- Review Date: 03/10/11
- Bottom line:
The clear standout in the ever-widening sea of tablets, the Apple iPad 2 brings a slimmer design, faster processing, dual cameras, and FaceTime video chat to a tablet that already had a leg up on the competition.
Thinner than the original. New A5 chip offers faster graphics processing, general performance. Dual cameras for video chat, HD video recording, and stills. Improved design incorporates internal magnets for Smart Cover accessory. 3G versions available on AT&T and Verizon Wireless. Improved AirPlay features. Supports HDMI output (via optional adapter).
Image quality with rear-facing camera is not great. Front-facing camera is not HD. Still no Flash video support. No earbuds included.
As cocky as it may seem, when Steve Jobs boasts that most of the new 2011 tablets are no match for the original Apple iPad, he has a point. Currently, only the Motorola Xoom (Verizon Wireless) ($599-$799, 3.5 stars) shows enough promise to compete with Apple's tablet. RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook, HP's TouchPad, and Samsung's Honeycomb Galaxy Tab could also be contenders, but as Apple hits its second tablet rev, they've yet to arrive. The iPad 2 is thinner than the original iPad, with a faster processor, dual cameras, and FaceTime video chat. Apple also drummed up some excellent new accessories and apps, like the innovative Smart Cover and the endlessly fun, yet affordable GarageBand music app. Android lovers and Apple haters can argue that there are quality non-Apple tablets out there, and, like Jobs, they have a point. But these other tablets are few, and right now, none of them rival the iPad 2, which easily wins our Editors' Choice for tablets.
Before we get to the meat of this review, here's how the iPad 2 pricing breaks down. The Wi-Fi–only model costs $499 for 16GB, $599 for 32GB, and $699 for 64GB. The pricing for the Wi-Fi + 3G models is $629 for 16GB, $729 for 32GB, and $829 for 64GB. In the U.S., the 3G version is available on both AT&T and Verizon Wireless. AT&T's monthly plans are as follows: $14.99 per month for 250MB (with a $14.99 overage fee for every 250MB above the limit) or $25 per month for 2GB, (with $10 overage for every 1GB). On Verizon, monthly plans cost $20 for 1GB of data, $35 for 3GB, $50 for 5GB, and $80 for 10GB—with a $20 overage fee for the $20/month plan and $10 overage fee for the others. For both AT&T and Verizon, iPad service is a month-to-month proposition, so you aren't tethered to a long-term contract with either carrier. That said, once you buy a Verizon iPad 2 it's locked to Verizon, so you can't opt for AT&T service, or vice versa.
Measuring 9.50 by 7.31 by 0.34 inches (HWD), the weight of the iPad 2 varies slightly with each model. The heaviest model—by a hair—is the AT&T Wi-Fi + 3G iPad, at 1.35 pounds. The Verizon version, which we tested, weighs 1.34 pounds, and the Wi-Fi–only model is 1.33 pounds.
The original iPad measured 9.56 by 7.47 by 0.5 inches and weighed 1.5 pounds—so the tablet has slimmed down some, but your hands are not going to notice much difference in weight after holding either device for more than ten minutes. The real physical change is in the contour—the iPad 2 has rounded, narrow edges whereas the original tablet was a bit boxier with wider side panels.
The 9.7-inch LED-backlit multitouch-enabled display remains unchanged from the first iPad, in terms of size and 1,024-by-768 resolution. The front panel is still covered by glass, but now the screen is framed in either glossy black or glossy white. The back panel is brushed aluminum on both the black and while models and prominently features the Apple logo right in the middle.
