The moment Tim Cook took the stage and announced the new iPad on March 7th in San Francisco, I immediately started brainstorming on my review for the device. There are clear challenges in comparing generational, iterative products like the iPad — especially when the devices themselves look nearly identical. Looks, of course, are really only half the story with the new iPad (side note: the name is just "iPad," though Apple seems to be using "new" quite liberally). In fact, looks may not be the story at all.
While the device does appear to be physically nearly identical to its predecessor, there are significant changes in the product. For starters, it's boasting that outrageous Retina display — its 9.7-inch screen delivering a whopping 2048 x 1536 resolution. The new iPad is also equipped with a greatly improved camera on its back (a 5 megapixel shooter, not unlike the one featured on the iPhone 4), new 4G LTE options (for both Verizon and AT&T), and a considerably more powerful processor.
After the event last Wednesday, amongst the praise you could also detect a distinct sentiment of disappointment — mostly from the press. Much like the fallout after the introduction of the last iPhone, there were questions: Why does it look the same? No quad-core processor? Has Apple lost its edge? Yet despite the questions, pre-orders seem to be record breaking (just as with the iPhone 4S).
But is the iPad as good as it needs to be? Has Apple made the right moves, or is it slipping behind the competition? Most importantly, does the new iPad successfully defend the last version's reputation as the King of Tablets? I'll answer all those questions, and more, in this review — so read on!
Hardware and design
The iPad remains best in breed when it comes to design
As I said in the opening, there isn't much to note physically about the new iPad. In terms of materials, general design, and even packaging, this device is essentially the same product as the iPad 2. Sure, it's a slight bit thicker (0.37 inches compared to the previous version's 0.34), and yes, it's somewhat heavier (1.34 pounds versus 1.46 pounds for the cell-equipped versions) — but that's about it.
From the glass-covered display to the machined, aluminum backing, this is basically the same device you've seen since March of 2011. Admittedly, you can tell that it's got a bit more heft when you're holding it for long periods, but it's so minor it seems unlikely that only the most particular (and whiny) critics will really have an issue.
50 years from now, the iPad won't look out of place
The question now is: does this thing look dated? Let's be honest here, the original iPad and the iPad 2 weren't dramatically different looking, and there's even less of a step between the iPad 2 and the new model. That said, there's little to fault in this design — everything is pretty much where it should be, and functions as it should. For a tablet device where the display is the only substantial method of input available, you need little more than a screen — and that's what the iPad provides. Much like the classic Dieter Rams Braun products most modern Apple devices are aping, one feels that 50 years ago or 50 years from now, this product won't look too out of place. In the world of industrial design, that's a rarity.
I will, however, take a moment to gripe about two hardware decisions that have bugged me from the start. The first is the placement of the headphone jack. I'm sure there are many reasons why Apple chose to put the 3.5mm port in the upper left-hand corner of the device (in portrait) / lower left-hand corner (in landscape), but I feel like it would make a lot more sense on the bottom of the device. Secondly, it would be nice to be able to dock the iPad in landscape mode, but that would require a second 30-pin dock connection on the side of the tablet. I reported long ago that a version of the iPad which functioned like that was in play at some point at Apple, and I wish they'd kept it around.
Minor gripes aside, the iPad remains best in breed when it comes to design and materials. Other tablets may have more ports or larger screens, but few can match the elegance, sleekness, or solidness of this device.
Specs do matter, it seems, and the new iPad delivers a substantial upgrade in nearly every department
Inside, the iPad isn't playing around either. The system-on-a-chip which the previous iPad used — the A5 — has been retooled and spun into something Apple calls the A5X. At the center of that chip is an ARM-based, dual core SoC clocked to 1GHz, along with a quad-core GPU. Apple has upgraded the RAM in the iPad from 512MB to a full 1GB, and you'll find Bluetooth 4.0, as well as Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n on board.
In North America there are also two versions of the iPad destined for use with 4G LTE networks. In other parts of the world the device is compatible with 3G HSPA+ networks. Just as with the last version, you can buy an iPad with 16GB, 32GB, or 64GB of storage. I tested the 64GB model with Verizon LTE service.
