(Reuters) - Apple Inc will continue to retain the lion's share of the tablet market as its new 4G-enabled iPad readies for competition from Windows 8-based products, and a cheaper iPad 2 takes on Amazon's popular Kindle Fire, analysts said.
Shares of Apple inched up a percent to as much as $535.89 in morning trade on Thursday, after the company unveiled an upgraded version of its popular iPad tablet, featuring a more powerful chip, high-definition screen, sharper camera and access to new high-speed wireless networks.
"Apple's ability to increase the screen resolution, graphics capabilities, and integrate 4G LTE without compromising battery life on the new iPad will be a key differentiator versus the competition and a tough act to follow," J.P. Morgan Securities analyst Mark Moskowitz wrote in a note.
Last month, Microsoft released an incomplete version of Windows 8. It is the first Microsoft operating system compatible with low-power microprocessors designed by ARM Holdings Plc and will run on tablets as well as desktops and laptops, in an effort to counter the runaway success of iPad.
But Apple's latest iPad will allow the company to sustain its competitive advantage and drive a dominant position in the fast-growing tablet market, said analysts.
According to Credit Suisse, Apple will command 66 percent share of the tablet market in 2012, thanks to its brand, hardware offering and superior ecosystem.
The global tablet user base already reached 67 million in 2011, according to researcher Strategy Analytics.
Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook introduced the highly anticipated third iteration of the tablet, but broke away from the tradition of calling the third-generation tablet the iPad 3, as some had expected, referring to it simply as the "new iPad."
Still, analysts say the company "is just getting started," and that it will have more to offer, including a full-fledged TV offering and a thinner iPhone 5 that may be capable of operating on the "LTE," or Long-Term Evolution, network.
At speeds roughly 10 times faster than current 3G technology, that may help banish the sometimes shaky video quality of older devices.
"We expect the company to have several other strong new product cycles over the next 1-2 years, including the iPhone 5 (LTE-enabled) and the iTV," said FBN Securities' analyst Shebly Seyrafi said. FBN raised its price target to $730 from $650.
The company said it will continue to sell the iPad 2 but dropped its price by $100. The older tablet now starts at $399 while the new third-generation wi-fi only iPad starts at $499.
Morgan Stanley analysts said the cheaper iPad 2 will have a minimal impact on gross margins, and expect the drop in price of the device to drive incremental demand of 15 million to 20 million in the United States and 38 million worldwide.
Following the cut in the price of iPad 2, Apple is now well positioned to counter competition from products at the lower end of the market like Amazon.com Inc's Kindle Fire given the device's superior hardware features, say analysts.
"We believe the new iPad and the lower price point for the iPad 2 will enable Apple to continue its momentum and tablet market dominance, and we continue to expect rapid installed base growth in 2012 and beyond," Goldman Sachs analysts, including Bill Shope, wrote in a note to clients.
Analysts at Goldman raised their price target on Apple stock to $660 from $600. ThinkEquity analysts lifted their share-price target by $50 to $600.
According to Thomson Reuters StarMine, 25 analysts rate Apple at "strong buy," another 25 at "buy," while three have a "hold" rating. Two analysts rate the stock at "sell" or its equivalent rating.
The 55 analysts covering Apple have a mean price target of $575.23 on the stock, which closed at $530.69 on Wednesday on the Nasdaq.
Apple shares were up $3 to $533.69 in early trade. They have fallen 3 percent since touching a year-high on March 1, a day after the company's market value topped the $500 billion mark.
Reporting by Tenzin Pema in Bangalore; Editing by Gopakumar Warrier