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.
After selecting AT&T as its exclusive American iPhone partner, Apple occasionally seemed to be chafing at the consequences: iPhone launches were clouded by cellular signup and eligibility problems, while audiences jeered Apple executives during product unveilings due to AT&T’s intransigence and network issues. Some of the same issues carried over to the 3G cellular version of the iPad, for which Apple promised both limited and unlimited data plans; AT&T waited only two months to kill its unlimited option, replacing it with a 2GB capped offering for nearly the same price. In addition to iPhone data speed inconsistencies and dropped call issues, AT&T dragged its feet when Apple added new features such as tethering and FaceTime video calling over 3G to its devices, rather than aggressively supporting them. So when Apple added Verizon as an iPhone and iPad partner, customers cheered—only to discover that Verizon’s larger 3G network was dramatically slower than AT&T’s almost everywhere their services overlapped. When the dust settled, Verizon only had an advantage in places where AT&T didn’t offer service, or was plagued by oversaturation of its network.
Finally, the tables have turned—sort of. After watching competitors add notoriously power-hungry but faster “4G LTE” (“Long-Term Evolution”) cellular networking chips to their devices, Apple has taken the same step for the third-generation iPad. Consequently, the new AT&T and Verizon “Wi-Fi + 4G” iPads promise 5X to 10X cellular speed improvements relative to their predecessors, with up to 73Mbps peak performance. However, Verizon’s LTE network is larger than AT&T’s, and the networks are incompatible, so Apple is still selling separate devices to cater to both companies’ customers. The AT&T version of the new iPad supports 700 and 2100MHz LTE networks, while the Verizon version supports 700MHz LTE and slower CDMA EV-DO Rev. A at 800 and 1900MHz. Canadian customers get what appears to be the same device and LTE support as the AT&T version, with compatibility across three different Canadian carriers (Bell, Rogers, and Telus).
Thanks to an advanced cellular antenna system—and Apple’s mandate that both versions allow users to swap micro-SIM cards to access international networks, rather than being stuck with AT&T or Verizon roaming charges—each of the new 4G iPads is capable of roaming on 3G UMTS, HSPA, HSPA+, DC-HSDPA, GSM, and EDGE networks if they can’t get LTE signals outside the United States. Verizon’s iPad falls back to its own CDMA EV-DO network in the U.S., and can be made to run on AT&T’s non-LTE networks with a proper micro-SIM card, though AT&T’s iPad will not run on Verizon’s CDMA EV-DO network, and has very little reason to do so. Buyers elsewhere in the world get the same LTE hardware as AT&T and Canadian customers, but are forced to rely upon whichever 3G networks their carriers support.
To put this alphabet soup in some perspective, we need to start with some harsh truth: in much—possibly most—of the United States, Apple’s devices don’t come close to their “theoretical maximum” speeds. LTE has a supposed top download speed of over 100Mbps, with Apple claiming up to 73Mbps—5 times what a typical wired broadband connection offers. Yet our tests of the AT&T iPad 2 last year achieved nowhere near the “theoretical maximum” speed of 7.2Mbps promised by AT&T’s HSPA network, achieving a miserly 2.2Mbps download speed, while the Verizon version also fell well below the 3.1Mbps cap of Verizon’s EV-DO, managing an even worse 0.9Mbps for downloads. Speeds vary from area to area, and Apple customers in Canada and certain major U.S. cities routinely see better performance than others, but as baselines go, last year’s iPad was said to be capable of 1/10th this year’s model’s peak cellular performance, yet neither model should be expected to actually hit those marks.
It should also be noted that our HSPA+-capable iPhone 4S now generally ekes out only 3.8Mbps download speeds, peaking at around 6Mbps at full strength in Western New York despite a “theoretical” peak of 21Mbps. These speeds are what we expected the third-generation AT&T iPad to fall back to in the absence of LTE service. In short, our iOS cellular connections have been at best less than half as fast and more commonly a third or less the speed of common 10-13Mbps Wi-Fi connections, falling well below their “theoretical” promise. Our editor in Toronto, Canada has achieved nearly Wi-Fi-rivaling iPhone 4S cellular speeds of 9-10Mbps, better than what we’ve seen elsewhere, but still nothing close to 21Mbps.
The third-generation iPad’s support for LTE will be a big deal for some users. LTE promises peak speeds of 73Mbps, and though we didn’t come anywhere close to that in our testing, we saw incredible jumps—between 15Mbps and 30Mbps downloads on Verizon’s LTE network in the United States, falling to 2-6Mbps in areas with fewer bars, with upload speeds ranging from 3-15Mbps. Download speeds ranged from 20-47Mbps on Bell’s LTE network in Canada, with upload speeds in the 27-28Mbps range; Rogers LTE service hit peaks of 60Mbps for downloads and 30Mbps for uploads, with averages of 50Mbps down and 25Mbps up. Put another way, if you’re able to access LTE, your cellular connection may be faster than basic or mid-range wired broadband.
