iPad 2 thinner, faster and available March 11

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photo courtesy of Apple Inc.

Apple’s iPad 2 “Smart Cover” cases latch on with magnets and only protect the front of the device.

“Thinner, lighter, faster.” Although easily confused with Daft Punk’s hit “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” Apple’s new tagline describes its iPad 2 perfectly. Available in stores on March 11, the iPad 2 adds front and rear-facing cameras allowing users to take pictures, shoot high definition video and video chat with Apple’s FaceTime application. 33 percent lighter and multiple times faster in both processing and graphics speeds, the iPad 2 is a substantial, but not a radical, upgrade from the first.

The audience at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco broke into applause as Apple CEO Steve Jobs strode across the stage in his trademark black turtleneck, blue jeans and New Balance shoes to unveil the iPad 2. “We’ve been working on this product for a while and I just didn’t want to miss today,” Jobs said, alluding to his medical leave which began in mid-January.

Other than the addition of cameras, the most noticeable changes in the iPad 2 are in its design. iPad 2 weighs in at 1.33 pounds, measures 8.8 millimeters in thickness and comes in both black and white color schemes. Apple promised to ship both the white and black models at launch despite the fact that supply issues have made finding a white iPhone 4 akin to finding an albino unicorn.

A new design calls for a new case, and Apple made sure to deliver. The new case, while sleek, is absurd. For $39.99 or $69.99, iPad 2 owners can purchase either a polyurethane or leather case in a total of ten different colors that attaches to only the front of the device with magnets, leaving the back unprotected.

The biggest improvement to the iPad line comes in the processing power. iPad 2 not only doubles its processing speed with Apple’s 1 GHz dual-core A5 processor, but multiplies its graphical power by nine times as well. Despite the increased power, the iPad 2 still manages to match the original’s 10 hour battery life.

These updates will allow developers to create more hardware intensive applications, but the benefits will not be reaped for a few months when developers have had enough time to create such apps. However, in an effort to showcase the added horsepower, Apple demonstrated movie editing and music creation with its iMovie and GarageBand apps for iPad.

The iPad 2 will still be available in the 16, 32 and 64 gigabyte varieties for the same price — the original $499 base price with an addition $100 for double the memory and an added $129 for AT&T or Verizon 3G support.

Although the iPad 2 got top billing at last week’s reveal event, there was also a major push on Apple’s part to make sure competitors did not doubt their superiority with Jobs dedicating a significant part of his presentation to the company’s performance last year.

“When we introduced the iPad a little more than a year ago we said, ‘It’s our most advanced technology in a magical and revolutionary device at an unbelievable price,’” Jobs recounted. “Now people laughed at us for using the word magical. But you know what? It’s turned out to be magical, right? And people weren’t sure that it was an unbelievable price. Well let me tell you, ask our competitors now and they’ll tell you.”

With 15 million iPads sold last year, 90 percent of tablet PCs being iPads and having raked in $9.5 billion in revenue over nine months, Jobs’ confidence is well founded. “Our competitors were just flummoxed,” Jobs stated proudly. “They went back to the drawing boards — they tore up their designs because they weren’t competitive.”

One problem Jobs sees with competitors’ tablets are the applications available for them. Sixty-five thousand apps on the Apple’s App Store are specifically tailored for the iPad and, pulling up a slide with Google’s Android 2.3 “Honeycomb” operating system logo, Jobs noted that there are only 100 applications powered by Google’s software.

“We’ve gotten off to an exceptional first year and we’d like to build on that,” Jobs declared. “What about 2011? Everybody’s got a tablet. Is 2011 gonna be the year of the copycats? Well, I think if we did nothing, maybe a little bit — probably not so much because most of these tablets aren’t even catching up with the first iPad. But we haven’t been resting on our laurels, because in less than a year, we’re going to introduce today iPad 2, the second generation iPad.”

The iPad 2 is as much an upgrade as it is a symbolic shoring up of Apple’s domination in the tablet PC market. While owners of the original iPad aren’t likely to start using theirs as paper weights, door mats or food trays, the iPad 2 makes a stronger case for for people who haven’t bought a tablet yet to buy an iPad. The iPad 2 will hold if not strengthen Apple’s dominance in the tablet PC market, but it won’t spark the kind of frenzy the first did.

Already have an iPad? A few reasons not to upgrade

The addition of cameras is great, but the iPhone 4 already has the same functionality built in. While the hardware upgrades are significant, it will take a few months before applications that take advantage of the hardware are developed and the gulf between it and the original iPad widens. If Apple continues its yearly product renewal cycle, another iPad with even more features will be announced this time next year.

But of course, that might just be denial coming from an owner of an original — and now outdated — iPad.

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