We were expecting the iPad 3, and all we got was this lousy iPad. We jest, of course. The 2012 iPad is an iPad 3 in all but name, so that's what we're calling it for the time being. Packing in four times as many pixels as its predecessors, Apple's new iPad is set to take your tablet experience to a whole new level. Coupled with a 5MP camera, 1080p video and 4G connectivity, but with the very same price as the iPad 2, is the so-called Retina Display enough to keep Apple ahead of the baying Android pack? Let’s find out…
An iPad is basically a rectangle with a screen, so for the latest version to have an entirely new one is kind of a big deal. And what a screen it is: rich in colour, with pure whites, deep blacks and a resolution that’s simply astonishing considering its 9.7in span.
Apple calls the 2048x1536 IPS LCD a 'Retina Display', because it claims you can’t make out individual pixels (packed in at 264ppi) when viewing it at a normal usage distance. Even when you hold the iPad up to your nose, you’ll only see the merest hint of pixellation on the edges of graphics.
Photos we imported from a Nikon D5000 SLR’s SD card using the camera connection kit ($38) have never revealed this level of detail before. You can detect the slightest autofocus hiccup and see every pore on your subject’s face. You’ll want to be airbrushed before your close up on this screen.
For the desktop and built-in apps, the iPad 3's 4 x resolution hike is even more of a revelation. Edges of buttons and fonts are eggshell-smooth, and you don’t need to zoom to read the tiniest text in Safari.
vs iPad 2
Go back to an iPad 2 after you’ve read a few pages on the new iPad and all you can see is the grid between the pixels. The colours on the older model look muted, too – what’s a bright yellow on the new iPad comes out orange, and fine detail is lost. And that’s from a screen that, until recently, was among the best of any tablet on the market.
Similarly, compare it to an Asus Transformer Prime and the Android tablet’s larger pixels are obvious, while its whites seem to have a slightly yellow cast.
The Retina Display isn’t just good with stills, either. Fast motion, be it from a game such as Galaxy on Fire 2 HD or an HD Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy video from iTunes, is handled flawlessly.
The one area open to criticism is its orientation – the iPad's still 4:3, which means it’s squatter than the widescreen (16:9 or 16:10) displays of Android tablets such as the Amazon Kindle Fire, Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and Asus Transformer Prime. For reading that’s great, but it means films are either sandwiched by black bars or cropped to fit.
Even with the bars in place, there’s room for a full HD movie to play at its native resolution, and at about the same size as it would on a 8.9in tablet’s display. Film buffs shouldn’t feel too short-changed.
Shock, horror: the new iPad looks the same as the iPad 2! But it’s worse than that – it’s bigger and heavier, like an iPad 2 with a hint of middle-age spread.
It could certainly do with dropping a couple of ounces. Hold the new iPad at arm’s length for a few minutes and you’ll really start to feel it. We’re for anything that will make prolonged magazine app consumption more palatable. Obviously.
But to be fair, even the sveltest competition is only marginally lighter – the Asus Transformer Prime tips the scales at 586g next to the iPad 4G’s 652g, and it’s just 1.1mm thinner at 8.3mm. Put the iPad back-to-back with the 8.8mm iPad 2 and, honestly, you’re hard-pressed to notice the difference.
Plus, even after a year of familiarity with the design, we’re yet to see a more desirable tablet. The aluminium and glass finishing, down to the hair’s-breadth holes drilled for its (actually pretty good) internal speaker, is faultless. All in all, hardly a catastrophe.
Like everything optimized for Retina Display, the familiar iOS interface seems shinier and more inviting on the new iPad. Version 5.1 is almost identical to 5, which means few shocks when it comes to usage or functionality. It’s the same familiar grid of apps, with the same access to the brilliant iCloud data syncing and backup service.
The one notable change exclusive to the new iPad is the addition of dictation, which is integrated into the keyboard – so, whenever you would normally type, you can now speak.
