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Review: New iPad revolutionary in its subtlety of change

Updated: March 23, 2012 2:22PM



Overall, the new iPad impresses me as a new draft of a book that I already enjoyed. All of the elements of the previous versions are right there and in many ways, the new work is hard to distinguish from the previous one.

But it’s much, much better. The point of this thing is more clear. Its elements do their jobs better, more efficiently . . . and with a great deal more panache and style. The process of making the new iPad was one of examining every element and figuring out how to improve it in place.

It’s a far more refined expression of the original idea, is what I’m getting at. Even just a year ago, it might have seemed remarkable -- or maybe just a stunt -- that I’d be researching, writing, and editing something as big as a 3000 word product review exclusively on an iPad.

This week, it just seemed like the natural way to do this project. I started writing it on the new iPad simply because it’s part of the process of testing (and because I’ve found a 24 hour donut shop with incredibly good free WiFi). But as I went along, I felt no motivation to move it to my MacBook. The screen was crisp and comfortable. The 4G-speed mobile broadband gave me greater freedom of movement. I had 10 hours of battery, so I never needed to rush through my work and I never needed to hip-check that guy who seemed to be headed towards the table that adjoins the donut place’s lone open power outlet.

Am I angling towards the conclusion that the third-generation iPad represents the device’s bar mitzvah? The moment when we officially consider it a grownup computer, instead of something that we keep tethered to something larger and more stable?

Well, I was raised Catholic so I’m not properly licensed for such allegories. Suffice to say that the new iPad is a strong upgrade that will probably make many holdouts -- both those who’ve been ogling iPads since day one, and early adopters who chose not to upgrade to the iPad 2 -- very happy indeed.

Form, Feel, Battery, and Speed

The new iPad is a close physical match to the old one. It’ll even probably fit into your iPad 2 case, provided that the case wasn’t engineered to spacecraft-precise tolerances. It even slides into the tightly formfitting ZAGG Folio iPad 2 keyboard case; the camera and switches line up with the cutouts perfectly. It’s such a snug fit that pulling it back out again requires patience, actually, so using old cases for the new iPad is probably a bad idea. But it underscores the point that Apple stuck to the existing form instead of restyling just for the sake of fashion.

The new iPad is a smidge thicker and a smidge heavier, not that you can tell when you’re holding it. I did notice a little extra heat in the corner to the left of the Home button after using it for an hour. That’s new; with the previous two iPads, the flow of heat was always from my hands to the device and not the other way around.

Uh-oh. When the new iPad was announced, I immediately had two concerns about the new ultra-high-definition display. Would quadrupling the number of pixels sorely tax the CPU and the battery? Indeed, iFixit’s teardown of the new iPad’s hardware locates the CPU in that very corner.

I bravely sat in a comfortable chair and watched the JJ Abrams version of “Star Trek” and the Neil Gaiman-penned episode of “Doctor Who” in HD, back to back, just to see what would happen.

No worries. Even with the CPU under such hard stress for almost three hours, the temperature of that corner never rose above “barely noticeably higher.”

And the three-hour test only knocked the battery down by about 35%. The new iPad’s overall battery life was exactly the same as what I expect from either of the previous models: roughly ten hours. I used the new iPad rather intensively for two days before it required a recharge.

Speaking of the CPU: despite the processor’s obligation to support this new tyrant by the name of Pixels Maximus, the new iPad feels no different from its predecessors. Scrolling, zooming, navigation and gameplay on the new iPad is a liquid experience.

4G - And not the fake kind, either

Oh, I shouldn’t be snarky about the latest iOS update. AT&T and Apple chose to redefine the iPhone 4S’ HSPA+ connection as “4G” even though the devices transacts exclusively over a 3G network. Tens of millions of 4S owners applied last week’s iOS update and magically started seeing a 4G symbol as their devices’ network status.

Marketing? Sure. But it’s a credible choice. Yes, HSPA+ runs over AT&T’s 3G network instead of the network that fits the classical 4G definition. But HSPA+’s top realized speeds are well within the zone you’d expect from LTE.

(The speed of a data network is the result of many different protocols and network conditions working together. It’s like talking about the speed of a horse. He’s a thoroughbred. But how fast he runs in any given race will also depend on the jockey, the condition of the track, and what’s running alongside him egging him on.)

I’m OK with the new quasi-4G network symbol on my iPhone and on this new iPad. The situation is only worth mentioning because I’m testing out the AT&T version of the new iPad here, and I’m seeing a bunch of different dinguses up there in the upper-left corner designating my network speed.

