New iPad is the 'epitome' of what a tablet should be

There's a new king of the tablet hill: the latest iPad

Two years ago, Apple side-swiped the computer industry by releasing the first iPad. Though dismissed by some critics at the time as an overgrown iPhone, the iPad has proved to be just as disruptive to the PC industry as the iPhone was to mobile. And 55 million tablet sales later -- including an incredible 15.4 million last quarter alone -- there's a new king of the tablet hill: the latest iPad.

Unveiled by Apple CEO Tim Cook and other company execs on March 7, the new iPad arrived this past Friday to long lines and sold-out preorders, its popularity surprising almost no one. As was the case last year, the new iPad was available in a variety of retail locations besides Apple stores, including Best Buy, Target, Radio Shack, AT&T, Verizon, and assorted resellers. (Some Wal-Mart stores began selling the tablet just after midnight, eight hours before Apple's own retail stores opened.)

I preordered my iPad -- the 64GB model with Wi-Fi and 4G -- for home delivery. As fun as chatting up other Apple fans is, the convenience of not leaving the house beat standing in line. I still got to talk with an Apple fan, though: the FedEx person who delivered my iPad. He immediately struck up a conversation, volunteering the fact that he'd been (enviously) delivering new iPads all day and was excited he was soon to get his own after missing the prelaunch window. (Just a few days after orders began, Apple ran out of stock; current delivery times are two to three weeks.)

I was struck again about how software encased in a bit of aluminum and glass can engender so much excitement, prompting perfect strangers to chat for hours on end while braving long waits to get the latest Apple hardware. Owners post unboxing photos online, on Facebook and in tweets; videos pop up in forums and on personal sites; and every mainstream media outlet from USA Today to the local neighborhood blogger feels the need to weigh in.

Clearly, the iPad has gone mainstream. But does it live up to this year's heightened expectations?

The basics

At first glance, the new iPad is virtually indistinguishable from the iPad 2; if you loved/hated the design before, you're going to love/hate this one just as much.

I've always been a fan of the aluminum-and-glass look, so I don't mind that it's unchanged. The new iPad, still encased in a 9.5-in.-x-7.3-in. aluminum frame, is just slightly thicker than the previous model. The oil-resistant oleophobic 9.7-in. glass display again comes bordered in either white or black, a minimalist design that's still as sharp-looking and luxurious in quality and feel as ever. My first choice is always black.

While even the most experienced iPad 2 users would be hard-pressed to distinguish between the new iPad and an iPad 2 on looks alone, the same cannot be said regarding the weight. At 1.46 lbs. for the LTE version -- 1.44 lbs. for the Wi-Fi-only models -- the new iPad is a couple of ounces heavier than its predecessor; iPad 2 users will notice a difference, though it's not enough to be off-putting. (For those who are still using the first iPad, this one weighs just slightly less than that model. So if you're upgrading from version 1 to the new iPad, you should notice this one's slightly lighter.)

Still, wrist fatigue could be an issue with extended use.

It's unusual for Apple to take a step back from it's lighter/thinner/smaller mantra; heavier is the wrong direction for technology, especially one as personal as a handheld tablet. But, and I'll get to this in a minute, the improvements to the iPad overshadow the uptick in weight.

As before, the iPad comes in 16GB, 32GB or 64GB models and at the same price points: $499, $599 and $699, respectively. Opting for 4G/LTE adds another $130. My advice for buyers remains the same as last year when it comes to storage: While Apple services like iTunes Match and iCloud may offset the need for a lot of on-board storage, it's always better to have too much than too little. (I would buy a 256GB model in an instant if Apple offered one.) Whether you want LTE depends on how often you need online access away from Wi-Fi networks -- and how much you want to spend on data plans each month.

That screen

Unboxing the iPad is a familiar experience: Nothing has changed since last year. Inside the box is the iPad, a wall charger, the USB connection cable and a printed welcome packet that includes a SIM card ejection tool on the 4G models.

You immediately notice the difference when you turn on the iPad. From the startup Apple logo to the Setup Assistant, colors are more vibrant and graphics noticeably sharper. Having used the iPad 2 for a year now -- and even though I knew the screen was improved -- I was still confounded by how noticeably different the new 2048-x-1536-pixel backlit IPS LED screen is.

Apple calls it a Retina display, which is basically a marketing term for "Damn, that screen is amazing." (Apple offers an even sharper, but smaller, Retina display on the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S.) The new iPad condenses four times the number of pixels into the same 9.7-in. screen as the iPad 2. The new display also offers 44% better color saturation, according to Apple, and that shows when you play high-def video. Put another way, the 3.1 million pixels packed into the new iPad's display is a million pixels more than your 1080p HDTV has.

