Apple's new iPad is a mix of the familiar and the futuristic. Its design remains practically unchanged from last year's iPad 2. Its internal components and wireless capabilities have only received a predictable bump. You'll think that Apple fell asleep at the wheel with this one — until that moment when you turn on the screen.
When I tell you that Apple has doubled the iPad's screen resolution to an unprecedented 2048x1536 pixels, your eyes should water a little. No other screen in your home can compete with this resolution — not your laptop, not your desktop computer, not even your 1080p TV. For a device that fits in your lap and costs as little as AU$539, a screen like this is an impressive feat.
Speaking of pricing, the going rate for an iPad hasn't changed since the tablet's introduction in 2010. The AU$539 entry-level price buys you 16GB of built-in storage; spending AU$649 buys you twice the room (32GB); and AU$759 will bring you up to 64GB. All three models can access the internet over Wi-Fi, and are available in either black or white. If you want the added ability to access the internet over a 3G cellular network, tack on an extra AU$140.
For the iPad uninitiated looking to save a little money, Apple is keeping around the 2011 iPad 2 (16GB), priced from AU$429. It's a good price, especially considering that the iPad 2 is still leagues better than many of the tablets that we've seen this year. But if you want bragging rights and a renewed lease on the cutting edge of tablet technology, then the new iPad is the way to go.
Looking at the new iPad, you'd think that someone was playing a trick on you. It looks almost exactly like last year's model. The tablet's glass and aluminium construction is still 241mm tall and 185mm wide. Thickness is now up slightly at 9.4mm, weighing in at a beefier 662 grams. You get the same home button on the bottom of the screen and a volume rocker on the right side, along with the mute switch/rotation lock. Up top, you have the sleep/wake button and headphone output, and the bottom edge retains the 30-pin port.
The new iPad is slightly heavier than the iPad 2.
Apple's retreat from being one of the thinnest, lightest tablets on the market may leave some room for competitors. Already, we're seeing tablets, like the Toshiba Excite X10 LE, which are thinner than the iPad 2 and just as light. Apple is betting that a best-in-class screen will trump any concerns over the slight uptick in weight and thickness. And if they're wrong, well, the iPad 2 is still around for those who can't bear the extra 51 grams.
But the sure fire way to tell a new iPad apart from an iPad 2 (aside from counting pixels or breaking out the scales) is to flip them over. No, this isn't a tablet gender test; what you're looking for here is the rear camera in the top left corner. On the new model, the camera is slightly larger, accounting for the improved optics and camera sensor, similar to what's used in the iPhone 4S (though not identical).
Beyond the vastly improved screen, there are a number of other upgrades worth mentioning. The iPad's processor has been upgraded to what Apple is calling an A5X. Like the A5 processor used in the iPad 2, this CPU remains dual core. The "X" is there to signify that the graphics processor has been beefed up to quad core. This seems to be a necessary measure for juggling four times the pixels of the previous model, but, regardless, games and graphics perform fluidly.
Against everyone's expectations, Apple did not include its Siri digital assistant on the new iPad — at least, not entirely. Siri's voice-to-text dictation capability has migrated to the iPad, but that's it. If you want to find nearby sushi restaurants, you're going to have to search for the answer online, like a Neanderthal.
Still, the addition of voice dictation is a welcome feature, and it can be handy for composing quick emails and bypassing the touchscreen keyboard when searching for information online. Its accuracy leaves a little to be desired, though. Just like auto-corrected typing, the iPad's dictation isn't infallible.
Last but not least, there's the iPad's updated rear camera, which the company calls its iSight camera. It is a huge improvement over the iPad 2's 0.7-megapixel shooter; this updated shooter is now 5 megapixels. If you've spent any time over on Apple's iPad page, you've probably seen the exploded view of Apple's five-element lens system, which was adopted from the iPhone. However you want to explain it, the photo quality is exceptional for a tablet, and we have the photos to prove it.
We still contend that it's a bit silly waving a tablet around to capture photos and video, but I understand the counterpoint, and I'll admit that the iPad's screen makes a better display than any camera, smartphone or photo frame.
