March 2, 4:30 p.m.: I wasn't counting, but Steve Jobs and his pals must have used the phrase "post-PC" at least a dozen times at Wednesday morning's launch of the iPad 2. The term gives you a sense of their ambition. Apple sees the iPad as more than just the next profit center for the company (though, of course, it is that). The iPad, in Apple's vision, represents the first wave of the future of computing. As I wrote a few weeks ago, this doesn't mean that we'll all switch to tablets, or that desktops and laptops will go extinct. Over time, though, tablets will represent a greater share of the computer market, and—more importantly—our laptops and desktops will come to work much more like the iPad. They will be easier to use and maintain, and we'll have many more of them across more parts of our lives.
For Apple, the iPad 2 is a chance to make this vision a reality—to show that selling 15 million devices in its first year was just the start of something much bigger. I got to play with the new iPad for about 20 minutes this morning, and after my brief time with it, it certainly seems possible for Apple to make good on that promise. Yesterday I wrote that Apple didn't need to do much with iPad 2 to keep the lead in the tablet market. That seemed to be its thinking, too. The new iPad—which goes on sale March 11—is pretty much like the old one, just slightly better in a few important ways.
Jobs called the new iPad's design "dramatically different" from the old one, but you can't really spot the difference by looking at it. From the front, it looks like a big touchscreen, just like the old one. Hold it, though, and the iPad 2 feels like something new. It's a third thinner than the old model—8.8 millimeters versus 13.4 millimeters—and it's about 80 grams lighter, too. That weight difference doesn't sound like much, but it's just enough to cross the threshold from a device that felt too heavy to one that feels just about right.
The most impressive design change isn't the iPad itself, but in the "Smart Cover" that Apple designed for it. The cover is a foldable sheet of fabric—a leather one costs $69, and the polyurethane is $39—that snaps on to the iPad with built in magnets. The cover folds into a sturdy triangle to allow you to tilt the iPad to make it easier to type on, or stand up the iPad to let you watch movies and conduct video chats. The cover is an elegant solution to one of the most annoying problems with the first iPad—finding a way to keep it standing or sitting was always a logistical chore. The new covers, alas, won't work on the old model.
Still, if you've got a first-gen iPad, there's nothing much in the new model that should push you to switch. In addition to being thinner and lighter, the new iPad is faster—Apple claims the new processor is twice as fast as the last model's chip. In my brief time with the iPad 2, though, it didn't feel significantly speedier; the old iPad was snappy, and the new one is, too.
The iPad 2 also has a couple of cameras, addressing one of Apple's main shortcomings compared to new tablet rivals. A low-res front-facing camera will let you film yourself while you're video-chatting, while a rear-facing, high-res camera allows you to shoot video of the outside world. I tested out this rear camera while in the demo area, and I found its videos crisp and clear. The problem, though, is that the device is a little unwieldy to function as a camera—if you're going to shoot video, it's easier to use your phone.
Editing video on the iPad, though, is a breeze. Apple built a version of its iMovie video-editing program for the device, and it's remarkably fun and easy to use. That's because editing videos—unlike, say, word processing—doesn't require a lot of typing. The iPad has always felt less than ideal for producing media (as opposed to consuming it), but for those of us who aren't professional videographers, the touch-screen interface actually feels like a more natural way to cut and splice film than a mouse and keyboard.
Apple also unveiled a tablet version of GarageBand, its music-production program, that I found quite fun. Again, the program is tailored to mainstream audiences, not professional musicians. It's got a series of "smart instruments" that allow you to make pretty noises while "strumming" or drumming at the screen. This doesn't sound as impressive as it is; anyone can play beautiful music on the iPad, no training necessary—when you make your first sounds, it feels pretty powerful.
Now, you may not care about editing movies or making music on your tablet. That's fine. But these new apps show that Apple, alone among its tablet competitors, is focusing as much on software for the tablet market as it is on hardware. Jobs pointed out that there are 65,000 iPad-specific apps available in the App Store; there are fewer than 100 tablet apps available for Android. If you're shopping for a tablet this year, that's an important difference.
One more thing: Earlier, I wrote about my hope that Apple would cut the price of the iPad by $100, making its cheapest version $399 rather than $499. It didn't do that. The iPad 2 will be the same price as the iPad—ranging from $499 to $829, depending on how much storage space you opt for, and whether you get a 3G chip. Here's the thing, though: Apple is still selling the old iPad, at least until supplies last. It just cut the price, too. You can now get the old one for $399. Considering that the new one is pretty much like the old one, you wouldn't be a fool to go for that deal.