Apple's iPad 2, unveiled by CEO Steve Jobs in a surprise appearance Wednesday at an invitation-only media event, is thinner, lighter, faster and more full-featured, and incorporates enough changes and updates to maintain Apple's strong sales in the tablet market.
But the competition is likely to get fierce this year as rival tablets finally arrive.
Until they do, though, all eyes are on the second-generation iPad, which goes on sale March 11. Physically, the iPad 2 looks a lot like its predecessor, with a few important tweaks, like front- and rear-facing cameras. The new model weighs in at just over 1.3 lbs. That's about 3 oz. lighter than last year's version, and while a few ounces may not sound like much, every bit of weight that can be shaved off a tablet matters. I've had an iPad since day one, and my wrists certainly noticed the original's 1.5-lb. heft.
New shell, same screen
The iPad 2 also features a 33% thinner aluminum shell with a flat back and beveled corners wrapping around the 9.7-in. screen. Despite early speculation that the new iPad would have a higher-resolution screen, the display specs haven't changed; the resolution remains 1024 by 768 pixels, with 132 pixels per inch. Those pixels are close enough to offer smooth images and video but not nearly as packed as the retina display on the iPhone 4. (What did we learn from the speculation? That a lot of people apparently want higher-resolution screens.)
Still, even without a resolution bump, the iPad 2's IPS (in-plane switching) screen should deliver wide viewing angles, with movies and photos looking as good on the new model as on the old.
Storage capacity hasn't changed, either; the iPad 2 will continue to come in 16GB, 32GB and 64GB versions, priced respectively at $499, $599 and $699 -- the same prices as before. So much for the analyst talk that Apple needed to drop prices to stay ahead of competing tablets like the Motorola Xoom and RIM PlayBook. If you need more room than 64GB, there are cloud storage options such as Dropbox, which I have recommended in corporate environments in the past.
As I noted earlier, this is the first iPad to sport two cameras -- something the rumor mill did, indeed, get right. The front-facing VGA camera is situated on the frame opposite the Home button; the rear-facing camera can shoot 720p video at 30 frames per second, as well as still images.
When I first heard talk of a rear-facing camera, I dismissed it as unnecessary. After all, who would want to hold up an iPad to snap pictures or video -- especially given the growing quality of phone cams? But with FaceTime, the equation makes more sense. FaceTime, Apple's zero-configuration video chat feature, has an on-screen button that flips the view from the front-facing camera to the one facing the rear. I use FaceTime to keep in touch with my family in the Northeast, and the value of the rear iPad camera is more obvious when you want to show someone on a chat what you're looking at.
The addition of the cameras alone will be enough reason for people to either get an iPad for the first time or upgrade from last year's model. And it's an addition that Apple needed to make to stay current with upcoming tablets.
Internally, the iPad 2 likely gets a memory bump to 512MB and, from Apple, a new dual-core A5 processor. The new chip should help with multitasking, video chats and interactive elements such as scrolling and zooming. (The first-generation model was never known for being slow.) But users will see better gaming performance, especially since the iPad 2's graphics underpinnings have been upgraded too. Fortunately, battery life remains the same, which is good to see, given the hardware improvements.
In addition to the GPS, compass, light, and accelerometer sensors already built into the previous models, the new iPad 2 comes equipped with a three-axis gyroscope, allowing it to recognize its orientation in three-dimensional space. That's going to be useful for developers, who can adapt it for augmented-reality apps and games. And it's going to be a selling point for gamers who have taken to the first iPad.