Pros: A technologically small but clear improvement upon early 2012’s impressive third-generation iPad, featuring the same screen and rear camera, coupled with a faster processor and improved front camera. Will eventually benefit from doubling of both CPU and GPU power, resulting in better-looking games; apps currently load a little faster than they did on the prior iPad. Continues to come in Wi-Fi-only and cellular-ready versions, the latter of which has improved in appeal thanks to expansions of domestic and international LTE networks, with cellular speeds that rival or surpass typical wired broadband connections. Retains familiar design that’s fully compatible with third-generation iPad cases. Charges somewhat faster than the prior model.
Cons: Switch to Lightning port currently offers nearly zero benefit to consumers, while considerably increasing both the cost of and need for new accessories. Continues to require longer recharging time than pre-Retina iPads when used with its own charger, and over six hours when charged from prior “Made for iPad” chargers and recent Apple computers. Continues to run modestly warm during gaming, and has slightly less battery life than its already diminished predecessor across some tasks. While better than seven months ago, LTE networks are still not available in many areas, leading to uneven, sometimes halting cellular performance when transitioning from LTE to older networks; users without LTE may see small speed benefits at best over earlier 3G models. Storage capacities continue to remain unchanged despite greater demands of high-resolution apps and videos.
One year. Two years. Perhaps even three years. Depending on the iPod, iPhone, or iPad model you purchased, it was safe to expect that first-day buyers would have at least a year—perhaps longer—before Apple discontinued the device, sharply reducing its resale value while introducing something considerably better. But in late July, sources told us that Apple was working on a very modestly revised version of the March 2012-vintage third-generation iPad (iLounge Ratings: A-/B+) that could be launched in October alongside the iPad mini or held for later. The only question was whether Apple would risk angering its recent iPad customers with such a rapid update.
With the release of the fourth-generation iPad ($499-$829) this week, Apple has for the first time introduced the very real prospect that even its flagship iOS devices might not stick around for even a year. So unceremonious was the third iPad’s discontinuation that Apple immediately stopped selling new units the day it announced the fourth model, implicitly suggesting that its customers should just wait and order the fourth-generation version instead. The Wi-Fi based fourth-generation iPads took less than two weeks to arrive in stores, replacing their predecessors at the same 16, 32, and 64GB storage capacities and $499/$599/$699 price points, while the 16-64GB fourth-generation iPad with Wi-Fi + Cellular models were slated for an unspecified “mid-November” release date, each at a $130 premium. [Editor’s Note: On February 5, 2013, Apple added a 128GB version of the fourth-generation iPad at $799/$929 prices; it is identical to the lower-capacity versions apart from the extra storage space.]
But despite modest packaging and feature tweaks, the fourth-generation iPad is a truly minor upgrade, seemingly released for reasons that are internal to Apple rather than obvious to the outside world. Teardowns of the new model have confirmed that only three meaningful things have changed: the processor has been upgraded from the prior A5X to a new A6X, reportedly fully designed by Apple; the front-facing iSight camera has been upgraded from FaceTime to FaceTime HD, bringing the iPad up to the same video calling capabilities of the new iPod touch, iPhone 5, and iPad mini; and the bottom Dock Connector has been replaced by a Lightning port. Collectively, these upgrades are so trivial that they wouldn’t have seemed worthy of a new iPad product, but they suggest one of two things: that Apple plans a more major iPad overhaul for early or late 2013, and wanted to resolve a few issues with the prior model before moving forward, or that the company’s running out of major things to do with its flagship product. We’d bet heavily on the former.
Since the fourth-generation iPad is nearly identical to the third-generation model in every way—it’s the same shape, thickness, and weight, plus fundamentally unchanged in screen, audio, and other performance—this review is based very heavily on the text and photographs from our prior review. In the very few areas where changes have been made, we’ve updated the text and photos to note the new features. And we’ve also updated our conclusions. Back in March, it felt safe to recommend the third-generation iPad as a great upgrade to its predecessors, thanks in equal parts to the radical improvements wrought by its new screen and LTE capabilities, as well as the welcome changes to its previously terrible rear camera. There’s no question that we’re somewhat more wary of enthusiastically recommending this new model, in part because of what Apple did with its predecessor, but also because of the strength of the excellent new iPad mini, which makes a strong case for switching away from the larger and heavier 9.7” form factor to something smaller and easier to carry around. Read on for all the details, new and old alike.
The Fourth-Generation iPad: Packaging, Design Basics + Pack-Ins
Not surprisingly, the fourth-generation iPad continues the box designs of the second- and third-generation models: all three have shipped in white cardboard boxes with sharply angled side views of their respective iPads, de-emphasizing the screens in favor of showing off their tapered right sides. This angle has enabled Apple to use the same packages for Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi + 4G models, which are differentiated by black plastic top antenna compartments that the photographs render invisible. As with the third iPad, all that’s changed on the fourth iPad’s box front is the screen: the tablet shows a different and less placid blue lake background with an updated arrangement of icons, still alternating between a white or black bezel depending on the color of the model inside. The changes are so small that most people wouldn’t even notice them.
There is one easy way to tell the third- and fourth-generation iPad boxes apart. While the third iPad’s box differed from predecessors by including a silver iCloud badge on the bottom, it has been restored to a silver Apple logo for the fourth iPad. The iPad name remains untouched in dark gray on the box’s left and right sides, and another foil Apple logo is found as always on the top. Stickers on the otherwise white back continue to indicate the capacity, serial numbers, and optionally 4G cellular hardware, along with more granular descriptions of the wireless technical specifications and a supposedly required download of iTunes 11—up from 10.6 for the last iPad. Notably, iTunes 11 was not released in time for this model, and it syncs with iTunes 10.7 without complaints.
This iPad’s body looks virtually identical to the last two iPads. Apple still uses a single piece of stiff, partially-painted glass for the face of the iPad, with a clear rectangular space for the 9.7” display, a large circle below it for the Home Button, a small circle above it for the front-facing FaceTime camera, and a matrix of tiny dots above that for the iPad’s ambient light sensor. All of these elements are nearly identical between the third- and fourth-generation iPads; the new model’s front camera hole is now just a little smaller than before, though you’d have to have both units next to one another to notice the difference.
Silver aluminum once again forms the iPad’s back, remaining flat for most of the 7.31” by 9.5” surface with one soft curve tapering to each front edge. As between the Retina iPads, there’s no difference, but the taper has changed only subtly to accommodate the 0.6mm of added thickness relative to the iPad 2; the third- and fourth iPads both are 0.37” thick versus the iPad 2’s 0.34”—such a small difference that photographs can barely capture it.