[Updated April 11, 2012: Following publication of our review, we were table to test AT&T’s LTE service in Washington, D.C. Speeds varied considerably, delivering downloads ranging from 13.6Mbps to just over 50Mbps during our testing in 3- to 5-bar areas of the city, with uploads in the 13 to 20Mbps range. Within the city, we most commonly saw speeds in the 15Mbps down, 15Mbps up range. Notably, LTE coverage fell off very quickly as we exited Washington, disappearing by the time we traveled through Bethesda. We’ve added two screenshots and additional Canadian Rogers LTE test details to this piece.]
Once again, there are some big hitches: if you’re outside of a major metropolitan area, you probably can’t access a LTE network. And if you’re outside a major metropolitan area in the United States, you still may have only one LTE option: Verizon. Moreover, while Verizon’s LTE towers are growing in number, they just missed the neighborhood where we do most of our testing, forcing our Verizon iPad to fall back to CDMA. We noticed that LTE to CDMA signal drops were handled roughly by the new iPad, with data speeds sometimes dropping to nearly zero before picking up again 15 or 30 seconds later. And going from 30Mbps to 1Mbps based on coverage gaps is brutal—the only reason we would ever consider using AT&T’s non-LTE “4G” network, which was never as slow or as fast as Verizon’s 3G/LTE networks, even though you’re paying the same price for data services.
AT&T’s LTE service remains a question mark at this point. The company dragged its heels on installing LTE towers across the United States while Verizon undertook a major cross-country LTE expansion, today covering 200 cities versus AT&T’s mere 28. As was the case with 3G service, AT&T promises that its network will grow and be faster than Verizon’s, but for users across most of the U.S., the difference will again be purely theoretical: most of iLounge’s editors live outside of areas with AT&T LTE coverage, but inside cities with Verizon LTE. Verizon’s network currently has a higher chance of offering better speeds where you live and travel, but over time, that may change as AT&T grows and improves its 4G LTE network. Or it may not.
In our testing, AT&T’s non-LTE “4G” (HSPA+) speeds for the third-generation iPad were consistent with the iPhone 4S, ranging between 3.36Mbps to 7.97Mbps for downloads and 0.77Mbps to 2.34Mbps for uploads in our tests, most commonly resting in the 4.5Mbps download and 1.3Mbps upload zone. On the Bell network in Canada, our Canadian editor saw comparatively impressive speeds between 14-21Mbps for downloads and a similarly broad 1.75 to 6.43Mbps for uploads, most often in the 4Mbps range.
Verizon supports a new iPad feature that AT&T doesn’t: Personal Hotspot, which was once called “tethering.” This enables up to five other devices to share the iPad’s cellular connection using Wi-Fi for free, albeit with the heightened risk of quickly using up your limited cellular data plan. AT&T has not committed to offering the Personal Hotspot feature for iPads, and it doesn’t appear within the AT&T iPad’s settings. Canada’s Bell and Rogers will support it; Telus will likely do so, but hasn’t confirmed as much yet. We were able to achieve 10-27Mbps downloads and 8Mbps uploads using a MacBook Air on a Personal Hotspot, versus more consistent 18Mbps download and 10Mbps upload averages using a dedicated MiFi 4510L hotspot. Speeds will vary based on the number of connected devices sharing bandwidth, as well as other factors.
It’s somewhat of a relief that prices for contract-free 4G LTE service have remained similar to earlier 3G plans. Both AT&T and Verizon offer 250MB per month for $15, jumping to $30 for 2GB (Verizon) or 3GB (AT&T), with identical $50 pricing for 5GB of data. Verizon also has a 10GB plan for $80, and a 1GB plan for $20. By comparison, Canadian operators start at 10MB per month for $5 to $7, jump to either 100MB for $10 (Telus) or 250MB for $15 (Bell) or $17 (Rogers), then up to 500MB for $20 (Telus) or $22 (Rogers), then to 5GB for $35 (Bell/Telus) or $37 (Rogers). Each carrier charges overages for an additional GB of bandwidth.
As much as we would like to be able to announce that one 4G version of the iPad is a definitively smarter purchase than the other, the conclusion we reached after testing is more nuanced. The new Verizon iPad has a much higher probability of benefitting from actual LTE coverage in your city, and if it does, it can roar, delivering roughly five times the speeds of AT&T’s non-LTE HSPA+ network. If it doesn’t, however, Verizon’s 3G performance falls so short of AT&T’s speeds that we’d call the results intolerably slow; AT&T’s “4G” HSPA+ network has ironically become akin to Verizon’s 3G network, with a nationwide footprint and merely competent speeds. Only in the 28 cities where AT&T LTE exists can it claim to be faster than Verizon.
You’ll have to choose the 4G iPad version that’s right for you, but here’s how we’d make the decision. Start by determining which carriers, if any, offer LTE service in your area—and if relevant to your needs, in the cities where you travel most often. Assuming that you will most likely have Wi-Fi access at your home, school, and/or office, make your iPad choice based on the locations where you’ll most likely need the cellular access. Finally, if you’re in the United States, decide whether you’re okay with Verizon’s wide range of speeds, which start at around 1Mbps on fallback 3G networks and climb to 30Mbps under strong LTE conditions, or whether you prefer AT&T’s network, which is faster for 3G, but currently has a lower likelihood of offering LTE in major markets. In foreign markets, there’s only one 4G iPad choice, and speeds will vary based on market.