At a product launch that included a surprise appearance and standing ovation for CEO Steve Jobs, Apple introduced the new iPad 2 today, further strengthening Apple’s current domination of the burgeoning tablet market and making it all the more challenging for Apple’s tablet competitors to keep pace. “It is an all new design,” said Jobs of the new model, “not a tweaked design… it’s a completely new design.”

What isn’t new with the iPad 2 is the price, as Jobs was keen to point out. With the base Wi-Fi-only model starting at $499, Apple has set the pricing identical to its first generation iPad. The iPad2 is available in three versions based on storage capabilities - 16GB, 32GB and 64GB. All three versions can be purchased with Wi-Fi-only connectivity, or with Wi-Fi + 3G. A 64GB model with Wi-Fi + 3G is priced at $829, with mobile connectivity plans available in the U.S. from AT&T and Verizon.

Starting March 11, the new models will be available in the U.S. directly from Apple or from Apple authorized resellers.

In Canada and several other countries, the iPad2 is due for release on March 25.

So just how much tougher does the iPad2 make it for other tablet makers to keep up? Plenty, at least according to Apple.

Featuring a new 1 GHz dual-core CPU called the A5 chip, Apple has theoretically made the iPad2 twice as fast as the A4 chip found in both the iPad and the iPhone 4. Not that the original iPad could be considered slow, but this increase in processing power should, according to Apple’s product literature, make you “notice the difference when you’re surfing the web, watching movies, making FaceTime video calls, gaming, and going from app to app to app. Multitasking is smoother, apps load faster, and everything just works better.”

Together with graphics processing power that Jobs says is “up to nine times faster", the new dual-core A5 chip at the very least matches the dual-core CPUs found in the Motorola Xoom, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and the LG G-Slate, all of which feature a 1 GHz NVIDIA Tegra 2 CPU and come loaded with Android Honeycomb, Google’s new operating system designed specifically for tablets. While Apple is not reporting the amount of RAM in the iPad 2, it is believed to be at least 512 MB, or twice the amount contained in the iPad. By comparison, the Xoom, BlackBerry’s upcoming PlayBook and HP’s TouchPad all specify 1 GB of RAM.

[Compare the above mentioned tablets side-by-side]

Also new in the iPad2 are two cameras, one front facing and one rear facing. The rear camera is capable of recording 720p HD video up to 30 frames per second and features 5x digital zoom. The front camera, located at the top of the device, records lower quality VGA video up to 30 frames per second. Both cameras will record audio and can shoot single frame pictures. The megapixel specifications have not yet been released in Apple’s product literature.

To make use of the new cameras, Apple is also releasing FaceTime for iPad, an application that allows you to make video calls from the iPad 2 to someone else’s iPad 2, iPhone 4, new iPod touch, or Mac over Wi-Fi.

With a diagonal screen size of 9.7 inches and 1024-by-768-pixel resolution, the iPad 2 comes with the same display as the iPad, which will be a disappointment to screen-conscious users expecting more pixels and a pixels and. However, at 1.35 lbs., the new model is lighter and thinner than the iPad, which is a welcome design upgrade for users who spend much time hand-holding their device for lengthy reading.

Despite the new A5 CPU, the iPad 2 does not consume any more power than the iPad and a fully charged battery should last for up to ten hours of continuous usage. Charging the iPad 2 is done by plugging in the 10W USB power adapter, included in the product box, or via a USB connection to a laptop or desktop computer.

Unlike the iPad, which like Henry Ford’s Model-T was available in any color you want – as long as it’s black – the iPad 2 gives you at least one other color choice, as long as it’s white.

For an additional $39, Apple has also released the new iPad Smart Cover, a nifty design that uses magnets built into the iPad 2 frame to align the cover and help protect the screen. The Smart Cover, available in ten colors, also doubles as a stand to hold the tablet at various angles for viewing and typing.

While the iPad 2 does not include technical features that are miles beyond the competition, it does keep Apple in the lead position in the tablet market, likely for some time to come. With nearly 15 million iPads sold in less than one year, and more than 65,000 iPad applications available in Apple’s App Store, tablet competitors have much catching up to do.