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.
As is generally the case when Apple keeps the housing of a product largely the same, the fourth-generation iPad has changed under the hood. Most of the differences need to be experienced up close; just as was the case with the iPad 2 to third-generation iPad transition, you mightn’t even notice that anything’s different if you’re five feet away from both devices’ screens. The new iPad runs the same iOS 6.0 operating system that was released in September for the iPad 2 and third iPad, retains the same fonts, icons, backgrounds, and apps, plays the same games, and displays web pages in the same way. Like the third iPad, the fourth iPad runs almost everything with four times the visual detail of the iPad 2—a screen resolution of 2048x1536, which Apple calls a “Retina display” because of its 264 pixel per inch density, dots too small to be seen by the unaided eye at regular viewing distances.
We noted in the third-generation iPad review that Apple had rapidly and impressively achieved a quantum, once unthinkable leap in display technology. Rather than shifting to a 16:9 or 16:10 aspect ratio with fewer pixels than a premium HDTV—a formula Apple employed over the years for almost all of its MacBook laptops—the company instead retained the past iPads’ 4:3 aspect ratio and quadrupled the pixel count, immediately surpassing the resolutions of HDTVs. The third and fourth iPads’ screens actually have 3.1 million pixels, or 1 million pixels more than the best HDTV in your house. Only Apple’s 27” iMacs and latest, most expensive laptops have more pixels than this, making the iPad’s inclusion of the feature particularly noteworthy.
There are numerous ways to quantify the iPad’s resolution, but it suffices to say that the Retina display contains more detail than the screen on any digital camera, phone, or digital media player, as well as most of the world’s desktop and laptop computers. Apple and its suppliers deserve considerable credit for undertaking the engineering and manufacturing feats necessary to bring such a high-resolution screen to market; its suppliers are responsible for manufacturing the parts, but Apple certainly helped encourage early mass production with substantial, forward-thinking investments.
In our review of the third-generation iPad, we noted with true admiration that “every one of the seven new iPads we tested had a pixel-perfect display, with no stuck or dead pixels. Apart from Apple, this sort of quality control for a new and previously unthinkable high-definition screen is all but unheard of.” Unfortunately, we aren’t able to say the same thing about the fourth-generation model. One of our two initial review units arrived with not just a single dead pixel, but rather, an entire thin line of dead or stuck pixels running from the left side of the screen to the right. The other unit arrived with an unknown sticky gunk off to the side of its rear camera. Having noted different quality control concerns with the iPhone 5—and subsequently seen reports of worker unrest at Apple’s contract manufacturing partner over quality control standards—it seems clear that Foxconn is letting things slip through the cracks, possibly due to the overwhelming number of new products its employees are being asked to churn out at the same time.
Given what it achieved in resolution, it was somewhat surprising that Apple didn’t attempt to otherwise quantify the third iPad’s other screen enhancements beyond a claimed 44% greater color saturation than its predecessor; it notably didn’t promise a greater number of colors, superior contrast, greater color accuracy, or better brightness. Having tested the latest MacBook Air models, which display markedly less accurate colors than the MacBook Pro and MacBook Pro with Retina display—enough to make professionally shot photographs look like blotchy messes—we were initially concerned.
There’s good news and bad news here. Judged solely on color, the Retina iPad screens (above, right) are better overall than the iPad 2’s (above, left). At peak brightness, the new iPads’ renditions of photos and videos look extremely similar to Apple’s high-resolution iMac and Thunderbolt Displays, with noticeably richer—and generally more accurate—colors than prior iPads. However, not all new iPad screens are created exactly equal, as shown in the picture below. Some models ship with a screen that tends to emphasize yellows, improving everything except for skin tones, while others are more neutrally balanced, variations we’ve seen in past iPod touches and iPhones due to different screen producers. As in the past, there’s no way to know which screen a given unit will come with, and no way to calibrate the color balance to personal preferences. Each screen has roughly the same top brightness level as the iPad 2; there were no obvious differences between the third- and fourth-generation iPad screens we tested.
