As far as tablets go, only the iPad stands above the crowd. The rest, with the possible exception of Amazon’s Kindle Fire, don’t provide the experience we all look for in a slate computing device. Apple’s success with the iPad stems from excellent hardware combined with conservative and simple software, all elegantly designed.

The latest iPad, simply named iPad instead of iPad 3, doesn’t break from that trend, but also doesn’t push forward for the company. The iPad 2 was a significant change from the original, with a body more similar to the iPod Touch, cameras, a more powerful processor and many more additions. This new iPad doesn’t receive much new. Instead, it follows Apple’s two-year upgrade plan with vast improvements to last-year’s hardware. But as you’ll see in this review, you may want to consider purchasing the older model depending on how you plan on using your new iPad. After two months of extended use, this is the iPad review.

Hardware

I expect the majority of potential iPad buyers consist of an audience that either owns the original iPad or has never owned an iPad. The difference then is stark. The iPad really does look like a large iPod Touch, from the shape of the curved edges, the white or black front bezel, and the Apple logo on the back. It’s thin and light, both thicker and heavier than the iPad 2, but not by a significant margin. Users would only notice by holding the two side by side. As I’ve found with some iPad accessories, this difference can be cause some concern if the accessory was designed specifically for the iPad 2, mostly due to weight and balancing issues. So be wary.

The major differences between the iPad and past models, and other tablet computers, are fourfold: the fastest graphics processing, the highest resolution display, the largest battery found on any tablet, and the speech recognition chip found in the iPhone 4S. These combined may seem to make the iPad the best possible tablet on the market, but they don’t paint the picture of tablet perfection.

As you can see in the benchmarks section below, the new A5x processor is extremely fast, crushing all of the graphics benchmarks I put it through. But the only improvement over the iPad 2′s A5 CPU is the quad-core graphics processor, which is actually a very similar GPU to the Playstation Vita. In fact, the two devices share the same CPU as well, except that the Vita is a quad-core version of the PowerVR chip, versus the unchanged iPad’s dual-core chip. The GPU is only slightly different; the Vita’s is more modular, and according to developers, can be clocked up to 2GHz, but is normally clocked at 800MHz.

Then there’s Apple’s touted Retina display, a high-resolution high-density screen that is very clean and very clear. It doesn’t have the same density as the iPhone 4/4S, but at 264PPI, it’s still dense enough for text and images to appear as clear as a physical book or magazine when held at arm’s length. With a full resolution of 2048×1536, the iPad has more pixels on the 9.7″ panel than any computer monitor smaller than 27″, and plenty larger to boot. The pixel count is so high, in fact, that the iPad upscales almost everything that isn’t an app, and plenty of apps too.

As usual, there are three models of the iPad: 16GB, 32GB and 64GB, as well as Wi-Fi only and LTE models from AT&T and Verizon, both of which are more expensive and heavier thanks to the additional LTE chip. LTE models are the same size, but slightly heavier, and claim slightly less battery life. The tested unit is a Wi-Fi model.

The design of the iPad’s hardware is very pleasing to use day to day, more than any tablet of this size. Tablets today come in two basic sizes, ~7″ and ~10″, the former for media consumption and the latter for general use. All competing tablets have a widescreen aspect ratio, making them longer across rather than comfortable to hold, while the iPad has a 4:3 screen. For everyday applications, such as reading, web browsing, and even playing games, the iPad is superior in size and form. For media playback however, it letterboxes heavily, making the actual used display around the size of a 7″ tablet’s panel.

Screen quality is excellent. It’s bright enough to use outdoors, though not comfortably so. It’s certainly readable on a bright day. Color representation is spot on, with excellent color accuracy and contrast. This makes the iPad great for viewing photos and playing games, and even reading magazines, but again for watching video it appears lackluster compared to some other tablets, like the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7 with it’s SuperAMOLED+ display. Exaggerated colors and extreme contrast, as well as very dark blacks, do make for a more enjoyable video experience, and the iPad aims specifically for accuracy.

I’m very happy to use the iPad day to day, though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for watching movies or TV shows. The display is certainly large enough, but there are devices better suited for video playback than the iPad, especially if you don’t consume video from iTunes. All of the hardware features are top notch, and for a general use tablet, the iPad is the best there is.

Software

iOS 5.1 is excellent, but isn’t a serious improvement over the past iOS 5 available for several months now. However, because the iPad is a vastly different device from the past iPads, there are some differences worth noting.

First, because of the higher screen resolution, it is reasonable to expect all native apps to work excellently at full resolution. Most do. Safari, however, is questionable, and this may or may not be Apple’s fault. Obviously the internet cannot be controlled, especially the size of web pages, but the HD display doesn’t actually output websites at their actual size; it resizes pages to fit the screen, which in the past was fine because of the low 1024×768 resolution. Doubling it for web browsing would make most websites appear small, but they would also be accurately sized.

