The new iPad is undoubtedly Apple’s best tablet yet. Still, many users want to know: Are the new features — including the eye-popping retina display — worth it?
It’s a testament to the quality of the iPad 2 that this question is even being asked. After all, how do you improve on what was already a fantastic product. Sure, the iPad 2 doesn’t have the retina display, the improved camera or the souped-up graphics processor of its new brother, but the device is far from a relic. In fact, until today, the iPad 2 was the best tablet on the market.
That’s actually what makes reviewing the new iPad difficult. For the first-time iPad owner — or owners of an original iPad, the upgrade is a no-brainer. The new iPad is a best-in-class device, full stop. For users who have had the iPad 2 for under a year, however, justifying the new expense is more difficult.
To try to answer that question, I’m going to focus on the differences between the new iPad and the iPad 2, as well as the features that have remained the same.
The screen is the core of the tablet experience. It serves as monitor, keyboard and canvas. The better the screen, the better the overall experience.
Hence, it is almost impossible to be anything but overly effusive about the display on the new iPad. The already fantastic IPS panel from the iPad and iPad 2 has been given the retina treatment, and boy is it beautiful.
Those that are dismissing the screen as a minor update haven’t spent much time with it. It might just be one component — but it’s the central component of a tablet. It’s impossible to escape the beauty, clarity and crispness.
The 2,048 x 1,536 resolution yields a pixel density of 264 pixels per inch. Text, photos, videos and games are brighter, sharper and more clear. As one of my colleagues pointed out, “It’s better than real life.”
Using the new iPad took me back to the summer of 2000 — when I saw my first plasma HDTV while working at Best Buy. It was a $40,000 wonder and the image was glorious. It was better than real life.
While text and graphics don’t quite have that “painted on” look of the iPhone 4/4S (because of the way the display layer is bonded to the touch panel), text looks better than a newspaper and as crisp as the most well-published glossy magazines.
Photos pop, with colors looking natural and larger than life. When comparing the new iPad against the original device from 2010, it was riveting to see just how much more accurate color tones were on the new device.
Videos also look great. Both 1080p videos from iTunes and side-loaded ones look fabulous. Even iPhone-only apps designed for the iPhone 4/4S look great, with the double-sized options looking near-native.
The one downside to this great screen — aside from never wanting to look at anything else — is that apps that haven’t updated their graphics with retina support immediately stick out like a sore thumb. Text rendering in almost all apps will still be perfect — but logos and photos can look fuzzier.
This is much the same situation that happened when the iPhone 4 was released. In the coming weeks and months, old apps will get updates. Apple is also likely to make retina-graphics mandatory of future applications.
Playing a game — such as Firemint’s Real Racing 2 HD is a treat. The new graphics really perform and the line between game console and tablet starts to get blurry. To be clear, Real Racing 2 HD is no Forza4 for Xbox 360, but it’s still a great-looking game and the new screen and processor keep things moving without skipping a beat.
4G LTE: A Love Letter
I was initially torn between buying a 4G LTE iPad or one with just Wi-Fi. In 2010, I had a 3G unit from AT&T. It was nice to have the feature, but I rarely used it. When I purchased the iPad 2 last March, I opted to just get the Wi-Fi model. Instead of paying a separate fee for data, I simply tethered my iPhone 4 (and later the 4S) to the iPad when I needed data on the go. It’s worked out for me and again, I’ve rarely found the need to tether or go online with my iPad as Wi-Fi is usually available.
I live in New York City and while AT&T’s service has improved over the past few years, but the HSPA+ network that the iPhone 4S runs on is still not 4G. Over the last year, I’ve had the opportunity to test a number of 4G LTE handsets from Verizon and AT&T.
Both networks are extremely fast, but for now, Verizon still has the lead on deployment and availability in various cities. The speeds, when you can get them, are great.
So why did I decide to get a 4G LTE iPad? It’s simple: Value. By buying a 4G LTE Verizon iPad, I also get a 4G LTE Verizon hotspot — and without a contract.
AT&T does not allow users to tether from their 4G LTE iPads at this time. That may change in the future, but for now, it’s iPad-access only. Verizon, on the other hand, will let me use my new iPad as a 4G LTE hotspot with my phone or laptop. This is great for someone like me — who frequently covers events with low or no connectivity. Rather than having to have a 4G LTE hotspot on hand, I can just turn on the iPad.
