Apple's original vision for the iPad was to break down the barriers between us and our content, whether it's the Web, photos, movies or games. Like any conclusion to a compelling trilogy, the third-generation iPad aims to complete that vision with a display so stunning that you nearly forget you're using a gadget. Apple also added a new A5X processor with quadruple the graphics muscle to push around all those pixels, along with a sharper 5-MP camera and optional 4G LTE data from AT&T or Verizon. Starting at $499 for 16GB ($629 for 4G), the new iPad is certainly a feast for the eyes, but has Apple done enough with its sequel to keep consumers excited--and the competition envious?
The difference is noticeable but almost negligible. Weighing 1.44 pounds and measuring 0.37 inches thick, the new iPad has the same 9.5 x 7.31 footprint, but is slightly thicker and heavier than the iPad 2 (1.34 pounds, 0.34 inches), mostly owing to the larger capacity battery inside. While we're surprised Apple took a slight step backward in this department, we didn't mind the additional heft when playing games or surfing the Web.
Overall, the iPad's aluminum-and-glass design is just as attractive as before.We still love the super-sturdy feel and smooth, tapered edges. And just like its predecessor, the new iPad is available in black and white. It's more of a personal preference, but the white version has a more modern vibe to us.
It's not easy to make an HDTV look bad. But that's exactly what the third-generation iPad does, thanks to its breakthrough Retina display.
Apple managed to pack four times the number of pixels (2048 x 1536) into the same 9.7-inch screen. From a couple of feet away, you can barely tell the difference between the iPad 2 and new iPad, but up close, the result is nothing short of breathtaking. Icons literally seem to float above the screen, and text is so sharp you can't see any pixelation when you zoom all the way in. Upcoming Android tablets promise only 1920 x 1200 pixels.
When we viewed the same HD trailer of "The Avengers" side by side on the iPad 2 and new iPad, we could make out more detail in Iron Man's suit. Plus, the red-and-gold popped more. That's not a coincidence, because the new tablet's screen offers 44 percent better color saturation. You'll also enjoy the Retina display when watching full HD (1080p) videos from iTunes, something only the new iPad can do. We downloaded "Young Adult" and could easily make out every crevice and pore in Charlize Theron's face.
However, at an average 386 lux, the new iPad was slightly dimmer than the iPad 2, whose display averaged 412 lux. Still, that's above the category average of 348 lux.
Apple has rewritten several of its own apps to take advantage of the Retina display and has rolled out new ones, such as iPhoto. Third-party developers are also updating their own wares. A great example is "Infinity Blade II." The leaves in a lush jungle scene looked smoother and more natural than on the iPad 2, and shadows looked less jagged.
The iPad 2's display was already best-in-class when it came to viewing angles and overall clarity, but the new iPad ups the ante for the industry.
Like its predecessor, the new iPad features a single speaker on the back toward the bottom left side. It got quite loud when we played The Shins' "Simple Song," but sounded harsh at maximum volume. The audio was more balanced and pleasant when we kept the sound at 75 percent volume or less. Dialogue in movies was loud and clear, and sound effects in games had plenty of punch.
iOS 5.1 and Software
The new iPad's software should look and feel very familiar, because iOS 5.1 doesn't bring many new features to the table. The iPad still uses the classic grid of icons for its interface, and you can easily access notifications by swiping down from the top of the screen. So what's new? One welcome addition is the ability to delete photos you've uploaded to Photo Stream via iCloud, answering one of the chief complaints of iOS 5.0 users.
iOS 5.1 also includes a redesigned camera app, which puts the shutter button in a more natural location--on the right side of the screen as opposed to on the bottom. The face detection has also improved, detecting multiple mugs at once. Other highlights include the addition of Genius Playlists and Genius Mixes in iTunes Match and battery life bug fixes.
There are some features missing we'd like to see added in future updates, chief among them being Facebook sharing. While you can share photos via Facebook in the iPhoto app, you can't use the leading social network to share things like Web pages (though Twitter still works). We also wish you could add attachments to outgoing emails right from within the Mail app. Lastly, while iOS is as intuitive as ever, it lacks the personalized feel of the Windows 8, which can display the latest social updates of your friends right on the home screen.
