Apple today unveiled the next-generation iPad, which features a higher-resolution display, a new processor with improved graphics performance, and support for faster LTE mobile data networks.
Much of what Apple executives unveiled had been heavily speculated on by bloggers and media outlets in the weeks leading up to today's launch event in San Francisco.
"But it's not Apple's job to surprise me, it's Apple's job to satisfy me," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research.
And it did so, Gottheil continued.
"They've done a pretty good job here," he said. "It's a nice package, they're maintained the price, they're updating the software. It's sweet, and I'm sure they'll convince more people to go with a tablet."
That was the line that Apple CEO Tim Cook used when he called the company's tablet, "The poster child for the post-PC world" and again hammered home the theme that tablets are the future of computing, and that the iPad continues to lead all rivals.
"Everyone's been wondering who will come out with a tablet that is better than the iPad 2," said Cook. "Well, stop wondering. We are. We are redefining the category."
This was the first iPad introduction without former CEO Steve Jobs, who died last October.
The new iPad -- Apple called it exactly that, foregoing the "iPad 3" and "iPad HD" names pundits had put forward -- boasts a much sharper screen, relies on an Apple-designed A5X processor that offers twice the graphics punch, and supports the LTE networks for faster Internet connection speeds, said Philip Schiller, Apple's head of marketing, who held the stage through much of the introduction.
But it's neither cheaper or more expensive: Apple has retained the prices of 2011's iPad 2. The Wi-Fi versions start at $499 for a 16GB model and climb to $699 for a 64GB configuration, while the 3G/4G-capable iPads are priced from $629 to $829. The 3G/4G models will be available for both AT&T and Verizon in the U.S., which base their networks on competing cellular technologies.
The iPad will ship March 16 in the U.S., Austria, Canada, France, Germany, Switzerland, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and the U.K. Other markets are expected to follow, although Apple did not disclose a timeline or list.
Apple will begin to take pre-orders for the iPad today at its online store.
The new tablet is slightly heavier -- about two ounces heavier -- and slightly thicker than the iPad 2. Like that model, it comes in both black and white configurations.
Source: Apple earnings reports.
As expected, the new iPad boasts a higher-resolution 2,048-by-1,536-pixel display, which provides four times the number of pixels as the 1024-by-768 resolution of the iPad and iPad 2. Schiller called it a "Retina" display, the label Apple uses for its iPhone screens.
"This is the best mobile display that has ever shipped," claimed Schiller.
Gottheil called out the higher-resolution screen as the biggest improvement. "This is going to be extremely important to people, especially those who use the iPad as an e-reader," he said. One market where that will be a big win for the iPad, he added, is education, where Apple recently made a push into the digital textbook space.
The new A5X processor -- a dual-core chip similar to the A5 that powers the iPad 2 and iPhone 4S -- includes an amped up graphics component Apple touted as a "powerhouse." The A5X delivers double the graphics performance of its predecessor, said Schiller.
Like Gottheil, Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst with Moor Insights and Strategy, was impressed with the new tablet's higher-resolution screen and improved graphics performance. "They're essentially agreeing with other companies that graphics are where it's at," said Moorhead. "Games, photos and video ... those are the things they're hitting on here, and those are all areas of great interest to the consumer."
Apple also confirmed another long-running rumor, that the new tablet will support the much faster LTE cellular data networks that have been rolled out in the U.S. by Verizon and AT&T.
Verizon has the clear LTE lead in the U.S.: Last month the carrier brought its total LTE markets to 195 . AT&T, on the other hand, has deployed LTE in only 26 cities.
Other additions to the tablet included an improved 5-megapixel camera borrowed from the iPhone, and a Siri-like dictation mode that transforms speech into text.
The lack of a true Siri was the big disappointment today, said Gottheil, who like others had hoped to see the assistant come to the iPad.
"I think that the iPhone 4S is enough beta for them," said Gottheil, referring to the pre-release status of Siri on Apple's smartphone. "When it's ready for prime time, and I don't think it is now, it will appear on the iPad, probably as an update to iOS."
Last year's iPad 2 will live on, said Apple as it stole a play out of its iPhone manual: A 16GB Wi-Fi iPad 2 will sell for $399, a $100 discount, while a 16GB 3G model will be priced at $529.
Is that enough to add significant revenue to Apple's tablet bottom line? Gottheil didn't think so.
"I suspect that [the $100] will be enough of a discount for the education market," he said. "It will bring in more customers, but if the iPhone is any indication, it will help revenue only slightly."
Cook also announced the launch of iOS 5.1, an upgrade to the mobile operating system that powers the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch. iOS 5.1 hit Apple's download servers today.
Among the other announcements today, Apple launched a revamped AppleTV that sports a dramatically revised user interface, as well as support for streaming high-definition movies, and said it will offer a Japanese-language version of Siri, the voice-activated assistant on the iPhone 4S, in the next few weeks. Japanese is the first language added to Siri since the service launched last year for English, French and German speakers.
But the lack a new name for the tablet -- again, Apple simply referred to it as "the new iPad" during the launch event and later, on its website -- took Gottheil by surprise.
"I was waiting for the 'iPad HD,' but it seems there will be just one name now for the flagship product," he said. "And after a while, numbers do get old."
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer , on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is email@example.com .
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