Pros: An iterative improvement upon Apple’s first tablet computer, benefitting from modest size and weight reductions, two color options, as well as considerable under-the-hood improvements in speed. Still includes integrated apps for audio, video, and photo playback, web browsing, e-mailing, calendaring, mapping and more, plus a free downloadable book and PDF reading app, many improved at least a little over original 2010 versions; web browsing is markedly faster. In addition to running many of the original iPad’s nearly 75,000 applications at higher speeds than before, adds dual-core CPU and graphics processor capable of running dramatically more impressive games and apps. New FaceTime cameras enable video calling and simple photography/videography. Improves upon predecessor’s 10-hour battery life by adding 20-60 minutes of added juice under some situations. Improved video output capabilities, including screen mirroring and maximum 1080p output, when used with HDMI or VGA accessories. Now offered in separate GSM and CDMA 3G versions, accommodating Verizon and other CDMA customers.
Cons: New integrated cameras produce blurry, grainy images that are unacceptably weak for still photography and look poor when forced to fill the display; video recorded by the rear 720p camera is only acceptable. Modest reductions in headphone port audio and mic performance. Front glass continues to attract visible fingerprint smudges and suffer from glare issues, requiring film or a cover to improve usability outdoors and indoors. Still cannot run Retina Display iPhone/iPod touch apps at full resolution, and similarly downscales or crops HD videos to fit 1024×768 resolution, 4:3 display. Would benefit dramatically from combined GSM/CDMA 3G model; CDMA version exhibited slightly higher cellular battery drain and slower cellular data speeds, lacks SIM card slot, and offers fewer options for international travelers.
One year ago, pundits were split but surprisingly pessimistic regarding the prospects for the iPad (iLounge Ratings: A- (Wi-Fi) / B+ (3G)), Apple’s first tablet computer. Though the iPad possessed an intuitive multi-touch interface, unrivaled battery life, and an attractive design, some mocked its name, others declared it an oversized iPod touch, and many scoffed at the company’s claims that it was “magical and revolutionary at an unbelievable price”—adjectives that only Apple CEO Steve Jobs could combine in one phrase with a straight face. Yet he and those who saw the iPad’s potential were right: straight out of the gate, the iPad radically simplified computing for mainstream users, and instantly cut deeply into sales of similarly-priced PC netbooks. Over fifteen million iPads were sold in less than a year, forcing competitors to rush out inferior alternatives just to plant flags in the suddenly fertile tablet computer ground.
Behind the scenes, however, Apple faced a new challenge: following up on one of the most successful consumer product launches in history with something that would sustain the momentum. And quickly. So only eleven months later—faster than the company refreshed the original iPhone—Apple released the iPad 2 ($499-$829/16GB-64GB), a second-generation iPad that straddles the line between a true redesign of the original product and a more modest “spec bump,” akin to the ones annually performed for Mac computers. Just like the iPhone, iPod nano, and iPod touch before it, the iPad received a new enclosure for its second year on the market, complete with now-obligatory slimming curves and a modest decrease in weight. It also gains a few new features, including FaceTime cameras, speed-bumped chips, and a gyroscope. Finally, there are more options than before: three different wireless versions and two different colors for the same three original storage capacities. But almost everything else is the same, or at least, close enough that most users won’t notice.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Particularly after Apple upgraded its iOS software to version 4.2 last year, the original iPad got so much right that it wasn’t in need of huge improvements, and the new hardware added to iPad 2 addresses several issues that became apparent after the iPhone 4 and iPod touch 4G launches. While exciting, speculation that Apple would quadruple the resolution of its screen didn’t seem to be grounded in reality—at least, for now—though less ambitious but more practical improvements such as an integrated stand or redesigned, smudge-resistant face didn’t make the cut, either. Despite all the hype, iPad 2 is a modestly better revision of the first iPad, which like the iPhone 3G before it will be enough to keep the momentum going until a more dramatic redesign is ready.
Regardless, our staff purchased a total of seven iPad 2s for testing ahead of this comprehensive update to last year’s iPad hardware reviews. Since the core iPad experience has remained so similar from 2010 to 2011, our review of the iPad 2 focuses primarily on the differences between models, including performance differences between the Wi-Fi, GSM, and CDMA versions. You can still refer to our reviews of the original original iPad with Wi-Fi and iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G for additional details on prior applications, which remain largely the same in the new model. Enjoy.
[Editors’ Note: In light of its continued presence in the marketplace following the release of the fourth-generation iPad and iPad mini, iLounge re-rated the iPad 2 in our 2013 iPad + iPad mini Buyers’ Guide to reflect the balance between its lowered price and comparatively less impressive capabilities.]
Selecting an iPad 2: 18 Different Options
Last year, there were six versions of the iPad—one universal color scheme for 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB capacities, each offered in “Wi-Fi-only” and “Wi-Fi + 3G” variations, the latter at a $130 premium over the standard $499, $599, and $699 prices. They all had the same 9.7”, 1024×768 multi-touch screen, 10-hour maximum battery life, Bluetooth 2.1 for keyboard and audio accessories, and Wi-Fi with support for 802.11b, g, and n networks. The 3G version added chip and antenna hardware capable of optionally connecting to GSM cellular networks for data service on the road, at the cost of roughly one hour of battery life, and interrupted the top of the iPad’s silver aluminum rear shell with a black plastic antenna bar.
