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.
Not surprisingly, hardware is only half of the story with the new iPad: Apple has updated the entire iOS operating system and each of the past iPad apps with Retina-quality artwork and fonts. When it’s first turned on, the third-generation iPad’s Apple logo, setup screens, Lock Screen, Home Screen, and icons all look virtually identical to the iPad 2’s, except that they’re all rendered with so much detail that you can’t see pixels—even if you hold the new iPad several inches away from your eyes. By default, Apple uses a bluish-purple placid lake background, which truly looks photorealistic behind the somewhat cartoony icons and UI elements, and all of the other backgrounds available to older iPads running iOS 5 have been upgraded to high-resolution versions.
Taken as a whole, and considered in light of prior iPhone 4 and iPod touch resolution jumps, the effect isn’t so much “stunning” as something between “inevitable” and “impressive.” iOS 5.1 doesn’t look different or incredible running on the new iPad—it just looks better. And while there’s obviously precedent for Apple to announce a major iOS software update only shortly after releasing an iPad, its UI changes are very rarely profound. The simple fact that the company took the time to redraw all of the old icons and UI elements, then featured them on the new box, suggests that new iPad users can expect few major interface changes for the next year.
Most of the new iPad’s integrated apps—Messages, Calendar, Notes, FaceTime, YouTube, Reminders, Contacts, Game Center, the iTunes Store, App Store, Photo Booth, Mail, Photos, and Music—look nearly identical to their predecessors, though details such as the stitching on the edges of Notes’ landscape folio are even sharper, while leather and book page accents in other apps similarly look more realistic. Text is uniformly more readable, and the vision-assisting Accessibility feature now displays considerably more detail when you zoom in on anything within the iOS interface, since it’s working with four times the pixels in source material.
Several of the apps, including Maps, Videos, and Camera, now display noticeably higher-resolution images and photographs than before, at least under certain conditions.
At virtually any level of magnification other than the maximum stage of zoom, Maps packs considerably more detail onto the screen with only a small loading time penalty as a consequence of its added tile complexity. When you reach the maximum zoom level, the same images look crisper and more pixelated on the new iPad than the iPad 2, solely because the screen is displaying the same images with superior sharpness. Street View images also display more detail in the same way, zooming in subject to the same limitations.
The Videos app now synchronizes, streams, and displays 1080p videos in H.264 format, which do look considerably more detailed than the prior iPad’s renditions of 720p and lower-resolution H.264/MPEG-4 videos. Even when the new iPad is in portrait orientation, videos look sharper than they did in landscape mode on the original iPad and iPad 2. Large black bars persist on the top and bottom of the screen, however, as Apple’s 4:3 aspect ratio was discarded by most TV shows years ago and movies decades ago; the black bars cover more of the screen than movies playing in portrait mode.
The only small hitch with the new iPad’s ability to perform 1080p content is Apple’s unusual reluctance to properly advertise the presence of 1080p videos in the iTunes Store. Perhaps because there is comparatively little 1080p content available, the company does not yet have a “full HD” section of the Store, and the only way to know that a video you’re renting or purchasing is in 1080p is to hunt for tiny “1080p HD” text on each individual listing page, as shown above. As we discussed in our review of the similarly impacted third-generation Apple TV, this approach leads to confusion for consumers, and should be remedied with larger and more easily searchable 1080p labeling.
Camera now offers noise-accurate previews of the 5-Megapixel (2592 x 1936) pictures snapped by the rear camera, which sports a f/2.4 aperture and 35mm-equivalent focal length, as well as either full-screen or roughly full-resolution previews of the 2-Megapixel (1920x1080) videos the rear camera records. It continues to display heavily upscaled video from the 640x480 front camera, now with even more obvious noise than before, due in equal parts to the new screen, and iOS software that attempts to brighten previously dark imagery. We discuss the cameras further in a separate section of this review.
Safari is another beneficiary of the iPad’s new display. Now with 2048 by 1536 pixels to play with—way more than the typical web browser window—the iPad in portrait mode makes previously tiny text detailed enough to be readable, while both orientations benefit from displaying higher-definition images if the web site is capable of serving them. If not, graphics look as good as they did on earlier iPads, which is to say totally fine for almost everything.
High-resolution updates to third-party iOS applications are currently “in progress.” Dozens if not hundreds of major titles were updated just before the new iPad had even hit store shelves, suggesting that Apple seeded some developers with new units a little early rather than making them wait in lines.
Serving as inspiration were Apple’s own iOS titles, most notably iBooks and iPhoto, which function identically to their iPad 2 versions but look fantastic thanks to high-resolution text and photographs.