The most obvious change to the fourth-generation iPad is the replacement of the widely-established Dock Connector with Apple’s new Lightning port—a smaller, pill-shaped hole that is lined with reflective metal, gleaming in the light like the ring around the rear camera lens. While we discuss the consequences of this change in the Accessories section of this review, an easy summary is this: the smaller port currently doesn’t result in any major improvement in the fourth-generation iPad user experience, as it hasn’t made this device smaller, markedly faster, or enabled Apple to fit something else in. It’s just different, and will most likely require you to spend extra money on adapters or pricier Lightning accessories. So why did Apple change it rather than waiting until next year? Our guess: by adding it to the full-sized iPad now, Apple will be able to do away with Dock Connectors across the entire iOS lineup next year, when it replaces the iPad 2 with the fourth-generation iPad.
Markings on the iPad’s back are unchanged apart from numerical tweaks: Apple has changed the model number and removed the rear capacity badge from the fourth-generation iPad, while leaving everything else the same.
A large Apple logo remains centered, gleaming like black chrome against the silver aluminum—a color contrast that has notably changed on the new iPad mini, but been left the same here for now. The rear camera lens stays in the same place below the top Sleep/Wake Button, and is the same size as in the third-generation iPad, while 4G/LTE cellular versions retain the same black antenna stripe across the top that was found in earlier 3G models. A single microphone hole remains in the center of this plastic stripe, or in the same position on the entirely metallic Wi-Fi-only iPad. The 4G/LTE models have micro-SIM card trays in the same location next to the top headphone port, with barely larger tray ejection holes on their sides. Notably, Apple did not switch this model to nano-SIM, despite having made that change in the iPhone 5 and cellular-capable iPad mini, which means that “as needed” SIM-swapping between full-sized iPads and minis won’t be possible for now.
As we noted in the third-generation iPad review, most of the changes from the iPad 2 to its sequels are so modest that you’d almost have to be obsessive to care about them—they’re not noticeable when this iPad’s in hand, on a desk, or resting on your lap. You’d have to be an iPad 2 user to notice the Wi-Fi-equipped Retina iPads’ slight weight jump from 1.33 pounds to 1.44 pounds, or the Retina 4G/LTE models’ jump from the iPad 2’s 1.34/1.35 pounds to 1.46 pounds. The new versions remain at least a little lighter than the original iPad with Wi-Fi (1.5 pounds) and Wi-Fi + 3G (1.6 pounds) models, however, they’re considerably heavier than the new 0.68/0.69-pound iPad mini, which can be easily held in one hand for extended periods, while the full-sized iPads cannot.
Speaker performance continues to be the same; there’s still only a single speaker grille on the bottom right corner of the back when the unit’s facing towards you, and though the output level remains a little louder and somewhat clearer than the iPhone’s, no improvements are apparent in the new version. By comparison, headphone port audio took a small step up in the third iPad, and remains the same here—small improvements were made to the treble and mid-treble definition of the third-gen model, and the sound chip here appears to be unchanged.
Despite all of the above similarities, Apple’s pack-ins have changed considerably from the third-generation iPad to the fourth. The company ships the latest iPad with a brand new 12W USB Power Adapter, which is the same size and shape as its 10-Watt predecessor, but now capable of supplying up to 2.5 Amps of power to the last two iPads. This enables them to recharge faster, as discussed in the subsequent battery section of this review. Also included is a new Lightning to USB Cable, which is required for charging this iPad and connecting it to computers and some accessories.
Apple also packs in a double-sided instruction card, warranty booklets, and Apple logo stickers. The 4G/LTE iPads generally come with a micro-SIM card and SIM card tray removal tool; international versions may or may not include the SIM. Apple’s current version of the tool is only a little better than a paperclip for popping out the SIM card, flexing and bending in a way that earlier versions did not, but it works.
Taken together, these tweaks are noteworthy in that they take one step forward—improving the latest model’s recharging time with a faster wall charger, a welcome change—and one step back, introducing the Lightning port on a device that currently derives very little current benefit from the feature. As time goes on, Lightning’s actual value may increase, but for now, it’s just different and not really better on this iPad than what came before.
The Fourth-Generation iPad: Old Screen, New A6X Processor
As is generally the case when Apple keeps the housing of a product largely the same, the fourth-generation iPad has changed under the hood. Most of the differences need to be experienced up close; just as was the case with the iPad 2 to third-generation iPad transition, you mightn’t even notice that anything’s different if you’re five feet away from both devices’ screens. The new iPad runs the same iOS 6.0 operating system that was released in September for the iPad 2 and third iPad, retains the same fonts, icons, backgrounds, and apps, plays the same games, and displays web pages in the same way. Like the third iPad, the fourth iPad runs almost everything with four times the visual detail of the iPad 2—a screen resolution of 2048×1536, which Apple calls a “Retina display” because of its 264 pixel per inch density, dots too small to be seen by the unaided eye at regular viewing distances.
We noted in the third-generation iPad review that Apple had rapidly and impressively achieved a quantum, once unthinkable leap in display technology. Rather than shifting to a 16:9 or 16:10 aspect ratio with fewer pixels than a premium HDTV—a formula Apple employed over the years for almost all of its MacBook laptops—the company instead retained the past iPads’ 4:3 aspect ratio and quadrupled the pixel count, immediately surpassing the resolutions of HDTVs. The third and fourth iPads’ screens actually have 3.1 million pixels, or 1 million pixels more than the best HDTV in your house. Only Apple’s 27” iMacs and latest, most expensive laptops have more pixels than this, making the iPad’s inclusion of the feature particularly noteworthy.
There are numerous ways to quantify the iPad’s resolution, but it suffices to say that the Retina display contains more detail than the screen on any digital camera, phone, or digital media player, as well as most of the world’s desktop and laptop computers. Apple and its suppliers deserve considerable credit for undertaking the engineering and manufacturing feats necessary to bring such a high-resolution screen to market; its suppliers are responsible for manufacturing the parts, but Apple certainly helped encourage early mass production with substantial, forward-thinking investments.
In our review of the third-generation iPad, we noted with true admiration that “every one of the seven new iPads we tested had a pixel-perfect display, with no stuck or dead pixels. Apart from Apple, this sort of quality control for a new and previously unthinkable high-definition screen is all but unheard of.” Unfortunately, we aren’t able to say the same thing about the fourth-generation model. One of our two initial review units arrived with not just a single dead pixel, but rather, an entire thin line of dead or stuck pixels running from the left side of the screen to the right. The other unit arrived with an unknown sticky gunk off to the side of its rear camera. Having noted different quality control concerns with the iPhone 5—and subsequently seen reports of worker unrest at Apple’s contract manufacturing partner over quality control standards—it seems clear that Foxconn is letting things slip through the cracks, possibly due to the overwhelming number of new products its employees are being asked to churn out at the same time.
Given what it achieved in resolution, it was somewhat surprising that Apple didn’t attempt to otherwise quantify the third iPad’s other screen enhancements beyond a claimed 44% greater color saturation than its predecessor; it notably didn’t promise a greater number of colors, superior contrast, greater color accuracy, or better brightness. Having tested the latest MacBook Air models, which display markedly less accurate colors than the MacBook Pro and MacBook Pro with Retina display—enough to make professionally shot photographs look like blotchy messes—we were initially concerned.