Clearly, the new 4G LTE chip is a screamer. The 3G in my original iPad is pulling down data at about 400Kbps today. In “4G” mode, the new iPad is downloading at 2 to 3 megabits per second and when I can find an LTE (aka “real, no-argument 4G”) signal, it zips at 9 to 10. That’s a little more than half the speed the new iPad gets when connected to my home WiFi network (where it sees a reliable 17 Mbps).

Which iPad is better? AT&T’s or Verizon’s?

AT&T’s sole advantage is raw speed. I don’t have access to a Verizon edition of the new iPad, but when I’ve had a chance to test two 4G phones in the same locations across the country, the AT&T phone usually proves faster than the Verizon.

But that’s only an advantage if your iPad can actually find AT&T LTE coverage. Nationwide, Verizon’s LTE signal is easier to find than AT&T’s. I had to drive closer to the city before I could properly test the new iPad on LTE.

Also, for the moment, Verizon is offering a better deal. This new iPad is the first one to offer a mobile hotspot feature. That’s conditional upon carrier support. Verizon has already said that they’re supporting it...and furthermore, that the cost will be covered in all of their existing data plans for tablets. AT&T is still fidgeting.

Choose wisely. Unlike the “one phone to unite them all” iPhone 4S, the new iPad exists as separate AT&T and Verizon models. You make your choice and then there’s no backsies.

(Though reports are filtering in from users in the field that the Verizon iPad can access AT&T’s HSPA+ network if you swap in one of the other carrier’s SIMs.)

That Screen

The Retina display is the new iPad’s signature feature. The numbers are incredible: the third-generation iPad’s screen is the exact same size as its predecessors but it’s resolution has doubled, to 2048x1536. That works out to a screen density of 264 pixels per inch. Let’s put that in perspective: Apple revolutionized publishing in 1985, with a desktop printer that could output at 300 dots per inch. And only in 1-bit black and white!

Cool.

That said, the new iPad’s display won’t really blow your mind. Even here, with the new iPad and an iPad 2 in side-by-side easels 18 inches in front of me, I can’t instinctively spot the difference between the two without looking for “tells.” On the new iPad’s screen, for example, a metallic button in the toolbar of my word processor has a bit of engraving on its background. It’s there to be seen . . . but I still need to lean in fairly close to even spot it.

Well, look, if you want your mind blown, go and watch the original Star Wars trilogy again while pondering the question “Is Artoo Detoo using The Force?” That’s not necessarily the responsibility of the iPad’s engineering team.

That the new iPad’s screen doesn’t look explosively sharper than the iPad 2’s doesn’t surprise me in the least. The truth is that if the original iPads’ screen wasn’t exceptional, then Apple wouldn’t have chosen it.

Yes, indeed: book and magazine pages are sharper and creamier. We’ve all been reading anti-aliased low-resolution text for so long that our brains no longer even point out the cheat. When I read books on the new iPad’s screen, my brain says “Hey, cool: printed text. We used to read printed text all the time. Remember?”

HD video, too, is a bit of a stunner, as expected. Photos are exceptional. Leafing through an album of recent photos from my desktop library is like going through a stack of 8x10s. It kind of encourages me to show off my photos more frequently, a change for which my friends will reserve a special spot for me and all Apple engineers.

I should also point out that images on the new iPad aren’t overly-sharp, and the screen’s colors are true and lifelike. Many other tablet makers goose the screens’ contrast and saturation. They do this for the same reasons why McDonalds puts to much salt and fat in their food: they know we all really, really like that. The other similarity between these two things is that they’re aren’t really good for us as our main diet.

So, then: more pixels yields more detail. You’re smart people. You would have sussed that one out on your own.

Apple didn’t double the pixels on the screen so that tech writers like me could whip out our digital microscopes and count the dots and ooh and ahh about how omigosh you can actually see a single grain of white sand in this lady’s hair. Of all of the tech companies in the world, they’re the one least interested in winning a war of Biggest Numbers In A Feature Comparison Chart.

No . . . they upgraded the screen to make the iPad better. It’s a simple change and yet there are so many tasks that can be done with the new iPad that were clumsy or impractical on the older models.

Comic books are at the top of that list. Thanks to the new iPad’s Retina display and true colors, the experience of reading a comic book on a mobile device is just as good as reading it on dead treeware. Despite the fact that the screen is slightly smaller than a printed comics page, there’s more than enough detail on the screen for easy reading. I never felt the need to pinch and zoom and scroll around the page, as I do with previous-generation iPads. Furthermore, the backlit display does full justice to the artwork from top to bottom and left to right.

