By Rich Jaroslovsky
(c) 2011 Bloomberg News
Wednesday, March 9, 2011; 9:21 PM
The iPad wasn't slow before. Now it's faster. It wasn't bulky before. Now it's thinner. It wasn't heavy before. Now it's lighter.
That, plus a couple of new cameras, sums up the difference between Apple Inc.'s first tablet and the iPad 2, which goes on sale in the U.S. tomorrow. Taken together, the changes are unremarkable. What's remarkable is that Apple didn't really need to do more to maintain its position as the class of the field.
Here's something even more remarkable: The iPad is the value-price leader in the market. Trust me, it isn't often you can say that about an Apple product.
The new version, which is available in black or white, maintains the same 9.7-inch diagonal touchscreen display, and 1024-by-768-pixels resolution, as its predecessor. It's when you pick it up that you notice the changes. The iPad 2 is almost startlingly thinner than the first model: .34 of an inch (8.8 millimeters), which is a third less -- and even thinner than Apple's iPhone 4.
The weight has been shaved as well, to 1.33 pounds (601 grams) from 1.5 for the Wi-Fi-only editions, and 1.35 pounds from 1.6 for models that add 3G service from either AT&T Inc. or Verizon Wireless. If you go the 3G route, by the way, you'll have to select your carrier at the outset; as with the iPhone 4, you can't switch from one to the other on the same device. On the other hand, both Verizon and AT&T will offer service on a no-contract, month-to-month basis.
Under the hood, the principal change is a new, custom Apple-designed processor, called the A5, and graphics that the company says are up to nine times faster. That seems like a lot, and it is, but the differences only become evident upon a direct comparison with the older model. Yes, the new one renders Web pages faster and launches apps more smoothly, but the previous edition was good enough that the improvements feel more incremental than transformative.
If you're looking to do something on the iPad you couldn't do before, you'll gravitate toward the two cameras, front and rear, which make it possible to send and receive video calls over Wi-Fi with other iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch and Macintosh computer users with Apple's FaceTime service. You can also use the cameras to shoot still photos, and video that you can edit using a new, $4.99 iPad version of iMovie, the editing software that comes pre-loaded on Macs.
Making video calls is fun, and the iMovie app is flexible and easy to use. At the same time, the cameras are no great shakes. Apple won't discuss their specifications except to say that the rear one will shoot 720p high-definition video, while the front one offers VGA quality. While I found the video to be acceptable, still photos were grainy and barely adequate; if you've got an iPhone, you'll be much better off using it for snapshots.
It's also worth noting that the iPad 2's new, tapered case makes it harder to hook up its docking and other cables, including the one that now connects it to a high-definition port on your big-screen TV. And pay attention if you spend the extra $39 or $69 for Apple's new "smart cover," which attaches to the iPad magnetically and automatically puts it to sleep when closed. Tossing the iPad into my computer bag, or even onto the seat of my car, jostled the cover enough to wake it back up by accident.
The most important things about the iPad 2 may be what haven't changed much. Battery life, for instance, remains very good. As part of my testing, I wanted to run the battery down to zero through routine use; I finally gave up the effort because it wasn't draining quickly enough. Instead, I ran back-to-back videos -- with both Wi-Fi and 3G turned on and the screen brightness and audio cranked up -- until it finally conked out after almost nine hours of continuous use.
That isn't quite as good as what I achieved on the original iPad, but it suggests that the new version should be able to attain Apple's promised 10 hours of playback time when it's used under normal conditions.
The most important thing that hasn't changed with the iPad 2 is the price. Like its predecessor, it starts at $499 for a Wi-Fi-only model with 16 gigabytes of storage, with 32 gigabytes for $599 and $699 for 64 gigabytes; the Wi-Fi-equipped versions each cost $130 more.
By way of comparison, the best iPad competitor out there, the new Xoom from Motorola Mobility Holdings Inc. and Verizon, is heavier, thicker and costs $799 for 32 gigabytes of storage, making it $70 more expensive than the comparable Apple model.
In addition, only a handful of applications so far take advantage of the Xoom's operating system, a new tablet-optimized version of Google Inc.'s Android software; Apple Chief Executive Officer Steve Jobs claims more than 65,000 apps specifically for the iPad. Other Android tablets, such as the Galaxy S Tab from Samsung Electronics Co. and Dell Inc.'s Streak, trail even further behind on price, performance and capabilities.
So for anyone in the market for their first tablet, the discussion begins -- and for the moment probably ends -- with the iPad. For existing iPad users, the question is whether to upgrade. Unless you truly need the video capabilities, the answer is: Not really.
But let's face it: Many of you are going to anyway. So go ahead, and pass your first-generation model to a family member. There'll soon be a lot more happy spouses, siblings and kids in the Apple orbit.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)