And now for something we genuinely didn’t expect at the iPad Mini launch – a new Retina Display iPad. Apple’s dubbing the new tablet a fourth generation iPad, just six months after the launch of the last one. We’re just going to call it the iPad 4 to save sanding down our fingers with too much typing.
iPad 4 vs iPad 3
There are no outward improvements over the iPad 3, but the new, faster A6X chip, dual-band Wi-Fi, a Lightning connector and a 1.2MP FaceTime HD camera are enough for Apple to make the iPad 3 extinct. From the November 2nd release date, the iPad 4 will be the only Retina Display iPad available to buy brand new, making the iPad 3, previously known as Stuff’s Number One slate, a bit of a second-hand bargain.
So is it worth upgrading your Retina Display iPad to a model with twice the processing and graphical power? Or should you wait six months* for the iPad 5? Come join us for another magical mystery tour around the latest iPad. (*okay, we’re guessing, but you never know)
The iPad 4’s 9.7in screen is exactly the same as the one on the iPad 3 – but that’s no bad thing, because it’s still easily the best display we’ve seen on a tablet. Colours are rich and vibrant, whites are pure as driven snow and blacks are suitably inky.
And then there’s the resolution. At 2048x1536 pixels, it’s astonishingly sharp – that’s 264 pixels per inch for spec junkies. It’s so fine that when viewing the screen at normal distance you can’t make out the individual pixels at all (hence Apple’s coining of the term “Retina Display”). Hold it up closer to your eyeballs and you’ll see just the merest hint of blockiness around the edges of graphics (and you’ll also look like a lunatic). The photo above has the iPad Mini's screen on the left and the iPad 4's on the right, for comparison.
The Retina Display makes photos – particularly those you import directly from a camera via the SD card adapter – look incredibly detailed, while the desktop and built-in apps are equally stunning. Open up the Safari web browser and you’ll be able to read the tiniest text without having to zoom in.
We’ve not had a chance to pit it against a 2560x1600 Nexus 10 yet, but rest assured that we’ll be conducting that eye-slicing battle of the super-resolution tabs at the earliest possible opportunity.
UPDATE: Read our in depth Google Nexus 10 review here.
The iPad 4’s display also features the same thumb recognition tech as the iPad Mini so stray thumbs don’t accidentally press buttons and open apps. It’s less of an issue here becuase the iPad 4 has a sizeable physical bezel, but you can quickly see how badly Android tablets fare in this respect.
As with the screen, the iPad 4 apes the design of the previous iPad exactly. Well, almost – it features the smaller Lightning docking port instead of the old 30-pin connector. Aside from that, it’s indistinguishable: it even weighs the same.
While a little heavier than the iPad 2 at 652g (versus 601g) – and far from the thinnest and lightest tablet around – it’s a glorious-looking piece of design, and for our money no other tablet on the market offers the quality of finish that Apple has achieved here. A near-seamless union of glass and aluminium, with fantastically precise touches like the miniscule drilled-out holes for the internal speaker, it’s really in a class of its own.
That said, with the thinner and much lighter iPad Mini about to gobble up Apple tablet sales like there’s no tomorrow, we’d like to see Apple’s engineers get to work on a new Retina Display iPad that we can hold up for more than twenty minutes before our arms get tired.
iPad 3 launched with iOS 5.1 but of course that has been upgradeable to iOS 6 since Apple officially let its latest OS out of the bag alongside the iPhone 5. For anyone buying an iPad 4, this means two things: there’s no downloading to be done to get your tablet in fighting shape, and there’s no option to avoid Apple Maps.
Elsewhere in iOS 6, Apple’s loving improvements to iOS 5 are apparent immediately: you can now tweet or post to Facebook straight from the notifications scroll-down, and email inboxes now get an addictive sticky gum visual when you pull down to refresh.
Siri’s also been the recipient of some love this time around – you can now search for businesses and listings outside the US, which means we might actually find ourselves using the voice assistant more often. And s/he can respond to loads more commands so you could easily get away with controlling the almost the entire tablet via Siri and even use dictation for laughs – if testing voice control is how you get your kicks.
Maps, too, shows promise despite its terrible data. It looks good – especially the visually stunning 3D maps – and integrates with Siri for directions. We’d be very surprised if Apple Maps doesn’t redeem itself in the next 12 months or so – either that or Cupertino will go crawling back to Google.
Yes, iOS is now a little tired around the edges but the functionality is second to none – it’s a very solid operating system and it works. With Sir Jony Ive heading up software design at Apple from now on, expect minimalism across the board in the next makeover – and we’re still hoping that Apple ditches the notification bar and throws some live widgets into the mix for a bit of a freshen up.
The number of apps available to the iPad 4 is quite simply mind-boggling: at the time of writing there are 275,000 designed specifically for the iPad, with many now optimised for the Retina Display’s eyeball-slicingly sharp resolution – though Apple wouldn’t take the bait when we asked for an exact figure.
Some apps are still built with the first and second-generation iPads’ 1024 x 768 screen in mind, and these require upscaling on the iPad 4. Bitmap images are scaled so that one pixel now equals four, which softens the detail somewhat. Fonts can look jarringly low-res if they’re delivered in bitmap form, but some apps combine bitmap images with iPad fonts – and these fonts don’t require upscaling and therefore look as deliciously sharp as those in optimised apps.
Games optimised for the screen are console-quality – or even better in some cases, due to the glorious jaggy-free smoothness of the visuals. The iPad 4 has definitely cemented a spot as a serious games machine and still offers a far higher number of quality new titles than Android.
power and performance
With a new A6X chip that Apple reckons is two times faster than the A6 chip in the iPad 3 with two times the graphical capabilities, the iPad 4 should fly. And boy, does it. With just under 1GB of RAM under the hood, too, everything gets a speed bump. Opening up apps (though it’s a matter of milliseconds), launching the camera, loading web pages. None of this is surprising considering Geekbench 2 notes the processing performance as 1768 – by comparison the iPad 3 scored just 760.6. Yes, that is as massive a gap as it sounds.
