Given his recent health-related leave of absence, it was refreshing to see that Steve Jobs took the stage at today's Apple event to announce the forthcoming arrival of the iPad 2. It's lighter and thinner than the original, but packs in more features and more processing power. New additions include rear and front-facing cameras, an iOS update, smart covers, and a built-in gyroscope. Sadly, the only advancement on the connectivity front was the addition of HDMI via an optional adapter, and the carbon-fiber housing rumor looks to have been just that, a rumor.

The iPad 2 has the same 9.7-inch, 1024 x 768 resolution (132 ppi) LED-backlit LCD screen as the original, but the device is 33 percent thinner at 0.34-inch (8.8mm), which is even thinner than an iPhone 4. It's also 15 percent lighter than the original at 1.33 pounds (613g) for the 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi only, and either 1.34 or 1.35 pounds for the 3G and Wi-Fi model.

In spite of the slimming down, Apple has managed to squeeze in a dual core system-on-a-chip called the A5 which has a processor that's up to twice as fast as the A4 – and graphics that are up to nine times faster – but retains the low power attributes of its predecessor. Battery life has been preserved at 10 hours, with over a month on stand-by.

Smile, you're on iPad camera

At last Apple has answered the call of its customers, and included cameras into the new iPad. There's a front-facing VGA-quality videoconferencing cam that's ready and waiting for FaceTime (more on that in a moment) and a 720p high definition camera to the rear. Photo and video content can be geotagged over Wi-Fi. The company is continuing its FaceTime onslaught by bringing it to the iPad. Available at launch, users will be able to use it between two iPads, an iPad and an iPhone, or iPad and a Mac.

Rather than hide away the new beauty inside a case, Apple has developed some hinged smart covers. Covering the screen only and secured and aligned by magnets, the cover doubles as a stand when folded. The iPad 2 will automatically wake up when the cover is removed, and goes into sleep mode when the cover is returned to the screen. The smart covers have a microfiber cloth lining that serves to keep the screen clean.

It's now black and white

The new iPad will be available in both black and white from day one, no doubt making up ground for the phantom white iPhone that never was. A built-in 3-axis gyroscope joins the accelerometer and ambient light sensor, and an optional HDMI-adapter allows users to mirror the screen on a full 1080p high definition TV. Users can charge the device while in use, and there's rotation support too.

A new version of Apple's mobile operating system also debuts on the iPad 2. iOS 4.3 benefits from increased Safari performance, iTunes home sharing, and AirPlay improvements. Personal hotspot functionality will be added for the iPhone 4, while the iPad gets mute or rotation lock preference.

Unfortunately, there's still no USB. Apple also didn't add Thunderbolt or an SD card slot, there's no near field communication banking or payment technology, and the company didn't take the opportunity to be amongst those offering 4G (whatever flavor that is this month). Apple did manage to keep the lid on the price, however, keeping the structure the same as with the original.

The cost of upgrading

The Wi-Fi only version of the iPad 2 will cost US$499 for 16GB, US$599 for 32GB and US$699 for 64GB. The Wi-Fi and 3G model is priced at US$629 for 16GB, US$729 for 32GB and US$829 for 64GB. The Wi-Fi and 3G version also get Bluetooth 2.1 with EDR. Both AT&T and Verizon have been announced as carriers.

There's good news for those who suffer from impatience, too. The iPad 2 (and iOS 4.3) are set for release in the U.S. on March 11, with 26 more countries getting the device on March 25 (including UK, Australia, France, Canada, Sweden, and Greece).

The new Apple tablet will work with most of the apps already available from the App Store, including the 65,000 specifically designed for the iPad. Photo Booth, iMovie for iPad and GarageBand are amongst the new additions which will also be available from March 11.

So, did we get everything we wanted?

Only the cameras and the weight-saving made it from pre-launch rumor to reality, and the reader wants list faired even worse – with the gyroscope and dual core processor making the grade, and Flash support and dual pressure sensitive and multitouch input getting thrown on the cutting room floor. Maybe those wishes will be granted when the iPad 3 is announced ...

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