There’s good news and bad news here. Judged solely on color, the Retina iPad screens (above, right) are better overall than the iPad 2’s (above, left). At peak brightness, the new iPads’ renditions of photos and videos look extremely similar to Apple’s high-resolution iMac and Thunderbolt Displays, with noticeably richer—and generally more accurate—colors than prior iPads. However, not all new iPad screens are created exactly equal, as shown in the picture below. Some models ship with a screen that tends to emphasize yellows, improving everything except for skin tones, while others are more neutrally balanced, variations we’ve seen in past iPod touches and iPhones due to different screen producers. As in the past, there’s no way to know which screen a given unit will come with, and no way to calibrate the color balance to personal preferences. Each screen has roughly the same top brightness level as the iPad 2; there were no obvious differences between the third- and fourth-generation iPad screens we tested.
It should be mentioned that the improved color saturation is far less noticeable when pre-Retina iPads, Retina iPads, and iPad minis are set at 50% of their brightness, the level that Apple traditionally uses for testing of iPad batteries, and the one we’ve kept our iPads at in the past. At that level, the differences in vibrance become subtle, and you might think that the smaller iPad mini’s screen has nearly the same color capabilities as the Retina iPads. That’s not the case. But if you want to get the most out of the new iPad’s screen for photo editing, you’ll want to turn it up to 85% or higher brightness, and suffer increased battery drain as a result.
The two biggest remaining issues with the screen are the “fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating” and the visibility outdoors in bright sunlight. Apple’s glass remains a fingerprint magnet, and our test units are always covered in movie-obscuring smudges within hours—oil buildup that we find intolerable by the end of a day, and gross soon thereafter. Additionally, though the iPad’s screen can be viewed on all the same crazy angles as its predecessors, no improvements have been made to aid the screen’s usability outdoors, where glare from the glass and bright sunlight demand higher than 50% brightness levels for optimal visibility. As was the case with past iPads, users should expect to wipe down the screen frequently, or choose fingerprint- and glare-resistant screen-covering film to dramatically mitigate these issues. See the Accessories section of this review for additional comments on that subject.
Apple has changed processors again for the fourth-generation iPad. The CPU introduced by Apple in March was called the A5X, and was a clear successor to the A5: the same 1 GHz ARM Cortex-A9 dual-core CPU, upgraded from a dual-core Power VR SGX543MP2 to a four-core SGX543MP4 for graphics, with 1GB of RAM. This version is called the A6X, and though it also has 1GB of RAM, it sports several performance improvements. Designed internally by Apple, the A6X now includes twin 1.4GHz CPUs, and a quad-core PowerVR SGX554MP4 with more number-crunching horsepower relative to its predecessor. Apple markets the A6X as offering around twice the performance of the A5X, which is to say that the fourth iPad’s internal hardware now fully eclipses Sony’s PlayStation Vita portable gaming device rather than just rivaling it.
A comprehensive benchmarking of the A6X was recently published by Anandtech, suggesting that the performance improvements range from 15% to 100% relative to the third-generation iPad. Games come the closest to Apple’s performance estimates, and other apps see gains in the 53% range. Geekbench testing of the CPU and GPU summarizes the numeric differences of various math and memory tests, rating the third iPad at 748 relative to the fourth iPad at 1766—2.36 times better. Notably, the just-released iPad mini scored 752 with a lower-end A5 processor, suggesting that the full-sized iPad’s screen eats up a lot of its processor’s extra power. That the third iPad and iPad mini appeared to be so close might also shed light on Apple’s decision to bring out the fourth iPad now, rather than later.
While we prefer not to litter our reviews with overcomplicated and confusing numbers, the A6X can be summed up fairly simply as follows. When Apple released the third-generation iPad, it included a processor that enabled developers—more or less—to bring their old games up to Retina resolution without having to give much up in the process. The pitch was basically “iPad 2 games, but with Retina detail.” With the new A6X processor, Apple is giving developers the opportunity to create games that step beyond the iPad 2 in detail and the iPad 3 in speed, special effects, or both.
Unfortunately, as was the case right after the release of the last iPad, these improvements are mostly theoretical at this point. Developers are only just starting to release “iPad 4”-optimized games, and for the most part, the only real changes that we’re seeing relative to the third-generation iPad versions are in frame rates. Apart from AirPlay Mirroring issues noted later in this review, previous 3-D games are loading faster and running a little smoother than before, with fewer hiccups, which in some cases can make a previously uneven experience seem more fun, but doesn’t fundamentally change the way the games look. For now, this doesn’t feel like a sea change as much as modest iteration, but as developers really learn how to push the new iPad, they’ll likely widen the performance gap in some non-trivial ways. The only bummer is that the third-generation model’s short lifespan suggests that some game developers may not bother to optimize their titles for that device, focusing instead on the newer and shinier model. If you’re considering a fourth-generation iPad, that probably sounds great, but people who invested in the third-gen model will likely be disappointed.
The Fourth-Generation iPad: iOS Apps, Accessibility + Siri
Coinciding with the release of the third-generation iPad, Apple updated the entire iOS 5.0 operating system and each of the past iPad apps with Retina-quality artwork and fonts—all of these changes and subsequent iOS 6.0 improvements have been carried over to the fourth-generation model. When it’s first turned on, the Retina iPads’ Apple logo, setup screens, Lock Screen, Home Screen, and icons all look virtually identical to the iPad 2’s, except that they’re all rendered with so much detail that you can’t see pixels—even if you hold the new iPad several inches away from your eyes. By default, Apple uses a bluish-purple zen lake background, which truly looks photorealistic behind the somewhat cartoony icons and UI elements, and all of the other backgrounds available to the iPad 2 appear here in high-resolution versions.
Taken as a whole, and considered in light of prior iPhone 4 and iPod touch resolution jumps, the effect of these upgrades isn’t so much “stunning” as something between “inevitable” and “impressive.” As was the case with iOS 5.1, iOS 6 doesn’t look different running on the new iPad—it just looks better. We said back in March that the fact Apple took the time to redraw all of the old icons and UI elements suggested that new iPad users could expect few major interface changes for the next year. Seven months later, that’s proved to be correct, though we’d expect Apple is heavily weighing larger UI changes for iOS 7 in the wake of recent and major executive changes.
Once again, most of the iPad’s integrated apps—Messages, Calendar, Notes, FaceTime, Reminders, Contacts, Game Center, the iTunes Store, App Store, Photo Booth, Mail, Photos, and Music—look nearly identical across iPads, though on the Retina screens, details such as the stitching on the edges of Notes’ landscape leather folio are even sharper, while book page accents in other apps similarly look more realistic. Text is uniformly more readable, even at very small sizes, and on Retina iPads, the vision-assisting Accessibility feature now displays considerably more detail when you zoom in on anything within the iOS interface, since it’s working with four times the pixels in source material.
