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’s promises for iPad 2 battery performance are modest in the sense that they don’t claim to be more impressive than they were last year: up to 10 hours of normal run time on Wi-Fi, or up to 9 hours of continuous use over 3G—either GSM or CDMA. But actual performance was more complex than that: the original iPad’s tested battery life was generally stunning by comparison with most laptops, though turning on an iPad’s 3G cellular antenna led to more rapid battery drain even when it wasn’t in active use, reducing standby time from weeks to days.
We previously put last year’s iPads through a web torture test, continuously loading a demanding page once per minute—this lasted for 10 hours and 21 minutes on 50% brightness over 802.11n, beating Apple’s promised 10 hour estimate by just a little. The 2010 iPad with 3G was able to achieve 8 hours and 38 minutes of continuous reloading and displaying with its 3G antenna turned on and Wi-Fi turned off, 22 minutes shy of Apple’s estimate.
This year, we ran almost exactly the same test on all three iPad 2s, each set to 50% screen brightness, making one modification—switching between two demanding pages—solely because an initial test suggested that the latest iOS software mightn’t have been fully reloading the pages. Once again, the iPad 2 with Wi-Fi had the longest running time at 11 hours and 33 minutes, followed by the iPad 2 over 3G GSM at 9 hours and 3 minutes, and the Verizon iPad 2 using 3G CDMA at 8 hours and 41 minutes. The iPad 2’s Wi-Fi time beat the original iPad’s run time by over 1 hour, with the GSM version improving on last year’s time by nearly half an hour, and the CDMA version coming ahead by 3 minutes. Only Verizon’s iPad 2 falls a little short of Apple’s estimates, and then only by a little, solely when it’s using cellular service. It’s also worth pointing out that the iPad 2 loads pages faster than the original iPad, too, seeing roughly 40% speed improvements on average—this lets you spend more time reading and less time waiting. If the iPad 2 version of Safari included optional and sandboxed support for Adobe’s Flash, similar to the “ClickToFlash” application available for Macs, it could be a complete replacement for a laptop or desktop web browser.
Speedtest.net benchmark results for the iPad 2 over Wi-Fi, GSM, and CDMA networks showed noteworthy improvements in the uploads department. Wi-Fi performance was the same for downloading and uploading, with 15-16MBps downloads and uploads as high as the capped 0.9Mbps promised by Time Warner’s Road Runner service. However, the new GSM model achieved upload speeds of 1.0 to 1.3Mbps when using AT&T’s network, up five times from last year’s iPad model wherever we’d tested it—even better than Road Runner over Wi-Fi—with download speeds in the 0.6Mbps to 2.5Mbps range, the latter similar to prior results. By comparison, the Verizon model achieved upload speeds in the 0.33Mbps to 0.43Mbps range, just a little better than last year’s 0.2 to 0.26 AT&T results, and download speeds from 0.28Mbps to 0.91Mbps. In our area, AT&T’s performance blows Verizon’s away, which is the only reason we continue as customers after the problems we’ve had with the company.
Video Playback + Light Bleeding
Video playback battery life for iPad 2 was similar to last year’s iPad, which achieved a run time of 13 hours and 22 minutes of continuous video playback with Wi-Fi turned off and both the screen brightness and speaker volume set at 50%. The iPad 2 jumped modestly to 13 hours and 42 minutes under the same conditions. As is always the case, the iPad 2 will see its battery life reduced when processor-intensive applications and games are being used, as well as when its Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and/or cellular hardware are turned on, but the overall battery performance is nothing short of awesome even by comparison with the latest laptops.
It’s also worth noting that three out of the seven iPad 2s we purchased for testing had minor but visible screen light leakage at the edges of their screens. The issue adds little bright curves to the edge of what should be a completely or partially black display, and is essentially a manufacturing defect. Two leaked from one side, and a third leaked from each of its corners, though the extent to which the issue was obvious differed from unit to unit, and was most obvious in places where the screen was supposed to be black. As this clearly affects only some iPad 2 units, it remains to be seen whether Apple will replace affected tablets.
Video Recording and FaceTime
Two new battery tests for the iPad 2 are based upon ones we’ve previously conducted with video-camera equipped iPhones and the fourth-generation iPod touch. First, we wanted to know how long the iPad 2 could continuously maintain a FaceTime conversation with 50% screen brightness and 50% volume—a demanding test because simultaneous video encoding, decoding, and camera use consumes a lot of battery life. The iPod touch runs for 2 hours and 35 minutes in pure FaceTime mode, and the iPhone 4 can handle 3 hours and 10 minutes of video calling. By comparison, the iPad 2 loses an average of 13%-14% of its battery per hour during FaceTime calls under 50%/50% testing conditions, which is to say that it can run for roughly 7 hours and 30 minutes of continuous video calling. It’s worth noting that the iPad 2 loses less power by percentage than the other devices because its battery is larger, and the added drain of video recording is proportionately less than on the other devices.
Second, we wanted to see how long the iPad 2 can act as a pure video recording device using its rear 720p video camera, another task that tended to sap the batteries of the iPhone 4 and iPod touch 4G. As with FaceTime use, we saw an average of 14% battery loss per hour, which is to say that you could record video continuously for 7 hours and 9 minutes if you had the space to do so. Since 720p videos consume roughly 4.8GB per hour, you’d fill a formatted but otherwise empty 16GB iPad in a little less than 3 hours.
