An Apple iPad has never looked so awful.
No, I’m not referring to the new iPad, the one with the ballyhooed Retina display. I’m referring to last year’s iPad 2, whose screen now looks grainy and pixelated when viewed alongside Apple’s latest tablet. The improvement in display quality smacks you in the face as soon as you compare the two iPad models, and it’s an upgrade that forces a nagging question: Where does Apple go from here?
The company now leads all competitors in tablet display quality, hands down. In fact, the display in the new iPad is so beautiful — so deft in rendering images, video and text — it’s unlikely Apple will update the screen in next year’s iPad model.
As for the new iPad’s other upgrades, they’re iterative, not revolutionary. But they also handily deliver all that we expect (let alone need) from a state-of-the-art tablet. If anything, the new iPad serves as a warning that Apple could be running out of ways to significantly advance the tablet art form. That’s a problem for a company that depends on revolutionary hardware design to move the manic masses.
Has the iPad line reached its natural conclusion? Is there nothing left to improve? I’ll answer those questions at the end of this review. But let’s first study the two key features — the new display and faster wireless connectivity — that make the new iPad a wise upgrade over iPad 2 for some users, if not also the best tablet available today.
But how does the new display actually look?
In a word: spectacular. When I first demoed the new iPad at Apple’s launch event, I was dismissive of its so-called Retina display because near-identical screen technology can be found in the iPhone 4 and 4S. I use my 4S roughly 30 to 40 times a day, and I thought I had become indifferent to a Retina display’s charms.
However, now that I can directly compare the screens of the iPad 2 and new iPad side by side, it’s clear the 9.7-inch Retina display is a huge improvement.
Text on the new iPad is vividly crisper and sharper, and this is a big advantage for any tablet, which, unlike a smartphone, must function as a platform for relatively long-form reading. On the new iPad, individual text characters look like they’re stamped directly onto the screen with the world’s most exacting letter press — sharp and coherent with an almost molecular level of precision. By comparison, text on the iPad 2 now looks outright crude — visibly pixelated, even blurry.
In fact, everything now looks sub-standard on the original iPad and iPad Accessories. On the older iPads, the curved corners of home screen icons reveal pixels, not perfectly crisp lines as on the new Retina display.
And on Apple’s new screen, high-resolution photos render in full glory, bearing the appearance of continuous-tone photo lab prints. Individual pixels are imperceptible, and the whole effect delivers a level of visual clarity that trumps not only other computing devices, but also any book or magazine produced via traditional off-set printing.
Apple says the new display bests its predecessor with 44 percent better color saturation, and anecdotal observation backs this up: Colors are noticeably richer and more brilliant relative to the reproduction mustered by the iPad 2. Colors also appear to render more accurately on the new display. Comparing control images I shot with the iPhone 4S, the new iPad beat the iPad 2 with a dynamic range that more closely matches the appearance of real-world objects.
Downsides? Well, like all iPads, the new one bears a screen with a 4:3 aspect ratio. Apple’s latest tablet supports native 1080p video, but all HD video content that isn’t letter-boxed will have significant black bands above and below the action, which isn’t the case with 16:10 aspect ratio Android tablets. The iPad’s aspect ratio reduces the wow factor of big-budget, Hollywood content, but if the Kindle Fire has taught us anything, it’s that most consumers find smaller video windows perfectly acceptable.
LTE Wireless Data
Until the release of this latest iPad, I never advocated paying extra for a tablet with built-in wireless data support. We already pay a lot of money for our smartphone data plans, so paying for a second data bill is difficult to resolve, both intellectually and emotionally. What’s more, our smartphones are always with us. So in those rare scenarios where we want to use a tablet but lack a Wi-Fi connection, we can always turn to our phones for that essential link to the outside world.
But the data game has changed.
For this review, I tested two new iPads. The black iPad in our photos is a 32GB Wi-Fi-only unit. The white one is a 64GB Wi-Fi+4G running on Verizon’s LTE network. (A 4G AT&T version is also available.) If I had to spend my own money, I’d buy the white one. Sure, across Apple’s entire iPad range, you pay a $130 premium when you opt for 4G support. But given the data speed and convenience that Verizon’s 4G offers, the higher price tag can be justified.