Several of the apps, including Maps, Videos, and Camera, now display noticeably higher-resolution images and photographs than on the iPad 2, at least under certain conditions.
On both Retina iPads, Apple’s much-maligned iOS 6 version of Maps packs considerably more detail onto the screen with only a small loading time penalty as a consequence of its added tile complexity. Unfortunately, the heavily server-dependent application constantly needs to retrieve 3-D polygon models and textures for cities, and still suffers from less than totally smooth frame rates due to its need to chug data from the Internet. While third-party 3-D applications have shown small but noticeable improvements on the fourth-generation iPad, Maps is less fluid than it could and should be.
As with the third-generation iPad, the Videos app synchronizes, streams, and displays 1080p videos in H.264 format, which do look considerably more detailed than the iPad 2’s renditions of 720p and lower-resolution H.264/MPEG-4 videos. Even when the new iPad is in portrait orientation, videos look sharper than they did in landscape mode on the original iPad and iPad 2. Large black bars persist on the top and bottom of the screen, however, as Apple’s 4:3 aspect ratio was discarded by most TV shows years ago and movies decades ago; the black bars cover more of the screen than movies playing in portrait mode.
Months ago, we noted that Apple wasn’t properly advertising the presence of 1080p videos in the iTunes Store, perhaps because there was comparatively little 1080p content available. Since then, there has been a dramatic increase in 1080p content, and Apple has been charging $15 to $20 per 1080p movie, effectively replacing previous 720p videos with larger and higher-resolution ones. It’s still the case that the only way to know that a video you’re renting or purchasing is in 1080p is to hunt for tiny “1080p HD” text on each individual listing page, however, the presumption at this point is that “HD” content is “1080p HD” content, bundled with 720p and 480p versions for older devices. While these prices continue to strike us as high, they’ve become less objectionable with the introduction of iTunes in the Cloud for movies and TV shows, enabling re-downloading of previously purchased content, as well as streaming to Apple TVs; though the bandwidth demands would likely be too much for Apple to bear, we would like to see the iPads gain direct iCloud video streaming capabilities, as well.
Starting with the third-generation iPad, Camera began to offer noise-accurate previews of the 5-Megapixel (2592 x 1936) pictures snapped by the rear camera, which sports a f/2.4 aperture and 35mm-equivalent focal length, as well as either full-screen or roughly full-resolution previews of the 2-Megapixel (1920×1080) videos the rear camera records; all of these improvements carry over to the fourth iPad, notably still without the addition of the Panorama ultra-wide still picture recording feature that’s found in the iPod touch and iPhones, but not the iPad mini or third-generation iPad. The Camera app also upscales lower-resolution 1280×720 video from the just-added front FaceTime HD camera, and while it’s still noisy, it looks sharper than on the third-generation iPad. We discuss the cameras further in a separate section of this review.
Safari benefits considerably from the iPad’s Retina display. With 2048 by 1536 pixels to play with—way more than the typical web browser window—the iPad in portrait mode makes previously tiny text detailed enough to be readable, while both orientations can display higher-definition images if the web site is capable of serving them. If not, graphics look as good as they did on earlier iPads, which is to say totally fine for almost everything, given the 9.7” size of the screen.
High-resolution updates to third-party iOS applications continue to hit the App Store every day. Thousands of titles are now Retina-ready for iPads, most frequently without major tweaks from their non-Retina interfaces, but they do look sharper than before.
Apple’s iBooks and iPhoto function identically to their iPad 2 versions but look fantastic thanks to high-resolution text and photographs. iPhoto becomes considerably more useful due to the Retina display’s higher color accuracy, enabling even professional photographers to import super high-resolution DSLR pictures, retouch them, and share them with higher finished image quality than from comparably-priced laptops.
Two-page spreads in full-color books, magazines, and similar PDF files that were previously legibility-challenged on iPads have so much additional resolution on both Retina iPads that they can be easily read without zooming in—assuming that your eyes are up to the task of reading small print. For avid readers, clean tiny text is arguably the single biggest advantage of the full-sized iPad over the iPad mini.
It’s worth a brief note that the third-generation iPad added a feature we had waited waited two years to see on its predecessors: it displays the Retina-optimized versions of iPhone and iPod touch applications, both in 1X mode and upscaled in 2X mode. While Apple really should have enabled past iPads to display the superior “2X” (960×640) iPhone/iPod Retina artwork, which would have looked very close to great on the first iPad’s or iPad 2’s 1024×768 screens, seeing the same graphics on a Retina display is better than getting stuck with the upscaled 480×320 versions that persisted for years. Only iPod/iPhone games that haven’t received Retina updates—such as Capcom’s Street Fighter IV Volt—continue to look really rough when upscaled. It’s still unclear how, if at all, the Retina iPads will handle apps created solely for Apple’s 1136×640 iPhone 5 and iPod touch 5G.
Last but not least, the fourth-generation iPad now includes Siri—a feature that was unusually rolled out in two parts when the third-generation model debuted earlier this year. Siri was the iPhone 4S’s signature “virtual personal assistant,” capable of understanding spoken commands and responding back with equally understandable speech, varying in impressiveness based on your connection to the Apple servers it requires to operate. A secondary related feature was called Dictation, which enabled the iPhone 4S to transcribe whatever you were saying in a Notes document with surprisingly high accuracy. When the third-generation iPad debuted, Apple enabled the device to use Dictation but not Siri, an omission it later remedied with the release of iOS 6.
Siri can be triggered by holding down the Home Button, resulting in the appearance of a small speech box from whatever side of the screen the Home Button is on. Siri’s new helpful reference features are discussed more fully in this iLounge article on iOS 6, but now include sports scores, restaurant lookups and reservations, movie listings, and much more. Beyond Dictation functionality, which can now be used to create Facebook posts, Tweets, and iMessages, the critical things Siri adds to an iPad are the ability to do web searches purely by voice, create alarms, reminders, or calendar events based on properly parsed spoken terms, and request driving directions without having to type things. Just as with Apple’s other Siri-capable devices, the fourth-generation iPad does a pretty good job of understanding your requests so long as the top-mounted microphone isn’t obstructed, and issues tend to be more on the server side than as a result of the microphone or iPad hardware.
To activate Dictation, you tap on a Siri-style microphone icon found on most of the iPad’s text entry keyboards. The Retina iPads’ Siri performance is pretty accurate, routinely transcribing entire sentences—occasionally full paragraphs—with only small errors, most often due to proper nouns or slurred words. Apple’s two- or three-microphone iPhones possess a small edge in accuracy within quiet rooms, and larger edges in noisier environments. While the error rate was roughly one word per sentence in our iPad testing, higher than the iPhone 4S, the time that errors required to correct was still generally less than what we would have spent typing the text properly in the first place.