Two-page spreads in full-color books, magazines, and similar PDF files that were previously legibility-challenged on iPads now have so much additional resolution that they can be easily read without zooming in—assuming that your eyes are up to the task of reading small print. iBooks’ smallest font size was good for older iPads, but now doesn’t look small enough to take maximum advantage of the new iPad’s screen.
As of today, the vast majority of iPad apps lack the sort of high-resolution artwork that the new model can render. Consequently, as has repeatedly been the case with Apple’s new product releases, users should expect a one- to three-month lag before many of their favorite apps have been updated to fully support the new iPad, and quite possibly longer stretches before web sites start quadrupling the resolution of their graphics to make optimal use of the new display. Until that time, the new iPad will continue to display some apps, icons, and web pages with a mix of high-resolution text and obviously pixelated artwork, gradually switching over as developers decide to redraw graphics and offer additional photograph sizes for larger Retina screens.
While the first round of iPad Retina-ready app updates vary considerably in impressiveness, and most are presently little more than just raw resolution upgrades without improved polygonal models or textures, there are hints that the next generation of games will be truly remarkable. Some of the most impressive titles we’ve seen so far include:
EA/Firemint’s Real Racing 2 HD. While the core of this realistic racing game remains virtually identical to prior versions, Firemint has increased the detail so much that you can clearly make out gear shifters inside the cars you’re viewing from behind. Shadows visible on your car’s dashboard from an interior view still have rough edges, but move convincingly to simulate your position relative to the sun. Performance suffers noticeably over AirPlay, however, as the frame rate drops a lot and large video artifacts appear during sharp turns.
Epic Games’ Infinity Blade 2. Unveiled alongside the iPhone 4S, this Asian-tinted sequel to the widely acclaimed, Unreal Engine 3-based medieval fighting game looked great on the iPad 2, and now looks even better on the third-generation iPad. A pure resolution boost enables the already amazing backgrounds, characters, and blooming lights to look closer than ever to photorealistic, though menus and textures could benefit from additional improvements.
Gameloft’s Modern Combat 3: Fallen Nation. This engaging first-person shooter’s polygonal models and textures looked great on the iPad 2, and now run in high-resolution, making the realistic depictions of besieged cities, military vehicles, and smooth-edged people even more believable. Modern Combat 3 now feels like a Mac game, minus some bleeding-edge special effects, but including visual tricks that debuted a generation or so ago on consoles.
Illusion Labs’ Touchgrind BMX. While this BMX bike simulation game has looked great on every Apple device, it becomes nearly photorealistic when viewed at higher resolution on the new iPad’s screen; the developer’s models, lighting, and shadowing all work fantastically together here.
Less impressive titles such as Namco’s Sky Gamblers: Air Supremacy and Asphalt 6: Adrenaline still manage to look like PlayStation 2 games with superior shading and blurring effects. And numerous third-party applications that have been rushed to offer Retina Display compatibility have generally done little more than update their fonts and bitmapped artwork to look clean on the new screen.
Twitter and Reeder are just a couple of the apps that have been modestly improved, but benefit now from crisper text and superior-looking photographic elements whenever they’re loaded. Other apps, such as Another Monster at the End of This Book… Starring Grover & Elmo!, demonstrate how bitmapped artwork will need to be completely remastered for the new screen, and how much more detailed it looks once that’s been accomplished.
Though some of these changes seem minor, they do improve the apps, leaving as-yet-unfixed titles looking particularly rough around the edges. As just one example, Namco’s one-on-one fighting game SoulCalibur looked very good on the iPad 2, particularly after Namco updated it to bring the frame rate to an arcade-like 60 frames per second. But on the iPad 3, custom fonts and life bars that previously blended in with the artwork now have more obvious jagged edges that need to be smoothed out. It’s no small feat for developers to quadruple the resolution of key artwork after release, but given that rumors of a Retina-capable iPad have circulated for so long—and that a title as massive as Infinity Blade 2 was ready with updated graphics by the official launch day—it’s reasonable to expect that other developers will be able to bring big titles quickly to the new iPad.
It’s also worth noting that the new iPad finally does something that we’ve waited two years to see on its predecessors: it displays the Retina-optimized versions of iPhone and iPod touch applications, both in 1X mode and upscaled in 2X mode. While Apple really should have enabled past iPads to display the superior “2X” (960x640) iPhone/iPod Retina artwork, which would have looked very close to great on the last iPads’ 1024x768 screens, seeing the same graphics on the new iPad’s display is better than getting stuck with the upscaled 480x320 versions that have persisted for years. Only iPod/iPhone games that haven’t received Retina updates—such as Capcom’s Street Fighter IV Volt—continue to look really rough when upscaled.