Review: Apple iPad (Third-Generation) With Wi-Fi / Wi-Fi + 4G (16GB/32GB/64GB)
Pros: Includes everything found in last year’s excellent iPad 2, plus more: a dramatically superior, groundbreaking 2048x1536 screen, faster graphics processor, much improved 5-Megapixel rear camera, and reasonably good voice dictation. Screen and rear camera offer particularly pronounced upgrades from prior models, enabling iPad to perform full-resolution HDTV content, record full HD 1080p videos, and snap cleaner, more detailed still photos. Runs virtually all prior iPad applications without hiccups, and updated versions with much-improved detail and richer colors; graphics can now look photorealistic, roughly equivalent to printed paper. Finally adds ability to display iPhone/iPod touch Retina apps at full resolution, missing from prior models. New “4G” versions are capable of dramatically faster cellular speeds when on LTE, in some cases outperforming conventional wired broadband connections. Improved headphone port audio. Still available in two colors, with familiar design that’s substantially compatible with iPad 2 cases and accessories, and similar (though not identical) battery longevity.
Cons: Power-hungry new screen and graphics processor require 70% larger battery pack to maintain prior run times, resulting in dramatically longer recharging - roughly 6.5 hours versus prior iPad’s 3.5 hours - when using iPad-certified chargers, and leading to warmth on part of the rear aluminum casing during normal use; like original iPad, additional seasonal heat may lead to overheating-related device shutdowns. Fails to include new, faster wall charger to accommodate larger battery; most computer USB ports won’t recharge tablet when in use. Availability of LTE networks remains spotty, leading to extremely uneven, sometimes halting cellular performance from neighborhood to neighborhood when transitioning from LTE to older networks, and users without LTE will see small speed benefits at best. Front camera remains low-resolution. Voice dictation is less accurate than on iPhone 4S, varying with ambient noise levels. Apart from superior resolution, user interface looks identical to prior models. Storage capacities remain unchanged despite greater demands of high-resolution apps and videos.
Apple’s first two iPads were barnstormers. Prior to its actual release, the original iPad (iLounge Ratings: A- (Wi-Fi) / B+ (3G)) was dismissed by many critics as pointless, mocked for—remember this?—its name, and questioned by Apple’s competitors because of its sparing approach to connector ports. Yet by the time the iPad 2 (iLounge Rating: A-/B+/B) was released, the first version was already so popular that rivals were lining up to clone it, which Apple anticipated by streamlining the sequel’s body, radically improving its performance, and adding twin cameras. These changes led to another surge in sales, and left only a few obvious things unaddressed: the 1024x768 screen, which looked good rather than cutting-edge, the cameras, which were pretty poor, and the weight, which while lighter than the original’s was still too heavy to hand-hold for extended periods. Apple had released two genuinely great devices in a row, but as always, there was room for improvement.
There’s a familiar story to tell about the third-generation iPad ($499-$829), which Apple alternately calls “iPad” or “the new iPad” rather than “iPad 3.” It looks and feels largely the same as its predecessors, taking several steps forward in certain areas while falling a couple steps back in others. As was the case with the iPhone 4 to 4S transition, the new iPad’s chassis appears indistinguishable from the iPad 2’s unless you line them up and closely inspect their backs and camera holes. Only then might you notice that the third iPad is a hint thicker than its predecessor, and equipped with a slightly larger rear glass lens than before. The front white- or black-painted glass looks exactly the same, as do the ports, buttons, and holes for speaker and microphone components; you’d be hard-pressed to tell them apart until you turned them on.
But at that point, the differences start to become clear—in large part because of the new iPad’s screen. Deemed a “Retina display” by Apple, the 9.7” screen has a resolution of 2048x1536, or 264 pixels per inch: so many tiny colored dots that, unlike the first two iPads, they cannot be individually distinguished at typical or even unrealistically close viewing distances by the human eye. Apple uses the term “2x” for the resolution change, but there are actually four times the dots in the new screen, and the difference is stark: photographs and text on old iPads looked obviously digital, but now, they look almost as clear as printed versions on paper. Videos look as detailed on the third iPad as they do on huge high-definition TVs, but the tablet can be carried in a backpack, watched from your lap, and placed on any nightstand—or all three, whenever you desire. Apple also added a faster graphics processor and more RAM to offset the resolution jumps, as well as optional 4G LTE cellular chips in freshly-anointed “iPad with Wi-Fi + 4G” models.
Unlike the iPad 2, which jumped beyond its predecessor in power and features while shrinking, the new iPad arrives with noteworthy consequences. In past designs, Apple ruthlessly fixated on shrinking prior designs while eking out modest performance gains—“lighter and thinner” became a tradition for next-generation Apple products. The third-generation iPad breaks that tradition. It’s an admittedly trivial 0.6mm thicker, and also a tenth of a pound heavier, packed with a 70% larger battery that takes nearly twice as long to recharge. While some have blamed 4G LTE cellular chips for the added power drain, our testing suggests that the new screen and graphics processor are actually more responsible, the latter making one side of the iPad warm to the touch during regular use. Due to the power drain, accessories that used to easily refuel the iPad in a car now struggle to do so, and more users will notice that the iPad loses power when connected to their computers’ USB ports. Additionally, despite the larger file sizes of videos, photos, and apps optimized for the new display, the third-generation iPads’ storage capacity remains unchanged from prior models at 16, 32, and 64GB. These are issues that Apple unquestionably will attempt to address in next year’s update.
As is always the case, iLounge’s full review of the third-generation iPad was produced independently from Apple, as we do not participate in the company’s pre-release review program. We purchased seven new final production iPads for testing, including three with Wi-Fi and four with Wi-Fi + 4G; two were built for AT&T’s LTE network, one for Verizon’s, and the last for Canadian LTE networks. Due to the substantial similarities between the new iPad and its predecessor, we’ve opted to focus substantially on their differences, with limited recaps of well-established and otherwise unchanged features. In short, the new iPad is—like its predecessors—an exceptionally capable, market-leading product that has no true peer, and few reasons besides the inevitable release of an improved sequel to hold off on a purchase. However, Apple’s latest design is again saddled with small issues that are as obviously in need of being addressed as the ones we noted in last year’s model. The only question is whether they’re important enough to you to wait another year—maybe more, maybe less—for the company to address them.