As I mentioned in the intro, there's a new camera around back, a 5 megapixel version of Apple's iSight (or at least, what it's now calling iSight on the iPad). The sensor utilizes backside illumination, just like its iPhone brethren, and shares the same f/2.4 aperture. The iPad's camera software is now more inline with the iPhone as well. Up front, however, you're still stuck with a VGA camera for FaceTime chats. I'll get to more specific camera performance later in the review.
By now you've probably heard all the hype about the screen on the new iPad. If you haven't — it's time to climb out from under that rock.
First things first: the iPad's Retina display measure 9.7 inches diagonal, and has a resolution of 2048 x 1536, making it the highest resolution mobile device currently on the market. The pixel density of that display is 264 ppi, compared to 326 ppi on the iPhone 4 / 4S, and 316 ppi on something like the Galaxy Nexus. The iPad's display, however, makes all other device displays look pedestrian by comparison. And if you're an original iPad or iPad 2 owner... unless you want to upgrade, just avoid looking at this screen.
Yes, this display is outrageous. It's stunning. It's incredible. I'm not being hyperbolic or exaggerative when I say it is easily the most beautiful computer display I have ever looked at. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that you hold this in your hands, or maybe it's the technology that Apple is utilizing, or maybe it's the responsiveness of iOS — but there's something almost bizarre about how good this screen is. After the launch event, I described the screen as "surreal," and I still think that's a pretty good fit.
You literally can't see pixels on the iPad's display when you hold it at a regular distance, and even up close you have to really inspect the thing to see dots. For rendered text or high resolution images, it just looks otherworldly; like a glowing piece of paper. There were moments when I was testing the device when I would just marvel at a single paragraph of text, or I kept zooming in and out on a particular headline to see how cleanly fonts are rendered on this screen.
The display is so high resolution that it can actually be distracting in some ways. I began to notice just how low in quality and resolution graphics can look in certain apps and web pages. I even started making a list of graphic elements we need to update on The Verge.
As with any kind of screen technology, it really is the kind of thing you have to see in person. When you compare the old iPad to the new one, or to any other tablet for that matter, you'll start to wonder how you were ever able to look at anything else. I'm not saying that the screen alone is reason enough to buy this product, especially if you've got a tablet you're happy with right now, but I do think the quality of this display could make you a sudden convert. It's just really, really good.
Yes, this display is outrageous. It's stunning. It's incredible.
Performance, data, battery life
There's a certain kind of confidence with which it executes tasks
Apple has a long history of making decisions in its hardware which can sometimes compromise performance. The original MacBook Air comes to mind for instance — a groundbreaking design with relatively poor computing power. The original iPhone was a 2G-only device (ostensibly to conserve battery life), and clearly the antenna on the original iPhone 4 had form-over-function syndrome (at least for some users).
The fact that the new iPad touts an A5X SoC versus a completely new generation of chip may give some buyers pause, but in my testing I see no evidence that the processor in the iPad isn't every bit as powerful as it should be. While there's not some obvious speed boost in comparison to the previous generation iPad, there's certainly no stutter, stagger, or delay when using the tablet. Apps opened and closed quickly and without issue, app switching was efficient, and graphically-intensive games played smoothly on the device.
I saw no outstanding performance issues at all, in fact. Whether it's a further optimization of iOS, the new SoC, or a combination of the two (most likely), there's little to complain about in regards to overall speed and performance. What I can say most clearly about the iPad (and frankly, the version before this) is that there's a certain kind of confidence, of fearlessness, with which it executes tasks. With many modern mobile devices, there's this constant, nagging sensation that it's going to jam up, freeze, or otherwise not respond to your commands. That sensation is nowhere to be found on the new iPad — and it's a relief.
On the data side of things, at least on Verizon's LTE network, this thing (unsurprisingly) screams. If you own a Verizon 4G phone, or know what they're capable of, then you'll get the gist of what the new iPad can do. Actually, the iPad seemed faster to me than many phones I've tested. Another nice perk is that if you buy into the Verizon version, not only do you get your LTE service on the iPad, but you also can use the device as a wireless hotspot at no extra charge (AT&T says they're working on it, but they don't offer the same luxury).
