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.
Historically, Apple’s new iPads, iPhones, and iPods have achieved their “impossibly thin” profiles via a straightforward though certainly not simple trick: radical power efficiency. Rivals often select more powerful, uncustomized processors, then bundle them with underoptimized operating systems and apps, hoping that faster hardware will make up for more sluggish software. Apple’s approach has been completely different: it starts by selecting promising chips with low power consumption relative to their capabilities, customizes them to strip out unnecessary features, and then bundles them with software that’s heavily optimized. Sometimes, it optimizes the software further, squeezing even better performance out after the initial release. Time after time, Apple supposedly loses nerdy “specs” wars on paper, but wins dramatically in user experiences, as its devices run excellent software fluidly and for a surprising number of hours given their atypically small sizes.
The third-generation iPad is a somewhat different story. Yes, the new model contains the same impressive, energy-sipping chips we’ve seen across prior iOS devices, and yes, they are every bit as powerful as before—actually moreso thanks to the new four-core graphics processor. But the new screen and graphics processor consume a lot of energy. Extra backlighting was needed to help the screen match the generally even brightness of its predecessors, and the new graphics processor increased the size of the A5X and energy it consumes. Adding LTE cellular support wasn’t easy, either, but carriers with high-speed LTE networks all but demanded that Apple support LTE in the new cellular-equipped iPads.
In the past, Apple might have waited to add these features until highly efficient components were both available and well-established, but the new iPad instead leaps forward and accepts the consequence: a 11,560mAh (42.5-watt-hour) battery that’s around 70% larger and higher in capacity than the 6,930mAh (25-watt-hour) batteries in the first and second iPads. If the new iPad hadn’t otherwise upped the specs from its predecessor, we might have expected 17-hour battery life using Wi-Fi and 15 continuous hours of cellular data usage, possibly more given efficiencies achieved in more recent parts. By the same token, if Apple hadn’t increased the size of the battery, the new iPad would have seen its run times cut in half relative to the iPad and iPad 2.
Instead, the third-generation iPad only matches its predecessors in 9-10-hour run times under common usage scenarios. Note that most of our battery tests focus on continuous usage of specific features, so as to determine what eats the most power; we’ve run similar tests for years to provide some comparability between results.
For example, we achieved 10 hours and 6 minutes of continuous Wi-Fi web browsing with once-per-minute large page-flipping, using the screen at 50% brightness. This is ahead of Apple’s promised 10 hours, but slightly behind the original iPad’s 10 hour, 21-minute run time on the same test, and further behind the iPad 2’s actual 11 hours and 33 minutes with Wi-Fi.
Cellular. The Verizon iPad with Wi-Fi + 4G ran for 9 hours and 8 minutes of continuous cellular web browsing over 3G, actually achieving superior performance when using LTE—only 10% battery loss per hour with the same test web pages. By comparison, the AT&T iPad with Wi-Fi + 4G ran for 9 hours and 21 minutes of cellular “4G” web browsing, and though we were not able to test its LTE run time because we’re not anywhere near an AT&T LTE market, we did a test of a Canadian LTE iPad on Bell’s Canadian LTE network, and saw only a 7% battery loss over an hour’s time. The lower battery drain over LTE is possibly because the cellular chip loads web pages so much faster and spends more time idle.
We also conducted one standby battery test, noting that—like prior iPads—the cellular iPads continue to drain standby power at a faster rate than Wi-Fi-only models, at least when the cellular antenna is on. It took 20 hours and 19 minutes for an AT&T iPad to lose 10% of its battery life when sitting otherwise unused, which is to say that turning off the cellular antenna remains a good idea when you’re not actively using it; what is otherwise a month or so of standby time becomes closer to a week.
Video. Last year, the iPad 2 achieved an awesome 13 hours and 42 minutes of continuous video playback in our testing, with screen brightness and speaker volume both set at 50%. This year, the new iPad played videos for 12 hours and 56 minutes with Wi-Fi on, and a similar 13 hours and 26 with Wi-Fi off. While both numbers are still well above Apple’s 10-hour promise, and most likely due to limited background processes needed while video is playing back, it’s surprising—and telling—that the new iPad doesn’t eclipse last year’s model, even when it’s playing the same videos. Clearly, additional screen backlighting accounts for quite a bit of the iPad’s battery drain.
