FAQ: What you need to know now about the 'new iPad'

Yesterday, Apple pulled off the wraps from the new iPad – yes, that’s the official name – and spent more than an hour on a San Francisco stage touting what’s changed, like the screen, and what hasn’t, like the price (in the US). Prices quoted are in for the US market.

The tablet, which was called “a great package” by one analyst, looks likely to continue Apple’s dominance of the tablet market through 2012, according to another.

As with any of its product introductions, Apple tossed out a lot of information. But what do you really need to know now?

We’ve tried to anticipate your most-pressing questions … with answers we think cover the bases — for now.

When can I get one? The new iPad goes on sale at Apple’s retail stores next Friday, March 16. But you can pre-order the tablet now at Apple’s online store for delivery on or before that date.

While the store had trouble yesterday handling the volume of customers, it’s now running smoothly. Supplies of some models, however, are already short: As of 3 p.m. ET, the white iPad 4G for the AT&T network was showing a delayed delivery date of March 19.

How much do they cost? Same as it ever was (in the US) …. In other words, the Wi-Fi models run $499, $599 and $699 for the 16GB, 32GB and 64GB tablets, respectively; the 4G device is priced at $629, $729 and $829.

Can I still buy the older iPad 2? What’s that going to cost me? Yes, yes you can.

For the first time, Apple is officially retaining an older iPad, copying moves it’s made in the past with the iPhone, notably last fall when, at the launch of the iPhone 4S, it dropped the price of 2010’s iPhone 4 and gave away the even-older iPhone 3GS.

A 16GB Wi-Fi iPad 2 will run you $399, or $100 less than the just-announced upgrade. Want a 3G tablet? You’ll pony up $529 for the 16GB model.

You’ll also notice that, just as it’s done with older iPhones, Apple is limiting the iPad 2 to a single SKU, or “stock-keeping unit” — the 16GB model. not coincidentally, that’s the cheapest of the former three storage configurations.

Is it faster? Apple says so, at least when rendering graphics. The new system-on-a-chip, or SoC, dubbed the A5X, has double the graphics performance of the A5 chip in the iPad 2, Apple claimed yesterday during its launch presentation .

While the A5X remains a dual-core processor, Apple’s boosted the graphics component to four cores — calling it “quad-core graphics” in the tablet’s technical specifications — to, it said, handle the increased pixels of the higher-resolution screen.

On non-graphics computational tasks, the new iPad should be as fast, though no faster, than the iPad 2.

Like the A5, the A5X is Apple-designed, and based on the ARM low-power processor architecture.

You mentioned the screen…. What’s special about it? Apple quadrupled the number of pixels in the 9.7-in. display, which now sports a resolution of 2,048-by-1,536 pixels. (The first two iterations of the iPad used a 9.7-in. screen with a resolution of 1,024-by-768 pixels.)

Apple slapped its “Retina” label on the new iPad’s screen — the same term it’s long used for the iPhone’s display — to describe a pixel density sufficient “that the human eye is unable to distinguish individual pixels when [the tablet is] held at a normal distance.”

While that may be somewhat of a stretch — the new iPad’s pixel density of 264 pixels-per-inch, or ppi, is about 20% less than the iPhone 4S’ 326 ppi — analysts have said it’s not worth quibbling over.

So, four times the number of pixels, but only twice the graphics performance? what does that mean in the end? Sadly, we won’t know until the new iPad is in the hands of testers who can put it through its benchmark paces.

What about a faster connection to the Internet? The new iPad has that covered. unlike last year’s model, the 2012 version supports the faster LTE – also dubbed “4G” – networks many carriers, including Verizon and AT&T in the U.S., have either deployed or are in the process of rolling out.

The new tablet supports LTE, as well as 3G standards such as HSPA+ and DC-HSDPA. LTE’s throughput maxes out at 72Mbps (megabits-per-second), but as always, your mileage will definitely vary. Coverage is the issue, of course, as well as the additional cost of a data plan.

Verizon has rolled out LTE in about eight times as many markets in the U.S. as rival AT&T, for instance, but it still isn’t available everywhere. (For Verizon’s coverage, check out this map or fill in your address in the on-screen form. AT&T’s is here ; click on “Coverage” on that page.)

