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Apple iPads add Touch ID in catch-up with iPhone

Apple unveils new iPads on Thursday that for the first time include the iPhone's Touch ID fingerprint sensor. The company says it was "the most-requested feature" in its tablets.

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The iPhone's Touch ID sensor (shown here) is now available on the new iPads. CNET

Apple's new iPads will come with a feature they've never had before: the Touch ID fingerprint-reading sensor.

CEO Tim Cook announced that the latest iPads will include the biometric scanner at an event at Apple's headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. Thursday, validating iPad rumors and leaks that have been percolating since January.

As with Apple's flagship iPhones, which have had the sensor for more than a year, Touch ID lets people unlock their iPads and pay for goods and services with the new digital wallet. Apple Pay.

Touch ID was "the most requested feature" for new iPads, says Phil Schiller, Apple's marketing chief. It will be available in the new iPad Air 2 and iPad Mini 3. Available in silver, grey or gold, the iPad Air 2 is priced starting at $499 and is available next week (preorders start Oct. 17). The iPad Mini 3 starts at $399.

Touch ID on the iPad is identical in form and function to its iPhone counterpart. The front-facing fingerprint scanner is part of the Home button at the bottom of the tablet. Apple acquired the technology behind Touch ID when it bought the fingerprint biometric firm AuthenTec in 2012.

The new iPads won't have the Near Field Communication chip required to make payments with Apple Pay at retail stores.

While some security experts applaud fingerprint biometrics like Touch ID for making devices harder to crack, Apple's implementation isn't foolproof. Days after Touch ID was introduced in September 2013, several security researchers demonstrated how to unlock a Touch ID-protected iPhone with a faked fingerprint. The iPhone 6, released last month, is vulnerable to the same fingerprint spoofing attack, researchers said.

Independent security researcher Jonathan Zdziarski told CNET that Touch ID on the iPad will have an impact on the tablet's security, but it will be "more indirect" than overt. The fingerprint reader, he said, will let people create more complex passcodes to protect their data without having to type it in every time they use their device. "Having a strong, complex passcode is inherently more secure than a 4-digit PIN, which has been proven historically to be crackable on the device within 20 minutes," he said.

Thursday's event marks the second product launch for Apple in as many months. The company in September showed off two larger iPhones and provided the first glimpse of the Apple Watch during a flashy event that featured the band U2. Thursday's iPad launch is a much smaller and lower key affair.

While the iPhone remains Apple's dominant revenue engine -- contributing to more than half of its sales -- the company is eager to bolster its other businesses. Front and center is iPad. The tablet may be Apple's second biggest moneymaker at about 15 to 20 percent of revenue, but the device hasn't been selling as well as it used to.

Apple now faces questions over whether iPad's declining shipments are a temporary hiccup or a troubling trend.

Much of Apple's iPad innovation has been focused on the bigger, 9.7-inch device, instead of its 7.9-inch iPad Mini. Part of Apple's iPad struggles have come from consumers replacing smaller tablets with bigger phones -- typically, phone-tablet hybrids called phablets.

Apple introduced its first phablet, the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus, last month, and some analysts expect consumers to opt for that instead of an iPad Mini. "The iPhone 6 Plus is almost crossing over into tablet territory, and there's a possibility that will impact...demand for the iPad Mini," Creative Strategies analyst Tim Bajarin said.

Since introducing the first iPad in 2010, Apple has added at least one new model a year. It started with the 9.7-inch iPad the first year and followed it up with the iPad 2 in 2011. In 2012, Apple released three tablets -- the third-generation "new iPad" in March and the fourth-generation iPad with retina display (typically called the iPad 4) and 7.9-inch iPad Mini in November.

It broke from its normal naming pattern by introducing the iPad Air a year ago and the iPad Mini with a high-resolution Retina display. Apple continued selling the second-generation iPad until last year, when it phased out the device. At that time, it brought back the fourth-generation iPad as its cheapest 9.7-inch device.

Apple's 9.7-inch iPads range in price from $499 for the 16 gigabyte WiFi-only version to $929 for the 128 GB iPad Air with WiFi and cellular capabilities. The iPad Mini with retina display starts at $399 for 16 GB and goes up to $829 for 128 GB with WiFi and cellular.

Apple also continues to sell older versions of its iPad for $100 less than the equivalent newer models.

Updated at 1:55 p.m. PT with comment from security researcher Jonathan Zdziarski.