As for controls and hardware, the front panel houses the new-to-this-model front-facing VGA-quality camera lens and the old, familiar Apple Home button, which sits, as usual, below the screen. The left-hand panel has nothing the eye can see, but houses magnets below the surface for the Smart Cover accessory (more on that later). A new switch for locking the screen's orientation or muting the audio (you assign the function in the Settings menu) is situated above the volume controls on the right panel. The 30-pin connector for docking and syncing, along with the integrated speaker (which is the same two-channel-but-no-stereo-separation speaker you'll find on the original iPad) are on the bottom of the tablet's back panel. At the top, the Sleep/Wake button sits alongside the cellular antenna (which is hidden by a black plastic strip), the microphone, and 3.5mm headphone jack. The back-left corner also houses the new, rear-facing camera lens which captures 720p30 video and 0.7-megaxpixel (yikes!) stills. Included with the iPad 2: a standard-issue Apple white sync cable and a charger, and that's pretty much it. You still won't find earbuds in the box, which, despite how awful Apple earbuds sound, should be included with a $500+ device with a headphone jack.
Processor & Guts
Internally, the new 1-GHz, dual-core A5 processor—only the second chip Apple has deigned to name and show off, however vaguely, to the public—is a "custom-designed, high-performance, low-power system-on-a-chip," to quote the company directly. Steve Jobs claims it is up to nine times faster than the A4 chip for graphics processing. We know very little about the A5 beyond these stats thus far, but it is a noticeable improvement over the A4's already strong graphics processing. For example, the real-time effects it's able to render to live images in Photo Booth are quite impressive for both their speed and grace. You almost never see the iPad stutter or slow down during a game or video—although it did crash a couple of times with one particular app (more on that in a bit). Additionally, the iPad 2 has three sensors—one of them a new three-axis gyroscope. This adds a new dimension to how you can play games and use apps—not only does the gyro sense when you switch between vertical and horizontal viewing, but the iPad knows when you're holding it above your head, below you, or spinning around in a chair, and certain apps and games, like Jenga, take advantage of this.
The 3G radio for the iPad delivers solid speed that's in line with other Verizon 3G devices. To no one's surprise, our speed tests varied significantly depending on our locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn—the combined results yielded averages of 0.72 Mbps up and 1.35 Mbps down over 3G. Over Wi-Fi, we got 14.1 Mbps down and 0.61 Mbps up—very similar numbers to the Motorola Xoom. The iPad 2 can connect to 802.11b/g/n wireless networks and integrates Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR. You can easily connect a wireless keyboard to the iPad, but wireless mice aren't supported—this was also the case with the original iPad. The Motorola Xoom is currently 3G as well, but Motorola and Verizon promise free upgrades to 4G LTE when it becomes available on the Verizon network. Apple made no such promises at the launch for the iPad 2.
The iPad 2 runs iOS 4.3, an incrementally updated version of Apple's mobile operating system. The updates to Apple's iOS are subtle, performance-based enhancements for the most part, and less about introducing new features. There are more across-the-board functions for AirPlay with iOS 4.3. For example, you can now shoot video on your iPad and immediately send it to your Apple TV ($99, 4 stars) to view on an HDTV. Another cool development: The AirPlay tool can be embedded to videos on a Web site. If you go to Vimeo's site and play a video on your iPad, tapping the AirPlay icon superimposed on the video will immediately start streaming it to your Apple TV on the same Wi-Fi network. It's pretty seamless integration between not only your iPad and Apple TV, if you have one, but also Safari, third-party sites, and AirPlay. What's most impressive is how quickly you can switch back and forth from iPad to Apple TV, all the while keeping the stream continuous. Also, Home Sharing is updated in iOS 4.3 so that you can stream your entire iTunes library, including videos, on your home computer to your iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch as long as they're on the same Wi-Fi network.
The addition of cameras—a front-facing, VGA-quality camera and a rear-facing HD (720p) video camera, which also captures still images—is very welcome. The Camera app is about as easy to use as it gets. Tap on the icon and you are immediately looking through the rear-facing camera lens. If you want to switch to the front lens, tap the button in the upper right-hand corner of the display. If you want to switch from capturing still shots to video, slide the bar on the lower-right corner, and to see your photos, tap the thumbnail on the lower left. To take a picture or record, tap the shutter button in the center.