As far as what a data plan costs and its rules and regulations, check with your mobile carrier. Verizon and AT&T, for example, will retain their current data plan pricing for the new iPad. (Apple’s posted some of the data plans for those two carriers on its iPad ordering site .)

What if I can’t connect to an LTE network? In that case, the new iPad downshifts to 3G.

Is the new iPad the same size as the iPad 2? not quite. It’s a tad heavier — just under two ounces heavier — and about a quarter-inch thicker. The width and height of the new tablet are identical to its predecessor.

Can I use my iPad 2 case with the new model? Depends. Apple’s SmartCover works equally well on both tablets, as does OtterBox’s Defender total-surround case. Closer-fitting sleeves or covers, however, like those produced by Case-Mate, won’t: that Atlanta-based company will start shipping new iPad-suitable accessories March 15.

Where’s Siri on the iPad? Missing…, put out an all-points bulletin!

While the full-featured Siri is famous — or depending on your take, infamous — on the iPhone 4S, it didn’t made the trip to the iPad. Instead, Apple dropped in the dictation portion of that technology via iOS 5.1, the upgrade that shipped yesterday for older mobile devices and that powers the new iPad.

Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, called the missing Siri his biggest disappointment, but rationalized the non-move by speculating that Apple didn’t want a second device using Siri, which remains in beta. Once Apple’s worked out the kinks, he was confident the company would offer Siri to the new iPad through an iOS update.

That seems reasonable, if only because a new tablet won’t show until a year from now, and one would expect Apple would want to tout the technology on its tablet before then.

Is the new iPad camera the same one Apple uses in the iPhone 4S? No. even though Apple tags both with the ‘iSight’ moniker, the new iPad’s primary camera is a 5-megapixel camera; the iPhone 4S sports an 8-megapixel camera.

Actually, the new tablet’s camera is closer in quality to the 5-megapixel one in the 2010 iPhone 4, which Apple still sells. The iPad’s camera features a five-element lens, while the iPhone 4’s has a four-element lens, like the iPhone 4S.

Video recording specs on the iPad’s and iPhone 4S’ cameras, however, are identical, boasting HD quality (1080p) at up to 30 frames a second.

Should I order now or wait? your call, as always.

But unless Apple really turns around its past production history, be warned: There will probably be delays between ordering and shipping as the days fly by. Analysts who closely follow the display space, for example, have bet that Apple will have a five-to-six-month stretch during which it’s unable to make enough tablets.

In part, that will be due to production bottlenecks around the new, higher-resolution display, but other exacerbating factors include the faster roll-out of the new iPad: Apple’s launching the tablet on March 16 in 10 countries — including the U.S. and the U.K. — with another 25 markets following on March 23, just a week later.

Last year, Apple rolled out the iPad 2 only in the U.S., and waited 14 days before adding 26 other countries. even then, it wasn’t until the middle of 2011’s third July-September quarter that Apple’s inventory matched demand.

What’s with “the new iPad” as Apple’s name for the thing? We don’t know. But it struck us, and most others, as odd.

Analyst Gottheil, however, saw some logic to the departure of a numbering system, or the alternative, which would have been to label it something like “iPad HD,” one of the several names trotted out by speculators before Wednesday.

Apple doesn’t number or name its Mac lines, Gottheil pointed out — it’s the “MacBook Air,” not the “MacBook Air 2012” — nor does it assign names to its iPod Touch family, simply describing them with an “X-generation” label only when necessary, as when it lists support for specific apps or versions of iOS.

Apple’s doing the same with the iPad, foregoing yearly names in favor of a single brand, said Gottheil.

It’s possible Apple will follow suit with the next iPhone , calling it simply “the new iPhone,” not the, say, “iPhone 5.”

I’m happy with the iPad I have…. Isn’t there anything for me? iOS 5.1, which was released yesterday, is an upgrade available to owners of the original iPad and the iPad 2. Along with a slew of security patches, iOS 5.1 also fixes some other bugs — Apple called out one related to battery life — and features improvements to the Camera app, better face detection while shooting pictures and more.

For the full list of changes, check out this page on Apple’s support site.

Also yesterday, Apple launched the $4.99 iPhoto app , which runs on the iPad 2.

Last question: When’s the NEXT iPad going to be ready? you people, you’re incorrigible.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer , on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg’s RSS feed . His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com .

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