To use it, you just tap on the microphone symbol, spout your trap off, and tap the symbol again. In quiet surroundings it’s uncannily accurate, at least when it’s listening to our clipped BBC English. Given how awkward onscreen keyboards can be (even good ones like the iPad’s) it could be a real boon, especially for taking notes and writing presentations – although it needs a good data connection to work.
What we don't get is why Apple's stopped short of including full-blown Siri on the new iPad. Dictation is one of the many talents that the virtual assistant brings to the iPhone 4S, and we're sure Apple could have come up with some devilishly clever usage scenarios for its search and app control skills. For now, it's like the dictation portion doesn't even recognise its progenitor - when we asked for Siri, it typed 'sirree'. We'd understand that better if we were in Texas, and it was 1894.
Another niggle is iOS 5.1’s notifications panel, which is still an ugly pull-down from the top of the screen. It feels bolted on and overtly two-dimensional next to the gleaming app icons. A bit of spit and polish wouldn’t go amiss.
What makes an iPad worth owning is what you can do with it. Stocked with apps for everything from painting to trading stocks, the App Store is far superior to the corner shop offerings of rivals.
Most apps aren’t yet optimized for the Retina Display, and these can be roughly split into two categories: those that mix bitmap images and iPad fonts, and those that are entirely composed of bitmaps. The former reap major benefits from the new hardware; the latter’s fonts look rather less good (see below).
All bitmap graphics are scaled, so that what occupied a single pixel on the iPad 2’s screen now takes four. The result is some detail softening, but the iPad handles scaling impressively well.
For example, Flipboard – which is a mix of iPad fonts and 1024x768 graphics – is still a joy to behold, even with the relatively low-resolution images it pulls from the web.
Apps that are Retina Display optimized, such as the new iLife and iWork suites, really are something else. Photo editor iPhoto’s brushes and effects make a palpable difference in real time, and zooming to fine detail reveals the slightest discrepancies between images. As it’s almost all text, the new iBooks is also night-and-day better than its 1024x768 predecessor.
The only games we’ve seen that are optimized for Retina Display were in Apple’s controlled demos, but the lighting effects, physics and slickness of both Sky Gamblers and Infinity Blade: Dungeons looked truly console-quality at 2048x1536. Everything points to the iPad being a gaming powerhouse.
Before launch, rumours circulated that the iPad would pack a quad-core A6 chip to keep it in line with Nvidia Tegra 3 tabs such as the Asus Transformer Prime and Acer Iconia Tab A510. The rumours were wrong; instead the new iPad gets A5X, a version of the iPad 2’s dual-core 1GHz A5 chip, but with four graphics processing cores in place of the A5’s two. Twice the graphical power, with four times the pixels to push – sounds underpowered, doesn't it?
In our experience, it isn't. Both those Retina Display games we tried displayed little to no lag, transitions are just as smooth and fast as the iPad 2's, and if anything, apps load marginally more quickly (especially graphically intensive ones, such as Galaxy On Fire 2 HD). All existing 1024x768 apps run like hot sunflower oil.
Because we’re geeks, we tried out a couple of benchmarking apps. Geekbench 2 noted that the new iPad has twice the RAM of iPad 2, taking it from 503MB to just shy of 1GB. Processing performance, though, is nigh-on identical, averaging 760.2 on iPad 2 and 760.6 on the new iPad.
Our graphics benchmark, GLBenchmark 2.1.2, told a different story. In the Egypt test the iPad 2 averaged 9fps, while the new iPad knocked it out of the park with 46fps. Yep, it’s quick – all we’re left wondering is how much quicker it would be with quad-core processing, too.
Built-in storage is the elephant in the room. With a maximum of 64GB on board and no expansion slot, the iPad may be a victim of its own new talents, as apps increase in size at a rate proportional to the increase in screen resolution – a problem that will plague apps made mostly of 2D images.