In terms of raw speeds, I saw downloads hit more than 22Mbps, while upstream data topped out around an outrageous 21Mbps — and that was in mid-town Manhattan. Of course, a lot of this depends on your coverage and how many people around you are on the network. One other small thing: I did notice the device getting a bit warm when I was using LTE for extended periods of time, but that's pretty common for most 4G products I've tested.
As far as the battery life of the new iPad is concerned, I can say that the device pretty much lives up to Apple's ambitious claims. I ran our battery test on the device using both Wi-Fi and solely on Verizon's LTE network, and in both tests the rundown ended almost (but not exactly) where Apple says it should. The company claims you should get 10 hours of web browsing on Wi-Fi and 9 on LTE. On Wi-Fi I nabbed almost exactly 9 hours of constant browsing, and on LTE, my number was closer to 8 hours and 15 minutes. That's not exactly where Apple pegs it, but that's because our testing methods are slightly different (Apple sets their displays to 50 percent brightness, we use 65 percent).
It shouldn't come as a surprise that Apple is able to achieve this kind of performance; the new iPad has nearly double the battery capacity of the previous version in nearly the same amount of space (the iPad 2 has a 25Wh battery pack while the new iPad crams in a 42.5Wh slab). I assume that's what accounts for most of the weight gain on this device. With battery life like this, I'll take the slight extra baggage — and I'd argue most users would prefer their devices are less lean but have longer battery life.
In all, the new iPad lived up to my expectations on the performance and battery fronts — and I'm not sure how it might have surpassed them. It's everything the previous generation was, and then some. Stable, reliable, speedy, and long-lived. What more can you ask for?
I'm going to start this section by just stating, once again, that I believe 10-inch tablets with rear cameras are a ridiculous idea. An idea, perhaps, best reserved for moments of desperation or raw circumstance — like it's the only camera you have around when your cat begins doing something hilarious.
But the idea of taking this device out into the real world and attempting to snap photos with it is utterly laughable — something I discovered when I took the new iPad out into the world to snap photos with it. I don't care who you are, what you do for a living, or where you come from: it's impossible not to look like a total nerd when you're in public snapping pictures with something that is literally the surface size of four point and shoot cameras.
That said, if you absolutely must use the camera on the back of the new iPad, it will actually produce pretty favorable results. The auto-focus and face detection work excellently here (though tapping to focus is sometimes impossible due to the size of the thing). Thanks to that improved sensor, pictures you take on the iPad now look relatively respectable, with a depth of field shallow enough to pull off rather artistic looking images. Colors looked good to my eyes, if a little washed out, and shadows and highlights both popped appropriately. There's no flash present here, so don't expect explosive results in low light, though that larger aperture definitely allows better photos in darker places, and I saw relatively good results in my testing.
On the video front, the image stabilization is definitely needed and clearly in play when you're bouncing around, and the HD content the new iPad captured looked crisp and stutter-free. Again, I can't see a situation where you're really going to be shooting any kind of long-form video with this device, but if you absolutely must, it does a surprisingly respectable job.
Around front, you can expect the same basic quality of the last generation iPad — which means it's nothing to write home about. It would have been nice to see at least a 720p shooter on the flip side of the tablet considering how hard Apple's been trying to push FaceTime, but you're stuck with VGA here.
10-inch tablets with rear cameras are a ridiculous idea
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss
It should come as no surprise that the software on the new iPad is basically the same as the software on the last iPad. That is, it's iOS 5.1, which is now available for pretty much all of Apple's mobile devices. The iPad 2 and new iPad are functionally the same, and can both run the same software, including Apple's new iPhoto for iPad, and the updated Garageband.
Overall, there are some very minor tweaks to the way the OS operates (for instance on the lock screen you now have to swipe to bring up the camera), but overall it's exactly like the version of iOS you've been looking at since iOS 5 was launched alongside the iPhone 4S. There are some minor (but welcome) changes though, like the fact that you can now download multiple apps from the App Store without being kicked back to the homescreen every time you select something. Apple has also added its voice dictation (seen first in the iPhone 4S), which is surprisingly fast and accurate. For users who can't adjust to the virtual keyboard, this may be a happy middle-ground.
