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.]

    By upping the new iPad’s resolution so drastically, Apple ran the risk of bogging down its performance: Pumping that many pixels onto the screen demands more horsepower than ever. So when the company juiced up the tablet’s components, it concentrated on graphics.

    Rather than replacing the iPad 2’s dual-core processor with a zippier quad-core model, it moved the graphics processor to quad-core technology; teardowns show that it also doubled the RAM to 1GB. These improvements are less about making the iPad feel faster — though I did notice that switching tabs in Safari was snappier — than they are about ensuring that it doesn’t wind up more sluggish.

    But speed is an important part of the new-iPad tale, thanks to its other major new feature besides the Retina display: LTE 4G wireless broadband, which lets the tablet work with AT&T and Verizon’s next-generation networks. It’s the first time LTE, already widely available on Android phones and tablets, has arrived on an Apple device. (Despite a recent relabeling, the iPhone 4S remains a 3G phone.)

    You’ll only care about LTE if you’re willing to pay $130 more for an LTE iPad than you would for an equivalent wifi-only model, plus a monthly fee — starting at $14.99 on AT&T and $20 on Verizon — for data access. But if you’re ready to pony up the cash, you might care a lot.

    As usual with anything that involves wireless networks, you can’t put a single real-world number on the speed you’ll see. It’ll vary widely depending on the quality of coverage in your neighborhood and other factors. It’s far from a given that you’ll be able to get LTE at all: Verizon currently offers it in 203 U.S. markets, while AT&T is only in 28. If LTE is unavailable, the tablet will ratchet down to whatever it can get; AT&T’s flavor of 3G is faster, when it’s performing up to spec, than Verizon’s is.

    Still, even if LTE is unpredictable, it’s impressive. Using the app in the San Francisco Bay Area, I got a head-snapping 48Mbps of download speed in Daly City over Verizon’s network — far quicker than my cable modem at home. (That’s so torrid that it pegged the SpeedTest gauge, which maxes out at 20Mbps.) Elsewhere, near Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino and in downtown San Francisco, download speeds were pokier — 7Mbps to 23Mbps. But everywhere I went, the Verizon LTE iPad raced past my AT&T 3G iPad 2, which managed between 2Mbps and 10Mbps.

    With LTE, web pages pop into place. Video streams without hiccups. Software downloads from the App Store in a jiffy. Verizon also allows you to use the iPad as a mobile hotspot at no extra charge, providing high-speed wifi to other gizmos such as laptops and gaming handhelds.

    Everything is so quick, in fact, that in less than a day of feasting on high-speed goodness, I burned through nearly 1GB of data. That’s a significant percentage of the allotment you get with even the priciest data plans: AT&T offers 5GB for $50, and Verizon gives 10GB for $80. To avoid overage fees, you’ll probably want to switch to wifi if it’s available, such as when you’re iPadding at home or at a Starbucks.

    So what else is new in the new iPad? Not much. The front-facing camera, for example, which you use for FaceTime and other videophone services, remains unchanged. But the rear one has been upgraded with some of the same technology Apple used in the iPhone 4S’s outstanding camera. It’s got five megapixels of resolution rather than eight and no flash, but it’s a major advance on the marginal rear camera in the iPad 2. In decent light, still photos now look respectable, and 1080p video, with jitter-reducing stabilization, is downright nice.

    (Yes, it still feels goofy to hold up an iPad to snap a photo or shoot video — but the Retina display makes for a much more pleasing viewfinder than the more pixelated iPad 2 screen.)

    Judging from the audience feedback at our liveblog of Apple’s iPad launch event, a meaningful percentage of iPad aficionados will pine for Siri, the iPhone 4S’s voice-enabled assistant. At least Apple did provide the new iPad with a dictation feature: Press the microphone on the keyboard and you can talk directly into Mail, Notes or any other app that accepts text. As with the built-in dictation on the iPhone 4S and a bevy of Android devices, accuracy is good-to-excellent, making speech a legitimate form of input if you don’t feel like typing. And if another year goes by without full-blown Siri arriving on the iPad, I’ll be startled.

    Dictation is the tablet’s only significant new software feature. It — and earlier iPads — should get plenty more of them when Apple releases the next version of its iOS operating system, presumably later this year. If you think that this next-generation iPad’s list of improvements is on the skimpy side, just remember: It’s as much a software creation as a hardware one, and Apple hasn’t said anything yet about the next generation of iPad software.

    Both the iPad hardware and software matter only because they let you run iPad apps. There are over 200,000 of them now; their quantity and quality make the offerings for Google’s Android tablets look profoundly meager, and give the iPad the single biggest edge that any Apple product has over any rival. As Jared Newman has noted, it’s not even clear if Google gets this.

    Other companies are capable of making spiffy hardware. (Toshiba’s new Excite X10 is as ooh-and-ah-worthy as any tablet I’ve seen.) But they don’t have a tablet operating system that’s as good as iOS, and they don’t have the software that the iPad does. That’s the bottom line: Thanks to its technical advances, the new iPad is easily the best container yet for iPad apps. For now, and maybe for the foreseeable future, it stands alone.

    [MORE: Here are some photos of Apple’s new iPad launch event in San Francisco. And Matt Peckham reviewed other reviews of the new tablet.]

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