The new iPad reviewed: Once again, Apple sets the standard for tablet computing

March 17, 2012
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Not surprisingly, 2.3 million extra pixels make a huge difference for any tablet, let alone the iPad.

For Apple, it means once again the company has once again defined the standard for tablet devices in a manner that keeps it 6-12 months ahead of the competition.

There are several noteworthy changes with the new iPad, most noticeably:

  • 9.7-inch, 2048 x 1536 Retina Display
  • Quad-core A5X processor
  • New iSight 5MP rear camera, capable of 1080p video
  • Voice dictation support built into the virtual keyboard
  • Support for 4G LTE (via Verizon and AT&T)

It’s easy to spit out specifications and new features. And while faster, better, stronger counts for a lot, when you consider that many workers and business are still in the middle of figuring out the best way to deploy and use tablets, attempts to quantify the impact of these new features isn’t easy.

This said, the new iPad is amazing. Is it worth the money to upgrade? For individual consumers, the answer is an unequivocal yes. The higher resolution screen alone is worth the price of admission. The significant boosts to performance are also appealing.

But what about businesses? Is it better to save $100 per device on the now older iPad 2 or leap into the future?

As always, that depends on where you’re coming from, what your business needs are, and what your budget is. For a detailed evaluation of the new iPad’s most salient features, read on.

Initial Impressions: The new iPad is the same, but different

It’s funny; for all the hype and hoopla about the iPad’s new looks, the fairly monochromatic tone of installation and setup feels a little anti-climactic.

Thankfully, existing iPad and iPhone users can quickly restore all their existing settings and data using iCloud and a Wi-Fi (or 4G LTE) connection.

Upon setup, one of the device’s new features—voice dictation—immediately makes its presence known; you are prompted to choose whether or not you’d like to use it.

It’s hard not to pull out the new iPad and avoid chuckling about how it looks exactly the same as the iPad 2. It does, with one small variation. The new display and quad-core processor forced Apple to use a slightly larger battery, and the end result is that the new iPad is about a half millimeter thicker and a tenth of a pound heavier.

This means that while the existing Apple smart cover still fits fine, almost all snap-on rear protective cases do not.

How big a difference can the new iPad’s Retina Display make?

Much has been made about the new iPad’s 2048 x 1536 Retina Display, which inherently promises that the human eye will perceive no pixels on the screen.

I’ll admit to feeling doubt regarding how big a difference this new higher resolution display could make. But after spending just 20 minutes with the new iPad, it’s clear that the hype is merited. Is it essential? No. But it sure is dramatic. And it looks much better than the iPad 2.

It doesn’t double the quality, but if I had to put a percentage on the improvement, I’d rate it about a 60% improvement.

In some ways, the delta between the two devices’ displays is a little ironic. As soon as I dropped into iOS, I immediately noticed that text on the iPad 2 looked pixelated and slightly blurry in comparison to the new iPad.

Given how much reading and working many people do on these devices, it’s the kind of improvement that can’t really be over-stated. But how strange that, all of a sudden, this tablet and this display that I had been previously enamored with gets exposed as being old and fuzzy?

Here’s a more direct way of quantifying the difference. Know how the icon for Apple’s Newsstand displays micro versions of the magazine/newspaper issues it contains? The new iPad’s resolution allows you to see individual words on these micro thumbnails. On the iPad 2, you can’t pick up any text whatsoever.

Granted, being able to detect minuscule-sized text on a 150×150 app icon is not practical. But after investigating websites, graphics, and more, it became clear that the new iPad is far superior to other tablets in displaying the kinds of small text we all encounter online on a daily basis. If you spend a lot of time on the web on your iPad, your eyes will be greatly appreciative.

Ideally suited for web browsing and small text

Small or large, for reading text this is a monumental leap forward. For developers and content providers, this is particularly relevant. You can do things on and with the new iPad that literally can’t be accomplished on any other mobile device.

To be fair, the enhanced clarity of text and images diminishes once you get about 2 feet away from the device. So if for some reason your primary usage occurs at greater distances, you may not need to upgrade.

Another subtle difference bears mentioning. It’s not clear whether the new 2048 x 1536 resolution is the cause, but there’s a subtle palette shift around displayed colors. In the calendar view, on the iPad 2, the app’s brown borders appear in a slightly deeper brown than they do on the new iPad.