Numbers don't impress me, but the results do: The display is gorgeous, with on-screen elements looking like backlit photos rather than objects on a computer screen. High-megapixel photos and 1080p videos look fantastic, even film-like, but you'll notice the difference the most with text: Websites like the New York Times no longer require zooming in to read on-screen text; comic book apps can display entire pages full-screen without the requisite zoom and pans; text-heavy apps like iBooks and Kindle now look like backlit magazine pages.

While watching me compare the iPad 2 and the new iPad, a friend said seeing the Retina display was like "putting on prescription glasses for the first time." It really is just like that.

To power all 3.1 million pixels, the new iPad offers beefed-up specs: It has 1GB of RAM (double the last model's 512MB) and, not surprisingly, better graphics from Apple's A5X chipset.

If you're like me, specs matter less than the user experience, which is where Apple's new iPad excels: Despite the massively higher resolution and graphics demands of the Retina display, the new iPad remains as responsive as ever. Games play without hiccups, application load times haven't increased at all, and scrolling remains as smooth as before.

Most remarkable? There's no appreciable decline in battery life. Apple predicts nine hours on battery over LTE, and 10 hours for most scenarios. My own (unofficial) tests clock the new iPad's battery life at a little less than the iPad 2, but that model didn't have LTE or a Retina display.

Apple pulled off this minor miracle by bumping the battery to 42.5 watt-hours, up from the iPad 2's 25 watt-hours. What I like most is that Apple didn't just dump a slightly bigger battery in the new iPad and call it a day. The iPad's uptime (and standby time) is part of its appeal, and it's clear that Apple engineers went out of their way to make sure battery life remained consistent with expectations. Besides weight, what's the other caveat to the 70% increase in watt-hours? The new iPad seems to need more time to reach a full charge.

In short, if Apple took a needed half-step back in terms of weight, charge time and size, it took a full step forward by delivering extremely advanced technology in this iPad without sacrificing battery life.

Setup

If you're moving from an older iPad, setup has never been easier. After turning on the new iPad, one of the first prompts is for an iCloud username and password. By entering this information, all of my apps, their placement on the Home screen, my iTunes purchases, Mail configuration, contacts, calendars, bookmarks, photos in Camera Roll app and iOS settings all downloaded to my iPad wirelessly. (Before starting this process, you'll want to make sure to back up your old iPad using Settings> iCloud> Storage and Backup> Backup Now. That way, your cloud backup will be up to date.)

While iCloud imported my previous settings, I completed the process by tapping my way to Settings to enter more passwords for Home Sharing and iTunes Match, FaceTime, iMessages and email.

The out-of-the-box experience couldn't be simpler. With Photo Stream and iTunes Match on the iPad, you now have quick access to your most recent 1,000 photos and 25,000 songs. In concert with iCloud, getting up and running is embarrassingly easy.

Though the iPad has come a long way in severing the cord when it comes to transferring content from iTunes to the iPad, many users may still want to sync their content using the USB cable. If so, plug in your iPad and use iTunes to select exactly what you want to transfer over. You can also choose to wirelessly sync content after the initial setup; just select the "Sync over WiFi" option in the main iTunes info tab.

A better camera

The new iPad gets a needed upgrade to the rear-facing camera system and the software that powers it. (The front-facing camera -- largely designed for FaceTime calls -- retains its mediocre VGA quality.)

The new 5-megapixel camera includes an f/2.4 aperture, a five-element lens system and an infrared filter; the results are photos that make the iPad 2 blush. There's still no built-in flash, but noise in low-light situations is noticeably reduced and the rear camera now yields images similar to the iPhone 4. That's not surprising, since the iPad now uses the same image sensor.

The video camera resolution has been raised to 1080p, and the built-in stabilization helps a lot when shooting high-definition video. Even better, the Camera app has been optimized a bit more for the iPad. The record button has been moved to the right on the lock screen, making it easier to initiate recording and photo-taking; the button is now located where your right thumb naturally falls when holding the tablet. If you prefer a manual trigger, you can use the iPad's volume-up button instead.

What has not improved, however, is the inherent awkwardness of shooting videos and photos on a device with the iPad's form factor. While the software tweaks go a long way to improving the results, you certainly won't be choosing the iPad over an iPhone or dedicated camera for photos. Given the maxim that the most important camera is the one you have with you, at least you know that if you need a quick shot, the new iPad can deliver.