Apple also leverages information in your contacts database to improve the feature’s accuracy, so we found that known street addresses, city names, and even contact names were more often than not deduced correctly; in fact, we tested Dictation by giving it a paragraph of little more than connected names and addresses, and it not only got all of them correct, but properly capitalized each proper noun, clearly based on the contact details.
The Siri and Dictation features depend upon an active Internet connection at all times; whenever the iPad goes into Airplane Mode or otherwise loses all wireless connections, pressing the Home Button brings up a “Siri not Available” notice, and the microphone key just disappears from the keyboard. Dictation requests require roughly 200KB of data usage per long paragraph, which is to say 1MB per five paragraphs, so budget data plan users may want to stick to Wi-Fi when using the feature.
The Fourth-Generation iPad: 4G LTE + 3G Cellular Performance Tests
Roughly two weeks after the release of the Wi-Fi-only fourth-generation iPad, Apple began to deliver the fourth-generation “iPad with Wi-Fi + Cellular” on November 15, 2012, officially starting in-store sales the next day. We’ve updated our otherwise complete review with several additional details on this very similar sequel, basing the following text heavily upon what we wrote for the LTE (“Long-Term Evolution”)-equipped third-generation iPad back in March, and for the similarly LTE-ready iPhone 5 in September. As we noted in the cellular section of our iPhone 5 review, AT&T and Verizon have both made significant upgrades to their LTE network footprints in the United States, and Sprint has struggled to establish LTE service in a much smaller number of cities. Consequently, while there are still significant LTE coverage gaps throughout the U.S. and world, new fourth-generation iPad users have a better chance of seeing faster cellular data speeds than did third-generation iPad users eight months ago, although it needs to be said that we saw no differences between the third- and fourth-generation iPads in LTE speed testing, while achieving similar battery results.
When we reviewed the third-generation iPad with Wi-Fi + 4G, which was quickly renamed “iPad with Wi-Fi + Cellular” following international claims of inaccurate marketing, we noted that Apple had been forced to make some compromises with its pre-2012 iPhones: thanks to an exclusive deal with Apple that locked most U.S. iPhone customers into two-year contracts, launch partner AT&T was slow to resolve dropped calls and data network issues, unwilling to support new iOS features such as tethering and FaceTime cellular video calling, and so brazenly self-interested that audiences at Apple events began to jeer when AT&T’s name came up. As soon as AT&T’s U.S. exclusivity ended, Apple added Verizon as a partner, then Sprint, though their even-slower networks didn’t prove any more satisfactory than AT&T’s—just less likely to drop calls. Only this year did the tables begin to turn: after Verizon invested in a faster and viably large LTE cellular network to compete with AT&T, Apple decided to add LTE cellular networking chips to its devices, spurring AT&T and Sprint to quickly deploy and expand rival LTE services. Regrettably, the networks are incompatible, so Apple is selling separate devices to cater to the companies’ customers.
Eight months ago, Sprint’s network was so nascent that Apple didn’t release a Sprint-specific version of the third-generation iPad, but today, there are 18 separate fourth-generation cellular iPads for sale in the United States: AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon versions, each in three different storage capacities and two different colors. Sprint’s tiny LTE network covers roughly 50 cities, and Apple apparently has produced only limited numbers of Sprint-specific iPads as a consequence; AT&T’s network covers around 110 cities, and Verizon’s now boasts 440 cities, alone covering 80% of the U.S. population—though nowhere near that much of its geographic territory. Each of the LTE-ready iPads is capable of roaming on pre-LTE UMTS, HSPA, HSPA+, DC-HSDPA, GSM, and EDGE networks if they can’t get LTE signals outside the United States; the Sprint and Verizon versions will fall back to the companies’ respective, slower EV-DO networks in non-LTE areas within the U.S., while the AT&T version defaults to the aforementioned and generally superior GSM networks. As virtually all iPads are sold unlocked at full, unsubsidized prices, customers purchase iPad data service on a month-to-month basis with no long-term contract requirements.
The international story is similar. Canadian customers get what appears to be the same device and LTE support as the AT&T version, only with universal compatibility across three different Canadian carriers (Bell, Rogers, and Telus). Buyers elsewhere in the world get generally the same LTE hardware as AT&T and Canadian customers, but must live with more limited regional and national LTE coverage for now, as carriers in many European and Asian countries still offer only 3G or pre-LTE “4G” service. Regardless of the country where the iPad was purchased, customers can generally pop out the micro SIM card tray found on the device’s upper left edge, insert a foreign carrier’s card, and pay for data each month as needed. Since the iPad’s micro SIM card is larger than the iPad mini’s nano SIM card, you can’t swap cards between the devices.
Why does the switch from 3G/4G to LTE matter? When operating on LTE networks, the third- and fourth-generation iPads promise 5X to 10X cellular speed improvements relative to their predecessors—up to 73Mbps peak performance. Although Apple’s devices don’t come close to their “theoretical maximum” speeds in most of the United States, and will fall back to much slower download and upload rates in the absence of LTE service, the 3G/4G to true LTE jumps can be shocking. On AT&T’s LTE network, we’ve seen download speeds ranging from 9.3Mbps to over 60Mbps during our testing, while uploads have varied wildly from 0.5Mbps to 20Mbps; most commonly, in areas with 2-3 bar service, the AT&T LTE service operates at 10-15Mbps for downloads and 1-15Mbps for uploads. On Verizon’s LTE networks, we generally saw 15Mbps to 30Mbps iPad download speeds that fell 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. We saw no speed differences when testing a fourth-generation AT&T LTE iPad against a third-generation model; they both appeared to be hitting the same peaks and valleys.
What all of these numbers mean is simple: if you’re able to access LTE, your iPad’s cellular connection may be faster than what it achieves using basic or mid-priced broadband over a Wi-Fi network. Cellular companies understand that this might compel customers to prefer their service to cable broadband providers—more frequently offering unlimited or nearly unlimited data service in the United States—so they impose significant price caps. iPad data plans generally start at $15 or $20 depending on the carrier, with a miserly 250-300MB of data per month, and take $10, $15, or $20 jumps in price each step up the rung as they climb to 2, 3, or 5GB of data usage. Each Verizon plan lets you use your iPad as a Personal Hotspot and as a FaceTime Over Cellular video calling device for no additional charge; AT&T restricts Mobile Hotspot and FaceTime Over Cellular use to its more expensive plans.
As we’ve previously noted in reviewing Apple LTE devices, there are some big hitches that cloud the choice of a given LTE network relative to others. First, users outside of major metropolitan areas may have issues accessing LTE networks. Second, although Verizon’s LTE network is much larger than its rivals, you may have serious problems if you’re in an area with spotty coverage. Going from 15-30Mbps to 1Mbps based on LTE coverage gaps is brutal—the only reason AT&T’s smaller LTE network remains a viable alternative. When you fall off of AT&T’s LTE towers, you still use its 3G/4G network, which is faster than Verizon’s 3G network, just as its LTE network tends to be a little faster than Verizon’s if you can get onto it. Even though you’re paying roughly the same price for data services, you’ll probably get faster speeds on AT&T’s networks and more service flexibility from Verizon’s; Sprint remains a wildcard because of its tiny LTE footprint.