It should be mentioned that the improved color saturation is far less noticeable when pre-Retina iPads, Retina iPads, and iPad minis are set at 50% of their brightness, the level that Apple traditionally uses for testing of iPad batteries, and the one we’ve kept our iPads at in the past. At that level, the differences in vibrance become subtle, and you might think that the smaller iPad mini’s screen has nearly the same color capabilities as the Retina iPads. That’s not the case. But if you want to get the most out of the new iPad’s screen for photo editing, you’ll want to turn it up to 85% or higher brightness, and suffer increased battery drain as a result.
The two biggest remaining issues with the screen are the “fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating” and the visibility outdoors in bright sunlight. Apple’s glass remains a fingerprint magnet, and our test units are always covered in movie-obscuring smudges within hours—oil buildup that we find intolerable by the end of a day, and gross soon thereafter. Additionally, though the iPad’s screen can be viewed on all the same crazy angles as its predecessors, no improvements have been made to aid the screen’s usability outdoors, where glare from the glass and bright sunlight demand higher than 50% brightness levels for optimal visibility. As was the case with past iPads, users should expect to wipe down the screen frequently, or choose fingerprint- and glare-resistant screen-covering film to dramatically mitigate these issues. See the Accessories section of this review for additional comments on that subject.
Apple has changed processors again for the fourth-generation iPad. The CPU introduced by Apple in March was called the A5X, and was a clear successor to the A5: the same 1 GHz ARM Cortex-A9 dual-core CPU, upgraded from a dual-core Power VR SGX543MP2 to a four-core SGX543MP4 for graphics, with 1GB of RAM. This version is called the A6X, and though it also has 1GB of RAM, it sports several performance improvements. Designed internally by Apple, the A6X now includes twin 1.4GHz CPUs, and a quad-core PowerVR SGX554MP4 with more number-crunching horsepower relative to its predecessor. Apple markets the A6X as offering around twice the performance of the A5X, which is to say that the fourth iPad’s internal hardware now fully eclipses Sony’s PlayStation Vita portable gaming device rather than just rivaling it.
A comprehensive benchmarking of the A6X was recently published by Anandtech, suggesting that the performance improvements range from 15% to 100% relative to the third-generation iPad. Games come the closest to Apple’s performance estimates, and other apps see gains in the 53% range. Geekbench testing of the CPU and GPU summarizes the numeric differences of various math and memory tests, rating the third iPad at 748 relative to the fourth iPad at 1766—2.36 times better. Notably, the just-released iPad mini scored 752 with a lower-end A5 processor, suggesting that the full-sized iPad’s screen eats up a lot of its processor’s extra power. That the third iPad and iPad mini appeared to be so close might also shed light on Apple’s decision to bring out the fourth iPad now, rather than later.
While we prefer not to litter our reviews with overcomplicated and confusing numbers, the A6X can be summed up fairly simply as follows. When Apple released the third-generation iPad, it included a processor that enabled developers—more or less—to bring their old games up to Retina resolution without having to give much up in the process. The pitch was basically “iPad 2 games, but with Retina detail.” With the new A6X processor, Apple is giving developers the opportunity to create games that step beyond the iPad 2 in detail and the iPad 3 in speed, special effects, or both.
Unfortunately, as was the case right after the release of the last iPad, these improvements are mostly theoretical at this point. Developers are only just starting to release “iPad 4”-optimized games, and for the most part, the only real changes that we’re seeing relative to the third-generation iPad versions are in frame rates. Apart from AirPlay Mirroring issues noted later in this review, previous 3-D games are loading faster and running a little smoother than before, with fewer hiccups, which in some cases can make a previously uneven experience seem more fun, but doesn’t fundamentally change the way the games look. For now, this doesn’t feel like a sea change as much as modest iteration, but as developers really learn how to push the new iPad, they’ll likely widen the performance gap in some non-trivial ways. The only bummer is that the third-generation model’s short lifespan suggests that some game developers may not bother to optimize their titles for that device, focusing instead on the newer and shinier model. If you’re considering a fourth-generation iPad, that probably sounds great, but people who invested in the third-gen model will likely be disappointed.