You can adjust the exposure for photos by moving your finger around the screen until you have the desired brightness. Don't expect great pictures in low-light scenarios, but the iPad 2's camera is more about capturing the moment and having fun than taking high-quality images. For shooting stills, there's a digital zoom (tap the screen) on the rear-facing lens, but obviously, the more you zoom, the grainier the image becomes. There's no zoom option for the video camera, but tapping the screen switches the aspect ratio between the default 4:3 to widescreen 16:9.
The iPhone 4 and iPad 2 both have back-facing cameras for capturing 720p30 video but they use different image sensors—and the iPad's delivers subpar images. While iPhone 4's camera can capture 5-megapixel photos (2,593 by 1,936), the iPad's still images are just 0.7 megaxpixels (960 by 720), so they're a lot less sharp, especially when you view them on the almost-ten-inch screen. High-resolution images taken on other cameras and loaded onto the iPad look amazing on the screen, highlighting the fact that the iPad 2's camera is more toy than tool. The Motorola Xoom's rear-facing camera is not a masterpiece either, but has far better resolution at 5 megapixels. Images taken on the iPad default to the Camera Roll album in the photos section and videos are saved to the video section in the camera app. You can load and edit videos you shoot on the iPad in iMovie, which isn't included, but you can get in the App Store for $4.99.
The iPad 2 ships with the usual suspects: Calendar, Contacts, Notes, Maps, Videos, YouTube, iTunes, App Store, Game Center, Settings, Safari, Mail, Photos, iPod, Find My iPad, and iBooks. Actually, you have to download iBooks for some reason, but it's free, takes seconds, and you're prompted to do so when you first visit the App Store.
New to the on-iPad app lineup are the aforementioned Camera app, FaceTime, and Photo Booth. FaceTime works just as it does on an iPhone. The front-facing camera here is VGA quality, so you won't get HD like on a latest-gen MacBook Pro, and that's a bit of a bummer because you definitely notice the low resolution of the front facing camera on the iPad's amost-ten-inch display. Also, it's important to remember that FaceTime is a Wi-Fi–only feature—you cannot hold a video chat using the iPad's cellular signal. Chats are nonetheless easy to initiate and in my tests, lag time was minimal. You just need an Apple ID and an e-mail address to get started. You initiate a call by tapping the FaceTime button on your friend's page in your Contacts, or by selecting from the list FaceTime imports from your Contacts. You can save any contact to your "Favorites"—a FaceTime shortcut for the people you chat with the most.
Photo Booth is not only a fun extension of the application included on most Mac computers, but it utilizes the touch screen in a way that showcases the speedy processor's ability to manipulate graphics in real time. When you open the app, you're greeted with nine real-time moving images from the front-facing camera, each with a different effect applied. Tap on one of the nine windows, and it fills the whole screen. When there's an effect that can be manipulated by touch—like, say, "Twirl," in which your finger movements distort the images quickly and smoothly—there's no delay. Photos you take end up in a slideshow at the bottom of the Photo Booth main screen, as well as the "Camera Roll" album in the Photo section. The only thing missing: the 3-2-1-countdown effect (that gives you a second to pose for your close-up) that comes when you use Photo Booth on a Mac computer.
Those familiar with Mail will find nothing new here—you can still sync multiple e-mail accounts and have notifications pushed to the main screen. Corporate accounts can be synced easily via Microsoft Exchange, and the iPad arms several apps with direct shortcuts to your e-mail—you can send a song you just recorded in GarageBand, for instance, via an integrated e-mail button.
The iPod music and video-watching experience remains largely unchanged—and still, sadly, lacks CoverFlow, which seems perfect for the iPad's big display. Regardless, the iPod menu more closely resembles iTunes on your PC than iTunes on, say, the iPod touch. It's easy to navigate and album artwork looks beautiful on the large screen. Video and photos still look fantastic on the screen, but since the resolution of the display remains the same, there's not much new to cover here.