This year, there are separate black- and white-faced versions of the iPad 2, identical from behind, each in the same three 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB capacities. There are also now three different wireless options: Wi-Fi-only, Wi-Fi + 3G (GSM), or Wi-Fi + 3G (CDMA). The Wi-Fi-only version depends on a home, office, or hotspot wireless network for Internet access, while the Wi-Fi + GSM version also works on AT&T’s 3G network—or international equivalents—and the Wi-Fi + CDMA version instead is designed primarily for Verizon’s CDMA/EV-DO Rev. A 3G network in the United States. While the GSM iPad achieves higher peak cellular speeds and is more convenient for international travel, the Verizon version provides more consistent speeds in parts of the U.S. where AT&T’s service is weak, particularly in rural areas.
Few people expected that Apple, which is generally known for streamlining and simplifying product lines, would add so much to the complexity of selecting a model, particularly given that the company has recently started to use new 3G chips that can switch between GSM and CDMA as needed—assuming there are enough antennas in the device to handle both types of networks properly. Clearly, Apple couldn’t get the new antenna hardware ready in time for iPad 2’s launch, so it moved forward with what it could offer to all of its customers: separate versions. On the plus side, potential customers have a greater degree of choice than ever before, but on the other hand, the prospect of getting the “wrong” model—one that’s great at home but poor for travel or tougher to resell—has increased a little. The absence of a SIM card slot and GSM hardware in the Verizon CDMA iPad 2 means that you can’t just switch carriers at will when you travel overseas.
Three other factors may influence your purchasing decision. First, Apple and its cellular partners now enable iPhones to serve as “Personal Hotspots,” all but eliminating the need for separate iPad 3G data service if you have an iPhone. Personal Hotspot lets an iPhone share its cellular data plan with the iPad, providing it with up to 2GB of extra data per month, generally at an additional cost of $25. Many users will find this option viable, particularly since it saves $130 up front, and service can be turned on and off each month as needed. Using Personal Hotspot drains both devices’ batteries at the same time, but lets the iPad avoid the extra hour of battery drain demanded by integrated 3G hardware.
Second, both the GSM and CDMA versions of iPad 2 have one key piece of hardware that the Wi-Fi-only version lacks: GPS, for precise second-by-second location tracking. Using Personal Hotspot provides you with 3G cellular Internet service similar in speed, but leaves iPad 2 Wi-Fi users without the GSM and CDMA versions’ fast, generally accurate mapping hardware. If you’re planning to use the iPad 2 for live turn-by-turn guidance and maps, you’ll want one of the 3G versions, and if you plan to travel overseas, the GSM version has even more of an advantage.
Third, AT&T continues to be a remarkably messed up company; we have yet to go through an iPhone or iPad purchasing experience with AT&T without some problem establishing service, overbilling, or other similar issue. This time, one of the two GSM iPad 2 units we purchased for testing refused to activate properly on AT&T’s cellular network after we’d purchased service for it, a process that took several attempts because of problems reaching the company’s servers. When we went to call AT&T to resolve the issue—something that in the past has almost always required multiple phone calls, each 10-15 minutes in length—its telephone lines were closed, and the iPad 2 did not provide another option to get the issue resolved. After a second call, AT&T agreed to refund the service charge within 24-48 hours; a subsequent failure of the service to activate on the same device led to a third call and an explanation: the company had activated service for the wrong SIM card. Experiences like this are frustrating, and so common to AT&T that the company would be worth boycotting if it wasn’t the only iPad GSM provider in the country.
Based on the past 11 months of real-world iPad testing, as well as our tests of the Verizon iPhone 4 and all three versions of the iPad 2, our advice would be to pick the comparatively inexpensive Wi-Fi iPad 2 if you’re planning to use it primarily at home, an office, or at Wi-Fi-equipped businesses, especially if you already have an iPhone. Go with a 3G iPad 2 only if you need access to real-time GPS features or frequently travel outside the country, and the Verizon version solely if you often need cellular access and live in an area with poor AT&T coverage. Our separate ratings for the three iPad 2 versions reflect our belief that, for now, the Wi-Fi version is the most universally appealing version, followed by the GSM, and then the CDMA versions. It would be surprising to see separate GSM and CDMA variations for the next iPad, and our suspicion is that the CDMA iPad 2 will command lower resale prices than the GSM model. Take that risk if it meets your needs.
What’s New in iPad 2: The Packaging and Pack-ins
The iPad 2’s packaging has a lot in common with the original iPad’s. Once again, Apple ships the tablet inside a white cardboard box with a color image of the device on the front, alternating between dark gray “iPad” and silver foil Apple markings on its sides. This time, the front image is designed to show a wedge-like angled side profile of the black- or white-faced iPad 2 rather than a detailed look at its Home Screen. By using this angle, Apple obscures any view of the top 3G antennas and/or micro-SIM slots found on the more expensive iPads, enabling one box to suffice for all nine different iPad 2s of the same color.
Oddly, though the new boxes are a little narrower and visibly shallower than before, they make no reference to the “iPad 2” name, suggesting that Apple decided on it late in the process. The iPhone 3G, 3GS, and iPhone 4 all had the correct names on their boxes despite annual name changes, making this an unusual oversight for the typically detail-obsessed company. Even the customizing stickers on the backs of the otherwise white boxes refer to the devices as “iPad Wi-Fi,” “iPad Wi-Fi 3G,” or “iPad Wi-Fi 3G – Verizon” without any “iPad 2” branding. This slight naming confusion carries over to Apple’s “iPad Smart Cover” accessory, which is actually specific to the iPad 2 and will not work on the original iPad.
