPad ... our biggest leap " Philip Schiller, Apple's head of marketing, boasted about the iPad Air in his second stint on stage during the 80-minute presentation. "It's our biggest leap forward," he added, touting the new tablet's design and component mix.

The iPad Air is 20% thinner than its predecessor, the unnamed "fourth-generation" tablet launched last October, and weighs just one pound, 29% lighter than the previous model. "This makes it the lightest full-sized tablet in the world," said Schiller.

The new-new iPad Air boasts the A7 SoC (system-on-a-chip) -- as most analysts expected, the same that powers the flagship iPhone 5S -- that Schiller trumpeted as a "desktop class" processor for its 64-bit design. "This is a screaming fast iPad," Schiller added.

Carolina Milanesi of Gartner applauded the naming of the newest iPad. "Calling it the fourth- or fifth-generation was just getting too complicated," she said in an interview from Apple's event. "And the Air name makes a great deal of sense. [That name] has been very successful and it evokes a nice companionship with the MacBook Air."

The device itself, she said, had a lot to offer for the price, which Apple kept at $499 for a 16GB Wi-Fi tablet, $629 for one equipped to connect to a mobile network. "There's a lot that they're giving you," she said, ticking off the A7 SoC and its resulting faster performance, as well as the lighter feel in the hand, which she added should not be discounted as a selling point.

"New iPad Air noticeably lighter," echoed Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy, in a tweet from the event's San Francisco location.

Ezra Gottheil from Technology Business Research also gave a nod to the iPad Air, but for a different reason. "I think they really needed to go thinner and lighter," said Gottheil in a telephone interview Tuesday. "Some of the Windows 8 tablets are kind of amazingly thin." And Apple needed to keep up with the Joneses.

The iPad Air will go on sale Friday, Nov. 1. Apple did not say anything about pre-ordering the tablet, an omission similar to that for the iPhone 5S last month, which also was not available for pre-order.

Most of the experts, however, focused on Apple's other tablet segment, the 7.9-in. Mini.

As expected, Apple swapped out the 1024-x-768-pixel screen for one with four times the pixels in the second-generation iPad Mini. The company also inserted the same A7 SoC as in the full-sized iPad Air, a move that Schiller said quadrupled the smaller tablet's overall performance and boosted its graphics performance by eight times.

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Apple's new iPad Air (left) is 20% thinner, 29% lighter than its predecessor; the Retina-equipped iPad Mini (right) starts at $399, a 21% increase. (Image: Apple.)

The new Retina iPad Mini will start at $399 with 16GB of storage space, a $70 or 21% increase. The new iPad Mini will go on sale at some point in November -- Schiller did not give a specific date -- hinting at the shortages that analysts had anticipated for the device.

Apple also retained the first-generation iPad Mini in its inventory, but lowered the starting price by 9%, from $329 to $299. Many had bet that the first-generation Mini would be priced even lower, perhaps as low as $249, in an attempt to retain market share in the face of the growing flood of cheaper Android-based tablets, including Google's own Nexus 7, which sells for $229 with 16GB and a 1920-×-1200-pixel screen.

Computerworld's Ken Mingis chats with Keith Shaw about today's Apple announcements, which include the iPad Air, iPad mini with Retina display and free operating system and productivity software for Mac users.

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