Apple's iPad 2, unveiled by CEO Steve Jobs in a surprise appearance last 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 rumour 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.
Something that might be useful for enterprises is the support for video mirroring. Video mirroring is built into iOS 4.3, but the feature is available only on the iPad 2. I expect that to be useful for anyone who wants to use the iPad 2 as a presentation tool. The adapter supports rotation; outputs 1080p video from any app; and has an additional Dock connection port near the HDMI connection, so the iPad can charge its battery while it's being used for presentations. Good news, current iOS users: this adapter also works on original iPads, iPhone 4s and the latest iPod Touch - though full video mirroring is only available on the latest iPad.
It's the App Store, stupid
Hardware is only part of the equation. What makes a tablet successful is the software. After all, when the entire computer is a screen in your hand, there's nothing left but software. That's where Apple's App Store continues to shine. The software available through it is generally of good quality, and there have been no malware outbreaks, as happened with the Android store last week. To be frank, the App Store is what other software stores on other platforms long to be, and with good reason: Overall, there are more than 65,000 apps available for the iPad. When considering the success of iOS devices, this cannot be underestimated, and it's one reason the debate about whether the iPad can keep up with rivals misses the point.
Other tablets may have newer hardware, more RAM or extra features; none has the App Store.
Apple engineers continue to push the envelope further with updates to iOS 4; iOS 4.3 is due to be released March 11, the same day the iPad goes on sale. Not only limited to the new iPad, iOS 4.3 runs on the original iPads, newer iPhones (except the Verizon iPhone), and the iPod Touch. The iOS update features several improvements, including systemwide AirPlay features, better support for iTunes Home Sharing, and faster Safari browsing (and for the iPhone 4, personal hotspot functions).
The big debate seems to be whether this update keeps the iPad in front of rivals, and for how long. I'd say it does. The iPad is already hugely successful, selling more, according to Jobs, in nine months than any tablet in the past decade. This is a device that has redefined how people use computers, and its reach is not limited to just consumers. Companies are rolling out iPads instead of more expensive laptops; healthcare facilities are using them. So are law offices and financial firms. In less than a year, it has found a home in the workplace.
Expect to see more iPad 2s showing up at work as soon as they're available.
Of course, Apple isn't the only company interested in the tablet market now. There's competition from the Xoom, HP's TouchPad and Samsung's Galaxy 1, among others. But Apple's success has never required that it own whatever market it attacks - it's doing just fine in the desktop OS market with a small percentage - and it almost certainly will lose some of its big market lead in the months ahead. (I'm really positive about Android - especially Google's latest Honeycomb release.)
Having said that, it's important to remember that the iPad 2, like the original, is a part of the larger Apple ecosystem. Having well-done apps that are curated and monitored closely also gives Apple a powerful advantage in the market for the foreseeable future, allowing it to leverage its vertical integration strategy to great effect. That, as much as new hardware, should keep Apple in the tablet lead.
Should you get an iPad 2? If you already own last year's iPad and you're happy with what you've got -- and aren't interested in the performance improvements, lighter/thinner body, and multiple cameras -- then there's nothing here that the current iPad can't already do. But if your plan was to purchase an iPad for the first time, there really couldn't be a better time to do so.
It's safe to say this model will be another hit for Apple and sell very, very well. Don't believe me? Just wait a couple of weeks and watch for lines at the local Apple store.