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.
Rating the fourth-generation iPad presents a challenge that has come up several times before with new Apple products: how strong of a recommendation can we offer for a product that is substantially the same as its predecessor, improving in some ways while taking steps back in others? And there’s a new challenge: how strongly should we recommend the fourth-generation iPad given its predecessor’s unusually short life span? Should these factors be completely ignored, treating the fourth-generation iPad as if it was a wholly new product in a vacuum, or should they be taken heavily into account, serving as warnings to consumers that the times are a-changing at Apple? Our answer: give the new iPad a fair shake as a standalone product, but take the changing tablet market into account, as well.
Those who will be most inclined to love the fourth-generation iPad are first-time iPad customers and people seeking a more powerful upgrade from the original iPad or iPad 2. For these users, the latest iPad contains such substantial upgrades in most regards—screen quality, speed, both cameras, and wireless functionality—that its three key issues, namely battery life, recharging time, and the pricey consequences of the new Lightning port—will seem comparatively trivial. Had the fourth-generation iPad been released seven months ago, it might have been perceived as so polished and improved in most regards that it would have merited a flat A; with the exception of adding storage capacity, reducing its weight, and getting the A6X chip to run a little cooler, there wouldn’t have been a lot else to ask for.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, Apple released the third-generation iPad, which as we said seven months ago “has the feel of a product that was rushed out of Apple’s labs to meet an annual production deadline, albeit with enough advanced technology inside to explain if not justify that decision.” The last iPad already brought most of this model’s marquee features to an eager group of early adopters—loyal fans who in some cases now feel justifiably burned by their investments in a rapidly discontinued model. With the fourth-generation iPad, Apple didn’t just interrupt its standard one-year upgrade interval with a sequel; it did so with a product equivalent to the “enhanced fifth-generation iPod” or “third-generation iPod touch,” all but forgotten models that showed up at the same price points as their predecessors, with little more than processor upgrades to differentiate them. That said, the new iPad is for the time being Apple’s flagship iOS product, so developers will begin to optimize their games for the more powerful A6X rather than the A5X. Third-gen iPad users can content themselves with the large array of Dock Connector accessories that are already in the marketplace (and likely headed for their own discounts), as well as Bluetooth and AirPlay wireless options that will continue to be developed and viable for the foreseeable future.
Despite the fact that the third-generation model merited an A- seven months ago, and the new version is more powerful, there’s little question at this point that the iPad is no longer the only worthwhile tablet on the market. Put aside the less expensive Android-based tablets that are not going away or staying as mediocre as last year’s entries, despite Apple’s suggestions of “failure” to the contrary—at this point, the new iPad mini delivers such a compelling experience for old and new users that the full-sized iPad needs a serious rethinking. While the iPad mini lacks for the iPad’s Retina resolution, and its battery life in some situations will fall shorter, it is a remarkably competent and arguably more convenient option for many people: 10 hours of run time for key tasks, with the ability to fully recharge in less than 3 hours if needed, and compatibility with virtually every iPad application out there. It took rival $199-$249 tablets with high-resolution screens and their own market appeal to make people ask whether larger, heavier tablets were really necessary, and a significant fraction of the population will skew towards them and the iPad mini. We strongly suspect that Apple understands this, and is using the fourth-generation iPad as the last hurrah for the old enclosure, battery, and “big processor” as we’ve known them; a lighter but at least equally powerful fifth-generation model carrying on similar design language from the mini and iPod touch seems inevitable.
All of this is to say that the fourth-generation iPad doesn’t strike us as a must-buy tablet right now; in fact, it feels like the last gasp for a design Apple knows that it needs to reinvent thoroughly next year. It is undeniably a faster device than its recent predecessor, and apart from the still underwhelming battery performance and as-yet-unnecessary Lightning connector, it would be easy to recommend more highly in a world without the iPad mini. But if we were shopping this holiday season, we’d be more likely to grab iPad minis, instead. Smaller, lighter designs are the iPad’s future, and although the fourth-generation iPad is the shiniest and most expensive new thing Apple’s offering, the iPad mini points in the direction the company and industry should take going forward.