Apple will expand its iPad line next month and for the first time launch a version of the hit tablet with a 7-inch screen, the company said Tuesday.
The iPad Mini has a 7.9-inch screen and gives Apple a foothold in a new sector of the tablet market -- that of 7-inch-class machines that are a step between a cellphone and full-size tablet. Competitors including Samsung and Amazon already offer such devices.
Getting a head start on the inevitable comparisons between the iPad Mini and Samsung's Nexus 7, Apple marketing executive Phil Schiller showed comparisons of the two products side-by-side.
"There is a gigantic difference in these products," he said, highlighting a mode that provides greater screen space for Web browsing with the iPad Mini once all the bells and whistles around the screen are hidden.
The comparison between the iPad Mini and Samsung's tablet was particularly apt given the location of the Apple event. The two companies are locked in a legal battle over patents for phones and tablets that has been playing out in a federal courthouse just steps away from the San Jose theater where the Apple event took place.
The iPad Mini is based on a dual-core A5 processor and has the new Lightning connector, LTE compatibility and 802.11n Wi-Fi.
As for the all-important price, a base 16GB model will cost US$329, Schiller said. A 32GB version will cost an additional $100 and a cellular modem will add another $130.
That's more expensive than Google's Nexus 7 and Amazon's Kindle Fire HD, which both cost $199, but that doesn't necessarily mean Apple is at a disadvantage. A segment of consumers have always been willing to pay a premium for Apple products.
Apple will also launch an updated version of its full-size iPad. The fourth-generation model will be based on a new processor called the A6X, which Schiller said is twice as fast as the A5X chip used in the current iPad tablets. Battery life remains
unchanged at 10 hours. It will feature the new Lightning accessory connector that debuted with the iPhone 5 and will cost $499.
The announcement comes just over seven months since Apple launched the third model in the full-size iPad lineup.
Apple has been phenomenally successful in selling tablets. The company sold its 100 millionth iPad two weeks ago -- about two-and-a-half years after it first went on sale -- and iPad sales in its most recent quarter surpassed PC sales of any of its competitors, according to Schiller, who didn't detail sales figures.
Late Apple CEO Steve Jobs had originally dismissed the idea of a 7-inch tablet, but that was in October 2010 -- an eternity in the technology industry and long before the tablet market had grown to the size it is today.
Advance orders for the iPad Mini can be placed beginning this Friday and the tablets go on sale Nov. 2.
IPad mini with Wi-Fi models will be available in black and slate or white and silver on Friday, Nov. 2, for a suggested retail price of $329 for the 16GB model, $429 for the 32GB model and $529 for the 64GB model. The fourth-generation iPad with Wi-Fi models will also be available on Nov. 2, in black or white for a suggested retail price of $499 for the 16GB model, $599 for the 32GB model and $699 for the 64GB model.
Jeff Kagan was among the first industry analysts to weigh in on the iPad Mini, saying in an email commentary that it "looks like another big Apple success story" that will open up new market segments for the company.
While it will cannibalize some iPad sales, taking a longer view of the company's strategy, "you can see how it will increase the size of the Apple customer base. Those customers [who purchase an iPad Mini] will get sucked into the Apple cloud" and buy other products from the company.
"The lower-priced Apple will woo the young and they will fall under the Apple spell becoming customers for life," he wrote. Forsaking some sales of the larger iPad "is a small price to pay" for all of the new customers who will be lured to Apple products, Kagan said.
(Jason Snell and Dan Moren of Macworld contributed to this report.)
Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is email@example.com