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.
Coinciding with the release of the third-generation iPad, Apple updated the entire iOS 5.0 operating system and each of the past iPad apps with Retina-quality artwork and fonts—all of these changes and subsequent iOS 6.0 improvements have been carried over to the fourth-generation model. When it’s first turned on, the Retina iPads’ Apple logo, setup screens, Lock Screen, Home Screen, and icons all look virtually identical to the iPad 2’s, except that they’re all rendered with so much detail that you can’t see pixels—even if you hold the new iPad several inches away from your eyes. By default, Apple uses a bluish-purple zen lake background, which truly looks photorealistic behind the somewhat cartoony icons and UI elements, and all of the other backgrounds available to the iPad 2 appear here in high-resolution versions.
Taken as a whole, and considered in light of prior iPhone 4 and iPod touch resolution jumps, the effect of these upgrades isn’t so much “stunning” as something between “inevitable” and “impressive.” As was the case with iOS 5.1, iOS 6 doesn’t look different running on the new iPad—it just looks better. We said back in March that the fact Apple took the time to redraw all of the old icons and UI elements suggested that new iPad users could expect few major interface changes for the next year. Seven months later, that’s proved to be correct, though we’d expect Apple is heavily weighing larger UI changes for iOS 7 in the wake of recent and major executive changes.
Once again, most of the iPad’s integrated apps—Messages, Calendar, Notes, FaceTime, Reminders, Contacts, Game Center, the iTunes Store, App Store, Photo Booth, Mail, Photos, and Music—look nearly identical across iPads, though on the Retina screens, details such as the stitching on the edges of Notes’ landscape leather folio are even sharper, while book page accents in other apps similarly look more realistic. Text is uniformly more readable, even at very small sizes, and on Retina iPads, the vision-assisting Accessibility feature now displays considerably more detail when you zoom in on anything within the iOS interface, since it’s working with four times the pixels in source material.
Several of the apps, including Maps, Videos, and Camera, now display noticeably higher-resolution images and photographs than on the iPad 2, at least under certain conditions.
On both Retina iPads, Apple’s much-maligned iOS 6 version of Maps packs considerably more detail onto the screen with only a small loading time penalty as a consequence of its added tile complexity. Unfortunately, the heavily server-dependent application constantly needs to retrieve 3-D polygon models and textures for cities, and still suffers from less than totally smooth frame rates due to its need to chug data from the Internet. While third-party 3-D applications have shown small but noticeable improvements on the fourth-generation iPad, Maps is less fluid than it could and should be.
As with the third-generation iPad, the Videos app synchronizes, streams, and displays 1080p videos in H.264 format, which do look considerably more detailed than the iPad 2’s renditions of 720p and lower-resolution H.264/MPEG-4 videos. Even when the new iPad is in portrait orientation, videos look sharper than they did in landscape mode on the original iPad and iPad 2. Large black bars persist on the top and bottom of the screen, however, as Apple’s 4:3 aspect ratio was discarded by most TV shows years ago and movies decades ago; the black bars cover more of the screen than movies playing in portrait mode.
Months ago, we noted that Apple wasn’t properly advertising the presence of 1080p videos in the iTunes Store, perhaps because there was comparatively little 1080p content available. Since then, there has been a dramatic increase in 1080p content, and Apple has been charging $15 to $20 per 1080p movie, effectively replacing previous 720p videos with larger and higher-resolution ones. It’s still the case that the only way to know that a video you’re renting or purchasing is in 1080p is to hunt for tiny “1080p HD” text on each individual listing page, however, the presumption at this point is that “HD” content is “1080p HD” content, bundled with 720p and 480p versions for older devices. While these prices continue to strike us as high, they’ve become less objectionable with the introduction of iTunes in the Cloud for movies and TV shows, enabling re-downloading of previously purchased content, as well as streaming to Apple TVs; though the bandwidth demands would likely be too much for Apple to bear, we would like to see the iPads gain direct iCloud video streaming capabilities, as well.
Starting with the third-generation iPad, Camera began to offer noise-accurate previews of the 5-Megapixel (2592 x 1936) pictures snapped by the rear camera, which sports a f/2.4 aperture and 35mm-equivalent focal length, as well as either full-screen or roughly full-resolution previews of the 2-Megapixel (1920x1080) videos the rear camera records; all of these improvements carry over to the fourth iPad, notably still without the addition of the Panorama ultra-wide still picture recording feature that’s found in the iPod touch and iPhones, but not the iPad mini or third-generation iPad. The Camera app also upscales lower-resolution 1280x720 video from the just-added front FaceTime HD camera, and while it’s still noisy, it looks sharper than on the third-generation iPad. We discuss the cameras further in a separate section of this review.
