Updated March 19, 2012: For days I’ve been reading rave reviews of the new 3rd Gen iPad. Each early reviewer had his own unique observations, but generally the love was directed where you would expect: the Retina display, battery life, graphics performance, LTE, and overall Apple-ness. From the moment it was announced – and actually even before – I never doubted I would love the new iPad even more than I did the first generation or the iPad 2.
And I do greatly appreciate the important new features. But after spending a few days with Apple’s second tablet revision, love is not the first word I’d use to describe my feeling. In fact, I’m a little disappointed. Not that the iPad 3 isn’t great – it absolutely is - or that it’s improvements aren’t important – they are – but in taking their tablet to the next level, Apple has also sacrificed some of what made the device feel like the “magical” slab of glass it’s been since the first model was introduced two years ago.
Is the gain worth the give?
An understanding of the new iPad’s hardware begins and ends with its screen, the Retina display. This 2048×1536 264PPI IPS touchscreen is the star at the center of the iPad 3 system, around which all revolves.
The 9.7-inch Retina packs an almost unbelievable 3.1 million pixels into the same screen space as the previous two iPads models with four times the pixel count. This was no mean feat, and by no means a matter of simply replacing one screen with another. An ultra high resolution screen needs plenty of accompanying hardware drive it: more processing power, more RAM, and a much larger battery to keep everything juiced and running.
Image Courtesy of iFixIt.com (Click to Zoom)
So, Apple designed the new A5X SoC (System-on-a-Chip), with a dual-core 1GHz ARM CPU and a quad-core graphics processor. They also doubled the RAM to a full gigabyte. And to power all those pixels, cores and megabytes for more than a few hours, a new battery had to be created with about 70% more capacity than the battery inside the iPad 2 (42.5Wh v 25Wh).
To better showcase the new screen, an iPhone 4S-inspired primary camera good for 5MP still images and 1080p video recording was added. 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi is still part of the mix, but with added support for the .11a network type, and the Bluetooth hardware has been bumped to 4.0, presumably for power-saving reasons (and to match late-gen MacBooks). If you choose a 3G/LTE model, you’ll also get access to AT&T or Verizon’s 3G or “4G” data networks (for a price, of course) and a GPS receiver.
Look & Feel
Lying side-by-side on a table, the iPad 2 and iPad 3 are nearly indistinguishable. Aside from a wider rear camera lens and an ever-so-slightly thicker shell, the two are mirror images of each other. But pick it up and power it on, and you’ll instantly notice that there’s more to this new tablet than first meets the eye.
The iPad 3 is heavier than the iPad 2, 1.44-pounds to the iPad 2’s 1.33, a little over two ounces. But never have two ounces seemed weightier; this iPad instantly feels heavier in the hand than does the iPad 2, though the slight thickness increase (at least to me) is not detectable. If you haven’t been holding an iPad 2 every day for the last year, the weight is in line with a 1st Gen iPad: that is to say a little heavy, but not terribly so. To an iPad 2 user like me, the new iPad seems like a slab of lead, and in this regard the iPad 3 feels like a step backward. I don’t now if it’s the weight distribution or the juxtaposition of the weight and thinness (the original iPad was heaver, but also thicker), but it’s noticeable. If you’d switched the new iPad with my iPad 2 without my knowledge, I’d have known something was off instantly when picking it up.
Since Apple didn’t change the external materials, the Gorilla glass and machined aluminum still feel solid and luxurious in the hand.
What doesn’t feel so nice is the heat. If you’ve seen Apple’s new A5X chip, you know it’s now silver instead of black. That silver is metal, a metal heatsink to be precise, and now I know why the iPad 3’s new brain needed one: it gets hot. Not 2005 laptop hot, but perceivably warm when the iPad is in use for more than a few minutes. The chip is located on the lower left-side of the tablet, which is where you’ll notice most of the extra degrees. At least in winter, your hands won’t get cold.
This is the only portion of the review that contains any appreciable complaints, and I’m sure some will call them nitpicking. But part of what has set the iPad so unique is that it managed not to feel like a computer. In my review of the first iPad, I called it “a relatively powerful computer in a relatively small, thin, cool and silent shell.” It’s still thin and silent, but the added weight and heat detract from the magical-window quality of previous models, making it less mystery and more computer.
The Retina Display
As I’ve said, the Retina display is the Alpha and Omega of the iPad 3 – the only real reason to upgrade from an iPad 2. And Retina on the iPad, not surprisingly, is beautiful. Wallpaper, photos, app icons, album cover art, text – everything looks iPhone 4S crisp – only bigger. The new iPad’s Retina is actually not as densely-packed with pixels as are the screens on the iPhone 4 and 4S (264PPI v. 326PPI), but held at a natural distance it looks every bit as clear.
Viewing photos, particularly larger photos zoomed, yields amazing results, as does watching high-def videos. Color saturation is also wildly improved (left). 1080p video looks – there’s just no other word for it – stunning on the iPad 3; everything looks like a backlit, high-end print magazine.
Well… almost everything. While Apple’s own software – iOS 5.1, Mail, Calendar, iBooks, Pages, etc., have been updated to support the new resolution, the vast majority of App Store iPad titles have not. This will change with time, obviously, as software companies update their apps, but for a while you’ll have to get used to looking at some screens that don’t look quite right.
