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Apple's iPads are Ready for the Holidays

Apple is certainly ready for the holidays after updating its entire product line of portable devices this Fall.

Not content with announcing the iPhone 5 in September, plus the updated iPod touch gen 5 (without the phone part -- see earlier post) and iPad nano generation 7 media player (see earlier post), Apple has just surprised the prognosticators by refreshing its iPad tablet line.

From a consumer electronics perspective, the iPad was out of phase with the holiday shopping season, with its annual updates released in March -- not only missing the gifting season, but also delaying holiday purchases for the next even better thing.

So for this week's announcements, Apple introduced not only the long-rumored iPad mini, but also a brand new top-of-the line iPad gen 4, which instantly obsoleted the iPad gen 3, released only seven months ago.

And the iPad gen 3 was no slouch as an upgrade to the iPad 2, adding the higher-res Retina display with four times the resolution, 5 MP iSight back camera, quad-core A5X chip with double the graphics performance, and much faster 4G LTE cellular service. This was a beautiful looking tablet with matching hardware performance.

So what's left to do for the new iPad? It's basically catching up to the iPhone 5 experience with a further boost to the hardware platform, re-doubling processing and graphics performance with the A6X chip. It also steps the front FaceTime camera up to HD resolution (720p), and supports dual-band Wi-Fi for twice the wireless performance. (However, the iPhone still has a better 8 MP iSight back camera.)

As we now expect, Apple did not change the pricing of the new, better iPad. It starts with the 16 GB model at $499 for the Wi-Fi version or $629 for the Cellular version (so you can sign up for LTE service). Then add $100 to step up to 32 GB of storage, or another $100 for 64 GB.

And while the iPad gen 3 was retired and replaced by the new gen 4, the older iPad 2 from March last year is still available with 16 GB for $100 less -- $399 (Wi-Fi) or $529 (cellular). This gives Apple a $399 tablet, but that $100 step-up to the new model sure buys a lot.

So where does the new iPad mini fit in? With a 7.9" display, it's slightly larger than your typical 7" tablet (like the original Amazon Kindle Fire). Apple boasts that the extra 3/4 inch diagonal gives you 35 percent more screen real estate, which it argues makes a big difference in viewing content like web pages in portrait mode.

But the cleverest move was to have the display the same resolution as the iPad 2 (1024 x 768), so existing iOS apps should run cleanly on the new device.

The overall size does grow as well -- the Fire is 7.5 x 4.7 in., while the iPad mini is 7.87 x 5.3 in. -- though that's still feasible to rest it in your open hand. In comparison, the full iPad is 9.50 x 7.31 in., which is definitely two-handed.

Of course, Apple also focuses on thinness and weight -- the iPad gen 4 is 0.37 in. thin and weighs 1.45 lbs., while the mini shrinks to 0.28 in. and 0.69 lbs -- Apple describes the mini as 23 percent thinner and 53 percent lighter than iPad gen 3. In comparison, the iPhone 5 is 4.87 x 2.31 x 0.30 in. (thicker than the mini), and 0.25 lbs.

And how do the iPad mini's specs compare to the new gen 4? The hardware elements are fully loaded, with 5 MP iSight back camera, FaceTime HD front camera, full 1080p video recording, and dual-band Wi-Fi like the iPad gen 4. Plus it also supports the Siri voice assistant. However, with the lower resolution on the smaller screen, the mini is powered by the same dual-core A5 chip as the iPod 2. All three have a battery life speced at 9 to 10 hours.

Apple indeed should be feeling quite refreshed for the holiday shopping season.

See my Apple iDevices Gallery for more details and comparisons on the current -- and past -- Apple iOS devices, including the iPods, iPhones, and iPads, as well as product chronologies.

And see my update on holiday gadgets -- Portable Accessories - Fall 2012 -- for more on portable devices and accessories.

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