- Review Date: 03/18/2012
- Bottom line:
With a gorgeous ultra-high-resolution display and the widest selection of apps you can get, the new iPad is the best large-screen tablet around.
Breathtaking display. The best app selection of any tablet. Excellent 3G and 4G network compatibility.
No camera settings. 4G data usage is difficult to monitor. Apps are starting to strain the processor.
Still the finest large-screen tablet on the market, the third-generation Apple iPad ($499-$829) delivers an unmatched array of excellent apps on a truly gorgeous screen. The high-res display and fast 4G LTE are the best of what's changed from the wildly popular iPad 2 ($399, 4.5 stars), and the little improvements like a better rear camera and a new dictation feature only help sweeten the deal. The biggest reason to recommend the new iPad, though, isn't its hardware, fine as that is. It's the software. And I don't mean Apple's software, either, although iOS 5.1 is certainly no slouch. The collection of third-party apps for the iPad is far better than on any other platform, including Android, delivering a superior experience—and making it our Editors' Choice for large-screen tablets.
Pricing, Physical Features
The new iPad comes in nine different models. There are 16, 32 and 64GB sizes in Wi-Fi-only ($499, $599, and $699) and 4G LTE variants on AT&T and Verizon Wireless ($629, $729, and $829). The AT&T and Verizon models don't work on each others' LTE networks, but the Verizon model works on AT&T 3G network with an AT&T SIM card. The Verizon iPad also comes with a free wireless hotspot feature; AT&T hasn't announced its hotspot plan yet. If you want to be able to keep apps, movies, and music on your tablet, I advise getting at least 32GB, which runs $599 for Wi-Fi-only and $729 for 4G on either carrier. For this review, I tested the $829 64GB Verizon Wireless model.
The new iPad looks just like the old iPad: a 9.7-inch screen surrounded by a black (or white) bezel, with a curved metal back, and a single Home button. Apple's magnetic Smart Cover, which was released with the iPad 2, clips on just fine. The tablet still has a sealed-in battery and no ports other than a MicroSIM slot, a standard headphone jack, and an Apple 30-pin dock connector.
If you look closely, you'll notice that at 7.3 by 9.5 by 0.37 inches (HWD) and 23.3 ounces, it's just a hair thicker and a smidge heavier than the iPad 2, but you wouldn't notice if you weren't holding both tablets at once. The additional weight is because of a much larger battery, although the new iPad promises the same battery life as the previous model—the 4G radio and sharper screen are just much more power hungry.
The 2,048-by-1,536-pixel Retina display is as beautiful as you've heard, and colors are more saturated than on the previous model. It's still reflective, which creates some problems outdoors, but at 264 pixels per inch, it's the sharpest tablet screen there is.
Several times during this review, I'd pick up the new iPad, do something, and be afraid I had mistakenly picked up the iPad 2. So then I'd pick up the iPad 2, look at its screen, and be horrified at the comparitive graininess. On the new iPad, things look the way they're supposed to. They look real. No matter how small an element is, it's readable. Diagonal lines are never jaggy; nothing decays into a shower of pixels. Text probably benefits the most, though.
The new iPad offers 4G LTE connections on Verizon Wireless and AT&T, as well as HSPA+ links up to 42Mbps. All but the Wi-Fi-only iPads have unlocked MicroSIM slots, so they'll connect to any compatible network. Both 4G models support HSPA+ 42 on 850/900/1800/1900MHz. The AT&T model supports LTE on the AT&T 700 and AWS bands; the Verizon model supports CDMA EVDO Rev A and LTE on Verizon's own bands. The tablet also integrates 802.11 b/g/n including the 5GHz band, which is useful if you live or work in a place with crowded Wi-Fi networks. Bluetooth 4.0, meanwhile, opens up the option of not just wireless headsets and headphones, but Bluetooth watches and sensor devices. The built-in GPS locked in quickly when using the Maps app on the streets of Manhattan.
Back to that 4G for a second: Using the industry-standard Ookla Speedtest.net app, I compared the new iPad with a Motorola Droid 4 ($199, 4.5 stars), an Editors' Choice Verizon LTE phone. The two devices kept pace over 10 rounds. The iPad got slightly faster results in strong-signal areas and slightly slower results in a weak-signal area, but not enough to matter. With a decent signal, our test iPad pulled down 10-11Mbps, which is about the national average download speed we measured for Verizon in our Fastest Mobile Networks story.
Buying a 4G tablet means signing up for an iPad data plan and staying under your data cap. That's one way iOS falls short. There's a data counter, but it's buried under Settings>General>Usage>Cellular Usage, which is just too deep to monitor regularly. Verizon sends messages when you're about to run out of data, but that's almost too late. Invest instead in Sigterm's 99-cent Data Usage app and stick it on your first home screen; it keeps constant track of how much cellular data you've used by floating a percentage over its icon.
Processing Power and Battery Life
The new iPad's A5X processor, a dual-core Cortex-A9 running at 1GHz, is the same CPU as in the previous iPad, with a better GPU to handle the higher-resolution screen. In tests we saw similar performance, with both the Geekbench processor/memory benchmark (at 761) and Rightware's Browsermark benchmark (at 102,096) falling very close to the scores for the iPad 2.