Keyboard and Voice Dictation
The new iPad continues to impress when it comes to text input. Both keyboards--the standard and split layouts--offer great accuracy and speed. Typing is even better when you add a Smart Cover to the mix, which elevates the tablet so you can enter text just as you would with a laptop. We just wish that Apple included a dedicated number row above the letters.
While some may be disappointed to learn that the new iPad doesn't have Siri on board, you can take advantage of the new Voice Dictation feature to enter a large amount of text just by pressing the microphone icon to the left of the spacebar. In our testing, the new iPad accurately captured most of our words and didn't take long to process our dictations. There were two to three errors per paragraph, which is easy enough to fix.
Measuring the performance of the new iPad is difficult, because it's not really about benchmark results. It's about maintaining Apple's smooth and fluid user experience despite the much higher-resolution screen. And in this regard, Apple has passed with flying colors. Whether swiping between pages of apps, switching between apps, or exporting clips we made in iMovie, the new iPad was always responsive.
The more intensive the task, the more you'll notice a delta in performance between the new iPad and iPad 2. For example, when loading the graphics-heavy "Infinity Blade II," the new iPad took 20 seconds, compared to 27 seconds for its predecessor. On the other hand, both tablets loaded Web pages at about the same pace in Safari.
In the GLB 2.1.2 benchmark app, which measures graphics performance, the new iPad and iPad 2 were neck and neck in some tests. For instance, in the Egypt test, the third-gen iPad scored 60 frames per second to the iPad 2's 59 fps. By comparison, the ASUS Eee Pad Transformer Prime running Nvidia's Tegra 3 chip achieved 53 fps on the same test.
In the more demanding Fill Test, the new iPad notched 1.9 billion texels per second, versus 999.1 million texels/second for the older model. That's about twice as fast. The Tegra 3-powered Transformer Prime only mustered 404.6 million.
Our only real gripe is heat. We wouldn't say it's cause for alarm, but we definitely noticed the bottom left side of the new iPad warming up during use, especially when the 4G radio was active. After streaming a YouTube video for 15 minutes, that spot reached 95 degrees Fahrenheit. By comparison, the ASUS Transformer Prime only reached 85 degrees at its hottest spot on the back after performing the same test.
With more than 200,000 apps available just for the iPad, it's easy to see why Apple has such a big lead in the tablet race. And the company is throwing its own weight around with a revamped iLife suite that includes a new iPhoto app. With the app, you can easily enhance your images using touch gestures and make other tweaks with a multitude of brushes. For instance, to brighten a photo we merely pressed and held on the screen and then dragged up. When we were done, we could create Journals and share them via iCloud with friends and family.
So what about third-party apps optimized for the Retina display? Developers are working fast and furious to update their software, as well as deliver new apps. We particularly enjoyed playing "Sky Gamblers: Air Supremacy," an engaging air combat game with gorgeous special effects. The reflections in the plane and realistic water were jaw-dropping. Other highlights among the 40-plus Retina-optimized apps thus far include Flipboard for your news fix, SketchBook Pro for iPad (drawing with your finger has never been more fun), Twitter and StockTouch for keeping tabs on the markets.
The only trade-off for the additional eye candy these apps provide is that their file sizes can be quite large. While news and social apps tend to use less than 30 MB, high-quality games such as "Sky Gamblers" takes 360 MB, while "Infinity Blade 2" eats up 791 MB. In other words, you may want to consider paying more for a higher-capacity iPad.
For $129 more than the Wi-Fi-only model, you can pick up a third-gen iPad with LTE capability, enabling blazing downloads and uploads over AT&T's and Verizon Wireless' networks. The monthly cost varies based on the amount of data you plan on using, but we suspect most users will settle in at $30 per month. That yields 2GB on Verizon and 3GB on AT&T, but Verizon sweetens the deal by throwing in mobile hotspot capability for free.
