Review: Apple iPad 2 Wi-Fi / Wi-Fi + 3G GSM / CDMA (16GB/32GB/64GB)
Pros: An iterative improvement upon Apple’s first tablet computer, benefitting from modest size and weight reductions, two color options, as well as considerable under-the-hood improvements in speed. Still includes integrated apps for audio, video, and photo playback, web browsing, e-mailing, calendaring, mapping and more, plus a free downloadable book and PDF reading app, many improved at least a little over original 2010 versions; web browsing is markedly faster. In addition to running many of the original iPad’s nearly 75,000 applications at higher speeds than before, adds dual-core CPU and graphics processor capable of running dramatically more impressive games and apps. New FaceTime cameras enable video calling and simple photography/videography. Improves upon predecessor’s 10-hour battery life by adding 20-60 minutes of added juice under some situations. Improved video output capabilities, including screen mirroring and maximum 1080p output, when used with HDMI or VGA accessories. Now offered in separate GSM and CDMA 3G versions, accommodating Verizon and other CDMA customers.
Cons: New integrated cameras produce blurry, grainy images that are unacceptably weak for still photography and look poor when forced to fill the display; video recorded by the rear 720p camera is only acceptable. Modest reductions in headphone port audio and mic performance. Front glass continues to attract visible fingerprint smudges and suffer from glare issues, requiring film or a cover to improve usability outdoors and indoors. Still cannot run Retina Display iPhone/iPod touch apps at full resolution, and similarly downscales or crops HD videos to fit 1024x768 resolution, 4:3 display. Would benefit dramatically from combined GSM/CDMA 3G model; CDMA version exhibited slightly higher cellular battery drain and slower cellular data speeds, lacks SIM card slot, and offers fewer options for international travelers.
Apple has left the key design elements of the new model—its fingerprint-attracting glass face and aluminum body—substantially the same. Like last year’s iPad, iPad 2 surrounds a 9.7” diagonal touchscreen with a roughly 0.7” border, which is slightly larger at the top and bottom than the sides. Apple has reduced the thickness of the metal bezel around the front glass, as well as the thickness of the glass itself, which help the unit look smaller, but may lead to a greater risk of chip and shatter damage if the iPad 2 is dropped. As before, an almost invisible ring of plastic surrounds the edge of the glass, serving as a thin buffer for the metal shell.
Unlike the single-colored original iPad, Apple offers the iPad 2 in white or black, a difference that solely impacts the painted border around the front screen and the color of the Home Button at its bottom; all of the other buttons and the plastic rear antenna cover on 3G models remain matte black. Industrial designers will note that this is a little unusual, as the company previously has tried to match all of its plastic elements to the same color as a white version’s face, even going so far as to color-match the linings of headphone and Dock Connector ports. That’s not the case here.
You can decide whether the white or black version is better suited to your personal tastes; they are the same product apart from the alternate front bezel. Most of our editors prefer the black version. While we appreciated Apple’s decision to create a second iPad 2 color option, we found that the large and bright white front border didn’t blend as well with videos, particularly letterboxed ones, which now appear as white boxes with big black stripes above and below the video. On the other hand, the white border looks fine for most web pages and books, and for better or worse is easier to see in a dark room. It may appeal to users looking for something to match or complement bright decor.
Right above each screen is a front-facing camera and, on the white model, a tiny gray circle that lets the ambient light sensor peek through. At the bottom is a Home Button, which appears to be identical in size to last year’s version, but clicks more quietly, a positive change for sound-sensitive users and their significant others.
The iPad 2’s back has undergone more obvious changes, though from a distance, the old and new models look a lot alike: the Apple logo, iPad logo, capacity markings, and tiny text/certification markings remain intact on the rear shell, in roughly the same positions as before. While the Apple logo has shrunk just a little in size, and the Verizon version has less text and no certification logos, everything else is very similar. Most conspicuous is the addition of a silver-rimmed, glass-lensed rear camera immediately below and off to the right of the top Sleep/Wake switch; we discuss both cameras in detail in the next two sections of this review.