When flicking through magazine apps on the iPad 3, there’s a noticeable lag when scrolling through pages, but on the iPad 4 it’s fluid as ever. Hiccups are few and far between but they do still happen very occasionally – nothing’s perfect. We experienced a blip when playing Frontline Commando and one instance of being escorted abruptly out of the iTunes store.
But these are rare, and otherwise games open quicker on the iPad 4 than its predecessor, and they run far smoother, too. Again, the figures backup our real-world experience – GLBenchmark 2.5 sees the new iPad 4 average a whopping 52fps, just above the already impressive 46fps figure of the iPad 3.
Apple hasn’t changed the formula when it comes to the iPad 4’s built-in storage: there are 16GB, 32GB and 64GB options. There’s also no option to expand that with an SD card.
As apps increase in size you could find space running out quickly. HD iTunes movie downloads, for instance, can be up to 5GB apiece. As game graphics improve, they’re also taking up increasing amounts of space above the 1GB mark. Apple may have missed a trick by not offering a 96GB or even 128GB model – but perhaps that’s not coming until the iPad 5.
The iPad 4’s rear camera is the same 5MP snapper that we saw on the iPad 3. Whip out the iPad 4 when there’s an abundance of available light and the images are mightily impressive: on par with the average smartphone camera. Even better is its 1080p HD video, which is better than that of most pocket camcorders, at least if you’re able to keep the thing steady. Panning around too wildly will bring on some judder.
When things get murkier the camera on the iPad 4 doesn’t fare nearly as well. There’s no LED flash or light to help, and footage and stills end up grainier than a jar of Grey Poupon. Watch them back on the Retina Display and its insanely sharp resolution highlights all the problem shots clear as day.
Stills taken with the iPad 3’s 0.3MP front-facer are noticeably softer than snaps from the iPad 4’s new FaceTime HD camera – the new addition lets in more light and also benefits from more detail and better colour reproduction. Considering it’s a close-up, the iPad 3 might actually be more forgiving, but surely you owe it to your Skype contacts to give them the utmost in accuracy and detail, even if that means they get a good look at the odd spot.
Side-by-side, iPad 4 owners won’t have much in the way of design tweaks to set their shiny Apple slate apart from all those now-shunned iPad 3s. In fact the only physical difference is that the iPad 4 has a Lightning connector port in place of the old 30-pin affair. The new 8-pin Lightning connector is much smaller and apparently more durable, but then again it won’t work with your existing docks and kit unless you buy an adapter.
We should see more and more Lightning connector-compatible accessories, but Apple’s not forgotten those of us who’ll want to use the iPad 4 with our existing kit: you can buy Lightning-to-USB connectors, two sizes of Lightning-to-30-pin adapter, Lightning-to-HDMI and perhaps most usefully, a Lightning-to-SD card reader, but these will all cost between £25 and £50 a piece.
If you bought an iPad 3 recently, you've every right to be a bit miffed.
Apple has – quite unexpectedly – pulled out a refresh of the daddy iPad which is identical in almost every respect. The main difference is the new Lightning connector, first seen on the iPhone 5. It's better than the old 30-pin connector (and you can kiss goodbye to working out which way up it goes - it's orientation agnostic) and you can pick up an (overpriced) adapter to (maybe) get your new tablet to play with your 30-pin accessories.
That may not sound like a glowing endorsement (and it's not for now), but give it a couple of years and you'll be glad you didn't cling on to Apple's outmoded connector. Mark my words...
Apple got in trouble for describing the iPad 3 as a 4G tablet when it turned out to be incompatible with most networks outside the US, including those in the UK. So it’s good news that the iPad 4 will be compatible with EE’s LTE bands over here. Getting an iPad 4 won’t come cheap on a contract (you’re looking at £25+ for between 3GB and 5GB a month), but as 4G coverage improves you’ll have a pretty future-proof tablet.
With boasts of up to 10 hours of Wi-Fi and video or 9 hours of pulling down 3G or 4G data, Apple’s selling the iPad 4 as a similarly stamina-filled tablet to the iPad 3. And in our intensive video loop test on half brightness it actually outlasted the iPad 3 – the iPad 4 drained the battery at about 9 per cent an hour rather than the iPad 3's 12 per cent.
The sneaky iPad 4 takes our No.1 spot in the Top Ten list of best tablets almost by default. There are no cosmetic changes to swoon over, but this is a seriously slick, turbo-charged version of our favourite slate, and all for the same price as the outgoing iPad 3.
That said, anyone with an iPad 3 should resist the inevitable sense of disappointment – aside from the fact that the resale value will no doubt plummet, you’ve still got a fantastic device. Plus, chances are that unless you’re editing HD video or spending 10-hour sessions on intensive games, you’re not even giving your tablet a warm-up never mind a real work-out.
iPad 2 or iPad owners should also perhaps hold out on the upgrade. Maybe the slim, 308g iPad Mini with its decent 7.9in display and extreme portability would suit you better? In six months time we may also be treated to an iPad 5 with a skinny bezel slimmer waistline anyway.
Still, for any first time tableteers or early upgraders, Apple is simply giving you more tech for your buck with the iPad 4, and that can only be a good thing. The Nexus 10 with its “better-than-Retina” display has its work cut out as the iPad’s combination of 4G, dedicated (and optimised) iPad apps and unflappable performance could prove too mighty to be quashed. But only time will tell.
Review by Sophie Charara