In our testing, AT&T’s non-LTE “4G” (HSPA+) download speeds for the new iPad were consistent with the iPhone 4S and “4G” network of the iPhone 5, ranging between 3.36Mbps to 7.97Mbps for downloads, most commonly resting in the 4.5Mbps download zone. For reasons unknown, 4G upload speeds for the third- and fourth-generation iPad were markedly slower than with the iPhone 5—around 1/3 of the 3Mbps upload rate the phone achieved. On the Bell network in Canada, our Canadian editor has recorded comparatively impressive iPad speeds between 14-21Mbps for downloads and a similarly broad 1.75 to 6.43Mbps for uploads, most often in the 4Mbps range.
As we noted with the third-generation iPad, the fourth-generation iPad with Wi-Fi + Cellular can achieve surprisingly strong battery life when using an LTE network, beating Apple’s estimates. Given Apple’s “nine-hour” cellular battery promise, we were pleased to confirm that the new model ran for 10 hours and 5 minutes of once-per-minute web page loading with a two-bar connection to AT&T’s LTE network, which was right in line with the 10% battery loss per hour LTE results we saw back in March. While this 10-plus-hour number is higher than the 9 hours and 21 minutes we saw during 4G testing back in March, the difference is partially attributable to the reduced time and power the cellular hardware uses when loading the same content faster over LTE; users with stronger or weaker cellular signals will see some variation here. Full-sized iPad users can expect to achieve one to two hours of additional cellular battery life relative to the iPad mini, the Verizon version of which ran for 8 hours and 11 minutes of continuous LTE web browsing before requiring a recharge.
Which iPad with Wi-Fi + Cellular is right for you? From our perspective, Verizon’s and AT&T’s versions are neck and neck for different reasons, and Sprint’s is a step behind unless you live in a place with Sprint LTE service. As of today, the Verizon iPad has the highest 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. Moreover, it offers hotspot and FaceTime Over Cellular features that AT&T lacks. If there’s no Verizon LTE service where you live, work, or travel, however, Verizon’s 3G performance falls so short of AT&T’s 3G/4G speeds that we’d call the results intolerably slow. You may get faster LTE service from AT&T if both are available; then again, based on how neighborhood-specific the LTE towers are right now, maybe not.
You’ll have to choose the cellular provider 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 cellular iPad choice, and speeds will vary based on location.
The choice between the new cellular-equipped iPad mini and fourth-generation iPad versions is trickier. Despite Apple’s claims of identical 10-hour Wi-Fi and 9-hour cellular battery life, the full-sized iPad comes closer to those numbers than the iPad mini, though you’ll have to decide for yourself whether an hour or two less of run time matters more than shaving off so much size and weight. Given the choice between models, we’d generally opt for the iPad mini at this point, though it’s a close call; users who value screen quality over smaller size and weight should give the full-sized iPad more serious consideration.
The Fourth-Generation iPad: A New Front Camera + Old Rear Camera
In the third-generation iPad, Apple addressed the more serious of two problems it wrought with the release of the iPad 2: it gave the tablet front and rear cameras, but selected such awful sensors that the images didn’t look good on that device’s lower-resolution screen. One year later, it replaced the 1.2-Megapixel rear camera with a very capable 5-Megapixel version, similar to what was included with the older iPhone 4, but with a few upgrades. This time, it has replaced the 640×480 front camera with a superior 1.2-Megapixel version, enabling the fourth-generation iPad to record 1280×720 videos, and display superior-quality FaceTime HD images during video chats.
While the new FaceTime HD camera (shown in the first image above) doesn’t look as remarkable when upscaled to a 2048×1536 display as it does on Apple’s smaller-screened devices, still and video captures show tangible improvements in quality. Hair, images, and the edges of objects tend to look sharper and clearer than they did before, rather than blotchy or smeared; the quality is nearly identical to the iPad mini’s front camera. Noise from the relatively low-end sensor Apple chose is still quite obvious, but your eyes will likely be drawn more to the good parts in your images—better-looking faces, primarily—than the issues. This new camera is better for self-portraits and for 720p video recording than the prior version, but the rear camera’s considerably superior on both counts. Apple continues to include the Photo Booth application to let you process photos for fun.
The rear iSight camera introduced in the third-generation iPad has been left in place for the fourth-generation model, so we have not reshot the sample photos here. This camera has a 5-Megapixel sensor that uses rear illumination, a tighter design, and a lens that together enable higher resolution, improved low light performance, and more dynamic color rendition relative to the iPad 2. The lens is a little larger than the one in the iPad mini, assisting on the margin in capturing ever so slightly less motion-blurred images, or shifting to one step lower ISO.
In bright light, the iPhone 4, 4S, and Retina iPad cameras take extremely similar photographs, though colors look a little more artificially saturated on the iPhone 4 relative to the iPhone 4S and Retina iPad, and the iPhone 4S reduces grain-like noise beyond the levels of the other two, also offering slightly better optical resolution. The iPhone 5’s camera (discussed in detail here) is considerably better in low light and color rendition; the Retina iPad camera results are very similar to the fifth-generation iPod touch and new iPad mini.
Dim lighting yields more grain on both the iPhone 4 and Retina iPads 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 Retina iPads relative to their predecessors, which effectively had a fixed lens without autofocus or macro capabilities. Just like the iPhone 4 and 4S, the Retina iPads are 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 Retina iPads 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.
Also found in the Retina iPads’ rear camera is 1080p video recording—something missing from both the lower-resolution iPad 2 sensor and the otherwise similar iPhone 4 sensor. The differences between the iPhone 4 and Retina iPads’ rear video recordings are primarily in resolution: the iPhone 4 is limited to 720p output, or half the pixels the Retina iPads can record. Videos recorded by the iPhone 4S and Retina iPads 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. Notably, the iPhone 5’s otherwise improved still camera performance is not matched by major differences in video camera performance; it’s marginally better, nothing more.
Overall, we’d call the Retina iPad’s rear camera just good enough to be used for documenting events if you’re not carrying something better around; however, there’s definitely something to be said for the fact that you can 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.
The Fourth-Generation iPad: Bluetooth, AirPlay, Lightning + Other Accessories
The third-generation iPad marked the family’s shift from the well-known Bluetooth 2.1 wireless standard to its much newer, backwards-compatible successor Bluetooth 4.0, also known as Bluetooth Smart. Back we reviewed that iPad, there were no actual Bluetooth 4 accessories, and in the seven months that have passed since then, we’ve been able to test a grand total of three: one speaker, one heart rate monitor, and one “find my car” accessory. While the critical promised benefits of Bluetooth 4 are an incredible power savings for future accessories, and faster pairing, the technology is still in early stages—something that we expect will be changing in a big way starting in January.