Verizon’s LTE network delivers a theoretical maximum download speed of 73Mbps. You’ll never see that bandwidth in the real world, but even downloading data at 10Mbps is a revelation compared to slower wireless bands. Indeed, on AT&T’s HSPA+ network, my iPhone 4S couldn’t exceed speeds better than 2.2Mbps/0.32Mbps in any San Francisco location I tested.
Bottom line: Verizon’s LTE is fast. Very fast. And it feels fast when you’re using it in the field. The company’s LTE service is offered in many key metropolitan areas, and when you’re stuck on that tragically slow Wi-Fi network at the hotel or airport, you may be glad you opted for the new iPad with LTE support.
For the iPad Verizon models, monthly data plans cost $20 for 1GB, $30 for 2GB, and $50 for 5GB. All plans are contract free, so you can buy a month’s worth of service only when you need connectivity.
And there’s another benefit to buying a Verizon-connected iPad: These tablets can be used as personal data hotspots, meaning you can tether internet service to as many as five other devices via a Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or USB connection. This feature alone could be a huge value-add, depending on your lifestyle or business needs. Verizon sells a contract-free LTE hotspot device, the Jetpack, for $270, yet the new iPad includes all this functionality for just a $130 premium.
How convenient is LTE hotspotting? Well, we ran the entire Gadget Lab news operation from the show floor of CES 2012 on two Verizon Jetpacks, updating our website (both words and images) with nary a hiccup. This operation involved as many as 10 LTE-connected writers and photographers at any given time. We would have used the wired Ethernet hook-up supplied to us by the Consumer Electronics Association, but it was markedly slower than Verizon’s LTE service at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
Downsides? 4G LTE offers such a fat bandwidth pipe, you may become addicted to downloading large files and streaming 1080p videos, reaching your data caps sooner than you think. So if you opt for either the AT&T or Verizon iPad version, you’re committing to higher total costs of ownership, for both your initial hardware purchase and ongoing data consumption.
One important note about the new iPad and LTE: The AT&T version of the tablet doesn’t currently support personal hotspotting, but the feature is supposedly coming.
New Camera, New Processor and Voice Dictation
The new iPad includes other upgraded features and specs, but I don’t find them nearly as wowing as the Retina display and LTE. They’re marginal updates, and serve as reminders that Apple has advanced its tablet art form quite far already, and is running out of fancy new tricks.
The Camera You’ll Rarely Ever Use
First, there’s the new rear-facing camera. It uses the same optics and imaging software as the camera in the iPhone 4S (an incredible smartphone camera by any measure), but employs a 5-megapixel sensor rather than the 8-megapixel technology found in the newest iPhone. The new iPad’s camera is a vast improvement over the universally scorned camera in the iPad 2, but it’s still a feature looking for a fan base.
Simply put, tablets are too unwieldy to effectively serve double duty as cameras. They’re too big to carry around 24/7 — I’ll refer to the maxim, “The best camera is the one you always have with you” — and they’re not easy to aim and steady when you’re actually shooting an image or video.
The Processor That Was Barely Upgraded, But Still Delivers
Apple’s latest tablet includes a new processor called the A5X. It runs the same 1GHz dual-core architecture as the A5 processor in the iPad 2, but adds a quad-core graphics engine to support the new Retina display, and bumps RAM from 512MB to 1GB.
The new A5X is a big part of Apple’s marketing message. Manufacturers like to bandy about the term quad-core because quad-core CPU power is the new standard for smartphones and tablets, thanks to the Nvidia Tegra 3 chip, which appears in various Android devices. But let’s be clear: The A5X is a dual-core chip with quad-core graphics, and is far from a dramatic overhaul.
Should potential new iPad buyers be concerned? No. Throughout testing, I found performance in all applications to be uneventful — which is to say the A5X zips through webpages, games and applications with aplomb. I never experienced any video stutter. The virtual keyboard never lagged behind my physical keystrokes. Applications never hung, and the entire system performed with its traditional iOS zippiness.