Apple iPad 2: What It Feels Like

SAN FRANCISCO ( TheStreet) -- Despite two surprise details that warmed an otherwise cool, drizzly morning in San Francisco -- the appearance of CEO Steve Jobs and an earlier-than-expected ship date -- Apple's ( AAPL) unveiling of the iPad 2 Wednesday was somewhat mild, largely in-line with what analysts and other perceptive tech watchers predicted.

Apple gave event attendees the chance to lightly handle its new device, a couple dozen of which were spread out in a small room across an outdoor alley from where the iPad 2 event took place.

Our time spent with the new iPad in no way constitutes a full review, but it did allow us to experience most of the improvements. First and foremost, there's the actual feel of the device, which at 8.8 millimeters thick -- 33% thinner than its predecessor -- seems a little less unwieldy to lift and carry around, and its straight back sits better in the palm and on laps.

We didn't get to experience the iPad 2's speed -- powered by Apple's new, dual-core A5 processor, it runs up to two times faster than the iPad and graphics run 9 times faster, according to Jobs -- but we spent a lot of time video chatting with users across the room via FaceTime.

The iPad's larger screen makes video calling a more pleasant experience than on the iPhone, and users can FaceTime between iPads, iPhones or iPod Touch. We liked that the rear camera can be used to show folks you're chatting with what you're looking at in other places.

Then there are the new iPad cases, which Jobs lionized during the unveiling as "not a case, a smart cover" that bends, folds like a roadmap and can be used as a typing stand. The cover, which feels softer than suede, auto-grips the left side of the iPad, which has magnets that hold the cover securely in place (the Apple staffer overseeing our iPad testing didn't know if the iPad 2's magnets would erase content on credit cards, metro cards or magnetized hotel cards).

When placed on the iPad, the cover automatically puts the iPad to sleep, and wakes it up when taken off. The covers, which come in a rainbow of colors, cost $39 for polyurethane versions and $69 for the leather ones.

Further testing of the iPad 2 will bring some other features to light. The iPad 2's new iOS 4.3 includes improved JavaScript performance, so dynamic Web sites and apps will run faster, better. There's also easier sharing of content between the iPad 2 and other devices at home, and the ability to stream video from within iOS apps.

The iPad does not feature a USB port, but has an HDMI video out via a $39 cable, so you can use the iPad 2 as a portable video device and plug it into your TV. The video output is 1080p, which essentially means the picture you see on your TV should be incredibly crisp and vibrant.

The iPad 2, which ships March 11 and is available on Verizon ( VZ) and AT&T's ( T) 3G networks, starts at $499 for the 16GB Wi-Fi only version and goes up to $829 for 3G version with 64 GB. It comes in either black or white "on day one," said Jobs.

Later Wednesday, Apple dropped the price of its original iPad by $100 to $399, lower than where most other manufacturers are pricing their devices. Motorola's ( MMI) Xoom tablet, the first to run Google's ( GOOG) Honeycomb OS, goes for $800 unsubsidized and $600 with a two-year contract form Verizon.

Jobs, who was bubbly and incredibly proud of his "magical" device, noted that iPads generated $9.5 billion for Apple in 2010. "If 2010 was the year of the iPad, then 2011 will be the year of the iPad 2," he said.

--Written by Maggie Overfelt in San Francisco.

>To follow the writer on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/maggieoverfelt.

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