This subtle difference can be seen in other apps and interface screens. It’s neither bad nor good.

The new Retina Display certainly cements the iPad’s leader status. It also begs an interesting question. How long will it take other tablet manufacturers to release 2048 x 1536?

It’s hard to imagine moving much further beyond this resolution in coming years, that’s for sure.

Same level of performance and power, with one exception

Given the presence of two extra computing cores in the new iPad’s quad-core A5X processor, I expected to see a little faster performance around web and data downloads via Wi-Fi. This is not the case; in all instances the new iPad performed at the same rate as the iPad 2

The only exception to this rule is the 4G LTE connection, which offers an astonishingly fast connection. A few months ago, I tested Motorola’s Xyboard and found that while connected to Verizon’s 4G LTE network, I was seeing download speeds even faster than my office’s Wi-Fi connection.

The same goes here—on AT&T’s 4G LTE network, I consistently witnessed data rates exceeding 20Mbps. And in comparison to 3G network speeds, well, there’s no real comparison to be made.

(If you previously owned an AT&T or a Verizon version of the iPad 2, you’ll be happy to know that you can easily transfer your service from one iPad to another by entering your email address and password for the previous wireless account.)

Heavy users will appreciate that the extra processing power and 4G LTE connection don’t cost anything in terms of battery life. In our abbreviated testing, we witnessed very similar battery performance to the second-generation iPad. Very impressive, when you consider the extra pixels the CPU is pushing around.

Will the new 5MP iSight camera change the way we use tablet cameras?

The new iPad’s 5MP rear camera is capable of producing HD still images and 1080p video. When combined with the all-new iMovie editing tool ($4.99, iTunes), it suddenly becomes possible to shoot and edit together some pretty sophisticated videos.

Overall, the camera doesn’t quite reach the quality of the iPhone or other 8MP cameras, but it’s a much-needed improvement.

The only downside of the new iPad’s camera is that the front-facing camera is the same as before. Simply put, it’s not that great—particularly for businesses that make heavy use of videoconferencing.

Voice dictation: Endless possibilities?

The virtual keyboard on the new iPad now allows you to enter text via voice dictation. To do so, all you have to do is click on the new microphone icon to the left of the space bar.

With the hope that I can begin composing emails or even inputting parts of stories with my voice, I spent a lot of time testing this new feature. I was encouraged by the results. For quick emails and/or short sentences, it’s pretty much perfect. You say what you want to type, hit the mic button at the end, and the iPad transcribes your words with surprising accuracy.

One tip: You have to dictate punctuation for periods and commas to appear.

Based on all the reviews I’m reading, I’m not sure that people understand exactly how big a game changer the voice dictation features represent, especially for business.

Voice dictation also seems like it could be a huge opportunity for developers. It’s not clear how easy it will be to use voice dictation outside of the keyboard itself, but it’s easy to see some ground-breaking uses, from simple transcription to more ambitious language translation.

The Bottom Line

The new iPad presents some interesting ramifications for businesses and industries.

For starters, publishers and advertisers will immediately be able to take advantage of the crystal clear text the new iPad enables. But we’ll all have to spend time considering the optimum way to present different sizes of images, and the impact these images will have on download times.

Developers—particularly game publishers—suddenly have a chance to make a big splash and a lot of dollars by quickly optimizing their apps for the higher resolutions. The first wave of app udpates is already here. The NY Times, Amazon, Evernote, The Daily, and more have all already updated their apps to support the new resolutions.

Other businesses will find considerable efficiencies and savings in the 4G LTE connection. Even at $30 for 2GB and $50 for 5GB of data per month, road warriors will save money and experience faster download speeds than they will on the mediocre connections offered in hotels and conference rooms.

Ultimately, however, the real bottom line is this: The new iPad is the new de facto standard for tablet computing. We probably won’t see as important a product release in this space for at least two more years.

iPad (3rd generation)

Size: 9.5 x 7.3 x 0.37 inches (H x W x D)
Weight: 1.44 pounds (1.46 with 4G)
System memory: 1GB
$499, $599, $699 for 16GB/32GB/64GB Wi-Fi version
$629, $729, $829 for 16GB/32GB/64GB Wi-Fi with 4G


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