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Apple iPad 2 hands-on: Predictable, awesome

CNET's Donald Bell offer his hands-on First Take of Apple's iPad 2, commenting on its size, price, and capabilities.

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What does the world's most successful tablet computer do for an encore? More of the same.

The second-generation iPad from Apple is thinner, faster, lighter, and whiter, but not a radical departure from the original. Pricing is also holding steady, starting at $499 for a 16GB Wi-Fi-only model, up to 64GB with 3G (provided by AT&T or Verizon without contract) priced at $829.

You can't blame Apple for going easy on new features. Apple's original recipe for the iPad single-handedly created and captured the demand for tablets last year. By any measure, it is not a product in need of fixing. It has the market share, it has the developers, and it has the momentum.

Photo of iPad 2 rear camera.
Instead of the absence of cameras we got with the original iPad, the iPad 2 has two of them. The rear-facing camera, pictured here, supports 720p video capture. James Martin/CNET

Apple also just makes damn fine products. Having had a few minutes with the iPad 2, I can say that it is every bit as stunning as the original. The first thing that struck me was the iPad's weight loss. It's still not Kindle thin, but the lighter design should make the e-book crowd happier and prove to be a distinct advantage over bulkier competitors, including the recent Motorola Xoom.

The second thing that registered with me is the feel of the device. Apple still uses anodized aluminum on the back, which is cool to the touch and generally resists smudges. The back now flattens out at the middle, allowing it to better stay put when placed on a table. In spite of the iPad's thickness decreasing by a third, it seemed no more fragile than the original design. In fact, with its lighter weight, it feels less susceptible to being dropped.

I also tried out Apple's new magnetic Smart Cover. It's cute and it works as advertised. From a case perspective, though, it's a G-string in a world of coveralls. The tough part of selling these will be convincing customers that the back of the iPad is resilient enough to resist normal wear and tear.

Of course, the banner feature for the iPad 2 is the addition of two cameras, which can be used for recording video or stills. The camera on the back is located in the upper-right corner, recessed onto the tapered edge to avoid scratching. It looks just like the lens on the iPhone 4 and is similarly blessed with 720p video capture. There's no camera flash, and the sensor is not identical to the iPhone's, since its still-shot capabilities are essentially video stills (similar to the fourth-gen iPod Touch). That said, having tested the cameras on more than a few competing tablets over the past year, I can't stress how ridiculous you feel shooting pictures with a tablet in public. Talk about overkill.

Motorola Xoom.
Currently, the Motorola Xoom is Apple's biggest tablet competition, promising Adobe Flash compatibility and 4G network speeds. It's heavier and thicker than the original iPad, however, making it a relative beast when held up to the iPad 2. Josh P. Miller/CNET

Really, the cameras are there as a way to support Apple's FaceTime video chat application, which is now available for Mac, iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad. If you've been waiting for the Jetsons' video phone, FaceTime on the iPad gets you pretty close. Unlike smaller devices, the iPad's 9.7-inch screen can present faces at life-size. We've seen this before with desktop- and laptop-based video calling, but it can be uncanny to actually hold someone's life-size face in your hands. FaceTime still remains a Wi-Fi-only feature, however, so in-car iPad video calls are still an elusive capability (which is probably to humanity's advantage).

Other iPad 2 apps unveiled today include Apple's GarageBand and iMovie. The iPad is the last of Apple's iOS devices to be blessed with iMovie (and the camera required for it), but the first to receive GarageBand. We have separate write-ups of both GarageBand for iPad and iMovie for iPad available for more depth.

Under the hood, the iPad 2 has plenty to brag about. The new spec uses a dual-core A5 processor that promises to be twice as fast with nine times the graphics performance. I played a little Infinity Blade on the iPad 2 and aside from being awful at the game, I was impressed at the speed, detail, and fluidity of the graphics.

Another feature that is sure to leave a burning feeling in the competition is HDMI compatibility. Using a $39 dock cable, the iPad can now mirror its output to a TV over a standard HDMI connection. The supported resolution goes up to 1080p, and unlike previous video out solutions for the iPad, users are no longer limited to outputting video playback or presentations. Everything you see on the screen is mirrored to your TV, be it video, photos, games, or the home screen. It will be interesting to see if there are any app-specific exceptions to this, but it certainly takes away one bragging right from competitors, such as the BlackBerry PlayBook and Motorola Xoom.

So, is the iPad 2 the tablet to beat in 2011? No doubt. It has the most apps, the thinnest construction, the longest battery life, a competitive price, and an existing pool of hundreds of thousands satisfied, iPad-evangelizing customers. Competition from Google, HP, and RIM will keep things interesting this year, but from what I've seen today, I have little doubt that the iPad will stay on top another year.