ipad review 2012 03The New Ipad is here and it features improvements that were much anticipated, namely a very high resolution display, a much better camera and support for 4G LTE networks. These three features are truly the “meat” of the upgrade, especially from a hardware perspective. To continue supporting its tablet line of products, Apple has kept the entry price at $499, which is competitive for a high-end tablet, but the new iPad costs a bit more to build than the iPad 2 did, so margins will likely go down.

The updated tablet also comes with an update of the A5 chip (or SoC), called the A5X. It has been upgraded to support the higher resolution, and packs twice the graphics power of the iPad 2. that’s more than needed to handle four times as many pixels. Without a doubt, the new display is the star of the show, but is the iPad as good as it seems? We have the answer to that.

Context

We all perceive a gadget’s usefulness differently depending on our lifestyle, so let me tell you where I come from. Most of my (computing) time is spent using a powerful desktop computer (a PC) with large displays. If I need to get some real work done outside of the office, I use a laptop (Macbook Pro + Win7). On the go, I keep track of emails with a smartphone, but I tend to reply only moderately from it because typing long emails is painful on a touchscreen phone. I check news websites and social networks a lot, and I often use a laptop or tablet on my couch. Since the iPad 2 came out, I have started using it in trade shows as a laptop replacement, but just to send emails and files.

Design (almost identical)

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from a distance, it looks identical to the iPad 2

The new iPad looks nearly identical to the iPad 2, so this section is going to be very short. I would like to point out that while they’re almost the same, it is different enough that tight-fitting cases may not fit anymore, so keep that in mind if you are upgrading.

Also, it is noticeably heavier than the iPad 2 (you can “feel” the difference when you pick it up). Interestingly, although the thickness is *almost* identical, even in photos. You can also feel that it is a little thicker. These days, the iPad is among the heaviest tablets on the market (well if you exclude Windows tablets…). That is one of the few (if not the single) downside of having an aluminum and glass design. This makes it harder to hold with one hand. Another one is that aluminum and glass can be slippery.

That said, this is the price to pay for having a premium build, although I have to admit that weight does matter more and more to me (and maybe to you), so I think that this is pretty much the limit of the weight that I can tolerate for a 10” tablet. Lightweight is a good thing!

Display (extraordinary)

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To make a long story short: the display is amazing

There is no question that the new iPad display is the star of the show. This is indeed most visible upgrade, and this is the one improvement that everyone will benefit from, every single time the power is turned on. With a display resolution of 2048×1536, the new iPad has four times as many pixels as its predecessors (iPad 2 was arguably “under-powered” in terms of display).

The net result is an incredibly sharp display that is currently the sharpest (of any tablets) on the market. Ironically, Samsung is the initial supplier of this incredible piece of technology, although Apple is said to be looking for other suppliers, to cope with demand, but also to vendor-balance I suppose.

The new resolution benefits video quality, but more importantly, it makes (vector) text much more crisp and readable. Any applications that features small details can benefit greatly from this. We’ll come back to this later, but eBooks and Maps are prime examples of apps that look much better on the new iPad.

4G LTE (very fast)

As I said in my iPad 2 review, the addition of a 4G LTE radio was something that I was seriously looking forward to. This is now done, and this can be a big deal if you use web apps quite a bit. Even simple things like Email, Facebook and small apps download are appreciably faster with LTE. You can look at 4G LTE in a couple of different ways: most people think of 4G in terms of download speed, and it’s important, but to be honest the bandwidth price will quickly prevent you from downloading like crazy.

More importantly, 4G LTE has a much lower latency (the time it takes to receive a response from the web) than 3G, so every web app should feel noticeably snappier and more responsive. A web page can generate hundreds of web requests, so this can quickly add up to seconds of wait time. Latency is in my view much more important than pure upload speed. That said, if you have to upload a big file, the new iPad can be up to 20X faster then the iPad 2. It’s not even funny.

new ipad att lte

I went to my local “nightmare location” for weak signal, yet the network was fast

Increased battery capacity (but not increased battery life)
Apple didn’t say much about this during the new iPad unveiling, but the new tablet has much more battery capacity than the iPad 2. Yet, the extra capacity has not been added to increase the battery life. Instead it’s there to make sure that the new iPad’s battery life remains comparable to what iPad users have been accustomed to in the past. The HD display, the new LTE radio and the beefier chip all contribute to draw more power, and overall, the new iPad consumes nearly twice as much power as iPad 2 did, so this update was absolutely necessary.