Yes, I actually prefer the new iPad to traditional comics. Comixology (the leading store for digital comics) and Bitlithic’s Comic Zeal 5 (my favorite iOS reader for CBR and CBZ-formatted comics) both work just fine on the new iPad, and can exploit the full resolution of the screen.

Comixology has even bigger big plans for the future. A new version of their Comics app can display existing comics from their online store at superior resolution. There was always more detail in those files than the original iPads could show onscreen at once. In the coming months, they’ll be remastering their current libraries for even greater resolution.

Controlling your PC or Mac remotely becomes a completely different thing on the new iPad. The Retina display has greater resolution than many laptops, even. When you run an iPad VNC client (like Screens or iTeleport), the experience is very close to that of having a fully-functional -- albeit slightly slow -- desktop computer in front of you. Even when you’re connecting back to your desktop computer via an LTE connection, it’s quite a credible experience. There’s no need to scrunch the screen down to give yourself enough working room, and you don’t need to zoom in to make things legible and useful.

I hate it when I wind up toting a six-pound notebook across the country because because there’s just this one element of just this one project that requires a desktop app. Under those circumstances, I’d be confident about putting my trust in my iPad for the week.

(Whether I’d trust my desktop to stay running, or my office broadband and power to put aside their petty differences and pull with the team, is another story.)

The Retina display also brings the hope that iPad app developers will no longer be restricted by the limitations of the screen.

Wait . . . they were restricted? Yes, absolutely. The new freedom is easy to see even when you use the new iPad to run old old apps that haven’t been optimized in any way. iOS renders all standard text and and all standard user elements at Retina quality automatically. The change can be transformative. River Of News, a Google Reader client that was last updated four months ago, is practically a new app. The left-hand column of subscriptions that once was a little too small and a little too difficult to read now looks like shrewd design. It’s perfectly readable. The smaller text seems to say “Yeah, you want your attention over there on the article to my right. But hey, I’m here if you get bored and you want to browse for something else to read.”

If it’s true that the resolution of a Retina-grade screen exceeds the resolving power of the human eye, then this is the best that any screen on any mobile device is ever going to get. This grants developers complete design freedom.

I expect this new wrinkle to articulate itself in lots of different ways in the coming year. For one, the Retina display very nicely clicks in to an ongoing revolution in typography. Type designers are creating new faces that can take full advantage of super-high-definition displays. Before, “optimizing for the screen” meant dumbing down a type design so that it respects the limitations of display technology. Now, modern typefaces are designed so that they can move from low-resolution phones to Retina-grade tablets to print without any additional tweaking.

Marco Arment, creator of Instapaper -- the essential iPad app for turning webpages into a library of locally-stored ebooks -- released a new, iPad-optimized version of his app over the weekend. I spoke to him about it. The app is gorgeous. I expected to hear him talk about a fundamental redesign, but really, the new elegance of the app is mostly due to his licensing some terrific new fonts. “Elena” (created by Nicole Dotin) shows off the value of a font designed with screens specifically in mind. I spent some time reading articles in Instapaper and then I spent some time reading a book in Amazon’s Kindle app (which was also optimized for the new iPad). Instapaper looked far crisper and easier to read.

It didn’t just look like a prettier font . . . it looked like a better display.

Apple, too, recently set the stage by adding new fonts like Athelas and Seravek to the iBooks app. It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? Now that there’s a mobile reading device with a print-grade color display, there’s the need to return to the technology and vocabulary of classical printing.

The iPad Listens

Here’s a new iPad feature, but a familiar one: speech to text. You can tap the onscreen keyboard’s new microphone button and just say what you want to type.

Alas, the Siri intelligent personal assistant is still an iPhone 4S-exclusive feature. Why? Who knows. There’s certainly enough processing power on the new iPad to make Siri work.

How about “It’s not there because Siri is still in beta”? Yup, that’s a good guess. “Apple might want to be cautious about expanding the Siri load on their servers” - sure, maybe.

I’m not even sure Siri makes sense on an iPad. Siri is a service that you use impulsively. Is it even possible to do anything impulsively with an iPad? You can’t just pluck it out of your shirt pocket and easily drop it back in again when you’ve learned what the weather is going to be like in Denver on Wednesday.

I have those same abstract difficulties with the idea of a camera on a tablet. It seems as if using a tablet like a camera combines the terrible inconvenience of carrying around a big, bulky, unpocketable SLR with the comparatively crummy image quality of a phone. A company would be silly to put a serious camera on a tablet.

