Last night, for the third year running, Apple made an announcement from San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center to launch its new iPad, the latest in an in-between category of gizmo: a tablet computer with an inviting touchscreen interface and virtual onscreen keyboard. Apple relayed the event live around the world, including to a venue in London, in King's Cross.
Apple's CEO Tim Cook hosted the first major product launch since Steve Jobs died last October. Supremely relaxed and comfortable on stage, he ran through the usual stats: outstanding sales in recent quarters and how successful the company's "post-PC" products (iPad, iPhone and iPod) have been. The iPad has been particularly popular, selling 15.4 million units in the last quarter of 2011.
He announced an upgraded Apple TV, the company's streaming box, that will handle higher quality video.
But we were here for the new tablet. At first glance it looks identical to the iPad 2 but is fractionally thicker and heavier. It's just called the new iPad (not iPad HD or iPad 3 as some rumours had it). Although, as titles go, you can't really quibble with it. The biggest, most noticeable difference is the display, which has a much higher resolution than last year's, already decent, screen. It now matches the iPhone 4 with a Retina Display - Apple-speak for a resolution so high you can't make out individual pixels. It has four times the resolution of the iPad 2.
The new iPad is also faster than last year's model, thanks to an uprated processor, called the A5X which promises four times the graphics speed of last year's model for more sumptuous, faster-moving games. The iPad 2's main camera was low-resolution. This is now addressed with a 5-megapixel camera stuffed with features like face recognition and image stablisation.
The iPad goes on sale a week on Friday, 16 March, with the same range of options as before, 16GB. 32GB or 64GB storage, with wifi only or wifi and 3G. Actually the iPad is 4G-capable though as there are no next-generation networks in the UK yet, we'll have to settle for 3G. As before, prices start at £399.
In the two years since the first iPad arrived, there have been imitators. None has succeeded like Apple's has and most have had to be heavily discounted to attract buyers. This year's Mobile World Congress trade show was distinguished by its lack of tablet announcements - Samsung's Galaxy Note 10.1 being the most notable exception. It's like other manufacturers have given up, concentrating on phones and ultrabooks - the super-slim breed of laptop which often features a touchscreen.
First touch: hands-on with the new tablet
The new machine closely resembles last year's model - until you turn it on. The screen has to be seen to be believed: it looks terrific, especially for photo and video playback which is pin-sharp, vibrant and eye-poppingly rich. Professional photographers may find this is an ideal way to inspect their shots - and the new iPhoto app is even a sophisticated way to edit them. In brief tests, the new iPad was certainly fast and responsive, handling games and apps like iMovie with ease.
Apple's success is down to powerful, intimate hardware that acts as a blank canvas for ingenious developers to create inviting apps which are useful, delightful or in some cases can't-live-without essential. If you haven't tried an iPad yet, this is the time to start.
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