By comparison, video recording drains the battery at a rate of 13-14% per hour, for a run time of 7 hours and 24 minutes. This is the same as what we saw with last year’s iPad 2, though the current model creates 1080p videos that offer more detail and consume far more space. FaceTime video calling drained a full battery in 7 hours and 55 minutes, a small improvement over the iPad 2’s performance last year.
Gaming and Mixed-Use Testing. Our gaming test is now apparently the most demanding. We were able to run the Retina-enhanced version of Infinity Blade II for only 6 hours and 42 minutes at 50% brightness, a nearly two-hour drop relative to the iPad 2-optimized version of Infinity Blade we tested last year. This is a bigger gap than we’d expected, and will vary from title to title, but we’d attribute it to the energy requirements of the new four-core graphics processor.
During our unstructured, mixed-use testing of one iPad, which was typically at 50% brightness and 50% speaker volume while connected to Wi-Fi, but occasionally turned up in screen brightness for photo editing, we saw a fairly stable 10% per hour drain of the battery, for roughly 10 hours of run time.
Battery Charging: The New iPad’s Achilles Heel
As similar as these numbers may look between the iPad 2 and third-generation iPad, the new model has three very serious charging problems that have never saddled Apple’s tablets in the past. First, the new iPad now takes upwards of 6 hours to fully recharge—sometimes 6 hours and 30 minutes—versus the iPad 2’s 3.5 hours. Under the best circumstances, recharging an otherwise unused iPad in Airplane Mode, we were able to reach full power in 6 hours and 3 minutes, but most people won’t turn on Airplane Mode just for recharging. This is incredibly long by the standards of any iOS device, and not only stretched out all of our battery testing, but will require many users to drop their iPads on chargers overnight. After 3.5 hours of 2.1-Amp, full-speed recharging with the included wall adapter, our third-generation iPads had only regained 55% of their power; abandon all hope of quickly charging the new iPad from an old iPhone charger—expect 13 hours—and older iPod chargers will be even worse, if they deliver any charge at all.
Second, car accessories that allowed prior iPads to refuel even while operating as GPS devices now struggle to keep the device topped off under certain conditions. With the screen at 50% brightness, the new iPad recharges very slowly while being used with turn-by-turn navigation apps, but at 100% brightness, the iPad appears to be only maintaining its current charge level.
Third, users of anything other than the latest Apple computers may notice that the new iPad actually loses power during wired synchronization. One of iLounge’s contributors noted that the USB ports on his mid-2010 iMac supply only half-speed power to an iPad—improved on the 2011 iMac and other Mac models—which meant that his battery actually lost power during the initial iTunes synchronization process. While it’s now possible to wirelessly synchronize iPads with iTunes or iCloud, relying instead upon full-speed wall chargers and iPad-specific docking speakers, there’s no question that the new iPad does worse charging from most USB ports than its predecessors. That said, we did note that it’s dramatically faster in multi-file USB synchronization than before: around 44 seconds per 1GB of media files, down from 1 minute and 42 seconds for the iPad 2, so you mightn’t spend as much time adding content to it.
Just A Warm-Up
There’s one last power-related issue: the new iPad actually becomes physically warm in the bottom left corner while in normal use. While some have suggested that this was due to hot LTE chips, all of our third-generation iPads—even Wi-Fi-only ones—heat up in the same place, and become even warmer when the graphics chip is really being pushed. During our testing, use of 3G or 4G networks did not appear to affect heat in any obvious way; the issue appears to be the iPad’s A5X processor.
The only positive thing we can say about this is that it doesn’t appear to be a show-stopper at this point: while the original iPad was occasionally stopped in its tracks by overheating warnings during summertime heat, the new version continued to work just fine even when it was running warm. And the level of warmth isn’t so much off-putting as unwanted; the cooler iPad and iPad 2 set a standard that the new iPad should match. While we’d love to think that there’s a software fix for this, our guess is that it will remain an issue until Apple releases new iPad hardware.