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.
The third-generation iPad marked the family’s shift from the well-known Bluetooth 2.1 wireless standard to its much newer, backwards-compatible successor Bluetooth 4.0, also known as Bluetooth Smart. Back we reviewed that iPad, there were no actual Bluetooth 4 accessories, and in the seven months that have passed since then, we’ve been able to test a grand total of three: one speaker, one heart rate monitor, and one “find my car” accessory. While the critical promised benefits of Bluetooth 4 are an incredible power savings for future accessories, and faster pairing, the technology is still in early stages—something that we expect will be changing in a big way starting in January.
Performance with Bluetooth 3 and 4 accessories was exactly as expected. Bluetooth 3 accessories such as Bluetrek’s Carbon headset benefit primarily from rapid pairing, such that the iPad almost immediately knows that they’re disconnected and re-pairs with devices within a second or so of powering on. SuperTooth’s Disco 2, a Bluetooth 4 speaker, sometimes re-pairs so quickly that the sound hasn’t even finished playing its power-on chime.
While Bluetooth 2 accessories take a little longer to pair, they continue to make rapid connections with the fourth-generation iPad for audio streaming, and as was the case before, the iPad remains a champ for broadcasting distance, often enabling devices rated for 33-foot performance to work at 60-foot distances thanks to the strength of its wireless signal. Bluetooth remains a reliable tool for streaming data and audio to and from the latest iPads—quicker and more versatile than Apple’s competing AirPlay standard, and with more reasonably priced accessories.
Lightning. From an accessory standpoint, the most significant change to the fourth-generation iPad is the replacement of its Dock Connector with a Lightning port—a change that doesn’t seem necessary right now for any reason, other than to generate demand for additional Lightning accessories. Because of this change, you’ll need to buy a $29-$39 Lightning to 30-Pin Adapter from Apple to use past Dock Connector accessories such as docking speakers, the iPad Camera Connection Kit, or high-end car audio accessories; video accessories won’t work, and anything with a native Lightning connector built in will require a brand new purchase, typically at a higher price than before.
Although Apple has not as yet enabled developers to build their own Lightning accessories, the company is selling its own options, including $49 VGA and Digital AV/HDMI Adapters, $29-$39 Lightning to Dock Connector Adapters, $19 Lightning to USB Cables and Micro USB Adapters, and two separate $29 camera accessories—an SD Card Reader and a USB Camera Adapter—that were previously sold in a single $29 package. Most of the other accessories sell at $10 to $20 premiums over their prior versions, as well. We would call the generally outrageous prices of these accessories the single biggest reason to consider passing on the fourth-generation iPad; unless you really need the A6X chip’s extra horsepower or the improved front camera for some reason, you’ll save money buying the last iPad at a discount, and sticking to its comparatively huge ecosystem of less expensive accessories.
One area in which Lightning could conceivably beat out the older Dock Connector standard would be in transfer speeds, but thus far, the evidence hasn’t suggested that the Lightning connector is actually responsible for major speed improvements. Tests with iTunes 10.7 showed transfer speeds to be roughly neck-and-neck: in a direct comparison, it took 46 seconds plus a 6 second “preparing to update” pause for iTunes to transfer 1GB of media content to the fourth iPad, versus 52 seconds of total time to transfer the same content to the third iPad.
Moreover, we were initially excited to see the fourth iPad tear through a photo import task with the recently introduced Lightning to SD Card Camera Reader, transferring 188MB with 100 photos in an impressive 33 seconds—exactly one-third the time the same photos took to transfer to the third-generation iPad with the iPad Camera Connection Kit’s SD Card Reader. Then we repeated the same iPad Camera Connection Kit test on the fourth iPad using a Lightning to 30-Pin Adapter, and the speed was 32 seconds. The difference wasn’t Lightning, but rather a quiet throughput improvement in the iPad itself; the same Lightning to SD Card Camera Reader notably took around twice as long to transfer the same set of photos to the iPad mini.