As you can see from my speed tests, Verizon’s 4G LTE performance averages — inside a building — about 10Mbps down and about 15Mbps up. That number is even better when you have the clear view of a window and are in an office that doesn’t have tons of interference, cables and connected devices around.
The one caveat to LTE. AS I’ve noted this in my past phone and hotspot reviews, it tends to kill battery life. Fortunately, Apple solve this problem by putting in a supercharged battery in the new iPad. I haven’t had enough time to fully test the battery, but in my heavy usage for the last 12 hours, I’m not seeing any results that differ from the drainage I got on my iPad 3G or my iPad 2 Wi-Fi.
If you’re in the market for a 4G LTE hotspot — or want a no-contract way to try 4G LTE — the new iPad is a great device. Even better, the new iPad ships with unlocked world GSM SIM slots. That means both Verizon and AT&T models can be used to access 3G on global GSM networks (including AT&T for Verizon iPads).
A Camera That Doesn’t Suck
As I showcased in my first-impressions post, the new rear camera on the new iPad is a significant improvement over the “camera” on the iPad 2. For all of it’s faults, the iPad 2 actually takes good looking video (or at least, video that isn’t totally awful) — but as a still camera, the device is quite weak.
The new iPad might not match the iPhone 4S in terms of quality, but it is a huge step up.
Moreover, there is something incredible about using the giant super-high-res screen as a living, breathing viewfinder. It makes me wish apps such as Camera+ and Instagram would release iPad versions.
Well, I’ll need to take my iPad out with me this weekend to get better shots, but as you can see from this comparison of video from the iPad 2 and the new iPad, the color quality is much better, the lens is wider and the auto-focus is smarter — the white balance also adjusts more quickly.
iPad 2 Video Quality Test:
New iPad Video Quality Test
This, combined with iMovie and Vimeo for iPad, opens up some interesting possibilities.
Still, it can be sort of awkward to take video or photos using the iPad. If you treat the device as a large-scale moving viewfinder the results can be good and it’s easier to handle.
I could actually see a tripod-mounted iPad being a great secondary camera monitor for people who shoot using DSLRs or with the iPhone 4S.
The Song Remains the Same
Aside from the optics, screen and connectivity options the new iPad retains the same software features that make the iPad 2 such a delight.
Some users might find this disappointing — but in truth, working great isn’t a bad thing. I fully expect that iOS 6 will introduce new features that take even more advantage of the new iPad, just as iOS 5 introduced features that made the iPad 2 stand out from its older brother.
All the core Apple apps have received updates to support the new retina display, and a number of third-party apps are on board too.
The unit is almost physically identical to the iPad 2 — just a hair thicker and a bit heavier. Still, the device is svelte in comparison to not just the original iPad — but most of the major tablets on the market.
Because the iPad release never falls exactly in-line with the OS update cycle (which is what the iPhone does), it can be difficult to predict what new features might get added in the future. If I had to guess, I would say that the Bluetooth 4.0 compatibility will open up a plethora of new add-on accessories in the future. I would also love for the iPad to have the option to accept content streamed via AirPlay from OS X Lion.
Hey, we can dream, right?
The bottom line is that users expecting something groundbreaking on the software side will need to wait. That doesn’t mean that the experience isn’t fast and elegant.
So, Is It Worth It?
For owners of the original iPad, the new iPad is absolutely worth an upgrade. It improves on that device in every single way.
For iPad 2 owners, I still think the upgrade is worth considering, particularly for those interested in 4G LTE. The value here — with the lack of contract and the ability to tether with Verizon — makes the device far more versatile.
Moreover, resale value and trade-ins for the iPad 2 can often provide enough of a financial incentive to make upgrading less painful.
For users who got an iPad 2 for Christmas, waiting on the new iPad might not be a bad idea. Perhaps after iOS 6 is released, there will be new features worth highlighting. The bottom line is that the fact that the new iPad is great doesn’t mean the iPad 2 isn’t also great.
The new iPad may not have blown everyone’s mind, but it blows mine away. The screen, the 4G and the new graphics make for an awesome experience that will only improve as apps update and developers take advantage of the new processing power.
The new iPad is a joy to hold, to use and to look at.