Every year since 2010, there has been a new version of the iPad. In 2012, we've already seen three. One, the iPad Mini, is a different beast altogether. Still, even the third-generation iPad with its Retina Display has suddenly become the recipient of a surprising seventh-month upgrade, to a very similar-looking device now known as the "fourth-generation iPad."
Should owners of the now "old" third-gen March 2012 iPad be upset? Should new buyers be wary? The answer to the first is yes. The answer to the second is no. The new iPad (technically just known as "iPad" at the Apple Store) has a few upgrades, two minor, one significantly major. A Lightning connector replaces the old 30-pin, just like all other new iOS devices this fall. And while the rear iSight camera remains the same (5 megapixels), the front-facing FaceTime camera has been upgraded to HD status: 720p video recording and sharper self-portraits. The LTE versions of the new iPad also work with a wider range of international carriers.
Biggest of all is the new processor lurking beneath: an A6X processor, replacing the third-gen's A5X. The previous iPad was no slouch in the performance department, but as we remarked when we reviewed the iPad in March, its speed gains weren't such a huge quantum leap compared with what we got from the iPad 2.
The A6X speeds up the iPad back to levels you'd expect, and it handles Retina Display graphics even better. This is the iPad 3S, so to speak. Considering that the iPad still has the same price as before it's an even better buy than it was seven months ago.
The landscape's changed a little bit since March. Competing tablets have become more affordable. Windows 8 and RT tablets now offer an alternative set of products. None of these can touch the iPad. The biggest competitor, really, is that innocent iPad Mini, which could be the biggest little disruptor of them all, especially when it gets its own Retina Display.
You may be concerned to buy this iPad: could Apple surprise us with more frequent updates instead of yearly cycles? I think that's unlikely. Plus, the important point is that this iPad is the best one. It's polished. It's improved over the third-gen model. If you were on the fence about buying one before, now's the time to go ahead and do it. And it's still a better product than the iPad Mini... this year, at least.
Design: Deja Pad
Place the new fourth-gen iPad on a table anywhere and no one will be able to know it's the latest and greatest unless he happens to see that telltale, teeny-tiny Lightning connector. This isn't a product you can easily show off. Just like the iPhone 4S, it has the same weight, size, and overall design as its predecessor. Even the back panel doesn't give any hint that this is a newer iPad than before. For a deeper dive on what this iPad feels like, go back and read Donald Bell's review of the third-gen iPad.
My Wi-Fi review model came in black (64GB); the iPad also comes in white. Both, as usual, have differently colored front glass and the same aluminum backs.
Does the iPad's design still hold up? Yes, mainly because of its all-metal-and-glass construction, still a rarity among tablets. The 652g body doesn't feel lightweight, but it's comfortable to hold in two hands. As a one-handed device, it's awkward and cumbersome. The sleek feel makes it seem fragile; indeed, you wouldn't want to drop one on a hard floor.
The Retina Display also remains the same, and it's still as lovely as ever. The 2,048x1,536-pixel 9.7-inch IPS screen is unmatched among tablets. Color accuracy is superb, movies look great, and photos look even better. Text is crystal-clear, just like on the iPhone. It makes a big difference when looking at Web pages. Still, this is all exactly the same as the third-gen iPad.
The thicker bezel of the iPad is necessary at this size and weight; it helps keep a grip on the otherwise ultra-sleek body. The single home button still feels a little vestigial, but it's not going anywhere anytime soon. Volume rocker buttons on the side and a silence/orientation lock switch remain. Speakers, headphone jack: they're all the same.
This is the first iPad that hasn't changed its look at all since the last iteration. The third-gen iPad is awfully close to the iPad 2, but thicker. That makes three straight similar-looking iPad models. Much like the iPhone, the iPad in its larger 9.7-inch version has settled into a form, for now. It seems due for a redesign next year, based on Apple's evolutionary history of iOS devices. But it isn't essential that it gets one.
A6X: What's the difference?
