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Apple looks for a second wind with the iPad Air

With market share shrinking, leader in tablets adds advanced processor chip

With its domination of the tablet computer market at stake, Apple Inc. unveiled an upgraded line of iPad tablets Tuesday, featuring thinner bodies, sharper screens, and more powerful processor chips. But it is an open question whether the new iPads can fend off ferocious competition from giant rivals like Samsung Corp. and Google Inc., whose low-cost tablets have won over millions of consumers.

Apple’s flagship tablet, renamed the iPad Air, will be 20 percent thinner than the current model, and will weigh just 1 pound. The new tablet is equipped with the same advanced processor chip used in the new iPhone 5s smartphone that Apple unveiled last month, which should allow the new iPad to run far more sophisticated programs than the simple games and entertainment apps favored by consumers, and so could appeal to business customers that run heavy-duty applications.

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“Today we think we have the biggest step yet in delivering the vision that is iPad,” said Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing.

Apple also upgraded its smaller tablet, the iPad Mini, giving it the same high-end processor as the iPad Air, as well as Apple’s famed Retina video display, which should deliver much sharper video images than the current iPad Mini. The new Mini will go on sale later in November, with a $399 starting price, up $70 from the price of the original Mini. Apple will continue to sell the previous Mini model at a reduced price of $299. The iPad Air, meanwhile, will carry a starting price of $499, and go on sale Nov. 1.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Apple’s chief executive, Tim Cook, spoke at Tuesday’s new product introduction in San Francisco.

Apple’s original iPad created a global market for tablet computers when it was introduced in 2010, and Apple is still the biggest maker of tablets.

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Apple has 32 percent of the global tablet market, down from 60 percent about a year ago, according to industry research firm IDC Corp. Meanwhile, Samsung has soared to win 16 percent of the market, while Asustek Computer Inc., maker of Google’s popular Nexus 7 tablet, Acer Inc., and Chinese personal computer giant Lenovo Group Ltd. have all doubled their sales.

Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, downplayed the importance of Apple’s slumping market share. “Regardless of what you might hear or read about how many are bought or sold or activated, iPad is used more than any of the rest,” he said. “And not just a little more — a lot more.”

Still, Michael Oh, president of Tech Superpowers, a Boston retailer of Apple products, conceded that inexpensive Android tablets are quite adequate for many casual users.

“There are fewer reasons to go with the iPad,” Oh said. But Oh also predicted the newer iPad upgrades will be popular among more demanding consumers willing to pay a little extra.

“It’s going to make these devices, and particularly the iPad Air, a very good seller for the holiday season,” Oh said.

The iPad’s new processor chip could prove to be a major advantage in the long term. It uses the same 64-bit architecture found in desktop computer chips. Oh said the tablet might be capable of advanced business computing tasks, like running 3-D engineering software or high-end video editing programs.

“It’s going to really solidify the iPad in business, and I think that’s what Apple is really going for,” Oh said. Even if cheap tablets become more popular with consumers, Oh said, Apple’s higher-end products might ensure its dominance of commercial tablet sales.

Thomas Husson, an industry analyst for Forrester Research in Cambridge, noted that Apple made no effort to match the lower prices of its competitors. “This is about premium positioning and preserving their profit margins over time,” said Husson.

Husson said that Forrester expects worldwide tablet usage to hit 900 million units by 2017, so even if Apple’s share of the market declines, it will still sell plenty of product.

Along with the iPad announcement, Apple showed off its new Mac Pro high-end workstation, the most advanced computer in the Macintosh line. The new machine, with a starting price of $2,999, features a radical new cylindrical design, dual graphics processor chips, and flash memory chips instead of a mechanical hard drive. Apple also revealed upgrades of its MacBook Pro laptop line, as well as Mavericks, the latest edition of the company’s Mac OS X operating system software. Mavericks will be available at no charge to Mac computer users.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.
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