Better camera (excellent)

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The camera has finally reached iPhone 4S levels. Not a minute too soon

In my iPad 2 review, I mentioned that while I was glad to have a couple of cameras integrated to the device, I was disappointed by their image quality. Fortunately, Apple has improved the cameras of the new iPad quite a bit. To simplify things, I would say that the rear camera is now comparable to the one used in the iPhone 4S, which is great. Keep in mind that such cameras are always a combination of hardware and software. The data coming out of the sensor (however good it is) is a garbled mess and needs to be interpreted by smart software.

ipad2 new ipad sample

This small side by side doesn’t even begin to show how far we’ve come…

I took the new iPad for a spin in San Francisco and shot a few photos and videos. The result is very satisfying, and this is clearly some of the better photos that I have shot with a tablet. In low-light, the new iPad rear-camera blows away the iPad 2’s. It’s not even funny, but of course that was to be expected, since the iPad 2 camera was so weak to start with. I think that select models of the Galaxy Tab line remain competitive in terms of photography, but if you’ve seen what an iPhone 4S can do, this is pretty much it.

The video capture is also very good and videos will look amazing on the HD display, and yet also look very good on a 30” PC monitor. I have uploaded full-size samples from the iPad 2, new iPad, iPhone 4S and Transformer Prime for you to compare. You can view the video sample below in HD if you want. Not only the video clarity is great but the new iPad also does a really good job with auto-white-balance etc…

Unfortunately, the front camera has not changed that much. The quality is very similar to the old one, and the addition of face tracking in the software is the only noticeable change since the iPad 2. It’s true that users have not been “screaming” for the improvement of the front camera, but it would have been nice to have. Video chat via Facetime or Skype is rather reliable, so I would love to see some improvement in the future.

Media consumption

Web browsing: the new iPad is excellent at browsing, and as you may have guessed, the HD display brings an extra legibility for small characters that I really appreciate. The overall web page proportions are similar to the iPad 2, but the small text is now much more crisp and readable, it’s just great (assuming that your vision is 20/20).

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The reading experience is much improved on the new iPad

eBooks: This is yet another application that is greatly enhanced by the new display. I fired up my Kindle app and opened a book, and boy, it was beautiful. Both text and illustrations were visibly better, and much nicer to read. I’ve tried it with the Kindle app, but iBooks and other eBook apps should have the same behavior. Of course, this would probably not apply on scanned books, unless they have been scanned at a very high resolution.

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Movies do look incredibly sharp when compared to iPad 2

Movies: The New iPad is the  first iPad that is capable of reading 1080p files. Given that the Apple A5X chip still features the same dual-core CPU setup, it is fair to assume that the GPU upgrade, and the display, contributed to this. A good place to hit is the Trailers app and watch recent movie trailers. I tried Wrath of the Titans, and it did look great. Of course, 1080p is actually less than what the Retina display is capable of, but this is pretty much as good as it gets in terms of commercial content and I suppose that Apple can always up-scale the content to add a little bit of sharpness, like it does with legacy games.

Killer apps

new ipad maps

Maps look great on the new iPad

Maps: as I hinted in the Display section, the Maps have greatly benefited from the HD display. They look beautiful and now it is possible to read small street names (on the iPad, not in this screenshot). Secondly the 4G LTE makes the whole thing super-fast, so using this on the street (or while driving) is truly a pleasure. I really need to get an iPad mount for my car. Now, it’s a bummer that Maps has not really evolved like its Android counter-part. Of course, you can bet that Google is doing everything it can to use Google Maps as an edge against Apple, but as a user, features like map caching etc would have been more than welcome.