Surfing using Safari on the iPad 2 hasn't changed much from the original tablet. The browser is a bit speedier, however. Slideshows from the New York Times Web site load more quickly, if just barely. Even in scenarios with no Wi-Fi and a weaker Verizon signal (say, three bars or less), I found that the wait time to load a page was, while not lightning fast, never much longer than about six to eight seconds, worst case scenario. Safari in iOS 4.3 remains a user-friendly, simplified experience—it's easy to navigate sites, use the virtual keyboard to enter information, create new "pages" (tabs), bookmark sites, and perform quick searches. When browsing, you often get the full version of a Web site, not the mobile version—or in the case of ESPN.com, a greeting page that lets you choose between the two versions.
The bad news is there's still no Flash video support. Technically, the Motorola Xoom has no Flash support either—but Motorola claims this will be remedied in a matter of weeks. Apple claims that the future of Web video is HTML5. And it seems that, given the iPad's popularity, many sites are on board. ESPN.com's videos play on the iPad 2 without a hitch, as do CNN's. YouTube videos are more of a crapshoot, but, of course, there's an app for that. And Vimeo, as I mentioned earlier, even has an Apple TV-enabled AirPlay button on its videos for sending content directly from your iPad's browser to your Apple TV. Lack of Flash support will always be a knock, but Apple is finding ways to make it less of a hindrance.
GarageBand and iMovie
In the iPad 2 keynote, two new optional iPad apps were also unveiled. For musicians, GarageBand ($4.99 in the App Store), is a great way to get song ideas down quickly when you are away from your instruments or only have time to record something really quickly. For non-musicians, it's a fun way to discover how a wide variety of instruments function—from organs to guitars. Granted, the GarageBand version of any given instrument is always a streamlined, simplified depiction of the real thing, but the way the touch screen interacts with guitar strings and piano keys is truly exciting. You really could, with virtually no musical experience, write a song on this app and record it.
As much as I love the new GarageBand app, when I played notes rapidly on its Smart Guitar, the screen froze twice and I had to manually reboot the iPad. That was my only negative experience—and it was a pre-launch version of the app, so I'm willing to give Apple the benefit of the doubt here. Despite the crashes, it's the most fun I've ever had with an iPad app. For a closer look at GarageBand, check out our hands-on video and slideshow.
I was less blown away by iMovie ($4.99 in the App Store), perhaps because it's pretty similar to the version we've already seen on the iPhone 4. It's definitely easier to use on the iPad 2, thanks to the added screen real estate, but nothing's dramatically different. That you can record content on the iPad, edit your clips, add stock music or tracks from your iTunes library, add sound effects, and export the finished product is very impressive. Some of the editing abilities on the app seem a little simplistic, but it's basically for making quick, fun, on-the-fly movies—not for editing next year's Best Picture Oscar winner. The quality of video doesn't always feel HD—even when you are watching 720p footage on your iPad's screen—but the issues have more to do with noise than resolution. Footage I shot in broad daylight had a grainy quality to it. Overall, the images and video look fine, but the iPad 2's camera, as noted earlier, is no replacement for a dedicated digital camera.
The Smart Cover, available in assorted colors, is not included, but it's an innovative accessory. At $39 for the polyurethane covers and $69 for leather models, it isn't exactly cheap, but it protects the screen without hiding the iPad's alluring contour or adding unnecessary bulk. It uses only magnets to attach itself to the side of the iPad, so it has a clean design, and it can be removed very easily. That the snap-close cover also automatically puts the iPad in sleep mode and awakes it when you pull it off is impressive. It elegantly solves the problem of how to protect your iPad's screen without bulking up the tablet with an imposing case.
Another optional accessory, the $39 Apple Digital AV Adapter, allows for HDMI output via the iPad's 30-pin connector. When connected to the HDMI port on your HDTV or HD-capable monitor, what shows on your television or monitor will mirror your iPad's screen precisely, in 1080p (video in 720p). That said, various television sizes will show the screen differently—it won't fill the entire screen on most displays. How large your screen appears depends more upon your television than anything else, but the upside of the mirror image not filling the screen entirely is that the resolution remains crisp. Regardless, it's a way to view your iPad video on your television without an Apple TV. You can also use it to show anything else—including games—in real time. Also, the Apple Digital Adapter can playback Dolby Digital 5.1 surround through your home-theater system.