Though Apple has emphasized the iPad 2’s “thinner” rear casing, the new tablet is actually smaller in each dimension than the original iPad, which measured 9.56” x 7.47” by 0.5”. By contrast, the iPad 2 measures 9.50” x 7.31” by 0.34”, with 0.16” reductions in both width and depth, the latter more obvious than the former because of what amounts to a 33% reduction in thickness. While there’s no question that the new iPad is a little smaller, the difference is most obvious in two ways: the flattening of the gently curved original iPad back to remove its central bulge, and removal of the flat edge once found on each of the iPad’s sides.
Weight has also dropped—but only a little. The first iPad weighed 1.5 or 1.6 pounds depending on whether the extra 3G hardware was inside; iPad 2 weighs either 1.33, 1.34 (CDMA), or 1.35 (GSM) pounds depending on the version, most likely due to tiny differences such as the added weight of 3G antennas and SIM card elements.
There’s good and bad news to report on these changes. In actual use, the iPad 2 does feel a little lighter and denser than its predecessor, and the newly curved edges are more comfortable to hold. Now hidden inside the left and right edges are magnets that are separately polarized in pairs, enabling the use of magnetically attached screen covers, discussed under the iOS 4.3 New Features / Settings section of this review.
The iPad 2’s shell looks sleeker than before without removing any of the prior version’s features: top and side buttons and ports are all in the same places as before, though the speaker has now been changed from three pill-shaped metal grilles to a larger grid of dots, akin to the speaker grilles on 15” and 17” MacBook Pro computers. Speaker performance has not been impacted by this change; the iPad 2 sounds virtually identical to the original model in amplitude and clarity, which is to say “better than any iPod or iPhone, but not a MacBook.”
Similarly, the top microphone hole has been transformed from a dot to a pill shape, and shifted to a central position away from the headphone port, now sitting directly in the center of the 3G antenna compartment if the iPad 2 has one. We discuss its slightly diminished performance in a subsequent section of this review.
For all of these modifications, however, the size and weight reductions are not enough to avoid hand cramping when holding the device upright with one hand for video calling purposes. Apple will likely need to shift to a lighter-weight body material or reduce the size of its rechargeable battery if it hopes to achieve more significant reductions in the future. Alternately, Apple could have reduced the need for hand-holding by merely integrating a stand into the iPad’s back, a feature that it recently patented but did not include in iPad 2.
Additionally, we found that the shift from a flat bottom edge made use of Dock Connector accessories more difficult, creating repeated connection challenges for speakers and docks akin to ones we’ve seen before with the similarly-tapered iPod touch. This problem is particularly pronounced when trying to reconnect an iPad 2 to a docking speaker, and/or when using the iPad 2 in the dark; it can lead to scratching and nicking around the Dock Connector port hole. Cables are somewhat easier to connect, but now expose much of the rear pin housing in the process. Overall, we’d call the body changes less positive than we’d hoped, with the Dock Connector issue creating significant new inconveniences in practice, and the slenderizing changes making small improvements in comfort.
Two key things remain the same between the iPad and iPad 2: the screen, and the reflectivity of the front glass. Contrary to rumors that circulated months before the iPad 2’s release, the screen has not changed in any major way in the new version: the resolution, colors, brightness, and viewing angles are all effectively the same as before, and the screen is still not flush with the front glass as it is in the iPhone 4. This is fine to the extent that the original iPad looked great—apart from a still-ongoing debate over whether its 4:3 aspect ratio is ideal in a world of 16:10 computers and 16:9 TV screens.
On the other hand, the reflective front glass will continue to disappoint users who had hoped that the iPad 2 would be easier to view outdoors in direct sunlight, or less susceptible to finger prints. Without screen film, such as the Power Support anti-glare film we’ve found to be excellent over the last 11 months, you can expect to have to clean off smudges every two days, and deal with reflections that are particularly annoying in a car.