Skype / FaceTime: I find both video chat apps to work very well, but Skype is a bit more versatible, and let’s be honest: with its huge installed base on computers, it is just more handy in general. Apple should really release FaceTime for Windows. This is not something that will make people “buy Macs”, but if done right, Apple could get people to buy iOS devices, partly because of this. There’s potential, but today, Skype remains the king of voice calls, at least for me.

Facebook: Besides the extra sharpness, Facebook looks and feels like it did on the iPad 2. With the new iPad, the main improvement comes with the 4G LTE use, which makes Facebook snappier when used away from WiFi (the Facebook app usually treats bandwidth as if you were on WiFi… so you need any speed bump you can get). The second benefit from the new iPad is the improved camera. If you like snapping and sharing photos directly from your tablet, you’ll appreciate that.

Gaming (very good)

The iPad platform is a great gaming platform, and I was looking forward to how games look like. Overall, they are great but you should note that none of them seem to run natively in the new high-resolution. Instead, they run in 1024×768, and get up-scaled to 2048×1536. This is an effective stop-gap measure that is equivalent to up-scaling a DVD to HD definition.

riptide gp new ipadRiptide GP: riptide GP is a great racing game that is available on both Android and iOS, so I thought that I would take it for a spin to see how different the experience is. First, I need to set some context: unfortunately, the two versions (Transformer Prime & New iPad) are not identical, so the resolution, special effects etc… vary quite a bit.

The new iPad can run the game very fast at a solid 60FPS, and I have to say that the up-scaling from 1024×768 looks good here. The Transformer Prime and its Tegra 3 chip can run the game at a framerate closer to 30FPS -but- it does so while using a higher resolution (1280×720) and with more special effects: the water-rendering looks more realistic. The Transformer Prime version also features full-screen effects like water splashes on the camera etc… To be fair, I believe that all those effects could be achieved on the new iPad as well, so the question is: will developers do it?

spinkle new ipadSprinkle: I also tried Sprinkle, another game available on both Android and new iPad. The game runs at a solid 60FPS on both platforms, and they look very much alike. Interestingly, the new iPad version had noticeable color bending in the background, but I suspect that it is a matter of how the background textures were encoded (16bit colors?), rather than a display problem. Again, the Tegra 3 version had higher native resolution and additional water and smoke effects that are not available in the iPad version for now. This is not a technical issue, but the developers have worked with NVIDIA to add these effects, and may be bound by an exclusivity deal.

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Shadowgun runs fast, using up-scaling from 1024×768

Shadowgun: this is yet a great title available on both platforms. Again, the game looks very similar on both platforms, The new iPad runs the game at mostly 60FPS. Again the Tegra 3 version runs a bit slower in terms of frame rate but has more effects (water…). Overall, the gameplay is very comparable.

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Infinity blade is much faster than on iPad 2. It uses upscaling as well

Infinity Blade II: This one doesn’t exist on Android, but it is useful for an iPad 2 comparison. Both games have the exact same gameplay and it overall “fells” the same. The upscaling does help the perception of things being “sharper”, and the game looks a bit nicer than its iPad 2 equivalent. The framerate is also higher on the new hardware, and in this game, this is important because casting spells requires tracing patterns that often fail on a slower machine.

Overall, the new iPad remains a great platform for casual gaming. It is not certain if developers will take advantage of the native HD resolution, instead of rendering at ¼ resolution, but to be honest, this works pretty well and allows very high FPS. I have not seen a good option to connect a game controller like the Transformer Prime can, but it would be nice to have.

Performance (very good+)

Measured performance

In terms of CPU speed, the new iPad performs exactly like the iPad 2 as it uses the same dual-core setup. For instance, in Geekbench, it gets a score of about 750, while an NVIDIA Tegra 3 would get a score of 1334. This is assuming that the app is completely multi-core friendly. That said, keep in mind that in the real world, not every app can scale that much, but some can: audio processing, video/photo editing, game physics, etc… they can all spread nicely on multiple cores. Having a sense of what your needs are is critical for choosing the right platform. If you don’t know, it’s most probable that you don’t have that particular need.