We tested the Verizon version in New York City, where we saw an average download speed of 9 Mbps and average uploads of 10 Mbps.
By comparison, the Motorola Xyboard averaged an amazing 26.7 Mbps down and 7.5 Mbps up, with download speeds going as high as 32.2 Mbps, though it was in a different location. Nevertheless, websites loaded quickly. The New York Times took 5.6 seconds, CNN took 9.5 seconds, ESPN took 4.1 seconds and Laptopmag.com took 6.8 seconds.
While having 4G on board is certainly welcome for the Web and other apps, from email to YouTube, there are two annoying restrictions. First, you can't make FaceTime calls over 4G--it's Wi-Fi only. Second, Apple caps iTunes downloads over 4G at 50 MB, when many applications are well over 100 MB. While downloading large files can chip away at your monthly allotment in a hurry, we wish users could decide how to use their bucket of data.
The new iPad's camera upgrade from 3 megapixels to 5 MP is so important to Apple that it saw fit to give the shooter a new name: iSight. Sure enough, shots we took looked dramatically better, even though we continue to question the utility of capturing photos with such a large device. A picture of a Golden Retriever taken indoors looked downright fuzzy on the iPad 2, compared to a much brighter and sharper photo on the new iPad. Edges were smoother, and we could make out folds in couch pillows that were lost on the older tablet.
The third-gen iPad can also shoot 1080p video, complete with automatic video stabilization. Footage we shot outside in a courtyard looked smooth and detailed, from the brick face on the outside of a house to a group of rocks underneath a tree. Plus, unlike many mobile devices we've tested, the iPad didn't have any trouble transitioning from a bright blue sky back to the ground.
Unfortunately, the front-facing camera is stuck at VGA; we would have liked a 720p camera for video chats.
One of our favorite features of the iPad gets better with the third-generation model. With AirPlay, you can now stream 1080p video from the tablet to the new Apple TV ($99). With a push of a button ,we told the iPad to start streaming a video we just created in the new iMovie to our TV. Although we had to wait several seconds for the video to start playing, the quality was impressive. You can also stream movies or TV shows you've purchased to your Apple TV.
Mirroring capability, where you're supposed to be able to stream anything on your iPad's screen to your Apple TV, is still limited to 720p. And at least over our home network, trying to play the Riptide GP game had way too much lag and pixelation to be enjoyable.
Apple really beefed up the battery in the new iPad, increasing the size of the pack from 25 watt hours to 42.5 watt hours. The battery is rated for 10 hours of runtime when surfing the Web over Wi-Fi and 9 hours using cellular data. In our own anecdotal use, which included a mix of Web surfing, playing games, editing photos and using multiple other apps, the iPad lived up to Apple's claims.
When we ran the LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuous web surfing over 4G LTE on 40 percent brightness, the new iPad was down to 58 percent juice left after 4 hours and 34 minutes. If we extrapolate that you're looking at 10 hours and 4 minutes of runtime. We will update this review with our final battery test results over 4G and Wi-Fi.
As mentioned, the new iPad starts at $499 for the Wi-Fi only 16GB model; a 32GB version costs $599, and the 64GB version is $699. The 4G versions start at $629 for 16GB, $729 for 32GB and $829 for 64GB.
Apple could be accused of delivering more of the same with the new iPad. More pixels, more speed, better camera. And that's exactly why it's our favorite tablet. This sequel builds on everything we loved about the iPad 2. Is it worth the upgrade? For owners of the original iPad, definitely. iPad 2 owners will need to weigh the benefits of the Retina display and additional graphics oomph versus the expense. Just keep in mind that you'll likely want to get a higher capacity than 16GB if you plan on downloading a lot of games or 1080p video.
As for whether 4G is worth the extra $130 up front and monthly data fees, we'd say a qualified "Yes." The LTE speeds turbo-charge everything from the Web to streaming YouTube and looking up directions. But we wish Apple would up the limit for downloading files larger than 50MB in iTunes and enable FaceTime calls over 4G.
While the OS itself hasn't evolved much--that will come later this year--in almost every other way the new iPad is the ideal post-PC device.