Connectivity: Welcome 4G/LTE

All new iPads support Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n) access and, for the first time, Bluetooth 4.0, which is important because of its high energy efficiency.

The connectivity focus has been on the arrival of 4G/LTE, which delivers fast wireless transfers over cellular networks. 4G is at the opposite end of the efficiency scale from Bluetooth 4.0, however, and is one of the reasons the new iPad has a bigger battery.

But 4G isn't free. For $129 more, the iPad WiFi + 4G models offer support for Verizon or AT&T's LTE networks in the U.S. When connected to an LTE network -- Verizon and AT&T are still rolling them out across the country -- data throughput increases dramatically, literally quadrupling download and upload speeds. LTE has a theoretical peak of 100Mbps, although, of course, speeds will vary by location.

LTE is not available in most areas, so you should check to see if you have 4G in your area before deciding which iPad to get. If 4G isn't available, the iPad reverts to the more common 3G network. In some areas, like where I live just outside of downtown Orlando, true 4G access isn't available; instead, we get something of a hybrid -- HSPA+. It's faster than 3G, and AT&T calls it "4G." But it's nowhere near as fast as LTE.

Not sure whether to go with AT&T or Verizon? At the moment, Verizon's LTE network reach far exceeds AT&T's, though AT&T is rushing to catch up.

It's also worth noting that Verizon allows the iPad to be used as a personal hotspot at no extra charge with a data plan; AT&T does not. But there's a tradeoff: Verizon iPads are not as well-supported internationally, so if you travel abroad often, you should probably consider the AT&T version.

Two other points to note: While all models feature a digital compass, only the Wi-Fi + 4G iPads have an assisted GPS. (The Wi-Fi-only models rely on wireless networks to triangulate their location, which isn't as precise as having a GPS.) And while Apple did not build Siri, its voice-activated personal assistant, into the new iPad, it added a dictation function: You talk to the iPad as if you were talking to Siri, and your words generate text for emails, iMessages, and so forth. It works quite well.

Conclusions

Before pronouncing judgment on the new iPad, I should explain my experience with the two previous models: They have both been the most reliable computers I've owned. In two years, I haven't run into any issues that a reboot didn't immediately remedy, and even saying that unnecessarily blemishes the iPad's reliability.

To be frank: I believe that the iPad is exactly what the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs wanted all those years ago when he "borrowed" Jef Raskin's vision for the Macintosh. Chris Espinosa -- head of publications for the Mac team at the time -- described an Apple computer like this: "When you show a Mac to an absolute novice, he assumes that's the way all computers work. That's our highest achievement. We've made almost every computer that's ever been made look completely absurd."

With the third-generation iPad, the crew at Apple has again crafted something beautiful, functional, reliable and intuitive -- what I consider the Holy Grail of computing. The new hardware is dramatically improved, but what's really grand is being able to use the apps I already love on the best display I've ever seen. The biggest drawback of the Retina display is that I'm now painfully aware of how lacking my MacBook Pro is.

The iPad's success isn't just about sleek hardware. When the computer in front of you is nothing more than a display in your hand, the overall experience hinges on software. The iPad effectively becomes whatever app you're running. That's why the number and sophistication of the apps available for it clearly make the iPad the winner, bar none, of the tablet wars. Nothing personal against Android or Windows tablets, but the software and ecosystems just aren't as mature. And with its Retina display technology, Apple puts even more distance between itself and would-be rivals.

If you have the first-generation iPad and want to upgrade to the new one, my advice is simple: Go for it. If you already have an iPad 2, the answer is a little less clear: Are the new features worth the cost of upgrading to you? Do you mind the extra weight? For me, the new iPad is a better version of something I already use every day; upgrading was a no-brainer on the strength of the Retina display alone. Everything else -- the improved cameras, LTE, 1080p support for videos -- is just bonus.

If you're intrigued by tablets but haven't yet made a purchase, the iPad is still your best bet, with the most third-party peripheral support, by far. With its rich and diverse ecosystem of apps, media and accessories -- all tied together with other Apple hardware through iCloud -- you can't go wrong.

After the loss of Steve Jobs in October, there was concern that Apple would lose its way. With the arrival of the latest iPad, the current Apple team has continued Jobs' legacy of creating intuitive machines that people rightfully line up for. Of course, Jobs no doubt had a big hand in making this iPad what it is. We'll know more about how Apple advances his legacy with the next iPad.

In the meantime, the new iPad remains the epitome of what a tablet computer should be.

Apple's new iPad features a Retina display, LTE connectivity, and more -- but is it advanced enough to stay ahead of rivals?

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Michael deAgonia

Computerworld (US)

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