The graphics performance of the new iPad GPU has made quite a bit of noise. First, because it is very fast. Secondly, because a number of people misunderstood what “quad-core” meant in that context. Finally, because Apple’s claim that its new GPU is “4X” faster than Tegra 3′s GPU hit a nerve in “Android Land”, as Tegra 3 is currently the fastest chip for that platform.

As I mentioned in my previous post aimed at clearing the quad-core confusion, I believe that Apple is basing its claim on the GLBenchmark 2.1 app, using the “pro offscreen” configuration. In that particular test, the new iPad is nearly 4X faster than Tegra 3. Because that test uses antiquated rendering techniques (visually not very far from 3DFX’s valley of Ra demo shown in the late 90s), it does not provide a performance metric that represents what modern GPUs can do. However, it is the only reliable cross-platform benchmark that we have today, so we’ll use it. GLBenchmark 2.5 or 3.0 may improve this situation…

3dfx vallery ra

1998 – 3DFX’s Vallery of Ra demo

glbenchmark egypt

Present day: GLBenchmark 2.1 Egypt

In an ideal world, what we want to measure is in-game performance (like we would do on PC). However, the mobile gaming industry is under an intense lobby to *not* include those benchmarks, which would spark some kind of “arms race” that nobody is sure to win. In conclusion, now you know where the “4X” number comes from.

In the end, we have very little data to work on GPU performance. The games currently run on 1024×768 with up-scaling to 2048×1536, so we can’t get a clear picture on performance, and we have no way of knowing how the A5X GPU would perform in a game at native resolution, or at equal resolution to an Android tablet. Let’s put it this way: if the A5X GPU was “4X” faster than Tegra, it could in theory run the same game at 2560×1440, at the same speed than Tegra 3 would at 1280×720. So why use the upscaling? The Apple A5X GPU is very fast, but 4X? We have yet to see that.

Perceived performance

In terms of perceived performance, many people were worried that adding four times the number of pixels to the screen would cripple the iPad’s responsiveness. I’m glad to report that this is not the case. Whether it is with games or in the regular user interface, the new iPad is just as responsive and fast as the iPad 2 was. As it stands, the iPad platform remains the target to beat when it comes to overall user responsiveness.

Heat dissipation: I have noticed that the new iPad can dissipate more heat the the iPad 2. While this is nowhere near “laptop levels”, this is something that is good to have in the back of your mind. Typically, it can get hot while playing games, or doing something very intensive. Video playback didn’t yield any particular warm up.

Bottom-line: it is undeniable that the new iPad has a very fast graphics processor. Today, I would pay to get a good cross-platform benchmark that could show us a real performance picture, using modern rendering techniques instead of 1999-style demos. That said, it is clear to me that there is enormous -unexploited- potential – it’s up to game developers to step up to the plate.

Battery life (good+)

new ipad battery

Photo courtesy of ifixit

As we said earlier, Apple has included a huge battery capacity. It is logical that with four times as many pixels, the display was going to draw serious power. Add to that the beefier graphics processor and this all makes a larger battery a necessity, not a bonus. However, I was expecting things like standby depletion rate to be great with this new setup, as during standby none of these power-hungry elements are in use. There was a possibility that the new iPad may have 2X the standby battery life. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen.

Overnight depletion: It did not turn out the way I thought it would: in fact, the new iPad draws significantly more power than the iPad 2, even in standby mode. For instance, the iPad 2 loses less than 2% of its battery after 8hrs of standby mode (WIFI-only, email sync on etc.. this is an *amazingly* low percentage). The new iPad lost about 5%-to 8%, which is still a good number, but it is still lower battery performance. Takes it away from an “excellent” rating to a “good+”. Top Android tablets like the Transformer Prime can use less power in standby mode.

In the real world, this means that an iPad 2 can stay “alive” for weeks, while the new iPad will have to be charged more regularly. By the way, the charging seems to take a long time. It’s not surprising given the battery capacity, but I’ll try to provide more accurate figures.

Movie playback 60mn: watching a 1080p movie rented on iTunes will consume about 10% of the battery life, which is in-line with the 10 hours of battery life of the iPad 2. You shouldn’t have to worry about that long international flight: the new iPad performs as well as the iPad 2, while showing a significantly nicer image.

