After the iPhone 4S was announced in October, the buzzword that hung around it was "disappointing."
Part of this was due to the outsized hype leading up to the announcement. Rumors of the arrival of a slimmer, lighter, leather-jacket-wearing iPhone 5 prevailed, and when the iPhone 4S showed up looking like its predecessor -- with its indigestion cured and with its resting pulse rate decreased, sure, but still looking the same -- many were let down. We were promised jetpacks, to quote Beowulf.
But another part of this mass disappointment had to do with disenchantment: The ruling perception during its first four years had been that the iPhone was a groundbreaking, five-years-ahead-of-the-competition device. Now, it seemed, the iPhone had been caught, and was even being surpassed, by competitors on all sides. Other smartphones ran on the faster 4G network, or had a larger screen, or boasted a more appealing design, or came with a more robust or more attractive operating system. That the unveiling of the iPhone 4S did not blow the fabric off the backside of our jeans as previous Apple announcements did was disappointing for many, who saw the incremental, unsexy internal upgrade as a sign that Apple was running out of magical fairy dust.
The new iPad has now arrived, and it, too, represents a mostly internal upgrade. It looks just like the iPad 2. Its major selling point appears to be that it has a pretty screen. And yet this update, unlike the similarly unsexy iPhone 4S update over the iPhone 4, is not a disappointment, nor should it be viewed as one, for this simple, indisputable reason: While the iPhone 4 was facing serious pressure from inventive and excellent handsets from Samsung, Motorola and HTC at the time of the iPhone 4S announcement, the iPad 2 remains, without argument, sans challengers, the best tablet that money can buy, and Apple just measurably improved it.
It's not that the best got better so much as the only real option got better. Before Apple's event, there was not a single tech reviewer or journalist worth taking seriously who would have answered anything besides "iPad 2" when you asked what was the best tablet. After Apple's event, there is not a single tech reviewer or journalist worth taking seriously who will not similarly answer anything besides -- well, whatever the name of the new iPad is. Technology pundits are mostly split as to what the best smartphone is, or will at least acknowledge that there are close competitors. In the tablet market, there is no such split, no such acknowledgement. The gap between Apple's iPad and everything else is that wide.
It just got wider. The iPad 2's already zippy dual-core processor gets zip-zip-zippier with an improved dual-core model for better gaming and performance. The iPad 2's already attractive display just got upgraded to what is apparently a screen that must be seen in person -- and even in sunlight! -- to be appreciated. The camera has been upgraded, a voice transcriber for the dictation of emails has been added, the battery life has been boosted, and it runs on that 4G network. Similar improvements were made to the iPhone 4S from the iPhone 4. But again, this iPad was already in a league of its own in a way that the iPhone 4 was not.
No, this is a different kind of incremental upgrade. This is like 1991 Michael Jordan developing a left-handed hook shot during the off-season. It's like Season 4 of "The Wire" adding more scenes with Cutty and Snoop, plus a rendition of the the theme song by the 1967 Beatles. The iPad 2 was already the Cadillac of tablets and that Cadillac now comes with a Hemi engine and butt warmers and the dopest, most hilarious vanity license plate you can imagine. It's like you drew cards in a game of Risk and are starting out with all of Australia to yourself, PLUS all of the Asian countries that border Australia ...
... Which is not to say, of course, that you are totally invulnerable to an eventual attack from Kamchatka. Windows 8, the excellent, touch-optimized operating system from Microsoft, will be released later in the year, and it is conceivable that a hardware maker could take this excellent operating system and create an excellent Windows 8 tablet that will truly rival the iPad. Android Ice Cream Sandwich is already powering some terrific, arguably iPhone-besting smartphones, and could very well make its way to a terrific, iPad-besting tablet at some point. Just as Google and Microsoft have stalked Apple from behind and caught it in terms of quality smartphones, so too might they one day hunt down Apple on the tablet front.
That scenario seems distant. We are, after all, talking about a hypothetical tablet at this point, not to mention a hypothetical content store with over 200,000 made-for-the-tablet apps and a packed movie, music, television show and book library. For now, the iPad is in its own class. It isn't just ahead of the curve, it exited the curve miles ago. These supposed competitors, these other tablets that Apple's latest iPad update was responding to or reacting against, are as real as vapor.
Perhaps the most notable change from the iPad 2 to the new iPad is the name. No numbers, no 'HD,' no descriptors. The third iPad is simply named iPad. Given the paucity of legitimate contenders in comparative quality, Apple may as well have named its latest iPad "the tablet." It is clearly trying to position the iPad as a genre in the post-PC world unto itself, and Wednesday's update was a solidification of Apple's claim to that lofty crown, a speed boost to a car that is already several laps ahead.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that the new iPad was upgraded to a quad-core processor. It still has a dual-core processor, but features a quad-core graphics chip.
Check out the slideshow (below) for everything you need to know about the new iPad.