So, let's get down to that new A6X processor. Just like the last iPad's A5X, the A6X is a dual-core ARM-based processor with quad-core graphics. Those extra graphics are what distinguish it from the A6 processor on the iPhone 5. The same was true for the A5X on the early 2012 iPad versus the iPhone 4S.
It's hard to test any apps that truly take advantage of the A6X, because at the time of this review, no apps were available that claimed to be fourth-gen iPad-enhanced. Theoretically, games should run faster and smoother on the Retina Display. Indeed, the ones I tested did. N.O.V.A. 3, a first-person shooter from Gameloft that's often prone to choppiness in heavy action, was silky smooth. Other games seemed equally fast-loading and zippy.
Other tablets may be going quad-core for the most part, but the A6X does its part to provide what feels like very fast performance, and easily enough power to do anything you'd dream of doing on iOS.
Camera: FaceTime HD
The new front-facing FaceTime HD camera doesn't feel as dramatic as it did on the iPhone 5 or fifth-gen iPod Touch. For one, the iPad's screen is a lot larger; also, that high-res Retina Display can display a lot more pixels, so the average image just comes off as grainier. It's still better than before, and it makes a difference on FaceTime calls, but the rear camera remains the same as before: 5 megapixels, no changes. It's suitable in a pinch, but as a whole the iPad's camera doesn't match the stellar quality of the iPhone 5's. This should encourage you to never be that person taking photos in public with an iPad.
Wi-Fi and LTE: A little better
It's worth noting that the built-in Wi-Fi antennas on the fourth-gen iPad are now dual-band (2.4GHz and 5GHz 802.11a/b/g/n), which should offer better connections and speeds over the average home network. Apple made the move to dual-band on the iPhone 5 and iPad Mini, too.
What's in the box: Lightning, 12W adapter
Just like before, the iPad includes just the device plus a sync/charge cable and AC adapter. Those two have been tweaked in the fourth-gen model: USB-to-Lightning replaces the older 30-pin cable, and the AC brick is 12W, as opposed to 10W. No earbuds or EarPods are included.
The Lightning connector, new to this larger iPad, is Apple's new syncing, charging, and connection port. It debuted on the iPhone 5 in September and has since been seen on the iPod Nano, fifth-gen iPod Touch, the iPad Mini, and this iPad. The Lightning connector has essentially the same functionality as the older 30-pin, but requires new cables or a separate adapter for older accessories (which may not work with all functions). That could be annoying if you have an iPad dock, but many accessories have been increasingly using AirPlay for wireless video and audio streaming. I prefer that option, especially with a larger device like the iPad.
The 12W adapter offers up slightly faster charging. The third-gen iPad was notoriously slow to charge, and so far I've seen the new iPad make greater progress over an hour's top-off plug-in. It's not superfast, but it's better.
Apple makes the same battery-life claims on the fourth-gen iPad as on the third-gen: 10 hours of video playback. Then again, the third-gen iPad supposedly had the same battery life as the iPad 2, but actually lasted a little less over the course of an average day.
The latest iPad's battery life, based on our formal tests, is even higher than we expected: it lasted through 13.1 hours of continuous video playback, compared with 11.4 hours on the third-gen iPad. An extra hour and 42 minutes of battery life to go with a significantly faster processor and graphics makes for an awfully nice one-two punch. The fourth-gen iPad lasted a good solid day, and then some, through continuous video-playing, game-playing, Web-browsing use. Incidentally, it also outperformed the iPad Mini's battery life by a full hour.
The new fourth-generation iPad is the best iPad. It's the fastest iPad. But it's no longer the smallest iPad, or the most affordable. That changes the perception of Apple's larger tablet seemingly overnight: this is now the professional-level performance device, the laptop alternative.
Who are we kidding? It's still pretty portable, and at $539, it's decently affordable. For those who care about the best screen, excellent battery life, impressive performance and the greatest compatibility with cutting-edge apps, look no further. Others may choose the iPad Mini for its compactness. In the long run, the iPad Mini may be the most successful iPad. Today, I still think that award belongs to the larger, classic version, but by a narrow margin — and mainly because of that Retina Display.