In addition to the early real-world examples we noted in the earlier discussion of GPU improvements in the iPad 2, we ran a few benchmarks to determine just how much additional power the new device had for gaming. Two are theoretical, the other practical.
GLBenchmark 1.1.7 tests suggest that the iPad 2 has a texel fill rate that’s 4.3 to 4.9 times higher than the original iPad’s, showing even more significant (up to 6 times/parallel lights) improvements when tasks increase in complexity. Geekbench 2.1.11 tests produced an average score of 745 for the iPad 2 versus 445 for the original iPad, showing gains that were generally less profound than the 7.5 times improvement the app found in multi-threaded LU Decomposition math; most improvements were in the 4.5X range. While Apple’s claims of “up to 9X” better graphics performance certainly rely on outlier examples, there are certain situations in which the new chips will reach nearly that high, albeit with both CPU cores blazing and eating battery life. Geekbench produced different numbers when re-run on each device, and did not appear to test either iPad with the CPU running at peak capacity.
A gaming battery test using the iPad 2-optimized version of Infinity Blade yielded a power drain of 10% per 45 minutes of play time, or an estimated run time of 8 hours and 20 minutes. This is very similar to the 8 hour and 33-minute run time we saw with mixed 3-D/2-D titles last year, and notable because Infinity Blade is more demanding than the average iPad game. It also provides a reasonable sense of what can be expected from more powerful iPad 2 titles in the future. Run times will obviously vary based on the types of games you play.
Recharging + Standby
We were concerned at one point during testing that the iPad 2’s battery took longer to recharge than its predecessor’s, but this turned out not to be the case. A depleted iPad 2 fully recharged using the included power adapter in exactly 3.5 hours, going from 1% to 50% in a little over an hour and a half, and 80% in two and a half hours.
Last year, we noted that leaving the iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G idling with its cellular antenna active led to a 5% loss of battery life overnight. We repeated the test this year with all three versions of the iPad 2, seeing 0% change on the iPad 2 with Wi-Fi, and 1% loss each on the GSM and CDMA iPad 2s, suggesting that Apple has addressed the issue and improved the 3G models’ standby time in the process.
Headphone + Microphone Audio Quality
In comparison tests using the original iPad and iPad 2 with lossless audio tracks and two pairs of high-end earphones—Ultimate Ears’ flagship UE-18 Pros and Shure’s SE530s—we noticed three differences between audio output from model to model. First, the white noise floor has dropped a little in the new iPad, making silences and quiet parts of songs sound less staticy. Second, upper treble performance is a little bit better in the original iPad than the iPad 2, making songs sound just a little flatter on the newer iPad. Third, the iPad 2 makes a series of barely audible clicking noises right after headphones are plugged in, seemingly related to volume and/or track changes. Most users will not notice the first two changes, but the third one is audible even through inexpensive earphones if you listen for it.
We also conducted comparison tests on the iPad and iPad 2 integrated microphones.* Apple moved the top microphone from a large circular hole near the iPad’s headphone port to a smaller pill-shaped hole that is notably now centered above the iPad 2’s front-facing camera. This is important because the mic now sits either in the middle of metal on the iPad 2 with Wi-Fi, or inside the black plastic antenna housing of the iPad 2 with Wi-Fi + 3G. (* = We updated this section of the review after initial publication to explain the difference between the mic performance on the different iPad 2 models.)
When using Skype and Garageband on the iPad, iPad 2 with Wi-Fi, and iPad 2 with Wi-Fi + 3G, we found that audio from the 3G iPad 2’s mic sounded somewhat more muffled and echo-prone than with the original iPad’s or the Wi-Fi-only iPad 2’s mics—enough to be noticeable to a Skype caller, who deemed the 3G iPad 2’s sound “acceptable” and the other iPads’ mic quality better. A reduction in apparent bass resonance was noted in the 3G iPad 2’s rendition of voices, and increased echoing was also observed. However, recordings made with Garageband under the same testing conditions suggested that the difference wasn’t as large as it sounded through the iPads’ speakers. We’d call the 3G iPad 2’s mic a little inferior to the others, particularly when the screen’s facing you for FaceTime and many other apps, a difference that appears to be related to the acoustic differences in the plastic used in the 3G model versus the fully metal top of the Wi-Fi iPads. If Apple had been able to keep the mic in the metal near the headphone port, this mightn’t have been an issue.
Finally, we did a quick set of tests to see whether the iPad 2 was faster, slower, or the same as the original at synchronizing files through iTunes. The new model turned out to be slower, falling from the iPad’s 1 minute and 30 seconds per 1GB of media files to 1 minute and 42 seconds for the iPad 2. While this isn’t a huge difference for typical sync sessions, it does explain why restoring the full contents of an old 64GB iPad to a new 64GB iPad 2 seemed to take nearly 15 minutes more than before.
It’s worth briefly noting three other things that some had suspected would be upgraded in the iPad 2 but were not: the speaker, the GPS hardware, and the storage capacity. The GPS hardware remains limited to the 3G versions of the iPad 2, the speaker has not improved, and storage capacity remains unchanged at 16GB, 32GB, or 64GB depending on the model you select. While we continue to believe that the 16GB model has too little space—formatted, it offers only 14GB of usable capacity, relative to 29GB on a 32GB iPad 2, and roughly 59GB on a 64GB model—users who have little need to download additional applications or store media will find it to be an entirely reasonable option for the price.