Apple's new iPads and Retina iMac: 'Empty calories' or nutritious adds to portfolio?

ipadair2 gold

With selective price cuts, Apple preps for holidays with a phone-tablet-PC line-up that covers all the bases, say analysts

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Apple today unveiled the 9.7-in. iPad Air 2 and the smaller 7.9-in. iPad Mini 3, both revisions of their predecessors, with the new Mini getting the shortest shrift on stage time and changes.

The 80-minute presentation seemed long for what Apple had to announce, said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, who noted that the first half hour was spent recapping the launch of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus and providing updates on previously-announced news -- Apple Pay will roll out Monday, for example.

"Apple has the right to spin it how they want, but this was pretty empty calories," said Gottheil of the event.

"I think that's too harsh," countered Carolina Milanesi, chief of research at Kantar Worldpanel ComTech. "People are saying, 'They haven't pushed the envelope [on tablets] today,' but maybe it's not the right time. There's nothing wrong with the line-up, and I think there was enough here for an upgrade perspective."

The new iPads were Exhibit A for Gottheil: Although Apple synced them to the iPhone line by adding a Touch ID fingerprint scanner under the Home button and offering gold-toned models, it retained their forerunners' display resolutions and made the most out of the continued whittling of the Air's form factor.

"This is the thinnest iPad we have ever made," said Philip Schiller, Apple's chief of marketing, of the iPad Air 2. Schiller said the tablet measures 6.1mm, 18% thinner than last year's original iPad Air.

Apple iPad Air 2 Apple

The new iPad tablets come in three colors, including for the first time, gold.

Thursday's event was live-streamed, the third consecutive for Apple's iPad introductions, and the first since the fiasco of last month's webcast of the iPhone 6 debut. Unlike that broadcast, which was plagued by a host of problems, today's went smoothly for the most part, although at one point Computerworld lost the audio and the video temporarily froze.

The new iPad Air 2 boasts a 64-bit A8X SoC (system-on-a-chip) -- as most recent rumors maintained -- that was a slightly tweaked version of the A8 that inhabits the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. Schiller trumpeted speed increases -- a 40% faster CPU, a graphics processor 2.5 times faster -- over the A7 SoC in 2013's iPad Air.

The Cupertino, Calif. company also duplicated its iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus storage changes of September for the iPad Air 2 and iPad Mini 3 today by keeping the lowest-priced tablet models at 16GB, but doubling the amount of storage space for the mid- and top-tier devices to 64GB (from 32GB last year) and 128GB (from 64GB), respectively.

Apple retained its now-standard pricing for both iPads: The iPad Air 2 starts at $499 for a 16GB Wi-Fi tablet, $629 for one able to connect to a mobile data network. Meanwhile, the iPad Mini 3 begins at $399.

Previous-generation models will still be sold, said Apple, at prices $100 lower than the newest. A 2013 16GB iPad Air, then, costs $399, while last year's iPad Mini with Retina was reduced to $299.

In another cost-cutting move, Apple will also continue to sell 2012's original, lower-resolution iPad Mini at $249, a drop of 17%. Milanesi focused on that new lower price, and argued that faced with a decision between, say, a $199 7-in. Android tablet, one from Samsung, perhaps, consumers would instead select the $249 iPad Mini because of the Apple brand and its vaunted app inventory. "It's not a question but that the iPad is the tablet in peoples' minds," Milanesi said.

The iPad Air 2 and iPad Mini 3 will go on sale next week -- Apple did not provide a date, but in the past it has launched new devices at retail on the second Friday after their unveilings -- and pre-orders will begin tomorrow, Oct. 17.

Schiller also trotted out a new iMac -- confirming another recent rumor -- that boasts a higher-resolution display of 5120-by-2880-pixels, what he called "Retina 5K." That iMac, available only in the 27-in. size, costs $2,499, and ships today, Schiller said.

As it did when it debuted the first Retina MacBook Pro, Apple added the Retina 5K iMac at the top of the desktop line's band, leaving the 2013 models at the same $1,799 (27-in.) and $1,099 (21.5-in.) prices. If Apple follows the refresh trajectory with the iMac that it used with the MacBook Pro, it will eventually replace all but one entry-level non-Retina iMac with machines sporting high-resolution screens.

Yosemite dark theme Michael deAgonia

Apple's new operating system, OS X Yosemite, is being released today.

Apple also revealed the delivery date of OS X 10.10, aka Yosemite, which it will release today. The upgrade will be free, as was last year's Mavericks, and be available via the Mac App Store as a 5.2GB download.

One of Yosemite's most anticipated features, however, won't be ready until Monday, Oct. 20, said Craig Federighi, who leads iOS and OS X development. That's when Apple will release iOS 8.1, which will complete Continuity, a set of task hand-off tools that lets users start a job on an iOS device then pick it up on a Mac, or vice versa.

Other announcements included a revamped Mac Mini, the display-less computer that has held down the very bottom of the Mac's pricing structure. Apple lowered the price of the entry-level Mac Mini to $499, a 17% cut.

It was unlikely that the same 17% reduction of the iPad Mini was a coincidence, said Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst with More Insights & Strategy. "I viewed [today's announcements] as doing two things, and one was to get in shape for the holidays," said Moorhead. "Apple did that in terms of price points with the new prices for the iPad Mini and the Mac Mini."

But the big question of the day -- were today's iPad changes enough to rejuvenate sales, which have slumped this year compared to 2013 -- remained unanswered, or at least was still in the air.

Gottheil didn't think Apple did enough. "No, the only place where the boost may come from is the lower entry price [of the original iPad Mini]," he said. "Today was such an incremental step."

Milanesi disagreed. "You do have things that matter," she said, of additions like Touch ID, the increased storage space and even the new gold color choice to jostle some current iPad owners to refresh.

In the end, the question of whether iPad sales jump back to prior growth marks -- as unlikely as that may be -- was overshadowed, the analysts said, by the breadth of Apple's entire line, with the revisions to its tablets, top- and bottom-end Macs and particularly the enhancements to iOS and OS X as demonstrated by Continuity.

"Whether its iMessage or docs or moving from one to another, truly Apple has a differentiated experience," said Moorhead of Apple's portfolio, from the iPhone to iPad to Mac. "This is what consumers want and Apple is the only one delivering on that continuous experience across products. Others, like Google and Microsoft, are delivering pieces, but not all of it."

"It's all about the line-up," echoed Milanesi "It's all about that they're not a one-device company. It's all about the experience, building a user base that wants more than one device when all those devices take advantage of that ecosystem."

Apple product line 2014 Apple

Apple's hardware line-up 2014.

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