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Apple unveils the new iPad with Retina display, 4G LTE

Updated: April 10, 2012 11:16AM

Late winter. It’s the time of year when pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training and tech reporters, analysts, and bloggers dutifully report to the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco for an Apple media event about the iPad.

Apple never comments on unannounced products, of course. Nonetheless, by the time the last invitee settles into his or her seat and posts “Apple has just asked us all to turn off our phones and mobile WiFi access points, LOL” to their liveblogs, the details of the upcoming announcement are already well set. The only surprises possible are the titanic kinds that provoke actual gasps.

Which did not happen today. But for God’s sake . . . no rational human is complaining about the lack of surprises from today’s event. Apple thinks very carefully about every product they release and they’re not prone to stylish whims. The iPad, as it debuted in 2010, was already awfully close to exactly the tablet Apple wanted to make. They’ve sold 62 million of them so far, which means that it’s also awfully close to exactly the tablet that worldwide consumers wanted to buy.

In fact, during today’s event Apple’s CEO Tim Cook said that the 15.5 million iPads that Apple sold during the last quarter were more than any PC manufacturer — Acer, Dell, Lenovo, or HP — sold of its entire line of hardware. Yeeps.

If Apple were to release a truly revolutionary new iPad, then that would indicate that there was something wrong with the last one. Clearly, there’s no need. And the new iPad -- yes, that does indeed appear to be its real name: “The new iPad” — is a great update. It represents a much, much greater jump above the iPad 2 than the iPad 2 was over the original.

Le iPad Nouvelle (forgive me; I can foresee how tedious typing “The new iPad” throughout this column is going to be) looks practically identical to its predecessor and shares mostly the same dimensions. It’s only marginally thicker (9.4 mm vs. 8.6) and heavier (1.5 pounds versus 1.35 pounds) but I suspect that it’ll work inside many existing iPad 2 cases.

Similarities end when you wake it from sleep. You’re confronted with the NooPad’s signature feature: a super-high-density 9.7-inch display. Its 2048 by 1536-pixel screen is double the resolution of the iPad 2, yielding a superb 264 pixels per inch. While that’s a little under the iPhone 4s’ screen resolution, both share the Apple term “Retina display,” by which Apple means that the screen renders more detail than the human eye can even perceive at normal viewing distance (15 inches, for the iPad).

That’s much better than “HD video quality”. . . that’s enough detail to justify comparisons to a page in a printed art book. It’s also, interestingly, easily large enough to mirror most laptop displays (via a VNC client or a GoToMyPC/OnLive Desktop-style service) without any downsampling.

And because Apple simply doubled the resolution, all existing iPad apps will run on the NooPad without modification. The text and controls the app renders through the OS will automatically appear at double-resolution. But developers have already been updating their apps and games with new, double-resolution details and texture. Expect to see a rush to fully exploit the iPad retina display.

Doubling the resolution of the screen quadruples the number of dots in the entire display. So naturally the new iPad sports a beefier CPU. The A5X is an improved version of the old A5 processor and features a much, much faster quad-core graphics processor. Apple claims that overall, the new processor runs at twice the speed of the A5 and four times the speed of the Tegra 3 processor that powers the fastest current Android tablets.

Apple’s finally introduced a mobile device with a 4G chipset. It was worth the wait. I’m strugging to think of a 3G or 4G band or standard that the new iPad doesn’t support. Le iPad Nouvelle cranks HSPA+ for up to 21 Mbps of download speed, dual-carrier HSDPA for 42 Mbps, and LTE for a whopping max of 73. Like other iOS devices, the iPad lets you share your mobile broadband connection to other devices via WiFi (for an additional carrier fee).

Carrier support for 4G in North America is still embryonic. So Apple will be shipping two entirely different versions of the 4G-capable iPad in the US, for AT&T and Verizon. Oh, well . . . so much for the “one device” convergence we saw with the iPhone 4S.

So how long will those batteries last, driving that 4G radio and a screen with four times as many transistors? There’s apparently no tradeoff. Apple still claims 10 hours of battery life in normal operation, and 9 hours when using 4G mobile broadband.

The iPad 2’s camera invited smirky dismissals as a bare-bones video camera suitable for chats and snaps but nothing more ambitious. Apple has given the new iPad the same imaging technology they put into the iPhone 4S: backside illumination, a 5-element lens, and a hybrid IR filter.

Translation: unlike the iPad 2, this one has a real camera. It also records stabilized 1080p video, which suddenly turns the iPad (plus the iOS edition of iMovie) into a done-in-one video capture, editing, and publishing tool. Indeed, there’s a brand-new version of iMovie, available as a free update, that incorporates storyboarding, outlining, and shot-logging features for planning the movie you’re about to shoot.

