iPad Review (2012)

On January 27th, 2010, I was unimpressed by anything Steve Jobs presented at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. I agreed with many of the opinions making the rounds. The iPad was just a big iPod Touch. What’s innovative and revolutionary about that? It’s something we have all experienced already, except bigger.

The next day Stephen Fry wrote about his experience at the announcement event in San Francisco. The core of his message is that the iPad must be used to be understood. He referred to it as the herald of things to come, “like the first iPhone, iPad 1.0 is a John the Baptist preparing the way of what is to come[...]”, and insists that the device will be revolutionary1.

Over the next month leading up to the release there was a constant struggle between those who attempted to bring a rational analysis to the table (the ‘big iPhone’ people) and those who stick to their faith that it must be used to be understood. I paid little attention to this, even ignoring most of the reviews that dropped the day before release when the press embargo was lifted. At that point, I had decided to go and see for myself.

I walked into the Apple store on 5th Avenue in New York around 1PM. Well, more like shuffled. There was still a wait to get into the cube, and move slowly down the glass stairs. Once inside, I waited for an open spot at a display table. The crowd was thick and noisy, and even the blue-shirted employees seemed a bit disoriented.

After using the device for less than two minutes I found an employee and asked if they had any left. She suggested I get in line and see what I can get. Fifteen minutes later I’m asking for a 16GB Black Wifi at the counter. They bring one out (and I briefly see into the stock room where I see a wall of iPad boxes), I pay and head home.

Yes, I’ve written five paragraphs about the first iPad in a review about the new iPad. It’s important to understand a few things about iPad in general. We’re only on the third generation of iPad, and yet the disruption to the industry has been immense. The platform as a replacement for the PC is still in it’s infancy, but was apparent immediately when using the first device: This was something new, this was something different, this was something revolutionary.

This review is not for someone who’s never owned an iPad before. I’m not sure exactly how to review the new iPad without being able to compare it to earlier iPads. It certainly can’t be compared to anything else on the market, so for a first-time buyer the advice is ‘go try one.’

For those of us who have owned an iPad already the question isn’t about specs or design, it’s about experience. Does the new iPad enhance the exerpience? If so, in what ways? We’ll review the major changes that I believe significantly change the exprience from the iPad 2, starting with the screen.

The Screen

In 2010, Apple introduced the concept of a “Retina Display” in the iPhone 4. It was a doubling of screen resolution on each axis, resulting in four times the number of pixels in the same sized screen. At this number of pixels per inch, most people cannot distinguish between individual pixels on the screen. The result is a stunning display that must be seen to be believed. Text and high-resolution images look like glowing print and eye fatigue seems to be eliminated for most activities.

With the introduction of the 3rd generation iPad Apple once again upped the resolution game. The new iPad sports four times the pixels of it’s predecessor, at an incredible 2048 by 1536, for a total of 3,145,728 pixels on a 9.7 inch display. The result? Similar to the iPhone 4 and 4S, pixels are essentially indistinguishable and the display again resembles glowing print.

UI elements that have been updated to take advantage of the new resolution look amazing. Text drawn independently of resolution is crisp and fluid. Notice the skeuomorphic elements of the Notes app. On the new iPad they almost look like genuine remains of a torn off page.


There are some drawbacks in the short term. Besides apps that haven’t yet been updated to Retina graphics, the low resolution assets of most websites are now painfully obvious. While visiting your favorite website you may be disappointed with the fuzzy graphics elements that used to look so crisp. Additionally, images posted on social networks and blog sites, such as Tumblr, look generally bad. It’s going to take time for the web to catch up, but I believe it will. Look what happened to Adobe’s Flash after the popularity of the iPad.

Another drawback of the Retina display is the power draw itself. It’s likely that the quadrupling of pixels has necessitated the massive 70% increase in battery volume found in the new iPad. There are some consequences of this, such as the device being noticeably heavier, slightly thicker, and taking much longer to fully charge.

