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iPad 2: Faster, Thinner, Lighter, and Bicameral

Apple announced the iPad 2 and iOS 4.3 at a media event hosted by Apple CEO Steve Jobs last week. Jobs led off by explaining why he was playing hooky from his medical leave of absence: “We’ve been working on this product for a while, and I didn’t want to miss today.”

As is his wont, Jobs began with a recap of the numbers. He said that Apple has sold over 100 million iPhones to date, plus 15 million iPads in 9 months of 2010. This made the iPad Apple’s fastest-growing product ever, and possibly the fastest-selling new consumer product ever — Jobs admitted that Apple wasn’t sure. In those 9 months, the iPad accounted for over $9.5 billion in revenue for Apple.

Jobs also announced that Random House will be bringing 17,000 more titles to the iBookstore, joining 2,500 other publishers attracted by the fact that Apple now has over 200 million iTunes Store accounts. Over 100 million ebooks have been downloaded so far, though we expect that the majority of those were free.

Finally, Jobs noted that Apple has now paid over $2 billion to iOS app developers, who have, collectively, created 350,000 apps, 65,000 of which are iPad-savvy. If you do the math, however, that means the average paid app (about 75 percent are paid, according to various statistics I found) has earned only about $7,600, or, after you take out the Angry Birds share of the revenue, rather a lot less. In other words, a few companies are doing very well, but the rising tide is not floating all app boats.

That was all prelude to the real news: the iPad 2. The revised model is both awe-inspiring and more or less what was expected. Thinner and lighter, it boasts front- and rear-facing cameras, a gyroscope, an A5 chip (replacing the A4 chip found in previous models), and support for the two biggest U.S. data networks through two separate 3G models. One model is GSM, which works on AT&T’s network but also hundreds of other carriers’ networks worldwide. The other is CDMA, specifically labeled for Verizon Wireless. No 4G version was in sight, which is no surprise: only Motorola’s Xoom tablet offers a 4G option for Verizon’s network, and that factory update won’t be available for months.

Physically, the new iPad has the same basic height and width, and the same screen size, but it is thinner and lighter, making it even easier to lose in a pile of paper (so be careful!). It’s .34 inches (8.8 mm) thick and weighs 1.33 pounds (601 g), which is slimmed down from the original iPad’s .5 inches (13.3 mm) and 1.5 pounds (680 g). The 3G models are a few grams heavier. From pictures, it also appears that the iPad 2 is a bit flatter, so it should sit more firmly on a table or desk without rocking.

Front- and rear-facing cameras are included, as many people expected after their inclusion in the iPhone 4 and fourth-generation iPod touch. The front camera is designed for FaceTime, offering VGA resolution for video at up to 30 frames per second, and the same low-quality VGA for still images. The rear camera, in contrast, records at 720p (an intermediate HD resolution) for video at up to 30 frames per second, and acts as a still image camera with 5x digital zoom. Like the iPhone cameras, you can tap to control exposure, and photos and videos are geotagged. Apple didn’t state whether 720p FaceTime sessions would be possible with the new MacBook Pros, which have the new FaceTime HD cameras.

Under the hood, the iPad 2 features an A5 chip, an Apple-designed dual-core CPU that Jobs claimed is up to twice as fast as the A4 chip in the original iPad. Apple also improved graphics performance, making the iPad 2 up to 9 times faster. And, although processing performance improvements generally come at the expense of power consumption, Apple claims that the iPad 2 has the same battery life, providing up to 10 hours of use per charge.

Oh, and there’s a gyroscope, too, which is probably useful for certain games. The gyroscope also apparently helps with GPS positioning and navigation; a GPS receiver is once again included only with the 3G models.

The iPad 2 comes in three storage capacities for both the Wi-Fi-only and 3G models: 16, 32, and 64 GB. These sizes haven’t changed from the previous model, but the high end is still relatively generous compared to other devices in the market or planned for release. Apple, as is typical, didn’t mention the amount of internal RAM in the iPad 2. This was only 256 MB in the original iPad, and it was bumped to 512 MB with the iPhone 4.

Instead of a single 3G model intended for GSM networks, like AT&T’s, Apple is simultaneously releasing an iPad 2 for GSM networks, and an iPad 2 solely for Verizon Wireless’s CDMA network. The iPad 2 will be available in black and…wait for it…white! And Jobs promised white would ship at the same time as black. (For those who don’t follow the Apple soap opera constantly, the company has been unable to ship the announced white model of the iPhone 4.)

Further cementing Apple’s dominance in the market, where most competing tablets have yet to catch up with the original iPad’s price and feature set, the iPad 2 prices remain the same, ranging from the 16 GB Wi-Fi-only model for $499 up to the 64 GB 3G model for $829.

Although the online Apple Store is not taking orders before 11 March 2011, the iPad 2 will start shipping on that date in the United States, and 25 March 2011 internationally. So if you’re planning on ordering online, March 11th is the day to aim for. If you must have an iPad as soon as possible, sales at Apple retail stores begin at 5:00 PM on that day.

Apple also introduced a new Smart Cover, a novel and appealing way of protecting the screen. Unlike Apple’s previous case, which was, put bluntly, unattractive and difficult to use, the Smart Cover is a soft, flap-like device that attaches to the iPad with magnets — you may have to see Apple’s video of it to believe it. When closed, it covers the screen and puts the iPad to sleep; when opened, it wakes the iPad and folds back like a clever piece of origami to provide a typing or viewing stand in landscape orientation. The inside is microfiber to help clean the screen when closed. The Smart Cover will come in 10 colors, priced at $39 for the brightly colored polyurethane versions and $69 for the more-muted leather versions. Expect to see independent case manufacturers taking advantage of these magnets as well, since they’re actually in the iPad itself.

Finally, and this accessory will likely make the iPad a popular presentation device, Apple announced the $39 Digital AV Adapter, which provides mirrored output in 1080p HD video (mirrored output from the iPad 2 is actually available with the older VGA adapter too). It works for all apps, making it possible to connect an iPad to a large video screen or HDMI-capable projector and demo anything you can show on the iPad screen. The Digital AV Adapter actually has two ports, one for HDMI and the other for a dock connector, enabling you to charge the iPad while you’re presenting with it.

It’s hard to quibble with nearly anything related to the iPad 2. It would have been nice to see a 128 GB or even 256 GB model for those with lots of media, and 4G wireless would have been interesting, even if it’s yet not of widespread utility. The screen could also have increased in resolution, in theory, but it’s unclear if the necessary hardware is available in sufficient quantity yet. Lower prices would also be welcome, but the fact that competing tablets haven’t been able to undercut Apple’s prices indicates that it’s probably difficult to make an iPad-like tablet for much less than Apple is already doing. Besides, now Apple has something left to add to the iPad 3 in another year.

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