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As usual, Apple isn't disclosing what it plans to reveal at its headquarters in Cupertino, California, Thursday. Invites to its event carried the cryptic message, "It's been way too long." CEO Tim Cook is expected to preside over the event, which begins at 10 a.m. PDT (1 p.m. EDT).
It's been a year since Apple came out with a lighter, thinner full-size model called the iPad Air. Apple is expected to refresh that with a faster processor and possibly a fingerprint ID sensor akin to what's found on recent iPhones. The sensor would let people use a fingerprint instead of a passcode to unlock the device and authorize Apple Pay purchases.
Apple also might offer an iPad with a gold-colored casing, another option already available on iPhones. An updated iPad Mini might be part of the new lineup.
Thursday's event comes as sales of Apple's iPads have dropped. Through the first half of this year, Apple had shipped 29.6 million iPads, a 13 percent drop from the same time last year. Apple plans to issue results for the latest quarter on Monday.
Apple has been facing competition from cheaper tablets running Google's Android operating system. Ahead of Apple's event, Google announced Wednesday that an 8.9-inch Nexus 9 tablet is coming next month at a starting price of $399, $100 less than the 9.7-inch iPad Air. It will run a new version of Android, dubbed Lollipop.
Besides competition, there's been an overall slowdown in tablet demand. This week, research firm Gartner projected worldwide shipments of 229 million tablets this year. Although that's up 11 percent compared with 2013, it's far less than the 55 percent growth seen last year and the more than doubling in sales in 2012.
More than half of U.S. households own at least one tablet, and the rest include people who may not want one or can't afford it, Gartner analyst Mika Kitagawa said.
While wireless carriers often subsidize smartphones to bring the price down to about $200, customers typically pay full price for tablets — starting at $499 for the iPad Air.
She said people are more likely to view a smartphone as essential, while they may use a smartphone or a traditional computer for many of the functions that a tablet can perform. In addition, some tablet owners are now buying hybrid devices that combine a tablet with a lightweight, detachable keyboard. Many of those run on Microsoft's Windows system. Gartner counts those as personal computers, not tablets.
Apple has said a new Mac operating system is coming this fall, so there's been speculation that the company will use Thursday's event to announce more specifics, including timing.
The Mac update will be called Yosemite and will include aesthetic changes as well as new functionality, such as the ability to make phone calls with an iPhone nearby and a one-stop search tool for both locally stored documents and online resources.
Apple has been releasing Mac updates more frequently, in part to time them with annual changes to the iOS system for iPhones and iPads. Many of the new Mac features will complement what's found in iOS 8, including the ability to start tasks such as email on one device and finish on another.
Starting last year, Apple has made its Mac updates available as a free download.
Apple may also use the event to announce new Mac computers. The company released new laptops last October, and there's speculation new iMac desktops are in store.
Apple has already announced its new payments system, Apple Pay, but the iPhone feature wasn't made available right away. Apple is due to release an iOS 8.1 update that should enable Apple Pay and the ability to send and receive iPhone texts from Macs.
With Apple Pay, iPhone 6 and 6 Plus owners will be able to make payments at brick-and-mortar stores by holding their phone near a card reader. The new iPhones have a wireless chip to transmit the information needed to complete the transaction. Owners of older models won't be able to use Apple Pay, even with the software update.
Apple already has announced some of the credit card issuers and retailers expected to enable Apple Pay. More details may come Thursday.
Consumers aren't likely to abandon plastic credit cards until a majority of retailers, especially smaller merchants, accept contactless payments such as Apple Pay. But Apple Pay may spur transactions over mobile Web browsers and apps this holiday season, since it lets consumers avoid typing in credit card information each time.
AP Technology Writer Brandon Bailey contributed to this report.
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