Regardless of which iPad 2 version you select, the contents of the box are nearly identical. The iPad 2 arrives wrapped in clear plastic on a plastic tray above a cardboard folio. Inside the folio is an ultra-brief explanatory card, a warranty booklet, two Apple logo stickers, and generally only two packed-in items: a USB to Dock Connector cable, and a 10W USB Power Adapter. U.S. versions of the GSM iPad 2 also include a micro-SIM card and SIM card tray that arrive pre-installed in the iPad 2’s upper left corner when viewed from the front, adding slightly to its weight.
A SIM card removal tool is included with the GSM iPad 2, looking different and cheaper than the one previously included with the prior 3G iPad and some iPhones—the new tool is thinner, and resembles a bent paperclip. It’s hard to remove the SIM tray without use of one of these tools; a colored paper clip we tried was too thick, and a stripped twist tie was too thin. Apple’s instruction card for the GSM iPad 2 is just a little different than for the other iPad 2 models, acknowledging the presence of the SIM tray, card, and tool, which are not found in the SIM-less Verizon iPad 2 or Wi-Fi only model.
As was the case with the original iPad, you’re still left to buy headphones, a stand, a case, and other accessories separately—no surprise at this point. Some prior Apple and third-party iPad accessories continue to work with the iPad 2; others do not. We discuss the notable ones in the Accessories section of this review, below.
What’s New in iPad 2: A Redesigned Body With Tweaks
Apple has left the key design elements of the new model—its fingerprint-attracting glass face and aluminum body—substantially the same. Like last year’s iPad, iPad 2 surrounds a 9.7” diagonal touchscreen with a roughly 0.7” border, which is slightly larger at the top and bottom than the sides. Apple has reduced the thickness of the metal bezel around the front glass, as well as the thickness of the glass itself, which help the unit look smaller, but may lead to a greater risk of chip and shatter damage if the iPad 2 is dropped. As before, an almost invisible ring of plastic surrounds the edge of the glass, serving as a thin buffer for the metal shell.
Unlike the single-colored original iPad, Apple offers the iPad 2 in white or black, a difference that solely impacts the painted border around the front screen and the color of the Home Button at its bottom; all of the other buttons and the plastic rear antenna cover on 3G models remain matte black. Industrial designers will note that this is a little unusual, as the company previously has tried to match all of its plastic elements to the same color as a white version’s face, even going so far as to color-match the linings of headphone and Dock Connector ports. That’s not the case here.
You can decide whether the white or black version is better suited to your personal tastes; they are the same product apart from the alternate front bezel. Most of our editors prefer the black version.
While we appreciated Apple’s decision to create a second iPad 2 color option, we found that the large and bright white front border didn’t blend as well with videos, particularly letterboxed ones, which now appear as white boxes with big black stripes above and below the video. On the other hand, the white border looks fine for most web pages and books, and for better or worse is easier to see in a dark room. It may appeal to users looking for something to match or complement bright decor.
Right above each screen is a front-facing camera and, on the white model, a tiny gray circle that lets the ambient light sensor peek through. At the bottom is a Home Button, which appears to be identical in size to last year’s version, but clicks more quietly, a positive change for sound-sensitive users and their significant others.
The iPad 2’s back has undergone more obvious changes, though from a distance, the old and new models look a lot alike: the Apple logo, iPad logo, capacity markings, and tiny text/certification markings remain intact on the rear shell, in roughly the same positions as before. While the Apple logo has shrunk just a little in size, and the Verizon version has less text and no certification logos, everything else is very similar. Most conspicuous is the addition of a silver-rimmed, glass-lensed rear camera immediately below and off to the right of the top Sleep/Wake switch; we discuss both cameras in detail in the next two sections of this review.
Though Apple has emphasized the iPad 2’s “thinner” rear casing, the new tablet is actually smaller in each dimension than the original iPad, which measured 9.56” x 7.47” by 0.5”. By contrast, the iPad 2 measures 9.50” x 7.31” by 0.34”, with 0.16” reductions in both width and depth, the latter more obvious than the former because of what amounts to a 33% reduction in thickness. While there’s no question that the new iPad is a little smaller, the difference is most obvious in two ways: the flattening of the gently curved original iPad back to remove its central bulge, and removal of the flat edge once found on each of the iPad’s sides.
Weight has also dropped—but only a little. The first iPad weighed 1.5 or 1.6 pounds depending on whether the extra 3G hardware was inside; iPad 2 weighs either 1.33, 1.34 (CDMA), or 1.35 (GSM) pounds depending on the version, most likely due to tiny differences such as the added weight of 3G antennas and SIM card elements.
There’s good and bad news to report on these changes. In actual use, the iPad 2 does feel a little lighter and denser than its predecessor, and the newly curved edges are more comfortable to hold. Now hidden inside the left and right edges are magnets that are separately polarized in pairs, enabling the use of magnetically attached screen covers, discussed under the iOS 4.3 New Features / Settings section of this review.
The iPad 2’s shell looks sleeker than before without removing any of the prior version’s features: top and side buttons and ports are all in the same places as before, though the speaker has now been changed from three pill-shaped metal grilles to a larger grid of dots, akin to the speaker grilles on 15” and 17” MacBook Pro computers. Speaker performance has not been impacted by this change; the iPad 2 sounds virtually identical to the original model in amplitude and clarity, which is to say “better than any iPod or iPhone, but not a MacBook.”