The trouble is websites aren’t accurately sized, and plenty of things just appear weird. Pictures may be upscaled or downscaled too much. Some can’t be zoomed in on. Some text looks weird. This little quirks aren’t random; Apple has had similar issues with the email app, where HTML rich pages don’t resize properly, and this is likely going to be a long-term struggle until some conformity can come to the internet. For the time being, however, it would be excellent if Apple could update Safari so by default it would automatically upscale webpages to match the screen, but also allow users to set them to appear at their proper size. This would make for a more appropriate, more pleasant browsing experience.

As mentioned earlier, the iPad also has the same voice recognition chip as the iPhone 4S, enabling it to transcribe voice. It doesn’t use Siri however; when typing on the virtual keyboard, a voice button appears on the bottom left. When toggled, users can speak and, just like with Siri, it will send the data to Apple’s servers, which then transcribe it and send it back. It requires some sort of internet connection to use unfortunately, but works fairly well. If you’re looking to replace a laptop and transcribing software like Dragon, however, Apple still has plenty of kinks to work out for voice recognition. Keep in mind the service is still in beta.

Aside from that the iPad runs exceptionally well. The higher demand on the GPU due to the higher resolution display is well met, and applications run smoothly and fluidly, as they have with past iPads. The software experience is still the best found on any tablet.

Benchmarks

Here are the benchmarks. wooo!

When it comes to web browsing, the noticeable thing about the iPad is that it doesn’t improve at all. In fact, it scores worse than the iPad 2, which doesn’t really come as a surprise since web browsing utilizes the CPU only, the way Safari processes data. And because it has to upscale almost everything, all while managing the upscaling on the GPU end, it scores worse. Even then, the iPad is still highly competitive when it comes to web browsing speed, but even phones are surpassing it already.

The true improvement to the iPad is with graphics processing, as seen in the GL Benchmark test. The iPad on average doubles the iPhone 4S, meaning it would do very close to the same to the iPad 2, which shares the same processors, just clocked at 1GHz instead of 800MHz. And it shows. Throw any application on the iPad that requires graphical computing and it runs without a hitch. I have no doubt that as the iPad continues to gain GPU power and increases performance, we’re going to see a serious change in how the platform operates, especially when compared to ultrabooks.

However, that may yet be a few years off. For today, this score means that anything that comes out for the iPad is in good hands. Games like Max Payne, perhaps 10 years old but still much more than most devices should be able to muster, works like a charm. Every game and app I’ve tested does.

Battery

Battery life on the iPad should be absurdly good. The tablet has the largest battery of any tablet, larger in fact than the MacBook Air 11″, which is still double the price. At 42.5Wh, it’s 70% larger than last year’s model. Suffice it to say, the iPad’s battery is no joke.

And yet, in some ways, it is. I’ve used the iPad heavily for the past two months, and the battery drain is surprising. I used to charge my original iPad once a week, perhaps less often, except when using it for gaming. Even then, under heavy stress and constant use, it would last 10 hours of constant use per charge. Two years later, it could still muster between 8-9 hours of charge, which is incredible. This new iPad can’t claim as much.

Apple lists the same 10 hours for web browsing, watching native video, and music playback, but I’ve found much lower numbers, from 5-8 hours depending on use. For a week I was strangely drawn back to Infinity Blade 2, and really enjoyed the improved graphics available only on the new iPad. But after a few hours the battery would be low. I started again after a full charge, and six hours later was right back down to near-zero.

This, in reality, isn’t bad. Portable game consoles have struggled to get that sort of battery life while utilizing high performance components. Time and time again the console with the best battery life sold more units. The difference here is the iPad is a do-everything device, not just a game console.

What is bad is that it isn’t the games that cause the battery to discharge quickly, but the GPU. The same GPU which runs the high resolution display, and which manages all upscaling and downscaling. This, in effect, means that every application stresses the GPU, and therefore the battery, more than it needs to. And while we don’t pay for it in performance, the iPad does pay in power consumption.

While I’ve had my fair share of gaming on the iPad during my two months with it, I’ve spent much more time using the tablet as a productivity tool. Writing articles, researching, reading, and more writing. I’ve tested several keyboards with the iPad as well. Yet while my original iPad would last and last and, well, seem to never need a recharge, I can watch the battery level tick down in real time. I have to recharge, under significant use, every 3rd or 4th day, without gaming. With gaming, every day or two.

