Review: Fourth-generation iPad is faster, stronger, better

This is unquestionably Apple's most powerful iPad to date

The release of the fourth-generation iPad so soon after the third-generation iPad may have come as a surprise to even diehard Apple watchers, but the device itself won't. By now, we all know what an iPad looks like, and the fourth-generation iPad looks nearly identical to a third-generation iPad--which itself looked more or less like the second-generation iPad.

That's not to say that the fourth-generation iPad isn't an impressive beast; it's just that those changes are almost entirely on the device's interior. This is unquestionably Apple's most powerful iPad to date, and it handles pretty much anything you can throw at it with aplomb. If the new iPad mini is a MacBook Air, as my colleague Dan Frakes alleges, then the fourth-generation iPad is the big iron of a MacBook Pro.

Meet the new new iPad, same as the new iPad

Put a fourth-generation iPad down next to a third-generation iPad, and good luck telling them apart. In fact, the only difference between the two is what kind of cable you plug into them. The fourth-generation iPad joins the iPhone 5, iPad mini, iPod touch, and iPod nano in sporting Apple's new Lightning connector. It's a lot smaller than the veritably ancient (by technology standards, anyway) 30-pin dock-connector it replaces; there are other advantages too, which I'll touch upon later.

Otherwise, though, the fourth-generation iPad has the same controls you've found on every iPad since the original: Home button, Sleep/Wake button, volume controls, a side switch that can mute the volume or lock the display's orientation, and a headphone jack. It also supports the same Smart Cover that's worked with the iPad 2 or later.

The fourth-generation new model features the same 2048-by-1536 pixel Retina display as its predecessor. It's the same dimensions in height and width, and much as I'd like to be able to claim I could detect a slight difference in thickness or weight compared to the third-generation iPad, the new model has the exact same 9.4mm depth and 652g weight. (The addition of an LTE-capable cellular radio adds the same 10 grams as on the third-generation iPad, but we weren't able to test one, since they don't go on sale until later this month.)

All things considered, you'd be excused for calling this less of an "iPad 4" and more of an "iPad 3S." Nomenclature, to be fair, is one place where Apple's improved over the last iteration: Though the company markets the new model under the same "iPad with Retina Display" as the previous model, the company's also not shied away from referring to this latest version as the "fourth-generation iPad," eschewing the third-generation's occasionally confusing official moniker "the new iPad."

In the story of the new iPad, the main plot point is the device's A6X processor. It's a dual-core chip with quad-core graphics, which, in layman's terms, is a whole lot of cores. The "X" appellation debuted with the third-generation iPad's A5X chip; there, as here, it denotes the addition of the quad-core graphics.

In sheer horsepower, the A6X is no slouch; it clocks in at 1.4GHz, a hefty 40 percent increase over the A5X's 1GHz. Apple advertises the device as having "twice the speed" and "twice the graphics performance" of the A5X. In our benchmark tests, we found this to be pretty accurate. The fourth-generation iPad doubled its predecessor's score in the Geekbench suite, as well as offering impressive performance in graphics benchmarks. Surprisingly, though, it did find itself beaten by a half a second in webpage loading tests to the iPad mini. That's even more impressive given that I found the fourth-generation iPad beat out the third-generation iPad in webpage loading.

In my more anecdotal tests, the fourth-generation iPad took anything I threw at it, up to and including high-performance games, like Real Racing 2 HD, Infinity Blade II, and Sky Gamblers: Air Supremacy. All played very well and looked great, though my untutored eyes saw little in the way of difference between the third- and fourth- generation iPads.

I did notice on occasion some stuttering and skipping in the game while playing Real Racing 2 HD via AirPlay, but I experienced the same with the third-generation iPad, leading me to believe it was related to my network rather than the iPad itself. I saw no such issues while playing only on the iPad's display.

