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.
Only one change Apple made from the iPad to the iPad 2 was as infuriating as it should have been thrilling, and that was the addition of two surprisingly low-resolution cameras. The front was a 640x480 video-focused camera designed to be adequate for FaceTime, while the back had a remarkably poor 1280x720 camera that similarly was passable for FaceTime use but very little else. Regardless of whether taking pictures or making movies with a tablet seemed crazy to some people, the iPad 2’s snapshots and videos were both so grainy that they generally weren’t worth sharing. Apple’s release of “FaceTime HD” cameras for Mac computers and ever-improving rear iPhone cameras demonstrated that it could have done better with both of its iPad sensors, but chose not to, either for cost or other reasons.
Apple has taken a big step forward with the third-generation iPad’s rear camera. When we first saw the new iPad’s body in January, we noted that the glass lens on the back was the same size as the iPhone 4S’s, though we couldn’t write off the possibility that Apple would go with a lower-resolution sensor than the 8-Megapixel one in the 4S—the company seems predisposed to leaving the current iPhone as the king of the camera hill. We also noted that there was no LED flash, just as has been the case with camera-equipped iPod touches, iPod nanos, and the iPad 2.
So we weren’t surprised when Apple announced that the new iPad sports a 5-Megapixel sensor with similar but not identical features to the iPhone 4S camera: rear illumination, a tighter design, and bigger lens for improved low light performance and color rendition over the old model. As it turns out, it has just reused the same 5-Megapixel sensor found in the iPhone 4 while improving the software and lens elements.
Frankly, the iPad 2’s rear camera was so bad that anything would have been better, so it would have been easy for us to just say “improved” and move on to the next section of this review. But we wanted to make direct comparisons between the third-generation iPad and the iPhone 4, iPhone 4S, and iPad 2 to see just what this particular sensor and lens combination delivered.
In bright light, the iPhone 4, 4S, and new iPad cameras take extremely similar photographs, though colors look a little more artificially saturated on the iPhone 4 relative to the iPhone 4S and new iPad, and the iPhone 4S reduces grain-like noise beyond the levels of the other two, offering slightly better optical resolution.
Dim lighting yields more grain on both the iPhone 4 and new iPad than the iPhone 4S, which can use lower ISOs for cleaner images under the same conditions. The iPad 2’s images look like jagged messes by comparison with the others, with fewer colors, blotchy and seemingly overprocessed pixels, and far lower resolution.
Focusing is hugely improved on the third-generation iPad relative to its predecessor, which effectively had a fixed lens without autofocus or macro capabilities. Just like the iPhone 4 and 4S, the new iPad is capable of shooting images with dramatic depth of field blurring, and selectively sharpening something only inches away from the lens. The results were nearly as good on the new iPad as on the iPhone 4S, which tended to produce more accurate colors, but was equally capable of isolating nearby subjects. Our only issue was one that may not easily be solved without a redesign of the Camera application: holding the large iPad steady while trying to select a focus point isn’t as easy as with smaller cameras and phones. You can produce similarly impressive results, but you need to work harder to get them.
Another addition to the third-generation iPad’s rear camera is 1080p video recording—something missing from both the lower-resolution iPad 2 sensor and the otherwise extremely similar iPhone 4 sensor. The differences between the iPhone 4 and third-generation iPad’s rear video recordings are primarily in resolution: the iPhone 4 is limited to 720p output, or half the pixels the new iPad can record. Videos recorded by the iPhone 4S and new iPad differ more in medium to low light than in brighter conditions: outside, you can barely see noise, but inside in typical light, both cameras have a grain that distinguishes their sensors from the ones in good pocket cameras today.
Overall, the third-generation iPad’s rear camera offers small improvements in still quality and bigger video resolution boosts over the iPhone 4 rear camera, but huge improvements in both regards over what’s inside the iPad 2. While we’d call the third-generation iPad’s rear camera just good enough to be used for documenting events if you’re not carrying something better around, there’s definitely something to be said for the fact that you can now create and share highly usable content directly from an iPad without any other accessories. Additionally, third-party apps and Apple’s great $5 iOS versions of iMovie and iPhoto can be used to edit and improve this output without reliance on a computer.
While the rear camera has improved considerably on the new iPad, Apple has left the front camera virtually unchanged—a major bummer given that the new screen, graphics processor, and wireless chips are all capable of delivering 1280x720 FaceTime HD video at least as well as any MacBook Pro with the feature. The front camera hardware has been confirmed to be the same part used in the iPad 2; only the software has changed. Armed with its 1024x768 screen, the iPad 2 presented slightly blurry upscaled 640x480 FaceTime videos that were fine but clearly not pixel-perfect; this year, the same upscaled video looks worse on the sharper screen. As was the case before, Apple relies upon the fact that this camera is primarily used for moving objects, and offers apps such as Photo Booth that can massage the chunky pixels in fun ways. But it could have increased the resolution, and we really wish it had.