Is this a problem? Yes and no. It isn’t a problem because no matter what you do with the iPad, unless you’re on an intercontinental flight, the iPad will last the duration. If you’re at home, it’ll last through whatever it is you need to do. But it is a problem when you consider how long it takes to fully charge the iPad from 0-100%: six hours. That means if you didn’t charge it the night before a big day and it’s only at 50%, the battery might not make it. 50% on the iPad doesn’t mean nearly as much as it did with the iPad 2 or original iPad.

What this all means is simple: the iPad has good, solid battery life, but if you’re upgrading from a past iPad, this will feel like a step down. Be prepared to change your battery habits. For original iPad owners, the difference won’t be great. Even as I write this review on my iPad, I know for certain that at 28% now, I’ll either have to charge it tonight or be prepared to not use it much tomorrow, because I’ll just end up charging it when the battery dies out. On standby the battery will last forever; but in use, a week at best, a day at worst.

An additional note on heat: some users have claimed that the iPad gets very hot with extended use. I’ve found it can get uncomfortably warm, and would recommend buying either a sleeve or Apple’s Smart Cover. I purchased a Smart Cover myself, and while I like its simplicity and style, it’s not comfortable enough to hold around the back of the iPad. I’m still searching for a better all-around solution.

Camera

The iPad isn’t intended to be a photographic tool or device, but like everything else throwing a camera into it has its perks. I personally believe computing devices should all have cameras; they have a number of potential uses, whether it’s for simple game apps or educational use. The problem is that the camera has to be good enough.

With the iPad, the camera certainly is that. It uses the same exact camera as the iPhone 4, a 5MP shooter that takes great photos. See the sample shots I’ve taken below.

[nggallery id=315]

It also shoots 720p video, which is somewhat absurd to do with an iPad but good for Facetime calls. There is no flash, and video shooting of both stills and video is out of the question because of how ludicrous the idea of doing so with a tablet would be. However, video quality is excellent, as is still quality. Users will be pleased with the camera, should they ever come to use it.

Conclusion

The iPad is an excellent tablet, one I can’t recommend enough. I am very seriously considering replacing it with my laptop altogether, although that’s a longer discussion for another time. But the power, design, and usability are above and beyond the competition by a longshot.

However, the iPad isn’t without its faults, and interestingly many of those faults either have been or don’t need to be addressed by Apple’s own iPad 2, both the older and newer models. The biggest concern is one I am struggling to answer for myself: is battery life more important than a higher-resolution display and better graphics quality? It’s very tough to answer. I don’t use the iPad, nor have any plans, to show off photos, read magazines at length, or even read books on it. Gaming I will certainly do, but games are also available on all iPad models, with only slight differences between them for very stressful games.

Meanwhile, as AnandTech found out, Apple released an updated iPad 2 model with a smaller CPU that much more power conservative in all respects, averaging at least an hour more battery life than the original iPad 2 and even more than the iPad. That sort of battery life, as well as less upscaling and a more natural look and feel for apps, web browsing, and general use makes the latest iPad 2 an interesting competitor. In many ways I want to trade in my iPad for the iPad 2. This would earn me back ~$100, and deliver much better battery life, while still working with any accessories I own. The change wouldn’t change very much at all, except that the battery would last longer, it wouldn’t take as much time to charge, I’d earn some money back instantly, and I would have no guilt when upgrading to next-year’s model.

Alternatively, the newer iPad is better for gaming. It’s better for reading, for viewing any media, and for running apps. The battery lasts long enough to satisfy any person’s true needs, with the exception of intercontinental flights or as a very well-treated POW. I also have no doubt that within six months games will release for the iPad that won’t be playable on the iPad 2; this happened with the original iPad, and the speed of technology isn’t going to slow down just because you want to be more conservative with power management.

For myself, it’s a question that remains unanswered, for now. As Anand Shimpi points out in his article on the iPad 2,4, it’s impossible to tell which model is the newer one without first purchasing it, so interested buyers may have to return several iPads until they find the desired model. I think prospective buyers just need to answer this to see which is the best model for them: do you need a productivity tool, one that lasts awhile, or one that requires more micro-management but has a better screen and more power for gaming?

In either case, the iPad is a great buy, especially for gamers, for readers, and for anyone who wants to show off pictures of their art, their kids, or their kid’s art. It blows the competition away, with the exception of, again, Apple’s own iPad 2, but that’s just fine. I’m sure the company won’t mind if you ponder which of the two to buy.

Editor’s Rating:

Rating: ★★★★½

Excellent

Bottom Line: The best tablet on the market today.

Pros:

  • Stunning HD display with near-perfect color accuracy
  • The fastest and most powerful tablet on the market
  • Great camera for stills and video
  • Excellent software

Cons:

  • Largest tablet battery but also the biggest power drain and slowest recharge time
  • No option to view web-pages natively, without GPU upscaling










James Pikover

 
Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.