Of course, all the current games for the iPad are designed with the third-generation model's specifications in mind, so it's going to be a little while before companies truly start shipping apps that can take advantage of all the horsepower the fourth-generation iPad brings to bear.

Battery life: Fourth-generation iPad

You might think all of this power would take a toll on battery life, but Apple says the fourth-generation iPad's built-in 42.5-watt-hour battery (the same as its predecessor) delivers the same 10-hour life as previous iPads. In our lab's test, the battery didn't perform quite as well as the third-generation iPad's, coming in at 42 minutes shorter, but it did just outlast the iPad mini. In my anecdotal experience, which involves charging the iPad every night, I had no problems at all with my battery life lasting through a day.

When I asked for questions online, some asked if the fourth-generation iPad got unreasonably hot while performing processor-intensive tasks. In my experience, I've certainly found it gets warm, especially while playing games, but I never noticed it becoming uncomfortably hot.

In general use, the fourth-generation iPad is plenty snappy, though for most tasks you probably won't see a huge difference between it and the third-generation iPad. It's a testament to Apple's engineering that iOS and its built-in apps have been always been more or less smooth, regardless of the hardware.

Among the other improvements on the newest full-size iPad is souped-up wireless capabilities. Like the previous model, the fourth-generation iPad has Bluetooth 4.0 and supports 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi flavors. However, Apple brags that the new Wi-Fi is twice as fast as the previous version, thanks to the addition of channel bonding. In practice, I didn't notice exceptionally faster performance for tasks like downloading a PDF over the local network or grabbing a TV episode from iTunes. In most cases, the Wi-Fi of your device probably isn't the bottleneck, anyway.

Finally, Apple also upgraded the LTE chip in the fourth-generation iPad, providing support for more LTE frequencies around the world. Like the iPhone 5, the iPad comes in two flavors: a model with support for LTE bands 4 and 17, which works with AT&T here in the U.S., and a model that supports LTE Bands 1, 3, 5, 13, and 25, and works with Sprint and Verizon (it supports CDMA in addition to GSM). Also as with the iPhone 5, the CDMA model's broader band support means that it's the iPad of choice internationally (though that depends on your ability to find a supporting carrier). And, unlike the Wi-Fi-only model, the LTE version also has assisted GPS and GLONASS, which help provide more accurate location services.

Fast as Lightning

As mentioned above, the only external difference between the fourth-generation iPad and the third-generation is the change to Apple's new Lightning connector. My colleagues Jason Snell and Dan Frakes have covered this topic most ably in their reviews of the iPhone 5 and iPad mini, respectively.

The smaller, bi-directional nature of the Lightning connector is a nice change from the old dock-connector; its somewhat more compact cables are easier to to throw into a bag, for example, and it's nice not to have to worry about which way is up. If there's a knock against the connector at present, it's that it doesn't have the same breadth of accessory support as the long-running dock-connector port.

I did test the iPad with a couple of adapters, specifically the Lighting to 30-pin connector, which lets you use older accessories, and the USB version of the new Lightning Camera Connector kit. Both worked as expected. With the 30-pin adapter I was able to play music to a speaker dock, as well as charge and sync with my iMac. The USB Camera Connector kit allowed me to import photos from a digital camera and my iPhone 5. (I even built a horrifying Frankencable by connecting the USB Camera Connector kit to a 30-pin-to-USB to a 30-pin-to-Lightning adapter, though all it would let me do was import photos from the iPhone to the iPad. I'm just glad it didn't set either of my devices on fire.)

The biggest upside of the fourth-generation iPad having a Lightning connector is that the most modern version of all of Apple's mobile devices now sport the new standard. This is a big incentive for accessory makers to start building in compatibility for the Lightning connector, and should help remove any worry that customers are buying into an unproven technology. Apple's now put all its eggs in a Lightning-connector basket (which, coincidentally, is also bi-directional).

