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.
Historically, Apple’s new iPads, iPhones, and iPods have achieved their “impossibly thin” profiles via a straightforward though certainly not simple trick: radical power efficiency. Rivals often select more powerful, uncustomized processors, then bundle them with underoptimized operating systems and apps, hoping that faster hardware will make up for more sluggish software. Apple’s approach has been completely different: it starts by selecting promising chips with low power consumption relative to their capabilities, customizes them to strip out unnecessary features, and then bundles them with software that’s heavily optimized. Sometimes, it optimizes the software further, squeezing even better performance out after the initial release. Time after time, Apple supposedly loses nerdy “specs” wars on paper, but wins dramatically in user experiences, as its devices generally run excellent software fluidly and for a surprising number of hours given their atypically small sizes.
The third- and fourth-generation iPads are a somewhat different story. Each of the Retina models contains the sort of impressive, energy-sipping chips we’ve seen across prior iOS devices, and both are more powerful thanks to their new four-core graphics processors. Unfortunately, the new screen and graphics processors consume a lot of energy, a problem that led Apple to switch the third-gen iPad to a 11,560mAh (42.5-watt-hour) battery with around 70% more power than earlier iPads’ 6,930mAh (25-watt-hour) batteries, just to keep its promised “10 hour” run times nearly constant. Then, with the fourth-gen iPad, Apple felt compelled to keep pushing for additional performance rather than shrinking the A5X and reducing its power requirements, so it retains the oversized battery and related consequences.
As we noted back in March, the third-generation iPad matches rather than exceeds its predecessors, getting 9-10-hour run times under common usage scenarios. The fourth-generation iPad achieved similar run times to its predecessor, sometimes falling short, and at other times pulling ahead.
With the third-generation iPad, we achieved 10 hours and 6 minutes of continuous Wi-Fi web browsing with once-per-minute large page-flipping, using the screen at 50% brightness—just ahead of Apple’s 10-hour promise. The fourth-generation iPad fell modestly below Apple’s number, hitting 9 hours and 54 minutes on the same test.
Cellular. While we noted variations between LTE and 3G/4G battery drain rates with the third-generation iPad with Wi-Fi + Cellular—the third-generation Verizon iPad with Wi-Fi + 4G ran for 9 hours and 8 minutes of continuous cellular web browsing over 3G, actually achieving superior performance when using LTE—only 10% battery loss per hour with the same test web pages—and the third-generation AT&T iPad with Wi-Fi + 4G ran for 9 hours and 21 minutes of “4G” web browsing, the fourth-generation model ran for 10 hours and 5 minutes of LTE browsing with two bars of AT&T LTE signal. LTE enables the device to load pages considerably faster than 3G or 4G, which leaves the device idling longer, draining less power.
Video. The third-generation iPad played videos for 12 hours and 56 minutes with Wi-Fi on, and a similar 13 hours and 26 minutes with Wi-Fi off, both numbers well above Apple’s 10-hour promise. By comparison, the fourth-generation iPad ran for 13 hours and 52 minutes with Wi-Fi off, a welcome improvement.
FaceTime Calling. The fourth-generation iPad ran for 8 hours and 56 minutes of FaceTime calling, up a full hour from the third-generation model’s 7 hours and 55 minutes.
Gaming and Mixed-Use Testing. Our gaming test is the most demanding. We were able to run the Retina-enhanced version of Infinity Blade II for only 6 hours and 42 minutes at 50% brightness on the third-generation iPad, a nearly two-hour drop relative to the iPad 2-optimized version of Infinity Blade we tested in 2012. The fourth-generation iPad ran Infinity Blade II for 6 hours and 21 minutes, falling just a little short of the prior mark in the same way as the Wi-Fi browsing test we ran.
Although the raw web and video tests would suggest that the roughly “10 hour” estimate Apple promised was right on target or maybe a little conservative, many months of real-world mixed-use testing of the third-generation iPad demonstrated that it was just a little optimistic. Unlike the iPad and iPad 2, which seemed to keep running and running, we frequently found ourselves at the 40-50% marks on the third-generation iPad’s battery meter after only three or four hours of actual use following complete recharges, a problem exacerbated by the model’s long charging time. Our real-world testing of the fourth iPad is still ongoing, but we’re pretty certain that its run time will be in line with its predecessor, which is to say a little below the first two iPads—a trend that hopefully will not continue in the next model.
Battery Charging: An Issue, Partially Remedied
When we reviewed the third-generation iPad, we noted that Apple had effectively concealed the device’s unexpectedly extended recharging time; the original iPad models refueled in 3.5 to 4 hours with Apple’s 10W iPad chargers, but the first Retina display model instead took around 6.5 hours—an issue that Apple could have remedied with a more powerful charger, but didn’t. Thankfully, Apple has addressed the issue this time by actually bundling a more powerful 12W USB Power Adapter in the package, capable of 2.5-Amp output versus the 2.1-Amp output of its 2010-vintage predecessor. It turns out that the third iPad is compatible with the extra juice put out by the 12W Adapter, and refuels more quickly than before—shaving off an hour, down to 5 hours and 28 minutes. And the fourth iPad recharged in 5 hours and 6 minutes in our testing with a 12W Adapter, versus 5 hours and 41 minutes with the older 10W Adapter. This obviously isn’t as fast as the first two iPads, but it’s better than before.
The only issue is that the core problem—the huge, slow-charging battery required by the power-hungriness of the A5X and A6X chips—hasn’t gone away. Plug the fourth-gen iPad into any of the speakers, car chargers, or other “Made for iPad” 2.1-Amp accessories released since 2010 and you’ll find that it still takes around 6.5 hours to recharge fully; if you’re using the iPad while it’s recharging off the USB port of any computer other than a recent Mac, you may find that it can’t get enough USB power to keep up with whatever you’re doing. So while Apple deserves credit for at least tossing in a charger capable of more quickly refueling the latest iPad, 5-hour recharging times still aren’t great, and the need for new accessories just to achieve that time speaks to obvious re-engineering needs for the next full-sized iPad.
As we noted in our last review, the third-generation iPad can run roughly 10 degrees hotter than the iPad 2, a difference that was obvious but from our perspective not a show-stopper. Some people speculated last time that the heat was LTE-related, however, we traced it to the third iPad’s A5X processor—an issue that was particularly evident during intense 3-D gaming—and our suspicions were subsequently confirmed by thermal scans of the tablet.
We guessed that “it will remain an issue until Apple releases new iPad hardware,” and expected that Apple would actually fix it; instead, in response to numerous media and customer inquiries, the company put out a statement suggesting that the iPad was “operating well within our thermal specifications,” and proceeded to let the fourth-generation iPad run warm, as well. The heat continues to emanate from the bottom left corner, and is particularly apparent during gaming and other heavy uses of the A6X processor. Once again, this isn’t a life or death issue, and the latest iPad never becomes truly “hot” to the touch, but it’s certainly noticeable. We continue to hope that Apple will fix this in the next iPad hardware update.