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.
Roughly two weeks after the release of the Wi-Fi-only fourth-generation iPad, Apple began to deliver the fourth-generation “iPad with Wi-Fi + Cellular” on November 15, 2012, officially starting in-store sales the next day. We’ve updated our otherwise complete review with several additional details on this very similar sequel, basing the following text heavily upon what we wrote for the LTE (“Long-Term Evolution”)-equipped third-generation iPad back in March, and for the similarly LTE-ready iPhone 5 in September. As we noted in the cellular section of our iPhone 5 review, AT&T and Verizon have both made significant upgrades to their LTE network footprints in the United States, and Sprint has struggled to establish LTE service in a much smaller number of cities. Consequently, while there are still significant LTE coverage gaps throughout the U.S. and world, new fourth-generation iPad users have a better chance of seeing faster cellular data speeds than did third-generation iPad users eight months ago, although it needs to be said that we saw no differences between the third- and fourth-generation iPads in LTE speed testing, while achieving similar battery results.
When we reviewed the third-generation iPad with Wi-Fi + 4G, which was quickly renamed “iPad with Wi-Fi + Cellular” following international claims of inaccurate marketing, we noted that Apple had been forced to make some compromises with its pre-2012 iPhones: thanks to an exclusive deal with Apple that locked most U.S. iPhone customers into two-year contracts, launch partner AT&T was slow to resolve dropped calls and data network issues, unwilling to support new iOS features such as tethering and FaceTime cellular video calling, and so brazenly self-interested that audiences at Apple events began to jeer when AT&T’s name came up. As soon as AT&T’s U.S. exclusivity ended, Apple added Verizon as a partner, then Sprint, though their even-slower networks didn’t prove any more satisfactory than AT&T’s—just less likely to drop calls. Only this year did the tables begin to turn: after Verizon invested in a faster and viably large LTE cellular network to compete with AT&T, Apple decided to add LTE cellular networking chips to its devices, spurring AT&T and Sprint to quickly deploy and expand rival LTE services. Regrettably, the networks are incompatible, so Apple is selling separate devices to cater to the companies’ customers.
Eight months ago, Sprint’s network was so nascent that Apple didn’t release a Sprint-specific version of the third-generation iPad, but today, there are 18 separate fourth-generation cellular iPads for sale in the United States: AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon versions, each in three different storage capacities and two different colors. Sprint’s tiny LTE network covers roughly 50 cities, and Apple apparently has produced only limited numbers of Sprint-specific iPads as a consequence; AT&T’s network covers around 110 cities, and Verizon’s now boasts 440 cities, alone covering 80% of the U.S. population—though nowhere near that much of its geographic territory. Each of the LTE-ready iPads is capable of roaming on pre-LTE UMTS, HSPA, HSPA+, DC-HSDPA, GSM, and EDGE networks if they can’t get LTE signals outside the United States; the Sprint and Verizon versions will fall back to the companies’ respective, slower EV-DO networks in non-LTE areas within the U.S., while the AT&T version defaults to the aforementioned and generally superior GSM networks. As virtually all iPads are sold unlocked at full, unsubsidized prices, customers purchase iPad data service on a month-to-month basis with no long-term contract requirements.
The international story is similar. Canadian customers get what appears to be the same device and LTE support as the AT&T version, only with universal compatibility across three different Canadian carriers (Bell, Rogers, and Telus). Buyers elsewhere in the world get generally the same LTE hardware as AT&T and Canadian customers, but must live with more limited regional and national LTE coverage for now, as carriers in many European and Asian countries still offer only 3G or pre-LTE “4G” service. Regardless of the country where the iPad was purchased, customers can generally pop out the micro SIM card tray found on the device’s upper left edge, insert a foreign carrier’s card, and pay for data each month as needed. Since the iPad’s micro SIM card is larger than the iPad mini’s nano SIM card, you can’t swap cards between the devices.
Why does the switch from 3G/4G to LTE matter? When operating on LTE networks, the third- and fourth-generation iPads promise 5X to 10X cellular speed improvements relative to their predecessors—up to 73Mbps peak performance. Although Apple’s devices don’t come close to their “theoretical maximum” speeds in most of the United States, and will fall back to much slower download and upload rates in the absence of LTE service, the 3G/4G to true LTE jumps can be shocking. On AT&T’s LTE network, we’ve seen download speeds ranging from 9.3Mbps to over 60Mbps during our testing, while uploads have varied wildly from 0.5Mbps to 20Mbps; most commonly, in areas with 2-3 bar service, the AT&T LTE service operates at 10-15Mbps for downloads and 1-15Mbps for uploads. On Verizon’s LTE networks, we generally saw 15Mbps to 30Mbps iPad download speeds that fell to 2-6Mbps in areas with fewer bars, with upload speeds ranging from 3-15Mbps. Download speeds ranged from 20-47Mbps on Bell’s LTE network in Canada, with upload speeds in the 27-28Mbps range; Rogers LTE service hit peaks of 60Mbps for downloads and 30Mbps for uploads, with averages of 50Mbps down and 25Mbps up. We saw no speed differences when testing a fourth-generation AT&T LTE iPad against a third-generation model; they both appeared to be hitting the same peaks and valleys.