Features we take for granted
Let's not forget all the features that made the first two iPads unbeatable. If you've ever used an iPhone or an iPod Touch, the new iPad will feel immediately familiar. Out of the box, you get many of the iPhone's capabilities, including Apple-designed apps for web browsing, email, maps, photos, music, video and YouTube. More apps can be installed using the built-in App Store software, or by connecting the iPad to iTunes via your computer, using the included cable. If you already own apps purchased for an iPhone or an iPod Touch, you can transfer these apps to the iPad, as well.
The original iPad made its debut with iOS 3.2. That OS' limitations seem prehistoric today. You couldn't bounce between applications with multitasking; you couldn't organise applications into folders; and support for document printing and AirPlay streaming of music, videos and photos didn't arrive until November 2010.
At launch, the new iPad comes with iOS 5.1. Recently added features such as iMessage, Newsstand, Notifications and Twitter integration are all included, along with support for Apple's free iCloud online backup service.
One sticking point in the original iPad that Apple hasn't addressed in the new iPad is Adobe Flash support for Apple's Safari web browser. Apple seems dead set against supporting Adobe's popular tool for presenting video and graphics on the web, and, without it, some corners of the web are still inaccessible on the iPad.
To Apple's credit, even the maker of Flash (Adobe) has conceded that HTML5 is a better solution for presenting content on mobile devices going forward. As such, the web is steadily bending towards greater compatibility with the iPad, and the issue of Flash compatibility seems less contentious than it once was.
In terms of browser features, the iPad's Safari browser matches what you'll find from the best competing tablets. With Google's recent improvements to Android's Chrome web browser in Android 4.0, Apple now has some tough competition.
But in terms of the subjective web-browsing experience, Apple's Retina Display gives the new iPad a decisive victory. Because text is rendered with such razor-sharp clarity, everything from Facebook to The New York Times takes on a print-like quality that is easier on the eyes than what any laptop or tablet offers.
To 3G or not to 3G?
For those who just get a little itchy at the idea of not being connected to the internet, Apple offers a version of the iPad with an integrated 3G mobile data connection, priced at an AU$140 premium over models that only offer Wi-Fi.
The jury seems split over whether the added cost of a mobile data capability is money well spent, or an unnecessary expense. Ultimately, if you can afford it, do it. Aside from the 10 grams it adds to the iPad's overall weight, there are no drawbacks to owning an iPad 3G model other than the data plan it requires. Yet, unlike so many 3G tablets on the market, Apple requires no contracts if bought outright; the data plans you purchase month to month can be ratcheted up and down as you please.
Another advantage of iPad with 4G is the added capability of assisted GPS (A-GPS), allowing users to accurately pinpoint their locations on a map and take advantage of navigation and location-aware apps. The Wi-Fi-only models of the iPad can use rudimentary Wi-Fi hot-spot triangulation techniques to guess locations, but are much less accurate and consistent.
If you have no plans to regularly use the iPad outside of your home, you'd do just as well to save some money and stick with a Wi-Fi model. But if you do take the plunge, the 3G download performance on either network should knock your socks off, provided that you live in an area that supports it.
iPad as an e-reader
As far as ebook content goes, the iPad has got you covered. Every major ebook retailer (and quite a few specialised stores) offer an iPad app, including Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Kobo, Google Books, Stanza and Apple's own iBooks.
Mainstream magazines, including The New Yorker, Wired and Vanity Fair, all have iPad-specific editions. Even speciality publications, such as comic books, test prep and sheet music, have found their way onto the iPad.
But when you compare the experience of reading on the iPad with its paper-based ancestor or dedicated E-Ink readers, the iPad still falls short. It's beefy, at 662 grams (a Galaxy Tab 7.7 weighs 340 grams), and, in spite of the Retina Display's exquisitely rendered text, glare is still an issue — especially outdoors. Also, a product like the Amazon Kindle promises up to two months of reading without a recharge, whereas the iPad will only get you to 10 hours.
iPad for gaming
If you don't have a game installed on your iPad, I feel sorry for you. Whether it's a simple round of Scrabble or an intense romp through Grand Theft Auto 3, the iPad's combination of Retina Display and quad-core graphics processor add up to a dramatic improvement for gaming.
A screenshot from Modern Combat 3 for iOS.