The iPad’s New, Serious Tablet Camera

Look, when I say that I don’t understand the concept of putting a real camera on a tablet, I’m not saying I see any benefit to having a crummy one in there.

The new iPad’s rear-facing camera is essentially the same one in the iPhone 4 (not the the 8-megapixel 4S: the 5-megapixel iPhone 4). It has an IR filter and a back-illuminated sensor, which means it performs well in low light and it can take “real” photos.

I was happy with my test shots. The new iPad’s camera gave the rudimentary camera of the iPad 2 a summary pantsing, as expected. Image quality of the new iPad’s shots were indistinguishable from an iPhone 4, and vastly superior to the 8-megapixel camera in the ASUS Transformer Prime 10-inch tablet.

Taking photos with the new iPad isn’t a great experience, though. You’re composing your photo on this enormous pane of shiny back-illuminated glass, which means that if you’re shooting outdoors, you can barely see what you’re aiming at.

And, yes, you look and feel like a dork. I’ll be shocked if there isn’t a Kickstarter project to produce a wooden tripod stand for the new iPad that also includes a blackout cape for the screen. It would be a practical way of dealing with the sunlight and it would also turn the whole experience into a very appropriate Matthew Brady cosplay.

There’s some Win here, though. A better rear-facing camera means you can send higher-quality FaceTime video of your kid to his grandparents (oh, and: the front-facing camera is the same VGA chat camera found in the iPad 2).

Pictures you shoot on the iPad look almost supernaturally good when presented on its own Retina display. And it shoots 1080p HD video with motion stabilization and face-detection autofocus. The new iPad edition of iMovie helps you to previsualize the shots you need. Then you shoot them, edit them, and publish them, all from the same device. Neat.

The Buying Decision

Apple usually makes these things so simple for you. This year, a new edition of the same color iPads (white or black) are available with the same options (16, 32, or 64 gigabytes of storage; WiFi-only or with mobile broadband) at the same prices ($499, $599, $699; mobile broadband is another $130). So it’s just a question of whether you want one or not.

I bought myself an iPad 1 on the day the 3G model was available for preorder. I skipped the iPad 2 because it didn’t really do anything that I couldn’t already do with the one I bought the year before. I’ll probably upgrade to the new iPad eventually. It’s not the razzle-dazzle of the new Retina screen that’s lured me in...it’s the new things I think I can do with a device that’s already one of the two most important computers in my office.

Think carefully before choosing the 16 gigabyte model, though. Magazines, picture books, movies and apps that take advantage of the Retina display require visual elements with four times as many pixels. This fact doesn’t kill the entry-level model, I should stress. But it does redefine it. A 16 gig iPad can carry just the stuff you’ve decided you immediately need. With 64 or 32 gigabytes of available storage, you’ll have greater agility.

Apple complicated things a bit this year by keeping the 16 gig iPad 2 on the price list and dropping its price to $399. This move was likely less directed at 7-inch tablets like the $199 Kindle Fire than at 10-inch Android tablets, which are slowly beginning to get their acts together.

If you want a tablet now-ish, the iPad is your no-brainer choice. Nothing can touch it at the moment. Many tablets are built as well as the new iPad, but none have such a harmonious balance of important features. None of them can even fantasize about having such a powerful universe of apps and services around it.

Still, there are some interesting prospects playing AAA ball at the moment. Amazon is rumored to be working on a 10-inch version of the Kindle Fire. If it’s priced anywhere near the $399 iPad 2, it’s going to struggle hard. If they can get it out there for $299? Hmm.

And then there’s the distant fanfare of Windows 8, which continues to impress me. I paid a little less than $900 for my 3G iPad with 64 gigs of storage. It sure doesn’t seem impossible that a company can sell a great Windows 8 tablet for that much money, offering the same specs as Apple or even better ones. But it seems unlikely that we’ll see such a thing before 2013.

Android tablets? Yikes. Once again I find it impossible to think of a situation in which I’d recommend an Android tablet to any person of whom I’m even remotely fond.

(I don’t consider the Kindle Fire to be an Android tablet. Android is in there. However, Amazon’s engineers have put in a phenomenal amount of effort to expunge the Android UI.)

Honestly, don’t you feel a little sorry for the men and women at Google who are responsible for Android on tablets? They build an immense, and in many ways impressive, paper castle every year. And every year during March or April, Apple rides past and shoots a single flaming arrow into it without even stopping.



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