What (we think) we know about iPad 2; announcement event next week

by Phil Hornshaw

No one will ever accuse Apple (AAPL) of subtlety.

This morning, the company sent out email invites to its next big press event, taking place on March 2. In classic Apple form, the image for the invite has the big iOS calendar icon for the date on it, with the edge being peeled back to reveal what is clearly an iPad screen.

Get it -- iPad. Two. About as subtle as a hammer, but no less effective.

So with just a week between us and whatever new product Apple is about to throw at us, how about we run down all the rumor and speculation surrounding the next big launch from the tablet segment’s biggest powerhouse, shall we?

iPad 2 vs. iPad 3

The latest rumors in circulation are about what the next version of the iPad will be when it’s announced in March. Daring Fireball writer John Gruber hinted not long ago that Apple would be releasing two iPads this year -- one a refreshed iteration of the current model, and the other a true step forward. Other outlets have lent at least some credence to this idea.

The best analogy for the differences between the rumored tablets comes from the iPhone. Apple released the iPhone 3G, and then the iPhone 3GS: better, but not incredibly so, the 3GS added features that were lacking from its predecessor but it was more of an amped-up iPhone 3G than a truly new model. That’s where speculation pegs the iPad 2: a step forward in making the current iPad better without drastically revamping the product.

The iPad 3, on the other hand, finds its analog in the iPhone 4. It’s expected to be a faster, stronger machine, with a better display and better features in general. It’ll be a true step forward into an all-new iPad, and it’s expected to pop out in the fall while the iPad 2 comes out in April after we hear about it next week.

Having an iPad 2 and an iPad 3 separates out some of the rumors a bit. As far as hardware is concerned, what we’ve heard points to the idea that the iPad 2 is, in fact, a beefier iPad rather than a whole new monster, and the biggest indicator of that seems to be the display.

A better screen, but not too much

For a while there, we were hearing all kinds of stuff about an iPad Retina display -- the kind of high-resolution screen that the iPhone 4 made famous and exploits beautifully. But in order to double the resolution on the iPad for the iPad 2, Apple would have to significantly increase its display dedicated RAM, and therefore its hardware costs.

Gruber from Daring Fireball is back for this one, except this time, he’s a bit of a buzzkill. His logical argument from January runs down all the reasons he doesn’t think iPad 2’s resolution is going to change at all, and they range from the hardware costs to how any resolution jump that’s not double would make life a whole lot harder for iPad developers. That also makes it sound like Apple is saving the big leap in resolution for that iPad 3 we were just talking about, but then again, I might be seeing famous faces on my potato chips on that one.

There was information a while back that Apple was having manufacturers build lighting units for LCD displays, suggesting the iPad 2 is leaving behind the iPad’s AMOLED screen in favor of something brighter.

I’m expecting the iPad 2’s resolution to stay steady at 1024x768, with the same 9.7-inch screen, with improvements to the manufacturing process and the glass, but not a new display overall.

Other improvements: the phantom USB port

For a while, leaked specs for the supposed iPad 2 had this weird hole in the outer case. Speculation was all over the place as to what that hole was for, and a lot of people landed on a standard USB 2.0 port, rather than the Apple-specific dock cable port that all iOS devices sport now.

Seems now that the hole isn’t for USB, an SD reader or any of the other (admittedly cool) things the Internet hoped to see -- instead, that slot is for improved speakers that can handle playing sounds louder than the current iPad.

We’ve also heard the iPad 2 will be slightly smaller, while maintaining the 9.7-inch screen, and flat on the back. It’s supposedly lighter weight than the iPad, as well.

Most of the other things we’ve heard just make sense. Expect the iPad 2 to be carrier-neutral or at least capable of switching back and forth between networks in its 3G version, just like the Verizon (VZ) iPhone can. It also seems like the iPad 2 will have a unibody construction, meaning it’ll be a single piece of metal like a Macbook.

Oh -- and front- and rear-facing cameras. In case you forgot.

Check back on March 2, when we’ll be reporting from San Francisco when Apple unveils whatever it’s going to unveil. Until then, feel free to continue to speculate amongst yourselves.