Review: Apple iPad (16GB/32GB/64GB) - With Full Interface Videos
Pros: An impressively built tablet computer, featuring a clean industrial design borrowed from Apple’s MacBook Pro computers, internal components derived largely from its iPod touch and iPhone pocket devices, and stable, multi-touch software. Runs over 150,000 applications, thousands of which have been optimized for this device, offering iPod-equivalent sonic performance, better than iPod- and iPhone-quality visual performance, and 10+ hour battery life unmatched by any current-generation Apple product, or most competitors. Superb for book and periodical reading, strong for web and video viewing, more capable of content creation than iPods and iPhones. Supports 720p HD video playback.
Cons: Cannot serve as a standalone computer; in addition to iTunes dependence, horsepower is presently shortchanged by limited, iPhone-class multitasking that forces all third-party applications to occupy and waste entire screen; lack of camera similarly limits value for video communications. Screen dimensions are sub-optimal for movies, including HD content. Confusing battery charging requirements and slow iTunes synchronization. Initial iPad-optimized applications, as well as Apple’s strategy for performing and selling color digital publications on the device, need additional work. In addition to anti-glare, anti-fingerprint screen film, most users will need new in-car, docking, and/or speaker accessories.
Though the iPad has a lot in common with the hardware found in the 2009 iPod touch and iPhone 3GS—so much, in fact, that reciting all of the similarities seems almost pointless—there are some differences that are worth noting. The ones that have drawn the most attention are bumps to its CPU and its Wi-Fi chips, which now support 802.11a/b/g and n networks rather than just older 802.11b/g networks, enabling faster web browsing, somewhat improved 3-D graphics relative to the smaller devices, and the playback of 720p (1280x720-pixel) video in scaled or cropped form on the device’s screen, or potentially on an external display. Performance specifics are difficult to quantify: Apple has deliberately obscured the origins of the iPad’s new “Apple A4” processor, beyond to say that it runs at 1GHz—faster than the 800MHz 2009 iPod touch and 600MHz iPhone 3GS—though there are numerous factors that impact its actual performance beyond the raw numbers, including its need to handle more graphical changes because of iPad’s more detailed screen. On the whole, the iPad feels every bit as snappy as the 2009 iPod touch, loading applications, switching screens, and running the same programs just a hint faster than the iPhone 3GS, albeit on a larger display. Over time, the performance gulf will increase as programmers learn how to optimize their software for the just-released iPad.
A much bigger change has been made to the iPad’s battery relative to the ones in iPods and iPhones: Apple has combined two flat cells to create a rechargeable, 25-watt-hour lithium-polymer battery that’s closer to a laptop’s than an iPhone’s or iPod’s. The MacBook Air has a 40-watt-hour battery, and the iPhone 3GS a 4.5-watt-hour battery, a profound difference that Apple ascribes primarily to the power requirements of larger screens. But chip and software differences also have a lot to do with each device’s run time, too. Apple promises that the iPad will deliver “up to 10 hours” of web or video consumption, but makes no specific claims beyond that. Our tests showed that the number was a reasonable average, but understated the iPad’s capabilities under both of those usage models. With three separate tests of SD and HD videos, with and without Wi-Fi on, the iPad delivered run times in excess of 11 and a half hours, at one point exceeding 13. An excessively challenging web-only test, reloading a graphically heavy page once per minute—far more than any person would do for any period of time—ran continuously for 10 hours and 21 minutes on 50% brightness. Only in a mixed usage test did the iPad deliver an 8 hour, 59 minute test result, and this was when we literally used the device non-stop for an entire day, sending emails, browsing web pages, playing games, watching stored and streamed videos, and running dozens of different third-party programs, all with automatic screen brightness adjustments on, 50% brightness by default, and speaker output only. Games and third-party apps draw more on the iPad’s battery than almost any piece of Apple-developed software; even then, the iPad can outperform virtually any netbook or laptop in longevity, putting the issue of multitasking aside.
