Apple's iPad debuts: a giant iPod touch for $499

Not one to disappoint, Apple CEO Steve Jobs unveiled his company's latest creation during this morning's press event. Dubbed iPad, the new device has a 9.7" multi-touch display (based on the same IPS panel technology as high-end professional displays), a custom-designed Apple A4 processor, a super-sized version of the iPhone operating system, and a 10-hour battery.

Most surprising of all, Apple will charge only $499 for the base 16GB model when it becomes available in a couple of months—and that's without a contract. 3G-enabled versions of the iPad will follow a month later with prices of $629 and up, but they'll also be contract-free. Users will simply have the option of subscribing, without any tie-ins, to one of two AT&T data plans: 250MB a month for $14.99 and unlimited for $29.99.

The iPad itself pretty much fits the rumor mill's description; it's basically a giant iPhone, half an inch thick and tipping the scales at 1.5 lbs. Its operating system will run all existing iPhone apps unmodified, either in full-screen mode or with a black border, although Apple is releasing a new toolkit today that will enable developers to take advantage of the larger screen. Also, the device has 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 2.1+EDR, an accelerometer, a compass, and a microphone built in, and it can sync with iTunes over a USB cable just like an iPhone. Apparently, though, you won't be able to sync over Wi-Fi. Too bad.

Just like the iPhone, the iPad will let users browse the web, read e-mail, view and share photos, watch videos, listen to music, and play 3D games. Jobs said he wanted the device to be more capable than a smart phone, so many of the built-in apps look more elaborate and, well, bigger than their iPhone counterparts (see the gallery below). Apple will also offer a version of its iWorks productivity suite for the device. With it, users will be able to edit spreadsheets, presentations, and word-processing documents right on the tablet, using either the almost-life-sized on-screen keyboard or Apple's keyboard dock accessory.

And there will be books. Oh, yes. The new iBooks app will let folks buy books from publishers like Penguin, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and Hachette. Purchased books will show up on a virtual wooden shelf, and the iPad will render them in a lifelike way with selectable fonts. Here, the iPad is going right up against the 9.7" Amazon Kindle DX, which has a comparable $489 price tag. The Kindle DX doesn't have a color screen or anything close to the iPad's full capabilities, but its quoted battery life of one week (or two weeks with wireless connectivity off) does make the iPad's 10 hours pale in comparison.

Before introducing the iPad, Steve Jobs said a device that bridges the gap between laptops and smart phones needs to be better than both—otherwise, it has no reason to exist. Netbooks, he added, "aren't better at anything." And that's what the iPad seems to be about: Apple's vision of the netbook done right, a device that makes browsing the web and consuming multimedia content easier and more fun than on either a netbook or a laptop. (Well, for the most part; according to Engadget's coverage, the iPad web browser lacks Flash support.)

In any case, Apple's aggressive pricing and marketing will probably help sell the idea to consumers. At $499, the iPad actually costs less than the original 8GB iPhone, which Apple sold for a hefty $599 before the September 2007 price cut. There's room to go up from the baseline, naturally, since the priciest version of the iPad with 64GB of flash storage and 3G connectivity will sell for $829.

Thanks to Engadget, Gizmodo, 9to5mac, and TWiT for their live coverage of the event.

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