Performance with Bluetooth 3 and 4 accessories was exactly as expected. Bluetooth 3 accessories such as Bluetrek’s Carbon headset benefit primarily from rapid pairing, such that the iPad almost immediately knows that they’re disconnected and re-pairs with devices within a second or so of powering on. SuperTooth’s Disco 2, a Bluetooth 4 speaker, sometimes re-pairs so quickly that the sound hasn’t even finished playing its power-on chime.
While Bluetooth 2 accessories take a little longer to pair, they continue to make rapid connections with the fourth-generation iPad for audio streaming, and as was the case before, the iPad remains a champ for broadcasting distance, often enabling devices rated for 33-foot performance to work at 60-foot distances thanks to the strength of its wireless signal. Bluetooth remains a reliable tool for streaming data and audio to and from the latest iPads—quicker and more versatile than Apple’s competing AirPlay standard, and with more reasonably priced accessories.
Lightning. From an accessory standpoint, the most significant change to the fourth-generation iPad is the replacement of its Dock Connector with a Lightning port—a change that doesn’t seem necessary right now for any reason, other than to generate demand for additional Lightning accessories. Because of this change, you’ll need to buy a $29-$39 Lightning to 30-Pin Adapter from Apple to use past Dock Connector accessories such as docking speakers, the iPad Camera Connection Kit, or high-end car audio accessories; video accessories won’t work, and anything with a native Lightning connector built in will require a brand new purchase, typically at a higher price than before.
Although Apple has not as yet enabled developers to build their own Lightning accessories, the company is selling its own options, including $49 VGA and Digital AV/HDMI Adapters, $29-$39 Lightning to Dock Connector Adapters, $19 Lightning to USB Cables and Micro USB Adapters, and two separate $29 camera accessories—an SD Card Reader and a USB Camera Adapter—that were previously sold in a single $29 package. Most of the other accessories sell at $10 to $20 premiums over their prior versions, as well. We would call the generally outrageous prices of these accessories the single biggest reason to consider passing on the fourth-generation iPad; unless you really need the A6X chip’s extra horsepower or the improved front camera for some reason, you’ll save money buying the last iPad at a discount, and sticking to its comparatively huge ecosystem of less expensive accessories.
One area in which Lightning could conceivably beat out the older Dock Connector standard would be in transfer speeds, but thus far, the evidence hasn’t suggested that the Lightning connector is actually responsible for major speed improvements. Tests with iTunes 10.7 showed transfer speeds to be roughly neck-and-neck: in a direct comparison, it took 46 seconds plus a 6 second “preparing to update” pause for iTunes to transfer 1GB of media content to the fourth iPad, versus 52 seconds of total time to transfer the same content to the third iPad.
Moreover, we were initially excited to see the fourth iPad tear through a photo import task with the recently introduced Lightning to SD Card Camera Reader, transferring 188MB with 100 photos in an impressive 33 seconds—exactly one-third the time the same photos took to transfer to the third-generation iPad with the iPad Camera Connection Kit’s SD Card Reader. Then we repeated the same iPad Camera Connection Kit test on the fourth iPad using a Lightning to 30-Pin Adapter, and the speed was 32 seconds. The difference wasn’t Lightning, but rather a quiet throughput improvement in the iPad itself; the same Lightning to SD Card Camera Reader notably took around twice as long to transfer the same set of photos to the iPad mini.
It’s also worth noting that the transition to Lightning has, at least for now, eliminated one of Apple’s classic accessories: the iPad Dock. Apple released a dock for the iPad, then a sequel for the iPad 2 that also fit the third-generation iPad. No updated version has been released for the fourth-generation iPad, and Apple suggested that none was forthcoming for the iPhone, due to a lack of user interest. In general, it’s fair to suggest that docking accessories already weren’t as popular for the iPad as they were for Apple’s earlier devices, and that the decline of wired solutions will only continue as wireless syncing, audio, and video continue to become more mainstream—particularly if Lightning docking accessories remain overpriced.
Battery Accessories. Due to the third- and fourth-generation iPads’ tremendous increase in battery capacity relative to the iPad and iPad 2, battery packs that were previously capable of recharging the first- and second-generation models either to a 50% or 100% level will generally refuel only half as much of the Retina iPads’ power. As just one example, Just Mobile’s 2.1-Amp, 5,200mAh version of Gum Plus offers a roughly 50% recharge for the iPad 2, but in our testing, the same accessory only refueled 25% of the third-generation iPad’s battery before running out, while requiring roughly the same amount of time. The fourth-generation iPad requires roughly the same amount of power to recharge as its predecessor, but as discussed on the next page of this review, refueled a little faster.
Apple TV and Third-Party AirPlay Accessories. The second- and third-generation Apple TV are impressive wireless receivers for music, photos, and videos streamed from iPads and other iOS devices. In our testing, Apple-mastered videos streamed to Apple TVs without issues, regardless of whether they were 1080p streaming to the third-generation Apple TV, 720p streaming to the second-generation Apple TV, or the converses; the third-generation iPad even delivers a respectable 720p stream of 1080p videos that can be watched on a second-generation Apple TV.
We noted back in March that we’d noticed major frame rate problems when using the third-generation iPad to play Real Racing 2 HD over AirPlay using the Apple TV—specifically a degraded video signal with obvious macroblocking at the center of the screen. In testing the fourth-generation iPad, we continued to see similar issues. Despite smoother on-iPad graphics in titles such as Infinity Blade II, the same game can stutter and become nearly unplayable when streaming wirelessly in realtime to a television. For whatever reason, this problem appears to be worse on the fourth iPad than the third iPad, which as of now isn’t totally smooth, but is still playable. What was once fast becoming a major asset of Apple’s devices for gamers is in danger of losing all of its steam if Apple TV AirPlay Mirroring isn’t fixed soon. Thankfully, Mirroring works well enough for non-gaming apps, and also continues to deliver acceptable if not pristine results when streaming movies and TV shows from the iPad to a television. An overhaul of AirPlay Mirroring with proper support for high-definition videos would really be welcome.
Cases and Screen Film. Cases that fit the third-generation iPad will fit the fourth-generation model perfectly, doing nothing worse than leaving a larger hole around the new Lightning port on the bottom. Since many cases designed for the iPad 2 also fit the third-generation model, there’s a huge collection of different options to consider—hundreds of them are shown in our iPad Accessory Gallery. Apple’s iPad Smart Cover, introduced with the iPad 2, continues to work for both Retina-equipped iPads as well.