And, as I’ll cover in the next section, if you have an iPad game that’s Retina-ready, hold on to your eyeballs.
We’re told the A5X is mostly a GPU upgrade, as the applications processor remains a 1GHz dual-core affair. That may be true, but the iPad 3 is noticeably faster than the iPad 2. Opening an app like Zite (one of my favorites) takes a hair less time on the new iPad, but getting content loaded once the app is open is considerably faster. Ditto Instapaper, Reeder, or any app with lots of bytes to chew. Downloading and installing apps, too, seems a hair snappier.
Video playback is flawless (assuming the source video is, too). There’s not much more I can say in this regard. Smaller video files that looked good on the previous iPad models might not look so hot on the new iPad, so get ready for using larger files if you want them to look their best.
If you enjoy tablet gaming, the iPad 3 will soon be your new best friend. It’s hard to believe gaming on such a thin device can look this good. And it does look good. Breathtakingly good.
I tested the newly Retina-updated version of Infinity Blade II for graphics performance and it’s as close to virtual reality as you’re likely to get without a helmet. The rendered depth and clarity is something you simply have to see to believe. Some of the video inside the game was jerky, but titles will be updated to take full advantage of the new screen and hardware going forward.
Audio performance is on par with the iPad 2, both from the onboard speaker and the 3.5mm audio jack.
Battery life is supposed to be unchanged other iPads, up to ten hours of use per charge. While I haven’t had time to test this fully, it seems about right. I haven’t noticed any real difference between the drain rate of the new iPad v. the iPad 2.
The new iPad doesn’t have the iPhone 4S’s 8MP CCD, but it does have the phone’s optics and sensor technology in its rear 5MP shooter. Features of the new primary camera hardware include a backside illumination sensor, a larger ƒ/2.4 aperture and a five-element lens, all working together to give you sharper, more true-to-live images. Add to that face detection, image stabilization, and 1080p HD video, and the camera is no slouch.
Except… who takes pictures with an iPad, or any tablet for that matter? I guess Apple had to improve what came before (not a difficult task considering the iPad 2’s terrible offerings) but I continue to argue that outside of a few niche users, the iPad is just not anyone’s go-to camera no matter how great that camera might be.
Where an upgrade would have made a difference, though, is with the so-called FaceTime camera. This front-facing camera is for video chat, primarily, and it’s the same low-res VGA video recorder found on the iPad 2, which is to say, it’s terrible – a reality made even more pitiful by the Retina screen.
Talking to Yourself – Not Siri
While the new iPad doesn’t have Siri onboard, Apple did include one of her several talents: voice-to-text dictation. Enter an app or screen that accepts input, and on the keyboard you’ll see a new key to the left of the spacebar that allows you to dictate text. This feature works very, very well, but is reliant on an internet connection. As it is, you have to tap the key a second time for it to stop listening and output your speech, which I wish were not the case (or at least you could configure this in settings). Other than that, no real complaints. This is a very welcome addition and mitigates one of the disadvantages of a tablet that relies on an onscreen keyboard for input.
Why Apple chose not to include Siri-proper on the iPad 3 is a mystery to me, but since the hardware can more than handle the processes involved, it’s either one of two things (or a mixture of both). 1) Apple’s still not entirely certain Siri’s real-world performance is ready for primetime (it is still in beta, after all) or 2) they’re concerned about the backend being overloaded by millions of iPad users.
Size Matters Now
I’ve chosen the 16GB model of the iPad each time because I don’t lard my tablet with a lot of large, permanent files. Magazines, large PDFs, and the occasional video are the largest files you’ll find on my tablet, and they’re almost always temporary.
That’ll still be the case with the iPad 3, but 16GB may prove much easier to fill than it used to be. The culprit? Retina. Apps with Retina graphics (particularly graphics-intensive games), eBooks, web graphics (if updated for Retina), photos, digital magazines, even screenshots (you can see just how huge a full-sized iPad 3 screenshot is by clicking the image to the right; they’re 4MB each, but I’ve converted this to a JPEG to save time), all take up more space than they did before because of larger embedded graphics.
As I mentioned, larger video files will also be required to take full advantage of the screen. Since Apple still doesn’t offer expandable storage, you’re stuck with what you get, so choose wisely.
Why No LTE?
I’ve had an iPad for two years and simply don’t find myself in too many use-locations where Wi-Fi isn’t available. Plus, my phone can tether and LTE isn’t yet available in my area from either AT&T or Verizon. I can’t personally comment on this feature and how it works on the LTE models of iPad 3, other than to say that those who’ve tested it love it.
Is the new iPad the best ever released? In most ways, yes. But – and this may be more visceral than logical – it also feels like something has been taken away from the iPad experience. The 3rd Gen iPad is faster, has a vastly improved touchscreen, and serves up better features like Siri-powered voice dictation, a 5MP camera, and Bluetooth 4.0. But some of the magic has been lost as well.
This perception may pass with time. I hope it does. But for now, I can’t help but feel slightly let down by the heat issue. It’s like buying a car with a faster engine, a geeked-out dashboard and flashier interior, only to find that the AC doesn’t keep you cool.
I’m really not complaining here; in most respects the iPad 3 is a winner, and unquestionably blows the socks off the competition. I’m not returning it. I’m simply saying Apple may have had to sacrifice too much for what it delivered. Time will tell.
M. Nichols, Products Editor