What all of these numbers mean is simple: if you’re able to access LTE, your iPad’s cellular connection may be faster than what it achieves using basic or mid-priced broadband over a Wi-Fi network. Cellular companies understand that this might compel customers to prefer their service to cable broadband providers—more frequently offering unlimited or nearly unlimited data service in the United States—so they impose significant price caps. iPad data plans generally start at $15 or $20 depending on the carrier, with a miserly 250-300MB of data per month, and take $10, $15, or $20 jumps in price each step up the rung as they climb to 2, 3, or 5GB of data usage. Each Verizon plan lets you use your iPad as a Personal Hotspot and as a FaceTime Over Cellular video calling device for no additional charge; AT&T restricts Mobile Hotspot and FaceTime Over Cellular use to its more expensive plans.
As we’ve previously noted in reviewing Apple LTE devices, there are some big hitches that cloud the choice of a given LTE network relative to others. First, users outside of major metropolitan areas may have issues accessing LTE networks. Second, although Verizon’s LTE network is much larger than its rivals, you may have serious problems if you’re in an area with spotty coverage. Going from 15-30Mbps to 1Mbps based on LTE coverage gaps is brutal—the only reason AT&T’s smaller LTE network remains a viable alternative. When you fall off of AT&T’s LTE towers, you still use its 3G/4G network, which is faster than Verizon’s 3G network, just as its LTE network tends to be a little faster than Verizon’s if you can get onto it. Even though you’re paying roughly the same price for data services, you’ll probably get faster speeds on AT&T’s networks and more service flexibility from Verizon’s; Sprint remains a wildcard because of its tiny LTE footprint.
In our testing, AT&T’s non-LTE “4G” (HSPA+) download speeds for the new iPad were consistent with the iPhone 4S and “4G” network of the iPhone 5, ranging between 3.36Mbps to 7.97Mbps for downloads, most commonly resting in the 4.5Mbps download zone. For reasons unknown, 4G upload speeds for the third- and fourth-generation iPad were markedly slower than with the iPhone 5—around 1/3 of the 3Mbps upload rate the phone achieved. On the Bell network in Canada, our Canadian editor has recorded comparatively impressive iPad speeds between 14-21Mbps for downloads and a similarly broad 1.75 to 6.43Mbps for uploads, most often in the 4Mbps range.
As we noted with the third-generation iPad, the fourth-generation iPad with Wi-Fi + Cellular can achieve surprisingly strong battery life when using an LTE network, beating Apple’s estimates. Given Apple’s “nine-hour” cellular battery promise, we were pleased to confirm that the new model ran for 10 hours and 5 minutes of once-per-minute web page loading with a two-bar connection to AT&T’s LTE network, which was right in line with the 10% battery loss per hour LTE results we saw back in March. While this 10-plus-hour number is higher than the 9 hours and 21 minutes we saw during 4G testing back in March, the difference is partially attributable to the reduced time and power the cellular hardware uses when loading the same content faster over LTE; users with stronger or weaker cellular signals will see some variation here. Full-sized iPad users can expect to achieve one to two hours of additional cellular battery life relative to the iPad mini, the Verizon version of which ran for 8 hours and 11 minutes of continuous LTE web browsing before requiring a recharge.
Which iPad with Wi-Fi + Cellular is right for you? From our perspective, Verizon’s and AT&T’s versions are neck and neck for different reasons, and Sprint’s is a step behind unless you live in a place with Sprint LTE service. As of today, the Verizon iPad has the highest probability of benefitting from actual LTE coverage in your city, and if it does, it can roar, delivering roughly five times the speeds of AT&T’s non-LTE HSPA+ network. Moreover, it offers hotspot and FaceTime Over Cellular features that AT&T lacks. If there’s no Verizon LTE service where you live, work, or travel, however, Verizon’s 3G performance falls so short of AT&T’s 3G/4G speeds that we’d call the results intolerably slow. You may get faster LTE service from AT&T if both are available; then again, based on how neighborhood-specific the LTE towers are right now, maybe not.
You’ll have to choose the cellular provider that’s right for you, but here’s how we’d make the decision. Start by determining which carriers, if any, offer LTE service in your area—and if relevant to your needs, in the cities where you travel most often. Assuming that you will most likely have Wi-Fi access at your home, school, and/or office, make your iPad choice based on the locations where you’ll most likely need the cellular access. Finally, if you’re in the United States, decide whether you’re okay with Verizon’s wide range of speeds, which start at around 1Mbps on fallback 3G networks and climb to 30Mbps under strong LTE conditions, or whether you prefer AT&T’s network, which is faster for 3G, but currently has a lower likelihood of offering LTE in major markets. In foreign markets, there’s only one cellular iPad choice, and speeds will vary based on location.
The choice between the new cellular-equipped iPad mini and fourth-generation iPad versions is trickier. Despite Apple’s claims of identical 10-hour Wi-Fi and 9-hour cellular battery life, the full-sized iPad comes closer to those numbers than the iPad mini, though you’ll have to decide for yourself whether an hour or two less of run time matters more than shaving off so much size and weight. Given the choice between models, we’d generally opt for the iPad mini at this point, though it’s a close call; users who value screen quality over smaller size and weight should give the full-sized iPad more serious consideration.