Last updated: March 4, 2011 11:43 am

The iPad 2 is worth the wait

 
Steve Jobs launches the iPad2

Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs shows off the Smart Covers for the iPad 2

Apple set up a “pop-up” store backstage at its unveiling of the iPad 2 in San Francisco on Wednesday, with long, wide tables staffed by its “Genius” assistants showing off dozens of its updated tablets to journalists.

We were wowed by the origami tricks performed with the ingenious new rollback Smart Covers for the device and tapped away at the instrumental keyboards on the GarageBand app just launched.

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But there were also mixed reactions, likely to be mirrored in Apple stores when iPad 2 goes on sale on March 11 in the US and March 25 in 26 other countries.

For those already in possession of the first version of the “magical and revolutionary device”, there were frowns as they pondered whether to upgrade after less than a year to the new version – with the same screen, battery life, operating system and apps – or to hold on for iPad 3 and, maybe, a higher-resolution display and more memory and features.

For others like me, who held off buying the first iPad, this was the one we were waiting for – cameras, thinner and lighter, many thousands of apps and purpose-designed to bring its screen to life and full utility.

In fact, Apple has displayed its patented Goldilocks method of doing neither too little nor too much to improve on an already successful device – enough to encourage existing users to consider upgrading, certainly enough to attract new buyers, while leaving everyone wanting more.

More important, iPad 2 keeps Apple on top of the competition in terms of time to market, matching their higher specifications and increasing its domination in apps that enthral consumers.

The new model is an iPad to the power of two: a dual-core processor for double the computing power and up to nine times better graphics performance; two cameras added for taking photos, making movies and videoconferencing with the included FaceTime app; and it even comes in two colours: black or white.

The front and rear camera additions in particular may get many iPad ditherers off the fence and into Apple’s stores. The fact that the iPad is down to 1.3lbs from 1.5lbs and 33 per cent thinner will help too.

It maintains its 10-hour battery life.

They may also like the ingenious new Smart Covers in 10 different colours. These are folding screens of polyurethane or leather that protect the glass display and lock on to the side of the iPad magnetically. They fold back or forward automatically to turn the iPad on or off and can be turned into a stand for the device. They are far less bulky than standard cases.

In spite of rumours, the resolution of the iPad’s screen remains the same; it is lower in resolution and size than the recently launched Motorola Xoom. The Xoom is the first tablet to feature Android’s Honeycomb operating system, which is the first version to be purpose-designed for tablets.

Steve Jobs, Apple’s chief executive, was dismissive on Wednesday of the Xoom and Google’s Honeycomb – it costs $800, he pointed out, which is more than all but one version of the new iPad, whose prices remain the same (the original iPad has dropped in price by $100). Honeycomb had barely 100 apps designed for the bigger screen at launch, compared with 65,000 now available for the iPad, he added.

That software edge is the key differentiator for Apple. Demonstrations of touch-enabled versions of Apple’s iMovie and GarageBand Mac programs emphasised that consumers can do far more on an iPad currently than on any other tablet.

With the launch last week of another update in Apple’s MacBook Pro line – which is adopting iPad characteristics – and now of the iPad 2, Apple is moving its customers one step nearer to the post-PC world Mr Jobs spoke of at Wednesday’s launch.

The new MacBook Pro freshens up Apple’s line of laptops

Switching from a PC to a Mac meant changing the tech habits of a lifetime in the past, but increasing familiarity with Apple’s devices and computing philosophy, through the success of the iPad and the iPhone, is making that transition easier.

As a PC guy, I have been gradually seduced in this way. PCs and laptops based on Microsoft software have been nearly all I have used for more than 20 years – they were standard issue at work and, for personal use, more programs and games were available, and the PC gave me a lot more bang for my buck than Macs.

But then I bought an iPod Touch, was mightily impressed by the latest MacBook Air – and have now been testing one of the new MacBook Pro models launched last week.

Apple talks about the “halo effect” around its best products, whereby consumers go on to buy its other devices because they expect they will be just as good. There may also be an “escalator effect”, whereby they ascend to higher-priced items – the iPod’s success helped Mac sales, the iPhone has helped iPad sales.

Now the iPad is prompting consumers and Apple itself to look at the MacBook line afresh – particularly with the major update of the MacBook Air notebook in October: – “what would happen if a MacBook and an iPad hooked up”, as Steve Jobs, Apple’s chief executive, put it.

The MacBook Pro line aims to satisfy professional computing demands and is priced accordingly. A new line of MacBook Pros launched last week, and my review unit’s configuration costs $1,500 (£1,300 in the UK), with its 13in screen, Intel Core i7 2.7Ghz dual-core processor, 4GB of memory and a 500GB hard drive. There are cheaper configurations with less power and more pricier versions with more power, bigger screen and better graphics.

One small but potentially significant addition is a Thunderbolt port – a new proprietary standard introduced by Apple and Intel. Thunderbolt offers data transfer speeds twice as fast as the latest – and increasingly available – USB 3.0 standard, which itself is 10 times faster than the generally available USB 2.0 standard. Thunderbolt, by contrast, lacks wide industry support.

But Apple is up with the pack in introducing Intel’s second-generation Core i5 and i7 processors. With regular processing and graphics engines combined on the same chip for the first time, performance is much improved, particularly in processing media – such as converting video to different formats and editing movies.

Graphics are further boosted in the higher-end models with a separate graphics chip from AMD. Other features include an improved FaceTime HD webcam, backlit keyboard and a battery life of up to seven hours.

Windows users worrying about adapting to the Mac’s OS X desktop interface and operating system may find, like me, that they spend most of their time inside a familiar web browser anyway, accessing documents and e-mail in the cloud.

Overall, I was very impressed with the build quality of the MacBook Pro and the extra video performance. However, its Windows rivals still offer more features and connectivity – such as HDMI, 3D capabilities, mobile broadband built in and punchier sound – at cheaper prices.

The 11.6in MacBook Air is also lighter on the pocket and almost half the weight of the 13in Pro. Apple went back to the Mac with its iPad ideas to develop the Air. The Pro, in still representing the best in conventional thinking of what a laptop should offer, is only keeping time with the rest, rather than sharing in the Air’s future vision.

Windows notebook or MacBook Pro? Both are still needed for data-intensive professional uses, but many will find an iPad or a MacBook Air will do all they need in the post-PC world that Mr Jobs spoke of this week when launching the iPad 2.

chris.nuttall@ft.com

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