Safari benefits considerably from the iPad’s Retina display. With 2048 by 1536 pixels to play with—way more than the typical web browser window—the iPad in portrait mode makes previously tiny text detailed enough to be readable, while both orientations can display higher-definition images if the web site is capable of serving them. If not, graphics look as good as they did on earlier iPads, which is to say totally fine for almost everything, given the 9.7” size of the screen.
High-resolution updates to third-party iOS applications continue to hit the App Store every day. Thousands of titles are now Retina-ready for iPads, most frequently without major tweaks from their non-Retina interfaces, but they do look sharper than before.
Apple’s iBooks and iPhoto function identically to their iPad 2 versions but look fantastic thanks to high-resolution text and photographs. iPhoto becomes considerably more useful due to the Retina display’s higher color accuracy, enabling even professional photographers to import super high-resolution DSLR pictures, retouch them, and share them with higher finished image quality than from comparably-priced laptops.
Two-page spreads in full-color books, magazines, and similar PDF files that were previously legibility-challenged on iPads have so much additional resolution on both Retina iPads that they can be easily read without zooming in—assuming that your eyes are up to the task of reading small print. For avid readers, clean tiny text is arguably the single biggest advantage of the full-sized iPad over the iPad mini.
It’s worth a brief note that the third-generation iPad added a feature we had waited waited two years to see on its predecessors: it displays the Retina-optimized versions of iPhone and iPod touch applications, both in 1X mode and upscaled in 2X mode. While Apple really should have enabled past iPads to display the superior “2X” (960x640) iPhone/iPod Retina artwork, which would have looked very close to great on the first iPad’s or iPad 2’s 1024x768 screens, seeing the same graphics on a Retina display is better than getting stuck with the upscaled 480x320 versions that persisted for years. Only iPod/iPhone games that haven’t received Retina updates—such as Capcom’s Street Fighter IV Volt—continue to look really rough when upscaled. It’s still unclear how, if at all, the Retina iPads will handle apps created solely for Apple’s 1136x640 iPhone 5 and iPod touch 5G.
Last but not least, the fourth-generation iPad now includes Siri—a feature that was unusually rolled out in two parts when the third-generation model debuted earlier this year. Siri was the iPhone 4S’s signature “virtual personal assistant,” capable of understanding spoken commands and responding back with equally understandable speech, varying in impressiveness based on your connection to the Apple servers it requires to operate. A secondary related feature was called Dictation, which enabled the iPhone 4S to transcribe whatever you were saying in a Notes document with surprisingly high accuracy. When the third-generation iPad debuted, Apple enabled the device to use Dictation but not Siri, an omission it later remedied with the release of iOS 6.
Siri can be triggered by holding down the Home Button, resulting in the appearance of a small speech box from whatever side of the screen the Home Button is on. Siri’s new helpful reference features are discussed more fully in this iLounge article on iOS 6, but now include sports scores, restaurant lookups and reservations, movie listings, and much more. Beyond Dictation functionality, which can now be used to create Facebook posts, Tweets, and iMessages, the critical things Siri adds to an iPad are the ability to do web searches purely by voice, create alarms, reminders, or calendar events based on properly parsed spoken terms, and request driving directions without having to type things. Just as with Apple’s other Siri-capable devices, the fourth-generation iPad does a pretty good job of understanding your requests so long as the top-mounted microphone isn’t obstructed, and issues tend to be more on the server side than as a result of the microphone or iPad hardware.
To activate Dictation, you tap on a Siri-style microphone icon found on most of the iPad’s text entry keyboards. The Retina iPads’ Siri performance is pretty accurate, routinely transcribing entire sentences—occasionally full paragraphs—with only small errors, most often due to proper nouns or slurred words. Apple’s two- or three-microphone iPhones possess a small edge in accuracy within quiet rooms, and larger edges in noisier environments. While the error rate was roughly one word per sentence in our iPad testing, higher than the iPhone 4S, the time that errors required to correct was still generally less than what we would have spent typing the text properly in the first place.
Apple also leverages information in your contacts database to improve the feature’s accuracy, so we found that known street addresses, city names, and even contact names were more often than not deduced correctly; in fact, we tested Dictation by giving it a paragraph of little more than connected names and addresses, and it not only got all of them correct, but properly capitalized each proper noun, clearly based on the contact details.
The Siri and Dictation features depend upon an active Internet connection at all times; whenever the iPad goes into Airplane Mode or otherwise loses all wireless connections, pressing the Home Button brings up a “Siri not Available” notice, and the microphone key just disappears from the keyboard. Dictation requests require roughly 200KB of data usage per long paragraph, which is to say 1MB per five paragraphs, so budget data plan users may want to stick to Wi-Fi when using the feature.