The drastic improvement in display quality is worth these trade-offs, and one could reasonably assume that Apple will continue to reduce the weight and thickness as other components are made more efficient.

The Camera & iPhoto

Apple also brought camera technology over from the iPhone 4, including the backside illuminated 5-megapixel (compared to the iPhone 4S’ 8-megapixel) sensor, upgrading the photographic capabilities substantially.

The front-facing FaceTime camera remains the same VGA unit from the iPad 2.

In addition to an updated Camera app that makes some much-needed usability tweaks to make the iPad easier to use as a camera (though no less dorky), Apple also released iPhoto for iOS. The next piece in their ongoing effort to show that iOS is not just for consumption, iPhoto joins GarageBand, PhotoBooth, the iWork suite, and others to expand the user’s ability to create content.

Watching live video through the iPad's new camera is impressive. It quickly focuses and adjusts exposure, and it's focal length allows for near-macro shots.

iPhoto is suprisingly full featured. Most of the normal image editing tasks one may find necessary on a desktop can be done on the iPad (and iPhone!). From basic edits such as crop, rotate, scale and skew, to more robust such as adjusting color saturation, brightness, contrast, and even applying Intragram-esq filters to your photos.

iPhoto keeps a seperate album of edited photos, so your originals are always still there, untouched. This is an interesting approach to file version management that I find refreshing. Rather than dealing with versions within the same file name, as with iCloud and other versioning-enabled apps on OS X, the user can edit and play with an image as much as they want without fear of mixing anything up.

The usual export features are present as well, including publishing your edited photos out to your PhotoStream. Photos quickly appeared on my Apple TV, floating upward as the device loaded them from iCloud.

Connectivity

The new iPad has also been updated to take advantage of the newest high speed mobile network in use in North America, LTE. Available for both AT&T and Verizon, LTE has a theoretical downlink speed of 72mb/s. Here in Manhattan I averaged just under 20mb/s downstream and 11mb/s upstream on Verizon.

Pricing is similar between the two carriers, but Verizon has graciously provided the Personal Hotspot feature at no additional charge while AT&T has not even committed to offering the feature at all. Verizon’s coverage is also significantly larger than AT&T, even though AT&T claims the largest “4G” network. Most of AT&T’s “4G” is not LTE, but rather an older technology called HSPA+ that maxes out at 14.4mb/s.

Voice Dictation

While Apple’s Siri voice-enabled personal assistant has not yet been ported over to the iPad, its voice dictation feature was. I’ve found it to be as good as the experience on the iPhone 4S, if not better.

As you can see it did a passable job, needing some editing after the fact.

Wrap Up

Using the iPad and iPad 2 was like holding the future in your hand. Using the new iPad is like using the future’s future. Apple has managed to produce a display unlike anything most have ever seen before, they packed in the latest in mobile connectivity technology, and they did it with virtually no impact on battery life.

Apple continues to push the boundaries of change in personal computing. The frequently used term “Post-PC” becomes real when you use the new iPad. The new Retina display tears down the walls between interface and content, removing that layer that we all came to know as the “screen”.

There is still room to grow, however. iOS needs to continue to develop as a platform, and if Apple truly wants to position the iPad as a competent device for content creation it will need to more closely integrate apps and allow 3rd party apps to better utilize each others capabilities (see Microsoft’s ‘contracts’ system in Windows Phone 7).

In the mean time, however, the new iPad is a marvel of engineering and the next evolution of the post-pc experience. Can I recommend buying one? Of course, but keep in mind I’ve bought a new iPhone and iPad each year. The new iPad isn’t really going to let you do anything you can’t already do with the iPad 2, but the overall experience is something that must be seen. I’d suggest that anyone interested go to your local store and play with a display model. Only then can you truly appreciate something entirely indescribable.

1. http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2010/jan/29/stephen-fry-apple-ipad