It’s also worth noting that the transition to Lightning has, at least for now, eliminated one of Apple’s classic accessories: the iPad Dock. Apple released a dock for the iPad, then a sequel for the iPad 2 that also fit the third-generation iPad. No updated version has been released for the fourth-generation iPad, and Apple suggested that none was forthcoming for the iPhone, due to a lack of user interest. In general, it’s fair to suggest that docking accessories already weren’t as popular for the iPad as they were for Apple’s earlier devices, and that the decline of wired solutions will only continue as wireless syncing, audio, and video continue to become more mainstream—particularly if Lightning docking accessories remain overpriced.
Battery Accessories. Due to the third- and fourth-generation iPads’ tremendous increase in battery capacity relative to the iPad and iPad 2, battery packs that were previously capable of recharging the first- and second-generation models either to a 50% or 100% level will generally refuel only half as much of the Retina iPads’ power. As just one example, Just Mobile’s 2.1-Amp, 5,200mAh version of Gum Plus offers a roughly 50% recharge for the iPad 2, but in our testing, the same accessory only refueled 25% of the third-generation iPad’s battery before running out, while requiring roughly the same amount of time. The fourth-generation iPad requires roughly the same amount of power to recharge as its predecessor, but as discussed on the next page of this review, refueled a little faster.
Apple TV and Third-Party AirPlay Accessories. The second- and third-generation Apple TV are impressive wireless receivers for music, photos, and videos streamed from iPads and other iOS devices. In our testing, Apple-mastered videos streamed to Apple TVs without issues, regardless of whether they were 1080p streaming to the third-generation Apple TV, 720p streaming to the second-generation Apple TV, or the converses; the third-generation iPad even delivers a respectable 720p stream of 1080p videos that can be watched on a second-generation Apple TV.
We noted back in March that we’d noticed major frame rate problems when using the third-generation iPad to play Real Racing 2 HD over AirPlay using the Apple TV—specifically a degraded video signal with obvious macroblocking at the center of the screen. In testing the fourth-generation iPad, we continued to see similar issues. Despite smoother on-iPad graphics in titles such as Infinity Blade II, the same game can stutter and become nearly unplayable when streaming wirelessly in realtime to a television. For whatever reason, this problem appears to be worse on the fourth iPad than the third iPad, which as of now isn’t totally smooth, but is still playable. What was once fast becoming a major asset of Apple’s devices for gamers is in danger of losing all of its steam if Apple TV AirPlay Mirroring isn’t fixed soon. Thankfully, Mirroring works well enough for non-gaming apps, and also continues to deliver acceptable if not pristine results when streaming movies and TV shows from the iPad to a television. An overhaul of AirPlay Mirroring with proper support for high-definition videos would really be welcome.
Cases and Screen Film. Cases that fit the third-generation iPad will fit the fourth-generation model perfectly, doing nothing worse than leaving a larger hole around the new Lightning port on the bottom. Since many cases designed for the iPad 2 also fit the third-generation model, there’s a huge collection of different options to consider—hundreds of them are shown in our iPad Accessory Gallery. Apple’s iPad Smart Cover, introduced with the iPad 2, continues to work for both Retina-equipped iPads as well.
Since screen film can reduce the appearance of smudges and glare on the tablet’s front glass, past iPads benefitted tremendously from anti-glare films made by a handful of Japanese and Korean companies. Unfortunately, seven months after the third-generation iPad debuted, these companies have not been able to come up with an ideal anti-glare solution for Retina iPads, as the diffusing films blur or diffract light in a manner that causes a sparkly, rainbow-like “prismatic” effect when placed on the iPads’ screens. For the time being, companies such as Spigen SGP are releasing good if not perfect alternatives in the form of glare-reducing micro-lens film, and glossy films that protect the screen against scratches but generally don’t reduce glare or fingerprint smudges. We continue to hope that a developer comes up with a better solution, and soon.