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.
When the original iPad was first released in April 2010, Apple developed a special version of its iOS operating system—iOS 3.2—solely to run on the tablet. As it turned out, the company waited less than a week to announce iOS 4, a substantial upgrade that brought all of the iPad’s features to the iPhone and iPod touch, plus more. But the iPad was left out, depriving new users of important new features including multitasking, unified e-mail, and Game Center. When reporters at the iOS 4 event asked Steve Jobs when the iPad would get an update, he said, “we just shipped iPad this weekend!” And so iOS 4.2 with iPad support didn’t arrive until six long months later.
Early iPad 2 purchasers appear to be in for a similar situation. The iPad 2 ships with iOS 4.3, an incremental update that was released simultaneously for iPhones, iPod touches, and the original iPad a couple of days before the iPad 2’s launch. We’ve discussed iOS 4.2 and 4.3 in a series of past articles, so we won’t revisit all the details here. With the announcement of iOS 5 expected in the very near future, it’s unclear whether the iPad 2 will gain additional features upon iOS 5.0’s likely June release. Whispers have suggested that a special iOS 5.1 version for the iPad may lag behind.
iOS 4.3 for the original iPad includes 14 total applications: Safari, Mail, Photos, iPod, Calendar, Contacts, Notes, Maps, Videos, YouTube, iTunes, App Store, Game Center, and Settings, all except Game Center discussed in our original iPad review. The iPad 2 adds three more built-in apps, all related to the device’s new cameras: Camera, FaceTime, and Photo Booth.
Camera. Apple could have evolved the classic iPhone application Camera when bringing it to the iPad, but it didn’t: for the most part, Camera is the same on iPad 2 as it is on the iPhone 4 and iPod touch 4G. Most of the screen is consumed by an upscaled version of what the front camera or rear camera is seeing, with four buttons scattered around: a front/rear camera toggle at the upper right, and a bar that provides one-touch access to the Camera Roll, snap/start camera button, and still/video toggle features. The button positions rotate to maintain their same relative locations as you change the iPad 2’s orientation.
Camera is at least as fast on the iPad 2 as on the iPhone 4 or iPod touch 4G, opening responsively, and rapidly snapping images or videos at the touch of a button. That said, it lacks for auto-focus, offering only a tap-based exposure toggle and a blocky 1X-5X digital zoom slider, recording such low-quality images that it has comparatively little to do. When shooting with the rear video camera, you can also tap twice on the screen to see the full 1280x720 image that’s being recorded, complete with large black letterboxing bars; otherwise, the screen will be filled with a cropped-off version that doesn’t show the left and right sides of what’s being recorded. Still photos taken with the rear camera are cropped to 960x720 automatically.
As a subset of the original iPad’s “Photos” application, the Camera Roll stores a mix of the still photos and videos recorded by the iPad 2, and enables you to do simple clip trimming and video sharing through e-mail, MobileMe, and YouTube. Photos can be e-mailed, sent to MobileMe, assigned to a contact, used as wallpaper, printed, or copied for use in another app; both photo slideshows and videos can also be shared with a second-generation Apple TV over AirPlay. If the device took better pictures and video, we’d get a lot more enjoyment out of looking at the content on the iPad’s screen or an external display.
FaceTime. FaceTime for iPad is a hybrid of the prior iPod touch 4G and Mac apps of the same name, at first looking nearly identical to the Mac version. The screen is divided into a large video portion on the left, with a sliding, smoke black translucent pane on the right. “Favorites,” “Recents,” and “Contacts” buttons appear at the bottom of the screen, letting you easily touch your way to video calls with people who have previously FaceTime called you, or whose e-mail addresses or iPhone 4 phone numbers are stored in your Contacts application.
On the calling side, Apple has done away with the iPhone-styled top-of-screen name/number/“FaceTime…” bar that also appeared on the iPod touch 4G and Mac versions of the application, moving the information towards the bottom of the screen next to the “End” button. An iPhone-style top-of-screen “Name/number would like FaceTime…” bar still appears on the receiver’s side if they’re using an iPad. Unlike the Mac, which changes the FaceTime window’s size when the Favorites/Recents/Contacts bar slides left underneath the image, the iPad’s full screen is filled with the camera’s image as the bar zips out of sight to the right. Underscore the word “zips:” the app moves the bar off and on the screen so quickly that you can’t help but be impressed by the iPad 2’s speed.