Similarly, the top microphone hole has been transformed from a dot to a pill shape, and shifted to a central position away from the headphone port, now sitting directly in the center of the 3G antenna compartment if the iPad 2 has one. We discuss its slightly diminished performance in a subsequent section of this review.
For all of these modifications, however, the size and weight reductions are not enough to avoid hand cramping when holding the device upright with one hand for video calling purposes. Apple will likely need to shift to a lighter-weight body material or reduce the size of its rechargeable battery if it hopes to achieve more significant reductions in the future. Alternately, Apple could have reduced the need for hand-holding by merely integrating a stand into the iPad’s back, a feature that it recently patented but did not include in iPad 2.
Additionally, we found that the shift from a flat bottom edge made use of Dock Connector accessories more difficult, creating repeated connection challenges for speakers and docks akin to ones we’ve seen before with the similarly-tapered iPod touch. This problem is particularly pronounced when trying to reconnect an iPad 2 to a docking speaker, and/or when using the iPad 2 in the dark; it can lead to scratching and nicking around the Dock Connector port hole. Cables are somewhat easier to connect, but now expose much of the rear pin housing in the process. Overall, we’d call the body changes less positive than we’d hoped, with the Dock Connector issue creating significant new inconveniences in practice, and the slenderizing changes making small improvements in comfort.
Two key things remain the same between the iPad and iPad 2: the screen, and the reflectivity of the front glass. Contrary to rumors that circulated months before the iPad 2’s release, the screen has not changed in any major way in the new version: the resolution, colors, brightness, and viewing angles are all effectively the same as before, and the screen is still not flush with the front glass as it is in the iPhone 4. This is fine to the extent that the original iPad looked great—apart from a still-ongoing debate over whether its 4:3 aspect ratio is ideal in a world of 16:10 computers and 16:9 TV screens.
On the other hand, the reflective front glass will continue to disappoint users who had hoped that the iPad 2 would be easier to view outdoors in direct sunlight, or less susceptible to finger prints. Without screen film, such as the Power Support anti-glare film we’ve found to be excellent over the last 11 months, you can expect to have to clean off smudges every two days, and deal with reflections that are particularly annoying in a car.
What’s New Inside: Twin Cameras, New Chips, and a Gyroscope
Though Apple’s industrial designs generate lust, the iPad 2’s most important developments are inside. Here’s what’s been added and changed in the latest model.
1. Front and Rear Cameras. We wish we had better news to share on this point, but here’s the blunt truth: yes, the iPad 2 now has twin cameras, but they’re not very good. The front camera has 640×480 (VGA) resolution for both videos and still images, while the rear camera has a maximum resolution of 1280×720 for videos, falling to 960×720 for still images. Neither has a flash, or autofocus capabilities, putting the iPad 2 at a significant disadvantage relative to the iPhone 4—and some rival tablets.
While what Apple gave the iPad 2 is roughly equivalent to the camera hardware Apple included in the fourth-generation iPod touch, the new cameras deliver sub-optimal quality for still photography, videography, and arguably video calling. Photos have little detail; videos have a higher-contrast grain than ones shot with the iPod touch, and colors are rendered with an unnatural ruddiness. Part of the issue is due to Apple’s software implementation of these features, essentially scaling low-quality images to fill the large iPad screen, but the hardware’s not great either—disappointing regardless of where you want to point your fingers. This leaves Apple with two very obvious features to improve in the future iPad 3, which could gain a 720p front camera for FaceTime HD, and an iPhone 4-caliber rear camera with higher-resolution and autofocus capabilities.
It’s also worth mentioning that the location of the iPad 2’s front camera—at the top of a portrait orientation screen—is less than ideal. During our testing with the iPad 2 on reclining stands, the camera’s position most often placed a user’s head relatively low, off to the left, or off to the right of the frame rather than centering it, a problem that might have been mitigated had the camera been centered relative to the iPad’s landscape-orientation screen instead. The best position we found was when the iPad 2 was turned upside down; though it has a tendency to show more of one’s body in this orientation, the result is better than with the camera above the tall screen. As noted in the prior section of this review, hand-holding the iPad 2 for extended video chats is comparably uncomfortable, so using a stand of some sort is the best option.
2. New CPU and 512MB RAM. Putting games aside, the iPad 2 is faster than the original model in two key ways. First, it has moved from a 1.0Ghz single-core Apple A4 chip to a 0.9GHz dual-core Apple A5 chip—as explained below, without compromising battery life. Second, it has doubled the RAM in iPad 2 from 256MB to 512MB, a bump that was not advertised in any way by Apple, but matches the RAM found in last year’s iPhone 4.
We mention these two changes together because they work hand-in-hand to make the iPad 2 a little quicker on the draw when using past integrated apps, and more capable of running new ones. Apps load faster, sometimes a full second or two faster, and make quicker transitions from screen to screen. Web pages load faster, sometimes by a matter of multiple seconds, and you’re more often able to switch between two of Safari’s nine pages without having to reload the entire page. The differences for non-gaming apps aren’t profound, but they’re noticeable.
The difference that will be even more important in the future is the addition of the second CPU core to the A5 chip. Apple’s free update to the $5 iPhone and iPod touch application iMovie has added iPad 2 support to the program, enabling iPad 2 users to make edits, transitions, titling, and audio changes to videos in a manner approximating iMovie on Mac computers. iMovie can be tricked to run on the original iPad, but its performance is terrible without the second CPU core, demonstrating that the additional processing power of the A5 will enable a new generation of applications that are even more Mac-like than iPhone-like. The value of the new CPU and added RAM will only grow in the future.
