New iPad Review: A Sharper Focus for Apple’s Tablet

Remarkably high resolution and LTE wireless broadband make the market-dominating tablet even more formidable.

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    Apple, as everyone knows, has an exceptional track record for revolutionizing the product categories it enters. But it’s at least as talented at — I hope this is a word — evolutionizing them.

    It’s a remarkably predictable process. The company starts by releasing an epoch-shifting gadget such as the first iPod, Phone or iPad. Then it relentlessly improves it, refining the original idea with additional polish and better technology on a more-or-less yearly schedule.

    The new iPad, which went on sale on March 16, is all about that additional polish and better technology. Which means that Apple’s unexpected decision to call it simply “iPad,” with no modifier, makes sense. This isn’t a different¬†kind of iPad — it’s the device the company envisioned from the start, brought into sharper focus. (It loaned me a new iPad with Verizon wireless broadband for this review.)

    As usual, Apple’s strategy with this upgrade has been to deliver more stuff for the same amount of money. The new iPad line, as with the iPad 2, begins at $499 for a version with 16GB of storage and wifi and tops out at $829 for one with 64GB of space and both wifi and LTE wireless broadband from AT&T or Verizon. Every model is available in both black and white variants.

    Just as Apple keeps older versions of the iPhone around at lower prices, it’s discounting the iPad 2 rather than killing it. The 16GB wifi iPad 2 is now $399; one that adds 3G wireless is $529. It’s a sensible move: Even a year after its release, the iPad 2 is superior overall to any of its Android competition, including some contenders that sell for more.

    When the iPad 2 was new a year ago, the biggest story wasn’t any new feature. It was how much thinner, curvier and lighter it was than the first model. Apple must have been pleased with its handiwork: The general look and feel of the new iPad have scarcely changed. Still, close inspection reveals that it’s a skosh thicker and heavier than its predecessor. It’s .37″ thick and weighs 1.44 pounds, vs. the iPad 2’s .34″ and 1.34 pounds.

    When I brandished the new iPad in one hand and the iPad 2 in the other, I could tell the difference — but I don’t think most people will find the extra bulk to be that much of an ongoing burden.

    Teardowns of the new iPad reveal why it’s a tad more portly: It packs a much higher-capacity battery than iPad 2 did. It needs one. The new tablet’s two most significant enhancements — a better screen and faster wireless broadband — are both notorious for their tendency to drain a battery dry in nothing flat. By beefing up the battery, Apple compensated for the power-hungry new components.

    I haven’t done any formal benchmarking, but Apple’s claims of up to ten hours of use on a charge over wifi, and nine with LTE seem realistic. They’re unchanged from the iPad 2 and far superior to the battery performance of most other tablets and laptops, which is a big reason why I use my iPad 2 more than I do any conventional PC.

    Did I just say that the iPad has a better screen? Let’s be precise: The 9.7″ display now sports a resolution of 2048-by-1536, giving it four times as many pixels as the 1024-by-768 display in the first two iPads. Apple also says that the color saturation is 44 percent better.

    The sheer quantity of pixels that Apple and its technology suppliers have packed onto the screen — 3.1 million of ’em! — is a landmark achievement. Not just for a tablet, but for any computing device: It’s 77 percent more than you get with Apple’s entry-level iMac, which has a vastly more spacious 21.5″ display.

    Now, the screen on the original iPad and the iPad 2 has never struck me as anything but crisp and appealing. But boy, is the new one a revelation. As with the screen on the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S, Apple calls it a Retina display, indicating that the pixels are so tiny and so densely packed that your eye can’t detect them.

    Mine sure can’t. Type shows no jaggies whatsoever; elegant fonts such as the New York Times’ Cheltenham have never looked better. Photos which look wonderful on the earlier iPads are breathtaking on this one. 3D games are rendered with more realism. Even lily-gilding little details like the wood grain on the bookshelf in Apple’s iBooks e-reading app benefit noticeably.

    Some of the Retina screen’s benefits are automatic. In most cases, for instance, existing apps get high-resolution text. Others, however, require additional effort on the part of app developers and content providers. The icons and other graphics in apps need quadruple the resolution to look their best; video services that could get away with standard definition in the past now scream for HD.

    This work is well underway — Apple has already released Retina-happy updates for its own apps, including the iWork suite, GarageBand and iMovie, plus a fabulous new version of iPhoto. It’s also set up a special section of the App Store for Retina-capable third-party programs such as the latest versions of Instapaper and my fave, Flipboard.

    But in cases where apps and services aren’t yet ready for the new iPad, they sometimes stick out like a low-res thumb. It’s like watching standard-definition TV on an HDTV. I also encountered minor technical glitches with a few other apps, OnLive Desktop and Blogsy.

    [MORE: My colleague Jared Newman rounded up thirty outstanding apps for the new iPad, including some of the first that are primed for Retina.]

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