Each iPad includes an integrated microphone that amazingly requires no more than a single small hole on the unit’s top to be perfectly usable. Using two third-party applications, we made and received calls using only the microphone, as well as the microphones built into Apple’s separately sold Earphones with Remote and Mic and In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic. Interestingly, callers liked the sound of the iPad’s microphone, which they said rendered our voices clearly while picking up the same sort of “natural” ambient sounds that a computer’s integrated microphone brought into chats, and noted that Apple’s mic accessories produced sound that was more like a phone call—closer to the microphone and similarly audible, but a little less natural. In any case, the iPad’s mic is a quality component, and needn’t be replaced by an in-line mic unless you’re in a really noisy environment.
On a less positive note, every iPad includes a digital compass, which was included in the iPhone 3GS but not in any iPod touch, enabling the device to sense its own magnetic orientation for mapping and possibly gaming purposes. Though the inclusion of the feature doesn’t hurt, we had found this compass to be only semi-useful in actual field testing with the iPhone 3GS, impacted so frequently by “magnetic interference” that games and in-car mapping were less than totally reliable. The same problems impact the compass in the iPad, which was so off-axis and interference-plagued indoors or in cars that we could barely make sense of the readings. Somewhat unsurprisingly, Apple does not include the Compass application from the iPhone 3GS, or a toggle to switch between true North and magnetic North.
Other components in the iPad are familiar from the iPod touch. The 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB storage capacities are based on the same sort of flash RAM Apple has been using for iPhones, iPod shuffles, nanos, and touches, with the iPhone OS consuming 311MB of their space, and the 64GB model starting with 59.17GB of total capacity. Both the Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi + 3G versions of the iPad contain Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR chips, the same wireless data and audio specification used by the iPhone 3GS and 2009 iPod touch, enabling low-power stereo audio streaming to third-party Bluetooth headphones, and iPad-to-iPad or -iPod/-iPhone gaming, amongst other applications. They also contain the familiar screen-rotating and game-controlling accelerometers found in Apple’s other touchscreen devices, and a brightness-adjusting ambient light sensor roughly centered behind the glass at the top of the display.
The primary internal differences between the Wi-Fi iPad and the upcoming Wi-Fi + 3G iPad are the latter’s inclusion of cellular networking chips and extra antennas that connect to the same wide variety of global cell phone towers as the iPhone 3G and 3GS. Specifically, the iPad follows these iPhones in supporting 3G UMTS and HSDPA (850, 1900, and 2100 MHz bands), as well as GSM and EDGE (850, 900, 1800, and 1900 MHz bands), which means that it can conceivably use 3G in most countries and with most providers, falling back to the slower EDGE standard elsewhere. But unlike the iPhone, the iPad’s 3G cellular feature requires a new Micro SIM card that is only supported by certain companies, and is limited to “data only” use, meaning that the iPad cannot be used to make or receive traditional telephone calls: even if you buy monthly 3G data service from an Apple partner company, you won’t get cellular calling minutes, and once again, Apple does not include the “Phone” application found on all iPhone models. As a workaround, third-party “Voice Over IP” applications such as Skype enable iPad users to make and receive calls over the 3G cellular network—or Wi-Fi—but will eat into the limited Megabytes offered under some of the data service plans. Apple does, however, utilize the Wi-Fi + 3G iPad’s cellular capabilities to assist this model’s GPS chip—the other part left out of the Wi-Fi-only iPad—in more quickly and precisely determining the Wi-Fi + 3G iPad’s geographic location; it has recently disclosed that nine hours of battery life should be expected when surfing the web over 3G. We’ll update this portion of this review when the Wi-Fi + 3G iPad is available.
One key component that is not inside the iPad is a camera, a part that’s now found in everything from iPod nanos to iPhones and most computers. In iPods and iPhones, the camera is a back-mounted creative tool, used for still photography or videography, but in computers, it’s primarily a front-mounted communication tool used to broadcast video of the user to other users over the Internet. While there’s a strong argument to be made that a rear-mounted camera is unnecessary for the oversized iPad, the lack of that feature indirectly deprives users of access to Apple’s iPod nano-ready video filters and iPhone 3GS-developed video editing tools, which could otherwise make the iPad a nice and fun on-the-go video editing device. By comparison, the omission of a front-mounted camera for video conferencing is a huge miss for the iPad. It cripples the device’s ability to be used for the sort of incredible realtime visual communications that Apple’s iChat AV and competitors such as Skype have enabled for years, now included on netbooks selling for half the iPad’s price. It’s close to the top of our list—and everyone else’s—for the inevitable iPad sequel.