3. New GPU. The iPad 2 boasts what Apple promises to be up to 9 times faster graphics processing than before thanks to a new graphics processing chip (GPU), which it does not identify by name. It is believed to be a dual-core PowerVR SGX543MP2 processor, a considerable upgrade from the PowerVR SGX535 found inside the original iPad, though a step down from the four-core version of the SGX543 Sony plans to include in its second-generation PlayStation Portable. Whereas the four-core version nearly rivals the performance of Sony’s PlayStation 3, the two-core version is akin to a souped-up PlayStation 2 with better special effects, notably including anti-aliasing. Here’s what users can expect from this new part:
– Smoother frame rates from old games, and considerably greater polygon and texture detail levels in new/updated ones. Epic and Chair’s Infinity Blade was updated the day the iPad 2 was released, adding support for the new device. It loads faster on the iPad 2 than on the iPad, moves more fluidly, and looks more detailed—each says something given how impressive Infinity Blade already looked. Notably, the iPad 2 smooths parts of the graphics that need to look soft, brings out details in other parts that need to be rough, and adds shading that wasn’t there before.
Real Racing 2 HD is the iPad-specific version of the popular iPhone and iPod touch game Real Racing 2. It chugs along unevenly on the first-generation iPad, seemingly struggling to handle all of the car models and background changes at once. But on the iPad 2, the frame rate is almost flawlessly smooth, and the art all looks crisper, besides. Entirely new titles will widen the gulf between devices even further.
– Improved anti-aliasing. Infinity Blade demonstrates how simply adding new anti-aliasing—effectively a special effect—can dramatically improve the look of games on the iPad 2. The same scene shown on both devices, which both have the same resolution, appears to have more finely detailed edges and lines on the iPad 2. This is also the reason Real Racing 2 HD looks crisper on the iPad 2 than the iPad. Unfortunately, standard video playback on iPad 2 does not benefit from this technology, so a low-resolution movie will look equally chunky on both devices.
– Enhanced video output capabilities. Though the iPad 2’s screen is limited to the same 1024×768 resolution found in the last model, the new tablet is capable of feats including screen mirroring, up to 1080p video output, and potentially other yet-to-be-announced video-out tricks. It can play iTunes-synced videos at a maximum of 720p, like the original iPad running iOS 4.3, as well; HD and SD movies purchased from the iTunes Store now work without complaint. Most of these features are dependent on Apple accessories such as the Digital AV Adapter and VGA Adapter. On the other hand, we noticed that the iPad 2’s live camera output was even less color-accurate when being displayed through a connected TV, and saw other coloration and resolution variations depending on the HDMI display we were using.
4. New Gyroscope. Some gamers love the 3-axis gyroscope Apple added to the iPhone 4 and iPod touch 4G last year; others couldn’t care less. In either case, the iPad 2 now has gyroscope hardware inside, enabling it to more precisely know its own orientation on a total of six axes, as well as more accurately judge its own movement. The gyroscope builds on the magnetic compasses and accelerometers found in all iPads, as well as the GPS hardware found in 3G iPads, to provide more accurate positional data for games, augmented reality applications and location-aware mapping apps.
iOS 4.3: iPad 2-Specific Updates And Additions
When the original iPad was first released in April 2010, Apple developed a special version of its iOS operating system—iOS 3.2—solely to run on the tablet. As it turned out, the company waited less than a week to announce iOS 4, a substantial upgrade that brought all of the iPad’s features to the iPhone and iPod touch, plus more. But the iPad was left out, depriving new users of important new features including multitasking, unified e-mail, and Game Center. When reporters at the iOS 4 event asked Steve Jobs when the iPad would get an update, he said, “we just shipped iPad this weekend!” And so iOS 4.2 with iPad support didn’t arrive until six long months later.
Early iPad 2 purchasers appear to be in for a similar situation. The iPad 2 ships with iOS 4.3, an incremental update that was released simultaneously for iPhones, iPod touches, and the original iPad a couple of days before the iPad 2’s launch. We’ve discussed iOS 4.2 and 4.3 in a series of past articles, so we won’t revisit all the details here. With the announcement of iOS 5 expected in the very near future, it’s unclear whether the iPad 2 will gain additional features upon iOS 5.0’s likely June release. Whispers have suggested that a special iOS 5.1 version for the iPad may lag behind.
iOS 4.3 for the original iPad includes 14 total applications: Safari, Mail, Photos, iPod, Calendar, Contacts, Notes, Maps, Videos, YouTube, iTunes, App Store, Game Center, and Settings, all except Game Center discussed in our original iPad review. The iPad 2 adds three more built-in apps, all related to the device’s new cameras: Camera, FaceTime, and Photo Booth.
Camera. Apple could have evolved the classic iPhone application Camera when bringing it to the iPad, but it didn’t: for the most part, Camera is the same on iPad 2 as it is on the iPhone 4 and iPod touch 4G. Most of the screen is consumed by an upscaled version of what the front camera or rear camera is seeing, with four buttons scattered around: a front/rear camera toggle at the upper right, and a bar that provides one-touch access to the Camera Roll, snap/start camera button, and still/video toggle features. The button positions rotate to maintain their same relative locations as you change the iPad 2’s orientation.
Camera is at least as fast on the iPad 2 as on the iPhone 4 or iPod touch 4G, opening responsively, and rapidly snapping images or videos at the touch of a button. That said, it lacks for auto-focus, offering only a tap-based exposure toggle and a blocky 1X-5X digital zoom slider, recording such low-quality images that it has comparatively little to do.
