Apple CEO Steve Jobs today took the stage in San Francisco to introduce his company's newest iPad.
"We've been working on this product for a while, and I didn't want to miss it," said Jobs, who received a standing ovation from reporters and others at the invitation-only event Wednesday morning.
It was Jobs' first public appearance since he stepped away from Apple in January to take an indefinite medical leave.
The new iPad 2 -- the name that wags had stuck on the new device, and the one Apple confirmed today -- is faster, thinner and lighter, said Jobs.
But it's not cheaper: Apple will retain the prices of 2010's iPad. The Wi-Fi versions start at $499 for a 16GB model and climb to $699 for a 64GB configuration, while the 3G iPads are priced from $629 to $829. The 3G models will be available for both AT&T and Verizon, which base their networks on competing cellular technologies.
The iPad 2 will ship March 11 in the U.S. and on March 25 in at least 26 other countries, including Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden and the U.K.
Jobs boasted of the iPad 2's new features and components, with the latter including a new dual-core processor -- an Apple-designed chip dubbed the A5 -- that he said doubled the speed of the tablet. Graphics processing, he added, is up to nine times faster.
As most pundits expected, the iPad 2 includes a pair of cameras -- one facing the front of the device, the other rear-facing, letting users take video and still photographs as well as conduct videoconferencing calls using Apple's FaceTime video chat application. FaceTime debuted last summer with the iPhone 4.
The new tablet is 33% thinner and tips the scales at 1.3 lbs., compared with the 1.5 lbs. of the original, said Jobs, and will come in both black and white models, a first for the iPad.
"Nothing approaches this," said Jobs, who took shots at tablet competitors, including Samsung, at several points during his time on stage. "Our competitors were flummoxed" by the original, he said.
Apple also said it will update the iOS operating system next week to Version 4.3, which will be available for all iPads, the third- and fourth-generation iPod Touch, and the AT&T version of the iPhone.
AT&T must offer the service to its customers before they can use it; Verizon charges an additional $20 per month for Wi-Fi tethering.
Also in iOS 4.3: iTunes "home sharing," a feature that lets users access their iTunes collections from their Macs or PCs on the iPad.
Apple executives also demonstrated new versions of the company's iMovie and GarageBand programs for the iPad. Both will go on sale March 11 at the App Store for $4.99 each. And Jobs spent five minutes touting new covers for the iPad, pegged as Smart Covers, that morph into typing and video-watching stands.
"We think 2011 is clearly the year of iPad 2," Jobs said near the end of the event, working off the tagline that Apple used when it issued its invitations last week.
"Our competitors are looking at this like it's the next PC market," said Jobs. "That is not the right approach. These are post-PC devices that need to be easier to use than a PC."
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is email@example.com.