Review: Apple iPad (Fourth-Generation) (16GB/32GB/64GB/128GB)
Pros: A technologically small but clear improvement upon early 2012’s impressive third-generation iPad, featuring the same screen and rear camera, coupled with a faster processor and improved front camera. Will eventually benefit from doubling of both CPU and GPU power, resulting in better-looking games; apps currently load a little faster than they did on the prior iPad. Continues to come in Wi-Fi-only and cellular-ready versions, the latter of which has improved in appeal thanks to expansions of domestic and international LTE networks, with cellular speeds that rival or surpass typical wired broadband connections. Retains familiar design that’s fully compatible with third-generation iPad cases. Charges somewhat faster than the prior model.
Cons: Switch to Lightning port currently offers nearly zero benefit to consumers, while considerably increasing both the cost of and need for new accessories. Continues to require longer recharging time than pre-Retina iPads when used with its own charger, and over six hours when charged from prior “Made for iPad” chargers and recent Apple computers. Continues to run modestly warm during gaming, and has slightly less battery life than its already diminished predecessor across some tasks. While better than seven months ago, LTE networks are still not available in many areas, leading to uneven, sometimes halting cellular performance when transitioning from LTE to older networks; users without LTE may see small speed benefits at best over earlier 3G models. Storage capacities continue to remain unchanged despite greater demands of high-resolution apps and videos.
Not surprisingly, the fourth-generation iPad continues the box designs of the second- and third-generation models: all three have shipped in white cardboard boxes with sharply angled side views of their respective iPads, de-emphasizing the screens in favor of showing off their tapered right sides. This angle has enabled Apple to use the same packages for Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi + 4G models, which are differentiated by black plastic top antenna compartments that the photographs render invisible. As with the third iPad, all that’s changed on the fourth iPad’s box front is the screen: the tablet shows a different and less placid blue lake background with an updated arrangement of icons, still alternating between a white or black bezel depending on the color of the model inside. The changes are so small that most people wouldn’t even notice them.
There is one easy way to tell the third- and fourth-generation iPad boxes apart. While the third iPad’s box differed from predecessors by including a silver iCloud badge on the bottom, it has been restored to a silver Apple logo for the fourth iPad. The iPad name remains untouched in dark gray on the box’s left and right sides, and another foil Apple logo is found as always on the top. Stickers on the otherwise white back continue to indicate the capacity, serial numbers, and optionally 4G cellular hardware, along with more granular descriptions of the wireless technical specifications and a supposedly required download of iTunes 11—up from 10.6 for the last iPad. Notably, iTunes 11 was not released in time for this model, and it syncs with iTunes 10.7 without complaints.
This iPad’s body looks virtually identical to the last two iPads. Apple still uses a single piece of stiff, partially-painted glass for the face of the iPad, with a clear rectangular space for the 9.7” display, a large circle below it for the Home Button, a small circle above it for the front-facing FaceTime camera, and a matrix of tiny dots above that for the iPad’s ambient light sensor. All of these elements are nearly identical between the third- and fourth-generation iPads; the new model’s front camera hole is now just a little smaller than before, though you’d have to have both units next to one another to notice the difference.
Silver aluminum once again forms the iPad’s back, remaining flat for most of the 7.31” by 9.5” surface with one soft curve tapering to each front edge. As between the Retina iPads, there’s no difference, but the taper has changed only subtly to accommodate the 0.6mm of added thickness relative to the iPad 2; the third- and fourth iPads both are 0.37” thick versus the iPad 2’s 0.34”—such a small difference that photographs can barely capture it.
The most obvious change to the fourth-generation iPad is the replacement of the widely-established Dock Connector with Apple’s new Lightning port—a smaller, pill-shaped hole that is lined with reflective metal, gleaming in the light like the ring around the rear camera lens. While we discuss the consequences of this change in the Accessories section of this review, an easy summary is this: the smaller port currently doesn’t result in any major improvement in the fourth-generation iPad user experience, as it hasn’t made this device smaller, markedly faster, or enabled Apple to fit something else in. It’s just different, and will most likely require you to spend extra money on adapters or pricier Lightning accessories. So why did Apple change it rather than waiting until next year? Our guess: by adding it to the full-sized iPad now, Apple will be able to do away with Dock Connectors across the entire iOS lineup next year, when it replaces the iPad 2 with the fourth-generation iPad.
Markings on the iPad’s back are unchanged apart from numerical tweaks: Apple has changed the model number and removed the rear capacity badge from the fourth-generation iPad, while leaving everything else the same.
A large Apple logo remains centered, gleaming like black chrome against the silver aluminum—a color contrast that has notably changed on the new iPad mini, but been left the same here for now. The rear camera lens stays in the same place below the top Sleep/Wake Button, and is the same size as in the third-generation iPad, while 4G/LTE cellular versions retain the same black antenna stripe across the top that was found in earlier 3G models. A single microphone hole remains in the center of this plastic stripe, or in the same position on the entirely metallic Wi-Fi-only iPad. The 4G/LTE models have micro-SIM card trays in the same location next to the top headphone port, with barely larger tray ejection holes on their sides. Notably, Apple did not switch this model to nano-SIM, despite having made that change in the iPhone 5 and cellular-capable iPad mini, which means that “as needed” SIM-swapping between full-sized iPads and minis won’t be possible for now.
As we noted in the third-generation iPad review, most of the changes from the iPad 2 to its sequels are so modest that you’d almost have to be obsessive to care about them—they’re not noticeable when this iPad’s in hand, on a desk, or resting on your lap. You’d have to be an iPad 2 user to notice the Wi-Fi-equipped Retina iPads’ slight weight jump from 1.33 pounds to 1.44 pounds, or the Retina 4G/LTE models’ jump from the iPad 2’s 1.34/1.35 pounds to 1.46 pounds. The new versions remain at least a little lighter than the original iPad with Wi-Fi (1.5 pounds) and Wi-Fi + 3G (1.6 pounds) models, however, they’re considerably heavier than the new 0.68/0.69-pound iPad mini, which can be easily held in one hand for extended periods, while the full-sized iPads cannot.
Speaker performance continues to be the same; there’s still only a single speaker grille on the bottom right corner of the back when the unit’s facing towards you, and though the output level remains a little louder and somewhat clearer than the iPhone’s, no improvements are apparent in the new version. By comparison, headphone port audio took a small step up in the third iPad, and remains the same here—small improvements were made to the treble and mid-treble definition of the third-gen model, and the sound chip here appears to be unchanged.
Despite all of the above similarities, Apple’s pack-ins have changed considerably from the third-generation iPad to the fourth. The company ships the latest iPad with a brand new 12W USB Power Adapter, which is the same size and shape as its 10-Watt predecessor, but now capable of supplying up to 2.5 Amps of power to the last two iPads. This enables them to recharge faster, as discussed in the subsequent battery section of this review. Also included is a new Lightning to USB Cable, which is required for charging this iPad and connecting it to computers and some accessories.
Apple also packs in a double-sided instruction card, warranty booklets, and Apple logo stickers. The 4G/LTE iPads generally come with a micro-SIM card and SIM card tray removal tool; international versions may or may not include the SIM. Apple’s current version of the tool is only a little better than a paperclip for popping out the SIM card, flexing and bending in a way that earlier versions did not, but it works.
Taken together, these tweaks are noteworthy in that they take one step forward—improving the latest model’s recharging time with a faster wall charger, a welcome change—and one step back, introducing the Lightning port on a device that currently derives very little current benefit from the feature. As time goes on, Lightning’s actual value may increase, but for now, it’s just different and not really better on this iPad than what came before.