Even your old games will look and perform better on the new iPad. It's not like the old days, when games designed for the original iPhone had to be stretched and deformed to fill the iPad's screen. Games that look great on the iPad 2, such as Cut the Rope, Infinity Blade and Fruit Ninja, look as though they've had a haze cleared from the screen. We're sure there's some resolution scaling involved, but there were no visible artefacts that we could pick out. Everything just looks smooth and crisp.
And for titles that have been optimised for the new iPad's screen and graphics processor, plan your sick day now. Games like Sky Gamblers: Air Supremacy and Mass Effect 3 Infiltrator look as though they were beamed over from your Xbox 360.
Don't be fooled by the new iPad's specs sheet. The bumps in processing power and RAM are balanced out by the demands of the Retina Display and by processing the types of high-resolution content that you'll be feeding it. The experience of poking around the music player or composing an email are seemingly no swifter than on the iPad 2.
Fortunately, we never found the iPad 2 lacking in system-performance power. There were things that it simply couldn't do, such as play 1080p video files, but it seldom sputtered or hung while browsing the web or loading apps.
The new iPad's maximum brightness is slightly higher than the iPad 2's, but it can't match the Android 4.0-based Asus Transformer Prime in Super IPS mode. The Prime's Super IPS mode's high brightness is useful when using the tablet in direct sunlight. At the other end of the spectrum, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1's PLS-based display delivers a lower maximum black level.
While the new iPad's screen is gorgeous, it still can't technically match the luminance extremes of these two popular Android tablets. But thanks to the visual impact of the new iPad's high-resolution display, it's an easy detail to look past. If you do crank up the iPad's brightness, be prepared to take a hit on battery life.
With the new iPad, 1080p video files will play just fine, and are ironically upscaled to the screen's native resolution. These video files take a huge bite out of the iPad's capacity, though, with a movie like Hugo coming in at 3.99GB. If you're going to store a lot of HD media, spring for the extra capacity.
The same caveat goes for the iPad's new rear camera, which offers a dramatically improved 5-megapixel still camera and 1080p video-recording quality. A test photo can be seen below, and a sample video is being included in the first look video above. In both cases (but especially for video), these high-quality files will eat up space over time, so don't skimp on capacity if you plan on using the camera often.
A test photo taken with the new iPad.
Apple has rated the battery for the new iPad at a 10-hour mark that still befuddles the competition. With 4G active, this number slips down to a still admirable nine hours.
Here are the official CNET-tested battery life results.
Fortunately, Apple hasn't done anything to monkey around with the iPad's universal dock connection. Generally speaking, if you could plug it in to the first two iPads, it should work with the new one, as well. This goes for charging cables, video adapters (such as Apple's HDMI-compatible digital A/V adapter), Apple's Camera Connection kit or any in-car adapter cables. Apple has released an updated version of its HDMI Digital A/V Adapter that is optimised for the new iPad, but the older adapter will still work.
If you'd prefer to beam content wirelessly from your iPad to your TV, the little hockey-puck-sized $99 Apple TV is the way to go. Aside from working as a great standalone media streamer for iTunes downloads, Netflix and others, you can also use it to push media from your iPad to your TV (a feature that Apple calls AirPlay).
Who should buy it?
If you've waited this long to buy your first iPad, then congratulations! Buy with confidence that this is the best iPad yet. That said, if the price of a new iPad has got you cringing, then there are a number of more affordable iPad alternatives out there.
For existing iPad owners, I would liken this to the time you upgraded your TV to a high-definition model. All things being equal, if this is something that you're going to look at every day, you may as well invest in the remarkably better screen.
Will the iPad's screen be matched or bested by a better or cheaper product in the near future? Possibly. But even if an Android tablet manufacturer throws one out there, the general dearth of tablet-optimised Android apps to run on it will take some time to overcome.
When the original iPad bounded out of the starting gate, it took a huge lead before its competitors figured out what was going on. With the iPad 2, Apple lapped the competition once more by setting design expectations that were nearly impossible to match. The third iPad employs a similar tactic, dramatically raising our collective expectations of tablet-screen quality. Placed next to the competition, the superior product is literally plain to see.