For example, a full-res JPEG facsimile of a copy of Stuff would top 300MB, with no interactive elements, videos or zoomable pictures (with them, it’s conceivable the app would top 1GB), while iTunes movie downloads in HD are anything between 3GB and 5GB.
We reckon a 96GB or 128GB iPad would have been wise, even with the sky-high price it would demand.
Apple claims the 2012 iPad matches iPad 2 for longevity, which is true – and then some. It loses just 1% of its battery when left on standby overnight, and a 127-minute 720p movie playthrough knocked 16% off, even with Wi-Fi, 3G and push email enabled. You can expect 10 hours of regular use, and another couple on top if you turn connectivity off. Truly an all-day tablet.
All this is achieved through brute force: the iPad crams a whopping 11,666mAh battery in, which is 70% larger than the iPad 2's. Hence the marginal increase in girth and weight, we presume.
It’s actually quite a ham-fisted solution for Apple. While most of the market is looking to increase battery life by decreasing consumption, Apple’s taken a power-comes-first approach. The side-effect is that charging from dead takes 5.5 hours – almost 60% longer than iPad 2.
Rejoice: the iPad’s rear camera is no longer terrible. Up from a sub-1MP monstrosity to a 5MP backside-illuminated sensor with optics out of the iPhone 4S, Apple makes lofty claims for its capabilities.
In decent light it’s great, rivaling the iPhone 4 and falling just short of the 4S (click the pic above to see a hi-res version). Its 1080p video is better still: held stationary it’s smooth and crisp, and will beat most pocket camcorders for outright quality (if not pocketability). If you pan around you get some tight judder, but it won’t ruin your footage.
Turn the lights out, though, and pics and vids are noisier than Napalm Death eating a packet of pork scratchings – and there's no LED photo light to improve the situation. Ironically, the Retina Display is the camera's worst critic – you see every flaw in the captured image, and can pick out failings that would elude you even on your TV.
The front camera is fine – a somewhat low-res VGA number primarily for video calling. It does the job, although the 1080p-ready 2MP cams of some rivals (such as the Toshiba AT200) will delve deeper into your pores.
The world was hoping for 4G from the iPad, and by jove, we got it. Well, nearly. The 64GB 4G version we tested has the tech inside, but it isn't (and never will be) supported in Singapore as it's only suitable for the AT&T network in the USA.
The consolation prize is HSPA+ and the forthcoming DC-HSPA, with respective bandwidths of 21Mbps and 42Mbps – three and six times what the iPad 2 can muster (7.2Mbps). Our speed tests using a SIM from 3 achieved more like 6Mbps, which may not sound like much, but it’s easily the equal of any dongle or smartphone we’ve tried. Not 4G, but not bad.
You also get 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0 and GPS (the latter for the 4G version only), but as with all iPads, there's not much more to the new iPad. No USB in, no SD card slot, no HDMI out (though all can be added via the 30-pin port) and no microSD memory expansion.
In everyday use you don’t generally notice what’s MIA, but the Asus Transformer Prime and Toshiba AT200 are undoubtedly better equipped. A built-in SD card slot at least would be great for getting camera snaps into iPhoto quickly.
The iPad is without doubt the best tablet you can buy. Yes, it’s a little fatter and heavier than the last generation, but not so much as you’d notice, and the payoff – that incredible Retina Display – is well worth the extra heft. Add in the best selection of apps this side of the iPhone, a camera that captures 1080p video you might actually use, at a price that undercuts most of the competition, and you’re on to a winner.
But what if you have an iPad 2? We reckon you can afford to wait a generation: the Retina Display is here to stay, and the fourth iPad should have the ability to make even more of it. The iPad 3 experience is iPad 2, but crisper – next time we expect some truly next-gen talents, with a quad-core (or better) processor powering proceedings.
If you have a first-gen iPad, or are thinking of embarking on a life of tableteering, it’s time to stop thinking and start doing. The new iPad – or iPad 3, whatever you want to call it – really is that good.