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.
Though pundits leveled all sorts of unjustified criticisms against the first two iPads, our reviews were strongly positive, noting that Apple had done a better job out of the gate with both models than it had with the earliest iPods and iPhones—the Wi-Fi versions both merited our rare high recommendations and A- ratings, while the GSM 3G versions received strong general recommendations and B+ ratings; only last year’s markedly slower Verizon iPad 2 rated a little lower. This year, the story is superficially much the same: we continue to believe that the new Wi-Fi iPad represents an excellent value for its asking price, and that the new 4G iPads remain just a little too expensive for the added functionality they deliver, though both models have improved enough in visual performance to stay well ahead of the tablet pack. The new screen has the ability to display fantastic-looking imagery, and the rear camera, voice dictation, and faster cellular speeds are all also welcome additions to the superb prior iPad formula. Thanks to the ever-growing library of good to great iOS applications, and the continued coats of polish Apple continues to add to iOS itself, there is no other tablet we could recommend for as many people and varied purposes as the iPad. There are more aggressively priced options and compelling alternate form factors, but nothing we’ve tested delivers a better overall experience than even the iPad 2, let alone the new model.
On the other hand, the third-generation iPad—for the first time in the tablet’s history—has the feel of a product that was rushed out of Apple’s labs to meet an annual production deadline, albeit with enough advanced technology inside to explain if not justify that decision. Between the impressive new screen and the faster A5X processor, this iPad consumes so much more energy than its predecessors that recharging has become unpleasantly drawn out, and one side of the device now runs warm to the touch. Fixes for these issues are inevitable and even foreseeable in the immediate future, but they will almost certainly require updated iPad hardware, unless Apple has some post-release software tweaks up its sleeve.
Similarly, though Apple’s approach to cellular functionality has always depended on the strengths and weaknesses of its wireless partners, it’s hard to feel completely thrilled by the new iPad’s LTE functionality. Thanks to AT&T and Verizon’s disjointed 3G/4G networks, American customers now have the choice between an AT&T “LTE” model that will in most places be no faster than the iPhone 4S, and a Verizon model that varies wildly in speed, swinging from amazing new highs to punishing lows. If you’re in a city—more precisely, a neighborhood—with reliable LTE coverage, you’ll be blown away by the wired broadband-beating speeds of LTE wireless, but if not, the new 4G iPads will be no better than their predecessors. This isn’t directly Apple’s fault, but the reality is inescapable: users in major U.S. and Canadian cities will have much better cellular experiences with the new iPad than those elsewhere in the world. As much as we love the new Wi-Fi iPads, our enthusiasm for the potentially wicked 4G versions is dimmed slightly by the real-world ambiguities in their performance; this is the only reason this year’s faster 4G models don’t rate the same high recommendation as the Wi-Fi-only versions.
Apple likely isn’t worried. As has been the case since the first versions debuted in 2010, the new iPads remain at least two if not three steps ahead of their rivals: regardless of their high power consumption, their peerless displays and faster chips have been offset by bigger batteries—all in an only trivially larger package—and it’s all but impossible that competitive products will meaningfully match or leapfrog these new models this year. Writers who have suggested that accelerated iPad purchasing is due to sheep-like customers are ignoring two truths, namely that tablets are beginning to replace laptop and desktop computers, and that the prospect of a new iPad is the only thing stopping some buyers from purchasing the current one.
To that end, we offer the following buying advice. If you’re a first-generation iPad owner or have been holding out on buying an iPad due to long-standing rumors, the third-generation iPad is a particularly worthwhile purchase. This new model’s size, weight, and performance are all improved over the original model—some modestly, some extremely dramatically—and charging time is the only net loss relative to a dozen or more gains. Though the storage capacity has remained the same, causing larger apps and videos to pinch smaller-capacity devices, there are still wide variations between user needs, and some people just do not require a lot of space to save content. We’d advise a 32GB or larger iPad for “power” users and 16GB or 32GB models for computer novices; if you want a 4G version, see our section on Cellular Performance Tests for more specific details on which 4G model to purchase.
iPad 2 owners will find the new version easier to skip, as there are no physical improvements to speak of besides screen quality; if that’s not enough of a draw, it’s unlikely that improved rear camera performance or the prospect of faster cellular speeds will be enough to justify pulling the trigger. But as with all Apple products these days, the lure of something only somewhat better is strong. iLounge’s editors all had iPad 2s, and almost all of us have upgraded to the new iPad, accepting its battery tradeoffs in exchange for its new capabilities. So yes, Apple may have pushed the third-generation model out the door a little before its time, but it will have no problem selling millions of the new tablets to exceedingly happy users. Including us.