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Apple unveils the iPad 2

Apple CEO Steve Jobs took an unexpected break from his medical leave of absence to introduce the new iPad 2 in San Francisco earlier today. He also surprised many by revealing that the updated iPad is ready to ship. It should be in U.S. stores on March 11, with the international roll-out beginning two weeks later.

Although Jobs claimed that the new iPad represented “a whole new design”, there were few surprises. As expected, the iPad 2 now has two cameras: a back HD (720p) camera for video and still photography, and a front-facing VGA-quality camera which can be used for video chat with the FaceTime app. But perhaps the biggest change is under the hood, where Apple has added a dual-core processor, which will just about double the processing power and will make the graphics speed up to 9x faster.

In terms of design, the new iPad is quite a bit slimmer – 8.8mm thick compared to 14.3mm for the original. It weighs just 1.33 pounds. Like its predecessor, it will be available in three storage sizes – 16GB, 32GB and 64GB – but this time there will also be a choice of two finishes, black as well as white.

The iPad gets several new software features with the adoption of the latest operating system iOS 4.3. This upgrade means enhanced Safari browser performance, iTunes home sharing, and improvements to AirPlay, Apple’s multi-media streaming app.

Also new to the iPad are some applications that have previously only been available on Macs, including iMovie and GarageBand. The iMovie app will allow users to edit video right there on the iPad. The touch screen means that complicated editing processes can now be accomplished with just a few taps and finger swipes.

Perhaps to make up for the lack of new hardware features, the upgraded iPad comes with a swathe of new accessories. There is an HDMI video-out option that will allow users to port video to another device and mirror exactly what’s happening on the iPad screen, which could be extremely useful in both the classroom and the boardroom. There is also a range of Smart Covers, which stick to the side of the iPad using magnets and wake the device or put it to sleep when you open or close them.

The new iPad will start at $499 for the 16GB, Wi-Fi-version, which represents an increase of $100 over the current price. The top-of-the-range 64GB Wi-Fi + 3G model will cost $829. There is no 4G version this time around but consumers will have a choice of either AT&T or Verizon as their 3G carrier.

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