When shooting with the rear video camera, you can also tap twice on the screen to see the full 1280×720 image that’s being recorded, complete with large black letterboxing bars; otherwise, the screen will be filled with a cropped-off version that doesn’t show the left and right sides of what’s being recorded. Still photos taken with the rear camera are cropped to 960×720 automatically.
As a subset of the original iPad’s “Photos” application, the Camera Roll stores a mix of the still photos and videos recorded by the iPad 2, and enables you to do simple clip trimming and video sharing through e-mail, MobileMe, and YouTube. Photos can be e-mailed, sent to MobileMe, assigned to a contact, used as wallpaper, printed, or copied for use in another app; both photo slideshows and videos can also be shared with a second-generation Apple TV over AirPlay. If the device took better pictures and video, we’d get a lot more enjoyment out of looking at the content on the iPad’s screen or an external display.
FaceTime. FaceTime for iPad is a hybrid of the prior iPod touch 4G and Mac apps of the same name, at first looking nearly identical to the Mac version. The screen is divided into a large video portion on the left, with a sliding, smoke black translucent pane on the right. “Favorites,” “Recents,” and “Contacts” buttons appear at the bottom of the screen, letting you easily touch your way to video calls with people who have previously FaceTime called you, or whose e-mail addresses or iPhone 4 phone numbers are stored in your Contacts application.
On the calling side, Apple has done away with the iPhone-styled top-of-screen name/number/“FaceTime…” bar that also appeared on the iPod touch 4G and Mac versions of the application, moving the information towards the bottom of the screen next to the “End” button. An iPhone-style top-of-screen “Name/number would like FaceTime…” bar still appears on the receiver’s side if they’re using an iPad. Unlike the Mac, which changes the FaceTime window’s size when the Favorites/Recents/Contacts bar slides left underneath the image, the iPad’s full screen is filled with the camera’s image as the bar zips out of sight to the right. Underscore the word “zips:” the app moves the bar off and on the screen so quickly that you can’t help but be impressed by the iPad 2’s speed.
Video chats look basically the same on the iPad as on the iPhone 4 and iPod touch 4G, only larger—not clearer. Apple upscales the 640×480 videos sent by other FaceTime devices to fill the iPad 2 screen, creating fuzzy-looking and sometimes obviously artifact-laden images. While calls are acceptable given that the original iPad had no such hardware, they’re not as detailed as they would have been with Apple’s recently-announced FaceTime HD hardware and software. It’s quite possible that the iPad 2 wouldn’t have had the horsepower or the throughput to handle FaceTime HD even if its cameras were better, but the feature feels incomplete as implemented.
If both your iPad 2 and the caller’s device are in landscape orientation, the full screen is filled with the image of the person you’re calling, with a small movable preview window to let you see yourself in any of the display’s corners. If either device shifts to portrait orientation, large black letterboxing bars appear on the screen to fill gaps created by the automatically rotated image. In either case, a gray pill with mute, end, and camera-switching buttons appears at the bottom of the display. There’s no Mac-style button to toggle windowed or full-screen video displays, and the videos don’t look as sharp as the sample iPad 2 FaceTime images shown on Apple’s web site. You can leave the FaceTime app and use other applications while still maintaining the audio portion of your video chat, reaccessing the frozen video at any time by tapping on a green bar at the top of the screen.
Photo Booth. This new iOS snapshot application is based upon the Mac program of the same name, but it’s been cut down and tweaked a little for the iPad. Photo Booth opens with a dramatic flourish, showing the red velvet curtain of a real life photo booth being pulled off to the side, then presents you with a choice of 8 different special effects—or “normal”—to use when creating still images.
The app is noteworthy for what it can and can’t do. It’s the first Apple-developed iOS camera program that can radically distort colors and shapes in the images it’s capturing. Kids have flocked to Photo Booth-equipped Macs in Apple Stores just to use the app for that feature, and the iPad 2 version was a hit with our kids during testing, too.
But whereas the Mac version includes 24 realtime special effects that can be applied to whatever the front camera is seeing, the iPad version’s 8 are limited to X-Ray, Light Tunnel, Stretch, Mirror, Twirl, Thermal Camera, Kaleidoscope, and Squeeze. On a positive note, you can make adjustments in some of the effects just by swiping the screen with one or two fingers, expanding the size and shape of the light tunnel, the location of the mirror and kaleidoscope, and so on. Unfortunately, unlike the far less powerful fifth-generation iPod nano, you can’t apply these effects to video recordings—just still pictures. The iPod nano notably had 15 realtime video filters, plus Normal, before losing its camera in the 2010 model.
You can revisit and share Photo Booth snapshots via e-mail using a pane that pops up at the bottom of the screen, and the effects work with both front and rear cameras, a first of sorts for this program. The shots are automatically saved to the iPad 2’s photo library for easy access outside of the Photo Booth app, as well.
Settings. The iPad 2’s Settings application includes small changes to address the cellular differences between the GSM and CDMA iPads, including removal of the SIM PIN number-lock feature. It also adds FaceTime settings that are limited to creating, logging into, and modifying a FaceTime account, and a General setting called iPad Cover Lock / Unlock.
Flipping the “on” switch on iPad Cover Lock/Unlock enables the iPad 2 to automatically lock and unlock its screen when used with certain magnetized iPad 2 screen covers, including Apple’s iPad Smart Cover. The feature works properly with the Smart Cover, but is also sensitive to other magnets, such that two iPad 2s can deactivate each others’ screens when placed face to face in the correct orientation. It appears to depend upon polarized magnets being placed on the upper and lower right hand sides of the iPad 2 screen—a neat feature, but not worth $39-$69.