Gaming: in theory, games should be the most demanding thing that you can do with the iPad. I’ll come back with some numbers but at this point, I did not want to hold the review back, just to get this in. I would expect something like 5 hours, but this remains to be seen…

Accessories

The new iPad is slightly thicker than the iPad 2, so tight-fitting cases won’t be compatible. Since I’ve had an iPad, I realized that many cases are great for many situations. Some are great to protect the display, while others become great stands – although they don’t all work in portrait and landscape mode.

In my personal experience, I never really need to protect the screen, which is more resistant to scratches that one may think. In fact, the aluminum back is probably more prone to scratches than the glass. After trying many cases, I ended up liking tight-fitting cases that can double as a stand, which is convenient for long flights. I really don’t need a case that triples the thickness of the device. I also really like the idea of the Apple cover, and it would work for many people, but it is just too unstable to use in a plane.

In the end, it’s up to you to choose which one works for you, but I can give you a few pointers: Targus has a great line of cases for the new iPad, ranging from classy leather to tight-fitting plastic. Speck is also a brand that is worth checking, but it looks like their product line for the new iPad isn’t ready yet.

Conclusion (excellent)

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The new iPad is an excellent tablet

Many were expecting a “leap” from iPad 2 to the new iPad, but although we all want “more”, “now”, the reality is that this is going to be a evolutionary process going forward. This time around, Apple has addressed a few priorities like the screen resolution, 4G LTE and the photo/video quality, which were obvious and much needed upgrades. Depending on your usage, this may or may not be important, but to new buyers this is certainly a very positive thing.

The only thing that i miss from the iPad 2 is the extremely low rate of battery depletion in standby mode. I think that it is an amazing thing to pick up an iPad 2 that I had not used for a week, and find it with 80%+ charged. This time is over. The new iPad seems to lose 15% or 20% of battery every day, even in sleep mode.

In some ways, Apple has added enough “punch” to keep the competition at bay, while keeping its gross margins comfortable. In fact, the margins should be a bit less because the new iPad is said to cost more to produce than the iPad 2. But regardless of the business strategies, what matters is the competitive landscape of the iPad. Today, it stands as the overall best tablet on the market, while the iPad 2 remains a competitive product.

Yet, it is not the only choice: the Asus Transformer Prime, and its upcoming variants (1080 display, LTE etc…) do offer a great alternative for those who prefer Android, and the upcoming Windows 8 tablets are set to resurrect an old battle, although on a new terrain. In the meantime, the new iPad is an excellent tablet that I don’t have any problems recommending.

I hope that this review has given you a good idea of how it is to use the new iPad in the real world. If it did, share it, like it and spread the word out. If there are things that were not clear, or that I did not cover, feel free to leave a question below, and I’ll do my best to address it.

Common questions

Should I upgrade from my iPad 2?

In my view, the HD display, LTE modem and camera are really the “meat” of this new update, so if you have a need for those, then this may be a good upgrade. If you use your iPad 2 casually, I don’t think that you should upgrade, unless you can sell your current iPad at a good price. In the end, you’ll have to decide if this is worth the extra money. If not, the first generation iPad could be found for a good price…

I don’t have an iPad, should I save $100 by buying an iPad 2?

Unless you’re on a tight budget, I would recommend choosing the new iPad.

How does it compare to the Transformer Prime?

Tough question. In my view, the Transformer Prime’s primary benefit is the ability to turn into a small laptop with 2X the battery life, in a sub-macbook air format. This comes of course in addition to all the good stuff that’s in there (720p display, Tegra 3 chip, great build quality etc…). This is what makes the prime unique, and frankly, untouchable in that respect.

The new iPad has the best display on the market, and is also a very fast tablet. In the end, I would choose one or the other, depending on what I need to do. Take a good look at your needs, and try to see which would work better. Also, if you are an avid user of Google services, Android may be a better choice. On the contrary, if you are already a heavy Mac user, the iPad may be better. It’s larger than the device. It’s about you.

Filed in Reviews. Read more about Apple Review, iPad, ipad 3 and Tablet Reviews.

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