The overall performance of the software is very, very good. In fact, in terms of fluidity, stability, touch response, and general cohesion, there's no other tablet OS that comes close. Android 4.0 is getting there, though I have yet to use a stock version of that OS for an Android tablet, and the tablet I've used most (the Asus Transformer Prime) has had some issues. Certainly when it comes to completeness, third-party app selection, and overall ease-of-use, there is no comparison.
While much of iOS for a tablet is wonderful, I do have some gripes. For some reason, Apple removed the calculator, stock, and weather apps when it introduced the iPad, and it has yet to replace them. This is especially egregious given the fact that the iPad now shares iOS 5's notification center, which would be a perfect place for a persistent weather report or stock update. The lack of those features actually shines a light on one of the biggest missed opportunities on the iPad since day one: widgets.
I've been complaining about the lack of quickly accessible, glanceable information on this platform since launch day, and my feelings haven't changed one bit. The fact that Apple continues to ignore the issue (and actually made the experience worse on the iPad) seems just plain bizarre to me. How many years will this weather icon simply read 73 degrees and sunny?
New and updated apps
The biggest piece of the new iPad puzzle is one of the apps introduced alongside the tablet. Apple is now offering iPhoto for the iPad (and iPhones and iPod touches, too) — and like Pages, Keynote, and Numbers, it's approaching real-world productivity.
The basic concept of iPhoto is that it takes much of the editing features added into the photo app on iOS devices and just explodes them. This is a much more full-featured application which allows you to do all sorts of very specific editing of photos, including adjusting exposure, coloring, retouching (using multitouch gestures), cropping, rotating, repairing, and more. The app also gives you a handful of Instagram-style retro filters, as well as a way to add a vignette to your images to give them that burnt-in, old school feel.
Apple seems interested in selling its products as content creation devices
You're also able to collect your images together (along with dates, maps, and weather er... widgets) into virtual scrapbooks which Apple calls journals. Those journals can then be uploaded to iCloud and shared via a specific URL, sent to iTunes, or beamed to an Apple TV. That's pretty significant since Apple canned the ability to share photos on the web when it introduced iCloud.
iPhoto and GarageBand are powerful tools
In all, it's an excellent example of the depth and breadth possible in iOS apps, and though it certainly won't stand in as a replacement for Photoshop, it's capable of handling most of the needs of an average (and even above average) user. Even relatively pro shooters may find some utility here, as you're able to import, edit, and export RAW files in addition to the standard crop of JPEG or PNG formats.
Apple has also updated GarageBand (like iPhoto, not a stock part of the OS) to include some interesting new features, most notably the ability to "jam" with up to four other GarageBand users on the same network. It's actually a pretty amazing trick — one of the players leads the group (controls playback, tempo, and recording), while everyone is free to riff on their own part. If recording, each instrument is tracked on the band leader's device, and also duplicated on the player's machine. It's a fascinating way to play music in a group (or even solo with two devices), and shows that Apple is legitimately interested in continuing to sell its products as content creation devices, not just toys for passive, lean-back experiences.
The iPad continues to stand head and shoulders above the competition
Let's be clear: the new iPad is in a class by itself, just as its predecessor was. As the latest product in a lineage of devices that defined this category, the iPad continues to stand head and shoulders above the competition. With the addition of the Retina display, LTE, more memory, and a more powerful processor, Apple has absolutely held onto the iPad's market position as the dominant player and product to beat.
But should you buy it?
I would imagine that the vast majority of people considering the new iPad fall into one of two categories: upgraders (people who already own a previous model or Android tablet), and new buyers.
For owners of the iPad 2, this isn't necessarily a slam dunk. While the updated features are a boon to the new iPad, it doesn't offer an experience that is significantly different from the previous version. If your screen never bothered you, and you never wanted a faster cellular connection or a better camera, there's not a great argument to upgrade (especially considering many of you just shelled out for a new tablet less than a year ago).
However, if you're in the market for your first tablet, or upgrading from the original iPad or an Android device, do not hesitate. The new iPad is the most functional, usable, and beautiful tablet that any company has ever produced.
See how the new iPad stacks up to the competition
The iPad continues to stand head and shoulders above the competition