With the second-generation iPad due to hit the UK on 25 March, a few of our US-based colleagues got their hands on an iPad 2 to put the device through its paces. Here's what they thought.

A year ago, nobody had an iPad. Then Apple sold 15 million of them in just nine months, creating a whole new category of technology product. The iPad may have become, in the words of Steve Jobs, “the most successful consumer product ever launched. It turns out that a lot of people saw the iPad’s appeal: it’s a supremely portable device that’s well suited for checking your e-mail, surfing the Web, playing games, reading books and other stuff you get off the Internet, and even for getting work done. Kids and the elderly have embraced it.

It’s awfully hard to follow such a massive success, but that’s the task set out for Apple’s new iPad 2, which goes on sale in the US on Friday and two weeks later in the UK. At least the iPad 2 has this going for it: the original model caught the technology industry so flat-footed that only now are true competitors beginning to appear.

Those competitors will now face a new iteration of the iPad, one that’s faster, smaller, and lighter than the model introduced a year ago—all while retaining the £429 entry price that has proven all but impossible for Apple’s competitors to match. It’s almost unfair.

A matter of size

Call it Jobs’s Law if you like: The latest version of any Apple product is likely to be thinner and lighter than its predecessor. And so it is with the iPad 2. The size difference between the original iPad and the iPad 2 may seem slight, but that’s only because we’re dealing with such small products to begin with. But for products this small, every ounce and fraction of an inch counts.

The iPad 2 measures 7.31 by 9.5 by 0.34 inches (185 x 241 x 9 mm), and weighs in at 1.33 pounds (601g) in the case of the Wi-Fi-only version, with the 3G version slightly heavier. This makes the iPad 2 .16 inch narrower, .06 inch shorter, and .16 inch thinner than the original iPad.

A matter of small degrees, to be sure, until you consider the percentage change: the iPad 2 is roughly two-thirds the thickness of the original iPad, and 88 percent of its weight (83 percent when comparing 3G models). Pick up an iPad 2 after handling an original iPad, and you’ll notice the difference right away. This is a lighter, thinner device.

The iPad 2's back is a single curved surface. The sleep/wake button (left) is perched on the curve.

In order to shave off that .16 inch of thickness, Apple has transformed the anodized aluminum back panel of the iPad. The original model’s back panel was a frame with four flat edges and a gently curved back surface. The iPad 2 eschews the frame, opting for a single surface that much more rapidly transitions from curve to flat. (This has the effect of making the iPad 2 much less wobbly than the original when laid on a flat surface.)

Without those edges, the iPad 2’s ports and buttons are now positioned on a curving portion of the back panel, rather than on its side. The feel is quite different, a bit like reverting the flat surfaces of the iPhone 4 to the curved back of an iPhone 3G. A few times I found myself struggling to insert cables into the iPad 2’s dock connector at the proper angle because I was confused by the curve of the back panel.

The end result of all this slimming down is that the iPad 2 is easier to handle than the original model. In my review of the original iPad, I said it was “heavy enough and slippery enough that I found it difficult to hold in one hand.” In fact, the original iPad turned out to be a product that really demanded a case of some sort, just to make it easier to handle.

The iPad 2 is easier to carry with one hand, and the decreased weight makes it easier to hold for longer periods of time. But if you’re planning on using the iPad 2 to read a lot, you’ll still find yourself propping it against your chest or setting it on a table—the tablet is still not light enough to hold in one hand for extended periods of time. (For that, you’ll need something more on the scale of the Amazon Kindle 3, which is less than half the weight of the iPad 2.)

Variations on a theme

The original iPad came in six different variations—Wi-Fi-only and Wi-Fi/3G versions, each available with 16GB, 32GB, or 64GB of storage. The product was such a hit that Apple apparently decided that even more variations would be better—as a result, there are 18 different versions of the iPad 2 available to buyers in the US. For those of us in the UK, there are a more manageable 12.

The storage variation remains: every model is available in 16GB, 32GB, or 64GB capacities. You can also choose an iPad with either a traditional black bezel or a new white bezel—which Apple insists will be available on day one, despite the company’s failure in ever shipping the promised white version of the iPhone 4.

The good news is that the iPad 2 costs just what the original iPad did. The base-model Wi-Fi editions cost $499 (16GB), $599 (32GB), and $699 (64GB). Both sets of Wi-Fi/3G models cost $130 more than their Wi-Fi counterparts. There’s no price difference for white or black models. In the UK, Apple hasn't officially confirmed the pricing, though an Apple Store employee did confirm that the base model Wi-Fi edition would cost £429.