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.
Though Apple’s industrial designs generate lust, the iPad 2’s most important developments are inside. Here’s what’s been added and changed in the latest model.
1. Front and Rear Cameras. We wish we had better news to share on this point, but here’s the blunt truth: yes, the iPad 2 now has twin cameras, but they’re not very good. The front camera has 640x480 (VGA) resolution for both videos and still images, while the rear camera has a maximum resolution of 1280x720 for videos, falling to 960x720 for still images. Neither has a flash, or autofocus capabilities, putting the iPad 2 at a significant disadvantage relative to the iPhone 4—and some rival tablets.
While what Apple gave the iPad 2 is roughly equivalent to the camera hardware Apple included in the fourth-generation iPod touch, the new cameras deliver sub-optimal quality for still photography, videography, and arguably video calling. Photos have little detail; videos have a higher-contrast grain than ones shot with the iPod touch, and colors are rendered with an unnatural ruddiness. Part of the issue is due to Apple’s software implementation of these features, essentially scaling low-quality images to fill the large iPad screen, but the hardware’s not great either—disappointing regardless of where you want to point your fingers. This leaves Apple with two very obvious features to improve in the future iPad 3, which could gain a 720p front camera for FaceTime HD, and an iPhone 4-caliber rear camera with higher-resolution and autofocus capabilities.
It’s also worth mentioning that the location of the iPad 2’s front camera—at the top of a portrait orientation screen—is less than ideal. During our testing with the iPad 2 on reclining stands, the camera’s position most often placed a user’s head relatively low, off to the left, or off to the right of the frame rather than centering it, a problem that might have been mitigated had the camera been centered relative to the iPad’s landscape-orientation screen instead. The best position we found was when the iPad 2 was turned upside down; though it has a tendency to show more of one’s body in this orientation, the result is better than with the camera above the tall screen. As noted in the prior section of this review, hand-holding the iPad 2 for extended video chats is comparably uncomfortable, so using a stand of some sort is the best option.
2. New CPU and 512MB RAM. Putting games aside, the iPad 2 is faster than the original model in two key ways. First, it has moved from a 1.0Ghz single-core Apple A4 chip to a 0.9GHz dual-core Apple A5 chip—as explained below, without compromising battery life. Second, it has doubled the RAM in iPad 2 from 256MB to 512MB, a bump that was not advertised in any way by Apple, but matches the RAM found in last year’s iPhone 4.
We mention these two changes together because they work hand-in-hand to make the iPad 2 a little quicker on the draw when using past integrated apps, and more capable of running new ones. Apps load faster, sometimes a full second or two faster, and make quicker transitions from screen to screen. Web pages load faster, sometimes by a matter of multiple seconds, and you’re more often able to switch between two of Safari’s nine pages without having to reload the entire page. The differences for non-gaming apps aren’t profound, but they’re noticeable.
The difference that will be even more important in the future is the addition of the second CPU core to the A5 chip. Apple’s free update to the $5 iPhone and iPod touch application iMovie has added iPad 2 support to the program, enabling iPad 2 users to make edits, transitions, titling, and audio changes to videos in a manner approximating iMovie on Mac computers. iMovie can be tricked to run on the original iPad, but its performance is terrible without the second CPU core, demonstrating that the additional processing power of the A5 will enable a new generation of applications that are even more Mac-like than iPhone-like. The value of the new CPU and added RAM will only grow in the future.
3. New GPU. The iPad 2 boasts what Apple promises to be up to 9 times faster graphics processing than before thanks to a new graphics processing chip (GPU), which it does not identify by name. It is believed to be a dual-core PowerVR SGX543MP2 processor, a considerable upgrade from the PowerVR SGX535 found inside the original iPad, though a step down from the four-core version of the SGX543 Sony plans to include in its second-generation PlayStation Portable. Whereas the four-core version nearly rivals the performance of Sony’s PlayStation 3, the two-core version is akin to a souped-up PlayStation 2 with better special effects, notably including anti-aliasing. Here’s what users can expect from this new part:
- Smoother frame rates from old games, and considerably greater polygon and texture detail levels in new/updated ones. Epic and Chair’s Infinity Blade was updated the day the iPad 2 was released, adding support for the new device. It loads faster on the iPad 2 than on the iPad, moves more fluidly, and looks more detailed—each says something given how impressive Infinity Blade already looked. Notably, the iPad 2 smooths parts of the graphics that need to look soft, brings out details in other parts that need to be rough, and adds shading that wasn’t there before.
Real Racing 2 HD is the iPad-specific version of the popular iPhone and iPod touch game Real Racing 2. It chugs along unevenly on the first-generation iPad, seemingly struggling to handle all of the car models and background changes at once. But on the iPad 2, the frame rate is almost flawlessly smooth, and the art all looks crisper, besides. Entirely new titles will widen the gulf between devices even further.
- Improved anti-aliasing. Infinity Blade demonstrates how simply adding new anti-aliasing—effectively a special effect—can dramatically improve the look of games on the iPad 2. The same scene shown on both devices, which both have the same resolution, appears to have more finely detailed edges and lines on the iPad 2. This is also the reason Real Racing 2 HD looks crisper on the iPad 2 than the iPad. Unfortunately, standard video playback on iPad 2 does not benefit from this technology, so a low-resolution movie will look equally chunky on both devices.
- Enhanced video output capabilities. Though the iPad 2’s screen is limited to the same 1024x768 resolution found in the last model, the new tablet is capable of feats including screen mirroring, up to 1080p video output, and potentially other yet-to-be-announced video-out tricks. It can play iTunes-synced videos at a maximum of 720p, like the original iPad running iOS 4.3, as well; HD and SD movies purchased from the iTunes Store now work without complaint. Most of these features are dependent on Apple accessories such as the Digital AV Adapter and VGA Adapter. On the other hand, we noticed that the iPad 2’s live camera output was even less color-accurate when being displayed through a connected TV, and saw other coloration and resolution variations depending on the HDMI display we were using.
4. New Gyroscope. Some gamers love the 3-axis gyroscope Apple added to the iPhone 4 and iPod touch 4G last year; others couldn’t care less. In either case, the iPad 2 now has gyroscope hardware inside, enabling it to more precisely know its own orientation on a total of six axes, as well as more accurately judge its own movement. The gyroscope builds on the magnetic compasses and accelerometers found in all iPads, as well as the GPS hardware found in 3G iPads, to provide more accurate positional data for games, augmented reality applications and location-aware mapping apps.