Voice-to-text, which debuted in the iPhone 4S, works on the iPad the same way it does on the phone: tap a microphone button next to the onscreen keyboard and speak. No Siri to speak of, however: you’re still going to have to Google “Pad Thai near Kenmore Square in Boston” yourself.

The new iPad still comes in black and white and starts at just $499. Prices are the same as the old iPad 2 across the board, for 16, 32 and 64 gigabyte models, with and without 4G. Pre-orders begin today and the new iPad will ship on March 16.

It seemed likely that Apple would figure out a way to drop the price of the iPad sooner or later. Even though there’s a lack of pressure from competing tablets (not even the $200 7-inch tablets that Amazon and Barnes & Noble rolled out for the holiday season) lowering the minimum buy-in for an iPad would increase the pressure on others.

And so, the iPad 2 remains an active product with a new, lower price: $399 for the 16 gigabyte WiFi-only edition, or $529 with a side-order of 3G. Neat.

The iPad wasn’t the only iOS device to receive a refresh. The new edition of Apple TV -- that little hockey puck that plugs into your HDTV -- has been upgraded from 720p to full 1080p HD, and received a full iOS-style interface makeover. It’s also more tightly integrated into the rest of the Apple ecosystem via iCloud: iTunes In The Cloud now supports video purchases and streaming as well as audio, and the new Apple TV is connected to Photo Stream as well.

(Meaning: be careful of the photos you shoot with your iPhone when you’re away from your family on business . . . if your spouse has enabled Photo Stream on your iPhone, your impromptu rendition of “Papa Don’t Preach” will show up instantly on the TV in your living room.)

The new Apple TV will be available on March 16 for the same $99 price as before.

Apple’s existing iWork and iLife iOS apps received free new updates as well. The neatest new feature on the list: GarageBand’s new “Jam Session” by which four users on four different iOS devices can play and record together live, via Bluetooth or WiFi.

All of these iWork and iLife announcements were just a prelude for another neat bit of iPad news: Apple has brought their iPhoto app to the iPad. iPhoto can edit photos and output them at full resolution to social and photo sites, or to other devices. It appears to be a muscular editor. With swipes of a finger, it’s easy to apply a tonal adjustment just to a single face or a section of shadow in an image. iPhoto also includes a new journaling feature that can connect photos to maps and notes and even weather information, to help present a more complete story than a static album can.

Via the demo, it’s not hard to catch the message Apple seems to be sending with this app. There are already plenty of great third-party photo editors for the iPad. But none of them really behave as though it’s the only photo editor of any kind that anyone would ever need.

iPhoto for iPad is clearly that app. As they did with Keynote and Pages, iPhoto promotes, protects, and defends the idea of the iPad as a standalone computer. Apple has previously said that they often use their house-brand apps as a way to push third-party developers forward (as opposed to pushing them out). iPhoto might serve as a kick in the pants to any company that intends to release a multiplatform tablet editor that doesn’t take full advantage of the resources of iOS.

Apple also took this time to release iOS 5.1. The banner features appear to be bugfixes, Siri support for more languages, and some new shortcuts.

So that’s the new iPad. Other tablet manufacturers are still in the process of Getting Their Ejecta Together. What’s the best way to describe their progress? Well, they’ve been steadily discovering where the abandoned rakes are and learning not to step on them again, or at least not quite so hard.

Yes, it’s easy to make fun of the other tablets that have come and gone since the iPad. In some specific cases, failure to spot the humor potential is probably even a sign of some sort of emotional disorder.

But they’ve been making progress. They’re almost able to make the sort of tablet that Apple shipped in 2010: an interesting and useful ultramobile entertainment device that can also handle many of the functions of a notebook.

Oh, dear. It’s possible that the new iPad has moved the goalposts yet again.

In 2010, Apple was being a little vague about what specifically the iPad was and the reasons why anybody would feel as though they needed one. I think they could sense the danger of overplaying their hand early on: it would have blunted the launch of this almost entirely new product category. Instead, they put the iPad out there, and they allowed the public to definite it on their own personal terms.

55,000,000 units later, Apple knows the strength of the cards they’re holding and they’re playing them aggressively. The screen, the processing the power . . . the depths of iPhoto and this new edition of iMovie. They’re just more lines in Apple’s ongoing message: Le iPad Nouvelle isn’t a $500 accessory for your notebook computer. Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide product marketing, put it bluntly at the end of the demo of iPhoto: “Don’t let anyone ever tell you that you can’t create on an iPad.”

I think he was talking about more than just iPhoto. Today’s keynote announced a new iPad and it also signaled the formal start of Phase Two. It seems as though Apple is putting the new iPad in direct competition with whatever notebook you thought you were going to buy next.

Yes . . . even if your next notebook was going to be a MacBook.


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