Camera not so obscura

Both of the iPad's cameras get updates in the fourth-generation model. The rear-facing camera uses the same 5MP iSight model that you'll find on the iPad mini and the iPod touch. It's not quite as good as the 8MP model you'll find on the iPhone 5, but it does feature most of the same features, including autofocus, tap-to-focus, face detection, and more. However, there's no LED flash, as on the iPhone, and you won't get HDR photos or iOS 6's fancy new Panorama mode. It will, like previous models, shoot 1080p video.

For stills, the iPad's rear-facing camera is serviceable, though the 10-inch tablet isn't the most convenient form factor for snapping photos. For app purposes, it's fine--I used it to deposit a check to my bank without any problem.

I snapped a test shot to compare the fourth-generation iPad's rear-facing camera with the third-generation iPad and the iPhone 5. While the iPhone 5 still has highest resolution and the best quality (fine background details are less blurry), the fourth-generation iPad easily topped the third-generation model, providing a much crisper image. That's due in part to the better camera itself, but also to the fact that the fourth-generation iPad includes a new generation of image signal processor, which improves image stabilization.

Not to be outdone, the fourth-generation iPad's front-facing camera got an update as well. Like the rest of Apple's FaceTime-capable devices, the fourth-generation iPad now sports a 720p camera for video conferencing.

I didn't think I'd be that impressed by the upgrade to that camera, but if you use FaceTime with any regularity, the difference is night and day. I had my colleague Lex Friedman snap pictures comparing a FaceTime chat on the third-generation iPad's standard definition camera and the fourth-generation's HD camera. The HD camera on the new iPad features far better skin tones and a much sharper, clearer picture overall.

Who's it for?

Let's get this out of the way: If you've never owned an iPad, and you want the real estate that a 9.7-inch screen affords, there's no reason not to pick up the fourth-generation model. It's got all of the benefits of the third-generation iPad, and it's a smoking powerhouse to boot.

So, what if you're upgrading from a previous version of the iPad? For owners of the original iPad or the iPad 2, I think the fourth-generation iPad offers a pretty compelling package. Not only do you get a quite substantial performance increase (and, in the case of the original iPad, the ability to run iOS 6), but you also pick up a Retina display, improvements to Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, and--optionally--LTE. That's an improvement across-the-board.

Of course, if the 9.7-inch screen size of the fourth-generation iPad is a turn-off, the iPad mini is a solid upgrade from either of the first two iPad models as well. While I think size is the primary reason to choose the 7.9-inch mini over the 9.7-inch fourth-generation (or vice versa), the major differentiation right now is that the fourth-generation has a Retina display. When it comes to text, especially, that's a meaningful differentiation between the two.

In horsepower, the fourth-generation is significantly higher powered than the mini, but in the same way that folks--myself included--have chosen a less powerful MacBook Air over the heavier MacBook Pro, I don't think that's necessarily going to be the major distinction for many.

Finally, what about the third-generation iPad users among us? As an owner of a third-generation iPad, I can't honestly see much of a reason to upgrade. The performance improvements are nice, no question, but I didn't run into any apps that were overtaxing the third-generation model and really required the fourth-generation iPad. If developers start building apps--and especially games--that take advantage of all the power the fourth-generation iPad has to offer, that equation might change. But right now, there's no rush unless you need to have the latest and greatest, or you want to move your household over to Lightning-only.

Bottom line

Given that the fourth-generation model surfaced just six months after the third-generation, it makes sense that this iteration is a more modest improvement on its predecessor.

Yes, the fourth-generation iPad may have been overshadowed by the announcement of its svelte new sibling, but that's no reason to look down your nose at the more zaftig model. It may look more or less identical to the third-generation model, but make no mistake, it's the most powerful iPad yet, and a harbinger of things to come. Simply put, the fourth-generation iPad is a case of Apple putting its best iPad forward.

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Tags iPadmobiletabletsAppleiosapplicationstelecommunicationhardware systemsMobile OSesiPads

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Dan Moren
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