One Glaring Omission: iPhone 4/iPod touch 4G Retina Display Support
For all that’s been added to iOS 4.3 and the iPad 2, one thing is obviously missing: support for full-resolution Retina Display graphics when running iPhone and iPod touch applications at “2X” size. These apps continue to run as blocky upscaled versions based on the original 480×320 iPhone/3G/3GS and iPod touch 1G-3G artwork, and would really benefit from taking proper advantage of the iPad’s larger screen and superior graphics processor. Apple may have left Retina Display support out of the prior iOS releases for the iPad to encourage developers to create new interfaces, but there’s no need to continue punishing iPad owners by making their iPhone and iPod touch apps look worse than they would on today’s pocket devices.
Performance Tests: Battery, Audio, Video, Gaming, Wireless, and Synchronization
Apple’s promises for iPad 2 battery performance are modest in the sense that they don’t claim to be more impressive than they were last year: up to 10 hours of normal run time on Wi-Fi, or up to 9 hours of continuous use over 3G—either GSM or CDMA. But actual performance was more complex than that: the original iPad’s tested battery life was generally stunning by comparison with most laptops, though turning on an iPad’s 3G cellular antenna led to more rapid battery drain even when it wasn’t in active use, reducing standby time from weeks to days.
We previously put last year’s iPads through a web torture test, continuously loading a demanding page once per minute—this lasted for 10 hours and 21 minutes on 50% brightness over 802.11n, beating Apple’s promised 10 hour estimate by just a little. The 2010 iPad with 3G was able to achieve 8 hours and 38 minutes of continuous reloading and displaying with its 3G antenna turned on and Wi-Fi turned off, 22 minutes shy of Apple’s estimate.
This year, we ran almost exactly the same test on all three iPad 2s, each set to 50% screen brightness, making one modification—switching between two demanding pages—solely because an initial test suggested that the latest iOS software mightn’t have been fully reloading the pages. Once again, the iPad 2 with Wi-Fi had the longest running time at 11 hours and 33 minutes, followed by the iPad 2 over 3G GSM at 9 hours and 3 minutes, and the Verizon iPad 2 using 3G CDMA at 8 hours and 41 minutes. The iPad 2’s Wi-Fi time beat the original iPad’s run time by over 1 hour, with the GSM version improving on last year’s time by nearly half an hour, and the CDMA version coming ahead by 3 minutes. Only Verizon’s iPad 2 falls a little short of Apple’s estimates, and then only by a little, solely when it’s using cellular service. It’s also worth pointing out that the iPad 2 loads pages faster than the original iPad, too, seeing roughly 40% speed improvements on average—this lets you spend more time reading and less time waiting. If the iPad 2 version of Safari included optional and sandboxed support for Adobe’s Flash, similar to the “ClickToFlash” application available for Macs, it could be a complete replacement for a laptop or desktop web browser.
Speedtest.net benchmark results for the iPad 2 over Wi-Fi, GSM, and CDMA networks showed noteworthy improvements in the uploads department. Wi-Fi performance was the same for downloading and uploading, with 15-16MBps downloads and uploads as high as the capped 0.9Mbps promised by Time Warner’s Road Runner service. However, the new GSM model achieved upload speeds of 1.0 to 1.3Mbps when using AT&T’s network, up five times from last year’s iPad model wherever we’d tested it—even better than Road Runner over Wi-Fi—with download speeds in the 0.6Mbps to 2.5Mbps range, the latter similar to prior results. By comparison, the Verizon model achieved upload speeds in the 0.33Mbps to 0.43Mbps range, just a little better than last year’s 0.2 to 0.26 AT&T results, and download speeds from 0.28Mbps to 0.91Mbps. In our area, AT&T’s performance blows Verizon’s away, which is the only reason we continue as customers after the problems we’ve had with the company.
Video Playback + Light Bleeding
Video playback battery life for iPad 2 was similar to last year’s iPad, which achieved a run time of 13 hours and 22 minutes of continuous video playback with Wi-Fi turned off and both the screen brightness and speaker volume set at 50%. The iPad 2 jumped modestly to 13 hours and 42 minutes under the same conditions. As is always the case, the iPad 2 will see its battery life reduced when processor-intensive applications and games are being used, as well as when its Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and/or cellular hardware are turned on, but the overall battery performance is nothing short of awesome even by comparison with the latest laptops.
It’s also worth noting that three out of the seven iPad 2s we purchased for testing had minor but visible screen light leakage at the edges of their screens. The issue adds little bright curves to the edge of what should be a completely or partially black display, and is essentially a manufacturing defect. Two leaked from one side, and a third leaked from each of its corners, though the extent to which the issue was obvious differed from unit to unit, and was most obvious in places where the screen was supposed to be black. As this clearly affects only some iPad 2 units, it remains to be seen whether Apple will replace affected tablets.
Video Recording and FaceTime
Two new battery tests for the iPad 2 are based upon ones we’ve previously conducted with video-camera equipped iPhones and the fourth-generation iPod touch. First, we wanted to know how long the iPad 2 could continuously maintain a FaceTime conversation with 50% screen brightness and 50% volume—a demanding test because simultaneous video encoding, decoding, and camera use consumes a lot of battery life. The iPod touch runs for 2 hours and 35 minutes in pure FaceTime mode, and the iPhone 4 can handle 3 hours and 10 minutes of video calling. By comparison, the iPad 2 loses an average of 13%-14% of its battery per hour during FaceTime calls under 50%/50% testing conditions, which is to say that it can run for roughly 7 hours and 30 minutes of continuous video calling. It’s worth noting that the iPad 2 loses less power by percentage than the other devices because its battery is larger, and the added drain of video recording is proportionately less than on the other devices.