According to Apple, the new GPU offers "four times the performance" of the iPad 2, which turns out to mean that it offers the same performance while pushing four times the pixels. In the GLBenchmark 2.1.2 "Egypt High" test, which creates a simulated 3D game scene, the iPad 2 and new iPad had almost exactly the same frame rate of 28 frames per second—but remember, the new iPad has to work four times as hard to get there. The "Egypt Offscreen" test, which takes displaying actual pixels out of the equation, drew 50 percent more frames on the new iPad than the iPad 2, highlighting the additional graphics power.
But benchmarks have never been a good measure of the iPad user experience, because there's a lot of clever programming involved. Apple prioritizes user input, which means buttons respond quickly and scrolling and zooming are always smooth. That programming, rather than raw CPU speed, is why iPads feel faster than Android tablets.
App developers may be pushing the limits of the A5's power, though. In the Retina-display-enhanced Barefoot Atlas and Real Racing 2 HD apps, I saw occasional stutters when zooming or rotating complex, rendered objects. This didn't occur in on-board apps such as the Safari Web browser or the video player.
I'm testing the battery right now, but Apple estimates the 42.5-watt-hour cell will deliver 10 hours of usage time on Wi-Fi and 9 hours on 4G, which is very good for a large-screen tablet. We'll see.
Operating System and Apps
The new iPad, like the old iPad, runs Apple's iOS. We have an in-depth review of iOS 5.1, and it wins our Editors' Choice. For more details on Apple's flagship apps iMovie, iPhoto and GarageBand, which aren't exclusive to the new tablet, check out those reviews.
Retina-display-optimized apps show much clearer text and more realistic graphics than older apps. At worst, non-Retina-optimized apps look just like they do on the iPad 2. Angry Birds, for instance, is identical pixel for pixel. The same goes with reading some magazines which store their pages as images, such as Engadget Distro.
The OS smooths and improves standard elements within many non-Retina-enhanced apps, too. So when searching for flights in Hipmunk, for instance, text and maps are Retina-display smooth, but a custom calendar control and the little picture of the chipmunk look a bit ragged. In the house-hunting app Zillow, the map and text elements get smoothed, while some icons and buttons don't. Remember, though, in app-development time, it's still very early; the tablet has only been out for a couple of days.
Two differences between the iPad and the iPhone: you can't send SMS from the Messages app, and Siri is absent. Instead, there's a dictation mode that works with any app with an on-screen keyboard. I found it to be quite accurate, even with my computer playing noise-pop band Sleigh Bells over my voice as I dictated.
Cameras and Multimedia
The new iPad's rear camera has been dramatically improved from the previous model. It now takes swift 5-megapixel stills that are a bit soft, but at least they don't go blurry in low light, and the autofocus is fast. There's no flash. The VGA front camera takes extremely grainy but surprisingly bright photos and videos in low light, and quite sharp (for VGA) images outdoors.
The video camera now records at 1080p, but that's a mixed blessing, because it only records at 1080p. That means you're stuck with huge files. The iPad reformats them for email and messages, but there's no way to record smaller files on the tablet itself. Footage is clear indoors and out, and is recorded at 30 frames per second.
The iPad has always been an excellent media player, and there's no change here. The new screen lets you watch 1080p HD videos without downscaling, and they look spectacular. You can also output 1080p videos to a TV either through Apple's $39 HDMI adapter, or over Wi-Fi using Apple TV's AirPlay feature.
Using the iPad with a larger display can strain the tablet's processor, though. Using Apple's own HDMI adapter, I got beautiful, smooth 1080p video playback on a big-screen TV. But Asphalt Adrenaline 6 had some frame-rate problems and Barefoot Atlas had occasional jittery zooming. Over AirPlay, Asphalt's jerkiness got even worse. (The game was perfectly smooth on the tablet itself.) Real Racing 2 HD, performed better over the HDMI cable, but was still jerky over AirPlay mirroring.
If you want a large-screen tablet, the new iPad is the one to buy. While the 16GB iPad 2 costs $100 less ($399), you're likely to be staring at this thing for a couple of years. The smooth, ultra-clear images on the new Retina display are more than worth the difference.
If you already own an iPad 2, stay your hand. I don't think the economics work out. Apple charges $100 more for this iPad than for the iPad 2. Even with a trade-in deal from Apple or Amazon, you'd still be paying $350 or more for what I feel is about a $200 upgrade in terms of experience. Wait a year.
If you're cash-strapped, or want a more-portable tablet, the 7-inch Amazon Kindle Fire ($199, 4 stars) does a good job at Web browsing, book reading, and video playback, for less than half the price of the iPad. It's no iPad, apps-wise, or otherwise, but it's not priced like an iPad either.
I don't think we'll see a better large tablet than the new iPad this year. This isn't about hardware; Android tablet manufacturers could easily match or exceed the new iPad's specs. It's about the iPad app juggernaut. While geeks who want to roll their own experiences will appreciate high-end Android tablets like the Asus Transformer Prime ($499, 4 stars), the new iPad, to borrow a phrase, is the tablet for the rest of us.