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Apple's new MacBook Air and iPad Pro: New floating case, trackpad support and lidar

The iPad Pro adds augmented reality upgrades and a real trackpad, while the MacBook Air gets that keyboard we've wanted.

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Apple's new iPad Pro has multiple rear cameras and a new keyboard and trackpad accessory. 

Apple

Apple stores outside of China may be closed, while employees work from home as part of self-distancing efforts to stem the coronavirus pandemic, but that hasn't stopped the world's largest consumer electronics company from releasing new products. On Wednesday, Apple introduced an updated iPad Pro tablet and a MacBook Air laptop, both of which are available to order online starting now and shipping next week.

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Apple's new MacBook Air. 

Apple

The new 11-inch and 13-inch iPads add support for a keyboard and trackpad through a new version of the iPad software, iPadOS 13.4. Also on board are multiple rear cameras, an A12Z Bionic processor and a lidar sensor for augmented reality applications. The Wi-Fi-only 11-inch model will start at $799 (£769, AU$1,329), while the 12.9-inch Wi-Fi model will start at $999 (£969, AU$1,649). Cellular versions with 4G LTE are available starting at $949 (£919, AU$1,579) for the 11-inch and $1,149 (£1,119, AU$1,899) for the 12.9-inch.

The MacBook Air, which offers 256GB as standard storage, runs on Intel's 10th-generation processors. It uses Apple's scissor-based Magic Keyboard -- as opposed to its prior, controversial butterfly keyboard. It's the same keyboard that the 16-inch MacBook Pro introduced last year (it's good). The new MacBook Air starts at $999 (£999, AU$1,599), but that's for a Core i3 Intel CPU. The more familiar and powerful Core i5 version adds $100 to the price.

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A small bit of normal amid a pandemic

Although its retail stores are closed in the US for an indefinite period, you can order the new models via its online store. Apple makes most of its money from its iPhone, which accounted for 61% of sales in the quarter ended in December. But the company said Feb. 17 that its iPhone supply will be "temporarily constrained" because the Chinese factories where its top-selling smartphones are produced are "ramping up more slowly than" the company had anticipated. So well-received updates to iPad tablets and MacBooks, which contributed 14% to revenue last quarter, could help shore up sales amid a global economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Apple last updated its MacBook Pro in the fall, with a major update in the 16-inch MacBook Pro that added an improved keyboard that returned to scissor keys instead of butterfly keys, better audio and ramped-up graphics and processor options. The Mac has been enjoying a renaissance since last year's launch of the Mac Pro and the Apple Pro Display XDR, both of which injected new energy into the Mac ecosystem.

A shot in the arm for the iPad

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Apple's new iPad Pro keyboard includes a trackpad. 

Apple

The new iPad Pro models add a newer A12Z processor, and come in 11- and 12.9-inch sizes, like the previous 2018 versions. Key upgrades include improved microphones, which Apple says are on par with the mics on the 16-inch MacBook Pro, a new camera array with wide and ultrawide cameras and a room-scanning lidar sensor, as well as a new Magic Keyboard accessory (sold separately) that adds a trackpad and MacBook-like backlit scissor keys.

Read more: A smarter iPad could be my work-from-home savior

Trackpad support for other iPads, too

iPads will get trackpad support (via iPadOS 13.4) and customized support in a number of Apple apps. Apple says trackpad support will work across existing apps without any app updates needed. App developers will be able to further customize how the trackpad and mouse support works, too. 

"iPadOS 13.4 with trackpad support will be available on March 24 as a free software update for all iPad Pro models, iPad Air 2 and later, iPad 5th generation and later, and iPad Mini 4 and later," Apple says. "Trackpad support will be available on any iPad running iPadOS 13.4, and work with Apple's Magic Mouse 2, Magic Trackpad 2 and the Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro. Third-party mice connected over Bluetooth or USB are also supported."

Augmented reality boost via lidar 3D scanning

This iPad also has a lidar scanner on the back, measuring things up to five meters away like a more powerful version of Apple's front-facing TrueDepth face-scanning camera. This is a feature reported to be on the next iPhone Pro model, too. Apple promises 3D scanning of objects, and it will absolutely ramp up AR on Apple's front. Lidar is a contraction of "light detection and ranging" and is commonly used in self-driving cars.

Apple last updated the iPad Pro in October 2018, which immediately led to over a 20% jump in iPad sales -- after years of slumping numbers. Similar to the impact the Mac Pro has had on the Mac ecosystem, the iPad Pro injected new enthusiasm across the iPad line. The arrival of iPadOS in 2019 -- separating the iPad's operating system from iPhone's iOS -- was another big step in the iPad's evolution.

In 2019, Apple also delivered hardware updates to its iPad Mini, midrange iPad Air and entry-level iPad. It was definitely time to rev up its premium tablets. Adding full trackpad and mouse support is one of a number of features we've been looking forward to Apple's iPad line receiving. 

Read moreBest laptops of 2020

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CNET's Eli Blumenthal contributed to this report.