When Apple unveiled the iPad back in January of 2010, the company’s competitors rightly saw a huge opportunity. Now that Steve Jobs & Co. had created the first modern tablet computer, other manufacturers could build on the ideas it originated. They could offer features that it didn’t. They could deliver more bang for the buck.
Almost fourteen months later, the promise of a tablet market is still mostly just that: promise. RIM, for instance, announced its intriguing BlackBerry PlayBook last September but still hasn’t revealed a ship date. HP says only that it hopes to have its TouchPad out by summer. Motorola’s Xoom, meanwhile, hit stores in February with so many of its theoretically iPad-crushing features yet to be implemented—4G wireless, Adobe’s Flash Player software, the memory-card slot—that it should have come with a wad of IOUs in the box. (Adobe says that Flash will be ready on March 18th.)
Clearly, this tablet stuff is tricky. There is, however, one company that’s managed to ship a model that’s unquestionably superior to the iPad. That company would be Apple–and the tablet is the iPad 2, which went on sale at Apple Stores and other retailers on March 11th. It’s not a profound rethinking of the first-generation iPad; plenty of things, in fact, haven’t changed a bit. But it’s a significantly more refined take on a device that was pretty darned polished in the first place.
The original iPad bucked Apple’s reputation for lofty pricetags by starting at $499, about half what many pundits had expected. That was partly because Apple priced it aggressively, and partly because it didn’t make you spring for 3G wireless and maximum storage capacity unless you needed them. The iPad 2 continues the tradition: You can still spend as little as $499 for one with 16GB of storage space and Wi-Fi capability, or as much as $829 for one with 64GB and both Wi-Fi and 3G wireless. (The AT&T 3G models available last time around have been joined by ones for Verizon Wireless’s network; monthly data plans start at $15 for AT&T and $20 for Verizon, and don’t require you to sign a contract.) Every version is available in both black and white variants.
By contrast, the Xoom currently comes in only one version: a black model with 32GB and Verizon Wireless 3G. It sells for $799, which is $70 more than the most comparable iPad but not outrageous—if what you want is a black Xoom with 32GB and Verizon 3G.
Apple provided me with an AT&T iPad 2 for review. After I picked it up, I immediately hopped on a plane and headed to the South by Southwest Interactive geekfest in Austin, where I hoped the tablet might attract envious stares. Nope. Less than 24 hours after the new models had gone on sale, I saw more attendees toting them than original iPads.
The brand-new iPads were easy to spot–the single most striking thing about the second-generation model is that there’s so much less of it. The aluminum-and-glass case is now just .34” thick and the Wi-Fi version weighs only 1.33 lbs, making it 33 percent thinner and 15 percent lighter than its predecessor. Adding to the general sleekness is the way the case tapers to a skinny rounded edge rather than the chunky, well-defined sides that made the first iPad look a little like a giant slice of metallic toast.
Many gadget specs are far more exciting in principle than reality, but the iPad’s new weight and thickness matter more than the math might suggest. It’s much more pleasant to hold for extended periods than its predecessor–it feels less like a classy notebook computer that’s had its keyboard surgically removed and more like an entirely new class of device.
The display is still the same pleasing 9.7” color touchscreen with the same 1024-by-768 resolution. Even so, the experience of interacting with it is different and better. As you use your fingertips to slide from screen to screen, zoom into photos, and scroll through Web pages, everything feels more effortlessly responsive. It’s that much closer to Apple’s favorite adjective for the iPad: Magical.
The sprightly feel comes courtesy of the potent new chips that Apple has crammed into that thin case. This is its first mobile gadget with a fast dual-core processor. Also inside are souped-up graphics capabilities that Apple says are up to nine times faster than before. And the company performed an upgrade that it doesn’t publicize by doubling the RAM from 256MB to 512MB.
Despite the more advanced componentry, the iPad’s battery life remains the same—and it’s impressive for both its duration and its honesty. In a world where laptop claims of “up to twelve hours of battery life” often mean “five hours if you’re lucky,” Apple’s estimate for the iPad—up to ten hours of Web surfing over Wi-Fi, watching video, and/or listening to music—is utterly realistic. That doesn’t compare with Amazon’s Kindle, which has a monochrome E-Ink screen that can run for a month on a charge. But it does mean that even iPad junkies may be able to go for several days without venturing near a power plug.
The iPad 2’s major “new feature” is only a medium-sized whoop, which is why I haven’t mentioned it until now. The tablet now features cameras on the front and back, both of which you can use with FaceTime, the slick, fun video-calling software that also runs on the iPhone 4, the iPod Touch, and Macs. As always, you can only make calls over Wi-Fi, not 3G, and only to other people who own Apple devices that have FaceTime; similar apps without these limitations are likely to pop up.
The cameras can also be used to shoot snapshots, and the rear one does passable 720p high-def video. But the rear camera has an anemic .7 megapixels of still-picture resolution and no flash, and capturing video with a device the size of a magazine doesn’t feel particularly natural. (Of course, if you’re the type of person who’s smitten with the iPad 2, odds are sky high that you already own a phone that can double as an adequate camera.)
Strangely enough, some shoppers may find the cameras less of an inducement to buy than a new accessory: Apple’s insanely clever Smart Cover screen protectors ($39 in polyurethane, $69 in leather). The moment you hold one in the vicinity of the iPad 2’s left edge, magnets hidden in the tablet seize the cover’s hinge and guide it into place. The articulated surface lets you fold the cover into a triangle that can prop up the iPad in two positions: A graceful slope that makes for comfier typing, and an upright stance that’s ideal for movie-watching. And they’re lined with a microfiber material that helps to polish away fingerprints from the notoriously smudgy iPad screen.
Available in a total of ten colors (five polyurethane choices for $39 apiece, five $69 leather ones), Smart Covers are ultimately as much about personalization as protection—they leave the iPad’s backside vulnerable to scratches—but they’re among the most ingenious accessories ever devised by Apple or anybody else.
65,000 other iPad goodies also don’t come standard: the third-party App Store programs that are optimized for the tablet’s interface roomy screen. They’re compelling answers to one of the biggest questions people asked about the first iPad: “What would you do with this thing?” Apple itself is responsible for new iPad versions of two programs that come with every Mac, the iMovie video editor and GarageBand music toolbox. At $4.99 each they’re a steal, and proof, if anybody still needs it, that the theory that iPads are good only for consuming content is silly and wrongheaded.
The App Store’s bounty makes iPads more useful literally every day, but iOS 4.3, the software that powers the tablet, is the modest update that its name suggests. Still, there are a few welcome tweaks: The Safari browser is zippier, and you can stream music and video from any computer equipped with iTunes over your Wi-Fi network and onto the iPad using Home Sharing, or to an Apple TV box via an improved version of AirPlay. Bigger changes will come when Apple announces iOS 5.0, possibly soon.
Speaking of things to come, the iPad’s near-monopoly on the tablet business isn’t going to last much longer. The PlayBook and TouchPad will show up before long; so will a gaggle of models based on Google’s Android 3.0 Honeycomb, the operating system that debuted in rough-but-promising form on the Xoom. The longer you wait to join the tablet age, the more choices you’ll have.
Even once the field gets more crowded, though, it’s easy to believe that the iPad 2 could retain a comfortable lead on the pack. Apple invented this category and understands it better than anyone else. And by releasing such a solid second-generation machine so swiftly, it’s told the rest of the industry that catching up could turn out to be a never-ending battle.