File Support & Battery Life
Apple's file support rarely changes. The iPad 2 supports HE-AAC, AAC (including protected AAC), MP3, MP3 VBR, Audible, Apple Lossless, AIFF, WAV for audio; H.264, MPEG-4 and Motion-JPEG for video; and JPEG and RAW for photo files.
Apple rates the battery life for the iPad 2 at 10 hours. Our continuous video playback-only rundown test of the Verizon model yielded 3 hours 58 minutes—so you can definitely watch an entire film on a full charge. This is pretty much the most taxing thing you can do to a battery, so that result is solid. Playing audio only, but with the screen always on, we were able to eke out 7 hours 15 minutes. So, while it's likely possible to squeeze 10 hours out of the iPad 2, it depends on what you're doing with the tablet.
Should You Upgrade from the Original iPad?
If you're pondering upgrading from the original iPad, you should think for a minute. Aside from a sleeker design and a better accessory for protecting the screen, the main upgrade here is the camera. Sure, you also get faster graphics performance, but next-gen devices will (almost) always be faster. The camera is no masterpiece—it's primary advantage is shooting 720p video. If that's a priority for you, then upgrading is worth considering, but most of the other improvements are incremental. Your first-gen iPad will still get the new iOS update and can even use the new GarageBand app (although not the new iMovie app). So unless you're dying for the graphics performance and camera, which, again, doesn't replace a dedicated one, upgrading right now seems a bit rash.
Android Honeycomb Tablets vs. iPad 2
Google's tablet-specific Honeycomb OS does have some merits that should send Apple back to the drawing board as it works on the next version of iOS. Multitasking on Android 3.0 is a better experience than on the iPad 2. On the iPad, you double-tap the home button to see which apps are open, but you only really see the icons for each app. Honeycomb's multitasking view offers a much more immediate and useful glimpse of what's running on your device—with thumbnails offering live views of each app superimposed over your home screen.
Android's live search of both your device and the Internet is a bit more effective than the iPad's onboard search tool as well, pulling up actual web results alongside content that matches your criteria on your tablet. The iPad focuses mainly on what's on your tablet, or offers to run a search in Safari or Wikipedia for you, but there are no live web results to immediately tap on.
Android 3.0 is also better at notifying you about e-mail updates, or any notifications from Microsoft Exchange, like meeting reminders from your calendar. On the Xoom, these notifications appear at the bottom right-hand corner of the screen, regardless of what you are doing. On the iPad, you need to go to the home menu to see if you have notifications—they don't pop up if you're, say, looking at a Web site or playing a game.
For the most part, however, the iPad 2's OS is far more graceful than the Xoom's, which can easily get cluttered with redundancies in various unnecessary home screen sections. Honeycomb, though, may be customized by other hardware manufacturers, so we can't fully say what the experience will be like until we see another Honeycomb tablet. As for the apps, though, some of the tablet offerings in the Android Market, like Team CoCo (Conan O'Brien's app) look dreadful on the Xoom. Apple's App Store has a vast selection of well-curated apps just for the iPad. The grace of Apple's interface—and the depth of its App Store—are huge advantages.
Honeycomb should have another advantage over iOS, but its support for Adobe Flash has yet to roll out, so for the time being, both operating systems are on equal footing when it comes to Flash. And while not specific to Honeycomb, the Motorola Xoom's 5-megapixel rear-facing camera is higher quality than the iPad 2's.
Overall, the Apple iPad 2 is the best tablet you can buy right now, so it's our Editors' Choice. Currently, the Motorola Xoom shows tremendous promise and even edges past the iPad in a few areas (cameras and multitasking to name a couple). But even without the advantage of far more apps, the iPad 2 simply provides a better user experience and operates more gracefully and seamlessly with your media than Android devices. If you live happily outside the iTunes ecosystem, an Android tablet like the Xoom is certainly worth considering. But if you're in the market for a new device now, and have no loyalty to a specific manufacturer or operating system, the iPad 2 is the tablet to get.
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