With the introduction of every new product, Apple is expected to reinvent the wheel, and not without good reason. For over a decade, the company has refined or reinvigorated not one, but several product categories. But even the wizards in Cupertino cannot escape the natural ebb and flow between evolutionary and revolutionary iterations.
With a largely similar aesthetic design, a higher resolution display, improved cameras, LTE connectivity and more powerful innards, the new iPad is a solid update over last year’s iPad 2.
But is it enough to satisfy consumers’ demands for constant innovation, or, more importantly, stave off the advance of competing products? Only time will tell, but as it stands, Apple remains the unrivaled champion of the tablet market with its latest iPad.
The most notable feature of the new iPad is without question the new retina display. At a staggering 2048x1536, the 9.7-inch display now packs double the resolution of the iPad 2 (1024x768) and a higher resolution than just about every HDTV on the market (1920x1080). With a pixel density of 264 pixels-per-inch (ppi), the new iPad falls short of the iPhone 4S, which offers 326 ppi. From a user’s perspective, however, the difference is negligible, if not completely unrecognizable.
The retina display is not only a substantial improvement over the iPad 2, it’s one of the best looking displays on the market. The most immediately recognizable benefit of the new high-res display is crisper, cleaner text. Much like we saw on the iPhone 4S, lines of text and individual characters are so smooth that you can’t see a single pixel, even when fully zoomed in. The impact for images and other graphical media is dependent largely on whether or not it is presented in high-resolution.
Currently, the number of optimized websites and apps is small since the new iPad only hit stores a few days ago, but you can bet more are on the way. The iTunes App Store’s collection of new or optimized apps for the new iPad consists of 40 or so titles, including Flipboard, Twitter for iPad, Infinity Blade II, Modern Combat 3, Mass Effect Infiltrator, SketchBook Pro for iPad, Real Racing 2 HD and others. While each has been updated to render graphics and its UI at 2048x1536 resolutions, there aren’t any games that truly harness the power of the new A5X chip and 1GB of RAM in terms of advanced textures or more detailed characters and environments. At least, not yet.
Still, the very simple fact that the A5X can sufficiently output 3D graphics at such a high resolution without framerate performance issues is impressive. Games like Modern Combat 3 and Mass Effect Infiltrator look gorgeous and run smoothly, and load times are slightly faster.
After running GLBenchmark tests, I was able to get a better sense of how the new iPad compares to the iPad 2 and the NVIDIA Tegra 3-powered ASUS Transformer Prime. Unfortunately, the results cannot be considered an apples-to-apples comparison due to the fact that the GLBenchmark app runs at the native resolution of whatever device it is running on, thus making a standardized test impossible. All the same, despite running at a substantially higher resolution (2048x1536 vs. 1024x768 and 1280x800), the new iPad outperformed both devices. In the GL Benchmark 2.1 Egypt Standard test, the iPad 2 produced 6627 frames at a rate of 59 frames-per-second, while the new iPad ran 6633 frames at the same framerate. Comparatively, the Transformer Prime was only able to produce 5702 frames at 50 frames-per-second. With any luck, the GLBenchmark app will be updated to allow for set resolution testing but as it stands, we have only a rather vague sense of how powerful the A5X really is.
The introduction of the A5X processor, LTE networking and the retina display yielded two notable changes: a larger battery and, as a result, a slightly thicker and heavier design. In order to power these new power-hungry features, Apple ditched the iPad 2’s 25 watt-hour battery in favor of a 42.5 watt-hour battery, which bumped the overall weight of the device to 1.46lbs (up from 1.33lbs) and the thickness to 9.4mm (up from 8.8mm). Comparing the two devices side-by-side made the variations fairly noticeable, but in terms of real-life usage, there’s no considerable impact.
The benefit of the new larger battery is purely compensatory, and the overall battery life of the iPad remains unchanged at roughly 10 hours. Performance will vary based on settings and usage, but during testing I was able to achieve anywhere between 9 to 10 hours with Wi-Fi-only and 8 to 9 with 4G LTE with brightness set to about 60-percent.
Network connection speeds for 4G LTE models will vary by region, though in San Francisco, I was able to achieve downloads of up to 29Mbps and uploads of 16Mbps, which rivals or often surpasses broadband speeds. To sweeten the deal for users who were previously apprehensive about paying for a dedicated data plan, Apple has added mobile hotspot capability to the iPad. In the United States, the feature is only supported on Verizon versions of the device, though AT&T says they will soon offer the feature as well. What’s most exciting about the functionality is that it’s free to use with any Verizon data plan, whereas the same feature on your smartphone would require additional charges.
Apple has also upgraded the iPad’s rear-facing camera, which hitherto sported an abysmal 0.7-megapixel sensor. Now, the camera has a 5-megapixel sensor with the same image processing tech used in the iPhone 4S. While it doesn’t support high dynamic range (HDR) stills, it is now capable of recording 1080p video with image stabilization. In terms of image and video quality, the new iPad falls behind the iPhone 4S, but far beyond the iPad 2 and other competing tablets. What’s most confounding, however, is Apple’s choice to leave the front-facing camera unaltered at 0.3-megapixels. While a rear-facing lens is handy to have, the front-facing camera is critical for video conferencing. The front camera is still functional but the image quality is as grainy and uninspiring as ever.
The only software feature exclusive to the new iPad is voice dictation, which, like Siri, takes spoken words and converts them into written text. The feature is accessible as a microphone key on the on-screen keyboard and can be used in any app, first-party or otherwise, that uses text entry. Overall, the feature works well, though ambient noise and other factors could impact your experience. I found the feature most useful for quick drafts of tweets or emails, which I could then make quick formatting edits to.
What’s interesting is that voice dictation seems like a feature that could have been easily ported to older versions of the device via the iOS 5.1 update, but for reasons unknown, it’s limited to the latest model. The choice to implement only voice dictation and not the extensive voice-assisted functions of Siri is also somewhat odd. My first guess was that Siri’s need for constant connectivity to the Internet was a determining factor, but upon further investigation, I’ve found that voice dictation on the new iPad also requires a Wi-Fi or 4G LTE connection. When no connection is available, the dictation key disappears from the on-screen keyboard.
Several new and updated first-party apps accompanied the announcement of the new iPad, such as iPhoto and new versions of GarageBand, Keynote and others, but aside from retina display support, all are exactly the same and are available for older devices as well.
At the end of the day, what consumers are getting with the new iPad is a gorgeous new display with double the resolution of last year’s model, a powerful new dual-core CPU with quad-core graphics, 1GB or RAM, a new 5-megapixel rear-facing camera, voice dictation and optional 4G LTE networking with mobile hotspot support. If you already own an iPad or you weren’t interested in one before, the changes may not be enough to inspire a purchase, but for others, the new iPad is the best yet and is worthy of your consideration.