Second, we wanted to see how long the iPad 2 can act as a pure video recording device using its rear 720p video camera, another task that tended to sap the batteries of the iPhone 4 and iPod touch 4G. As with FaceTime use, we saw an average of 14% battery loss per hour, which is to say that you could record video continuously for 7 hours and 9 minutes if you had the space to do so. Since 720p videos consume roughly 4.8GB per hour, you’d fill a formatted but otherwise empty 16GB iPad in a little less than 3 hours.
In addition to the early real-world examples we noted in the earlier discussion of GPU improvements in the iPad 2, we ran a few benchmarks to determine just how much additional power the new device had for gaming. Two are theoretical, the other practical.
GLBenchmark 1.1.7 tests suggest that the iPad 2 has a texel fill rate that’s 4.3 to 4.9 times higher than the original iPad’s, showing even more significant (up to 6 times/parallel lights) improvements when tasks increase in complexity. Geekbench 2.1.11 tests produced an average score of 745 for the iPad 2 versus 445 for the original iPad, showing gains that were generally less profound than the 7.5 times improvement the app found in multi-threaded LU Decomposition math; most improvements were in the 4.5X range. While Apple’s claims of “up to 9X” better graphics performance certainly rely on outlier examples, there are certain situations in which the new chips will reach nearly that high, albeit with both CPU cores blazing and eating battery life. Geekbench produced different numbers when re-run on each device, and did not appear to test either iPad with the CPU running at peak capacity.
A gaming battery test using the iPad 2-optimized version of Infinity Blade yielded a power drain of 10% per 45 minutes of play time, or an estimated run time of 8 hours and 20 minutes. This is very similar to the 8 hour and 33-minute run time we saw with mixed 3-D/2-D titles last year, and notable because Infinity Blade is more demanding than the average iPad game. It also provides a reasonable sense of what can be expected from more powerful iPad 2 titles in the future. Run times will obviously vary based on the types of games you play.
Recharging + Standby
We were concerned at one point during testing that the iPad 2’s battery took longer to recharge than its predecessor’s, but this turned out not to be the case. A depleted iPad 2 fully recharged using the included power adapter in exactly 3.5 hours, going from 1% to 50% in a little over an hour and a half, and 80% in two and a half hours.
Last year, we noted that leaving the iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G idling with its cellular antenna active led to a 5% loss of battery life overnight. We repeated the test this year with all three versions of the iPad 2, seeing 0% change on the iPad 2 with Wi-Fi, and 1% loss each on the GSM and CDMA iPad 2s, suggesting that Apple has addressed the issue and improved the 3G models’ standby time in the process.
Headphone + Microphone Audio Quality
In comparison tests using the original iPad and iPad 2 with lossless audio tracks and two pairs of high-end earphones—Ultimate Ears’ flagship UE-18 Pros and Shure’s SE530s—we noticed three differences between audio output from model to model. First, the white noise floor has dropped a little in the new iPad, making silences and quiet parts of songs sound less staticy. Second, upper treble performance is a little bit better in the original iPad than the iPad 2, making songs sound just a little flatter on the newer iPad. Third, the iPad 2 makes a series of barely audible clicking noises right after headphones are plugged in, seemingly related to volume and/or track changes. Most users will not notice the first two changes, but the third one is audible even through inexpensive earphones if you listen for it.
We also conducted comparison tests on the iPad and iPad 2 integrated microphones.* Apple moved the top microphone from a large circular hole near the iPad’s headphone port to a smaller pill-shaped hole that is notably now centered above the iPad 2’s front-facing camera. This is important because the mic now sits either in the middle of metal on the iPad 2 with Wi-Fi, or inside the black plastic antenna housing of the iPad 2 with Wi-Fi + 3G. (* = We updated this section of the review after initial publication to explain the difference between the mic performance on the different iPad 2 models.)
When using Skype and Garageband on the iPad, iPad 2 with Wi-Fi, and iPad 2 with Wi-Fi + 3G, we found that audio from the 3G iPad 2’s mic sounded somewhat more muffled and echo-prone than with the original iPad’s or the Wi-Fi-only iPad 2’s mics—enough to be noticeable to a Skype caller, who deemed the 3G iPad 2’s sound “acceptable” and the other iPads’ mic quality better. A reduction in apparent bass resonance was noted in the 3G iPad 2’s rendition of voices, and increased echoing was also observed. However, recordings made with Garageband under the same testing conditions suggested that the difference wasn’t as large as it sounded through the iPads’ speakers. We’d call the 3G iPad 2’s mic a little inferior to the others, particularly when the screen’s facing you for FaceTime and many other apps, a difference that appears to be related to the acoustic differences in the plastic used in the 3G model versus the fully metal top of the Wi-Fi iPads. If Apple had been able to keep the mic in the metal near the headphone port, this mightn’t have been an issue.
Finally, we did a quick set of tests to see whether the iPad 2 was faster, slower, or the same as the original at synchronizing files through iTunes. The new model turned out to be slower, falling from the iPad’s 1 minute and 30 seconds per 1GB of media files to 1 minute and 42 seconds for the iPad 2.