Apple reveals iPad Air at 16 ounces, iPad mini at $399

Both have new A7 chip, M7 co-processor, and Retina displays

Apple Tuesday announced its “biggest step” with its tablet line, but took only about 20 minutes out of its hour-plus presentation to do it: a years-in-the-making slimmed down version of the 9.7-inch iPad, now dubbed iPad Air, and a high-resolution display for the 7.9-inch iPad mini.  The biggest shock: a $70 price increase for the smaller tablet, to $399.

apple ipad air

Missing from the new tablets are features that were widely rumored, such as the integrated Touch ID fingerprint scanner, an eight- instead of five-megapixel main camera, and an anodized gold color scheme (Apple opted for “space grey” to replace the darker slate choice). The new iPad Air goes on sale Nov. 1; the new 7.9-inch iPad mini with Retina display will be available “later in November,” according to Apple.

[FIRST LOOK: iPad Air & More]

The new tablets create a family of products with starting prices ranging from $299 to $499, for the 16-Gbyte models. Prices go up as you increase storage or add the $130 cellular option. The original year-old iPad mini and the two-and-half-year-old iPad 2 are now the lower-priced products – with non-Retina screens and the two-generations old A5 processor. Here are your starting price options:

7.9-inch screen:

The original iPad mini            new iPad mini with Retina display

$299                                    $399

9.7-inch screen:

iPad 2                                      new iPad Air

$399                                        $499

The price change for the iPad mini is already sparking widely divergent opinions at online forums.

“Too expensive IMO,” posted ifrancis04, at a MacRumors forum thread dedicated to the new pricing.

“That was a dumb move to put it at 399 with the only justification being retina,” agreed BigB82. “and only dropping price of regular mini 30 bucks was dumb should have dropped it more, you can already get it for 299 at target most weekends.”

But others found the pricing both sensible and affordable. “Insanely affordable given it has the full power of the iPad Air in a gorgeous iPad Mini retina display,” wrote dumastudetto. “I think it's amazing what Apple has achieved today. They've basically destroyed all their competitors with devices nobody else could ever make.”

“Considering they have pretty much the same parts. It is rather well priced,” said Xerotech.

“…[I]t's basically the [new iPad] Air in a smaller package (vs. the original mini, which had a weaker screen and weaker processing power),” agreed Prototypical. “Not a bad deal, especially if you just want the smaller size.”

Both new iPads are fitted with the 64-bit A7 processor that Apple unveiled in its iPhone 5S. According to Apple, the new iPad Air has two times faster CPU performance compared to the A6X-powered fourth-generation iPad, and two times faster graphics performance. For the new Retina iPad mini, the gains over the A5-powered original mini are even greater: four times faster CPU performance, and eight times faster graphics performance.

In addition, both gain the M7 motion co-processor, again unveiled in the iPhone 5S. The M7 offloads from the main CPU the work of tracking data from the iPad’s various sensors -- accelerometer, gyroscope and magnometer.

Both support the same resolution: 2048 x 1536 pixels. The pixel density is greater on the smaller screen of the new iPad mini: 326 pixels per inch, compared to 264 for the iPad Air.

For both products, Apple has improved Wi-Fi performance. But not by using an 802.11ac radio. Instead, Apple added “multiple antennas” – actually two, instead of one – that can support two 802.11n spatial streams instead of one. The result: a maximum 11n data rate of 300 Mbps, instead of 150 Mbps. Actual “usable” throughput typically is as much as 40% less because of Wi-Fi’s protocol overhead.

Finally, and critically, Apple says that battery life is unchanged: both tablets will still deliver up to 10 hours (though that can vary depending on the combination of apps and network connectivity you run).

The two tablets are now identical in every respect except for the diagonal screen size. That means that for the first time consumers who are willing to pay Apple’s premium price can now choose an iPad based solely on the size of the screen. Apple has a full comparison of the four models online.

The new iPad Air is thinner and lighter than the fourth-generation iPad it replaces, and with mobile devices, smaller changes can have a big impact on users’ perceptions. Here’s the comparison:

iPad Air:                              9.4 inches high, 6.6 inches wide, 0.29 inches thick

iPad fourth-generation:         9.5 inches high, 7.3 inches wide, 0.37 inches thick

The weight difference is perhaps the most dramatic change: dropping from 1.4 pounds to just 1 pound for the iPad Air.

By contrast, the iPad mini moved in the opposite direction, though only slightly. The original iPad mini is 7.87 x 5.3 x 0.28. With the Retina display, the new model is just a smidgen thicker at 0.29. The weight is slightly more, rising from 0.68 pounds to 0.73 pounds.

When the first iPad mini was introduced, some critics argued it was too expensive at $329 compared to Android rivals that were introducing increasingly higher specifications. Apple raised the starting price of the iPad mini by $70, to $399. That’s the same price as the 16-Gbyte, Wi-Fi only, 10-inch Google Nexus 10 tablet, to take just one example.

For some, this is a “step backward.” The new pricing is “the clearest statement Apple could have made that it is only interested in competing in the premium tablet space,” says Jan Dawson, chief telecoms analyst at Ovum, a UK-based technology analysis firm. “This leaves a huge chunk of the tablet market unserved by Apple while others such as Google, Amazon and a raft of others aggressively target the sub-$400 market.”

Yet that fact seems not to worry Apple, just as the fact that its iPhone pricing leaves a “huge chunk” of the smartphone market unserved has never been a cause of worry. With the new iPads, Apple has reinforced its consistent action of bringing to market premium products for which buyers are willing to pay premium price.

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for “Network World.”

Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnwcoxnww

Email: john_cox@nww.com

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