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iPad 2: The crowd expected to be surprised. But not quite like this

David Phelan witnesses the birth of the iPad 2 – and the re-emergence of Steve Jobs

All eyes were supposed to be on a black slab of metal and glass last night as Apple Inc unveiled its newest, shiniest, and potentially most lucrative, gadget the iPad 2. But if one man could overshadow his own launch party it was Steve Jobs, whose ill health led Apple fans to believe he would fail to appear in his customary jeans and polo-neck.

Less than two months after the Apple CEO announced that he would be taking indefinite medical leave of absence, with the technology community and Apple shareholders alike fearing the worst, he strode on to the stage at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Centre looking thin but otherwise healthy.

"We've been working on this product for a while and I didn't want to miss today," Jobs told the crowd after a standing ovation, bearing little sign of the pancreatic cancer and liver transplant he has endured in recent years.

His appearance made material the hopes and rumours that had been circulating San Francisco and the internet before the product unveiling. The event was beamed live to venues all around the world, including the BBC in London.

As for the product, it wasn't exactly clear who was salivating more in advance of its unveiling: the computer company's executives preparing to unveil Apple's latest gadget, or the legions of geeks. Going by first reactions, both groups appeared pleased.

The iPad2 will go on sale in the US on 11 March, its forms ranging from a 16 gigabyte version with WiFi technology to a 64GB model that features WiFi and 3G connectivity.

It is the successor to the first iPad, that, last January, created a new in-between category of gizmo: a tablet computer with an inviting touchscreen interface and virtual onscreen keyboard. Initially it won mixed reviews, with many writing Apple off for creating a product nobody would want. It was also criticised for lacking a camera and for just being a large iPod touch. It may have looked underwhelming, but it went on to sell massively (15 million and counting). Users were won over by the slick, responsive touchscreen and an interface so simple a baby could use it.

Even while people were wondering what exactly it was for, manufacturers from Samsung to HP, BlackBerry to HTC, scrambled to release their own tablets. Most have yet to go on sale and this announcement may have put Apple back in the lead – especially as the new iPad hits the shops on 25 March for the same price as the original.

First touch: A neat step forward, but no giant leap

You might be forgiven a sense of déjà vu. It is only 13 months since the original iPad was presented by the man in the black turtle-neck, but its successor has nonetheless been a highly anticipated arrival. So, first impressions: it is noticeably lighter in the hand, a third slimmer, and the increased processing power that promises to be up to twice as fast does make a difference.

The 9.7in screen remains identical, but that camera has arrived. Two, actually: one front, one back. They are configured for video rather than stills, so video calling between iPad, iPhone and Mac is now possible.But the biggest reaction was reserved for an accessory: a screen cover that auto-attaches magnetically and in perfect alignment to the front, and folds to support the iPad 2 while you type.

Hopes that the new iPad would have better connectivity than its predecessor, making it easier to move documents and photos, were dashed. At least there’s now an HDMI out cable so you can play back apps on a compatible television. Overall, it’s a gentle improvement rather than a radical overhaul.