Video chats look basically the same on the iPad as on the iPhone 4 and iPod touch 4G, only larger—not clearer. Apple upscales the 640x480 videos sent by other FaceTime devices to fill the iPad 2 screen, creating fuzzy-looking and sometimes obviously artifact-laden images. While calls are acceptable given that the original iPad had no such hardware, they’re not as detailed as they would have been with Apple’s recently-announced FaceTime HD hardware and software. It’s quite possible that the iPad 2 wouldn’t have had the horsepower or the throughput to handle FaceTime HD even if its cameras were better, but the feature feels incomplete as implemented.
If both your iPad 2 and the caller’s device are in landscape orientation, the full screen is filled with the image of the person you’re calling, with a small movable preview window to let you see yourself in any of the display’s corners. If either device shifts to portrait orientation, large black letterboxing bars appear on the screen to fill gaps created by the automatically rotated image. In either case, a gray pill with mute, end, and camera-switching buttons appears at the bottom of the display. There’s no Mac-style button to toggle windowed or full-screen video displays, and the videos don’t look as sharp as the sample iPad 2 FaceTime images shown on Apple’s web site. You can leave the FaceTime app and use other applications while still maintaining the audio portion of your video chat, reaccessing the frozen video at any time by tapping on a green bar at the top of the screen.
Photo Booth. This new iOS snapshot application is based upon the Mac program of the same name, but it’s been cut down and tweaked a little for the iPad. Photo Booth opens with a dramatic flourish, showing the red velvet curtain of a real life photo booth being pulled off to the side, then presents you with a choice of 8 different special effects—or “normal”—to use when creating still images.
The app is noteworthy for what it can and can’t do. It’s the first Apple-developed iOS camera program that can radically distort colors and shapes in the images it’s capturing. Kids have flocked to Photo Booth-equipped Macs in Apple Stores just to use the app for that feature, and the iPad 2 version was a hit with our kids during testing, too.
But whereas the Mac version includes 24 realtime special effects that can be applied to whatever the front camera is seeing, the iPad version’s 8 are limited to X-Ray, Light Tunnel, Stretch, Mirror, Twirl, Thermal Camera, Kaleidoscope, and Squeeze. On a positive note, you can make adjustments in some of the effects just by swiping the screen with one or two fingers, expanding the size and shape of the light tunnel, the location of the mirror and kaleidoscope, and so on. Unfortunately, unlike the far less powerful fifth-generation iPod nano, you can’t apply these effects to video recordings—just still pictures. The iPod nano notably had 15 realtime video filters, plus Normal, before losing its camera in the 2010 model.
You can revisit and share Photo Booth snapshots via e-mail using a pane that pops up at the bottom of the screen, and the effects work with both front and rear cameras, a first of sorts for this program. The shots are automatically saved to the iPad 2’s photo library for easy access outside of the Photo Booth app, as well.
Settings. The iPad 2’s Settings application includes small changes to address the cellular differences between the GSM and CDMA iPads, including removal of the SIM PIN number-lock feature. It also adds FaceTime settings that are limited to creating, logging into, and modifying a FaceTime account, and a General setting called iPad Cover Lock / Unlock.
Flipping the “on” switch on iPad Cover Lock/Unlock enables the iPad 2 to automatically lock and unlock its screen when used with certain magnetized iPad 2 screen covers, including Apple’s iPad Smart Cover. The feature works properly with the Smart Cover, but is also sensitive to other magnets, such that two iPad 2s can deactivate each others’ screens when placed face to face in the correct orientation. It appears to depend upon polarized magnets being placed on the upper and lower right hand sides of the iPad 2 screen—a neat feature, but not worth $39-$69.
One Glaring Omission: iPhone 4/iPod touch 4G Retina Display Support
For all that’s been added to iOS 4.3 and the iPad 2, one thing is obviously missing: support for full-resolution Retina Display graphics when running iPhone and iPod touch applications at “2X” size. These apps continue to run as blocky upscaled versions based on the original 480x320 iPhone/3G/3GS and iPod touch 1G-3G artwork, and would really benefit from taking proper advantage of the iPad’s larger screen and superior graphics processor. Apple may have left Retina Display support out of the prior iOS releases for the iPad to encourage developers to create new interfaces, but there’s no need to continue punishing iPad owners by making their iPhone and iPod touch apps look worse than they would on today’s pocket devices.