Since screen film can reduce the appearance of smudges and glare on the tablet’s front glass, past iPads benefitted tremendously from anti-glare films made by a handful of Japanese and Korean companies. Unfortunately, seven months after the third-generation iPad debuted, these companies have not been able to come up with an ideal anti-glare solution for Retina iPads, as the diffusing films blur or diffract light in a manner that causes a sparkly, rainbow-like “prismatic” effect when placed on the iPads’ screens. For the time being, companies such as Spigen SGP are releasing good if not perfect alternatives in the form of glare-reducing micro-lens film, and glossy films that protect the screen against scratches but generally don’t reduce glare or fingerprint smudges. We continue to hope that a developer comes up with a better solution, and soon.
The Fourth-Generation iPad: New Battery + Charging Speeds, Still Running Warm
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 generally run excellent software fluidly and for a surprising number of hours given their atypically small sizes.
The third- and fourth-generation iPads are a somewhat different story. Each of the Retina models contains the sort of impressive, energy-sipping chips we’ve seen across prior iOS devices, and both are more powerful thanks to their new four-core graphics processors. Unfortunately, the new screen and graphics processors consume a lot of energy, a problem that led Apple to switch the third-gen iPad to a 11,560mAh (42.5-watt-hour) battery with around 70% more power than earlier iPads’ 6,930mAh (25-watt-hour) batteries, just to keep its promised “10 hour” run times nearly constant. Then, with the fourth-gen iPad, Apple felt compelled to keep pushing for additional performance rather than shrinking the A5X and reducing its power requirements, so it retains the oversized battery and related consequences.
As we noted back in March, the third-generation iPad matches rather than exceeds its predecessors, getting 9-10-hour run times under common usage scenarios. The fourth-generation iPad achieved similar run times to its predecessor, sometimes falling short, and at other times pulling ahead.
With the third-generation iPad, 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—just ahead of Apple’s 10-hour promise. The fourth-generation iPad fell modestly below Apple’s number, hitting 9 hours and 54 minutes on the same test.
Cellular. While we noted variations between LTE and 3G/4G battery drain rates with the third-generation iPad with Wi-Fi + Cellular—the third-generation 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—and the third-generation AT&T iPad with Wi-Fi + 4G ran for 9 hours and 21 minutes of “4G” web browsing, the fourth-generation model ran for 10 hours and 5 minutes of LTE browsing with two bars of AT&T LTE signal. LTE enables the device to load pages considerably faster than 3G or 4G, which leaves the device idling longer, draining less power.
Video. The third-generation iPad played videos for 12 hours and 56 minutes with Wi-Fi on, and a similar 13 hours and 26 minutes with Wi-Fi off, both numbers well above Apple’s 10-hour promise. By comparison, the fourth-generation iPad ran for 13 hours and 52 minutes with Wi-Fi off, a welcome improvement.
FaceTime Calling. The fourth-generation iPad ran for 8 hours and 56 minutes of FaceTime calling, up a full hour from the third-generation model’s 7 hours and 55 minutes.
Gaming and Mixed-Use Testing. Our gaming test is 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 on the third-generation iPad, a nearly two-hour drop relative to the iPad 2-optimized version of Infinity Blade we tested in 2012. The fourth-generation iPad ran Infinity Blade II for 6 hours and 21 minutes, falling just a little short of the prior mark in the same way as the Wi-Fi browsing test we ran.
Although the raw web and video tests would suggest that the roughly “10 hour” estimate Apple promised was right on target or maybe a little conservative, many months of real-world mixed-use testing of the third-generation iPad demonstrated that it was just a little optimistic. Unlike the iPad and iPad 2, which seemed to keep running and running, we frequently found ourselves at the 40-50% marks on the third-generation iPad’s battery meter after only three or four hours of actual use following complete recharges, a problem exacerbated by the model’s long charging time. Our real-world testing of the fourth iPad is still ongoing, but we’re pretty certain that its run time will be in line with its predecessor, which is to say a little below the first two iPads—a trend that hopefully will not continue in the next model.
Battery Charging: An Issue, Partially Remedied
When we reviewed the third-generation iPad, we noted that Apple had effectively concealed the device’s unexpectedly extended recharging time; the original iPad models refueled in 3.5 to 4 hours with Apple’s 10W iPad chargers, but the first Retina display model instead took around 6.5 hours—an issue that Apple could have remedied with a more powerful charger, but didn’t. Thankfully, Apple has addressed the issue this time by actually bundling a more powerful 12W USB Power Adapter in the package, capable of 2.5-Amp output versus the 2.1-Amp output of its 2010-vintage predecessor. It turns out that the third iPad is compatible with the extra juice put out by the 12W Adapter, and refuels more quickly than before—shaving off an hour, down to 5 hours and 28 minutes. And the fourth iPad recharged in 5 hours and 6 minutes in our testing with a 12W Adapter, versus 5 hours and 41 minutes with the older 10W Adapter. This obviously isn’t as fast as the first two iPads, but it’s better than before.
The only issue is that the core problem—the huge, slow-charging battery required by the power-hungriness of the A5X and A6X chips—hasn’t gone away. Plug the fourth-gen iPad into any of the speakers, car chargers, or other “Made for iPad” 2.1-Amp accessories released since 2010 and you’ll find that it still takes around 6.5 hours to recharge fully; if you’re using the iPad while it’s recharging off the USB port of any computer other than a recent Mac, you may find that it can’t get enough USB power to keep up with whatever you’re doing. So while Apple deserves credit for at least tossing in a charger capable of more quickly refueling the latest iPad, 5-hour recharging times still aren’t great, and the need for new accessories just to achieve that time speaks to obvious re-engineering needs for the next full-sized iPad.
As we noted in our last review, the third-generation iPad can run roughly 10 degrees hotter than the iPad 2, a difference that was obvious but from our perspective not a show-stopper. Some people speculated last time that the heat was LTE-related, however, we traced it to the third iPad’s A5X processor—an issue that was particularly evident during intense 3-D gaming—and our suspicions were subsequently confirmed by thermal scans of the tablet.
We guessed that “it will remain an issue until Apple releases new iPad hardware,” and expected that Apple would actually fix it; instead, in response to numerous media and customer inquiries, the company put out a statement suggesting that the iPad was “operating well within our thermal specifications,” and proceeded to let the fourth-generation iPad run warm, as well. The heat continues to emanate from the bottom left corner, and is particularly apparent during gaming and other heavy uses of the A6X processor. Once again, this isn’t a life or death issue, and the latest iPad never becomes truly “hot” to the touch, but it’s certainly noticeable. We continue to hope that Apple will fix this in the next iPad hardware update.
Rating the fourth-generation iPad presents a challenge that has come up several times before with new Apple products: how strong of a recommendation can we offer for a product that is substantially the same as its predecessor, improving in some ways while taking steps back in others? And there’s a new challenge: how strongly should we recommend the fourth-generation iPad given its predecessor’s unusually short life span? Should these factors be completely ignored, treating the fourth-generation iPad as if it was a wholly new product in a vacuum, or should they be taken heavily into account, serving as warnings to consumers that the times are a-changing at Apple? Our answer: give the new iPad a fair shake as a standalone product, but take the changing tablet market into account, as well.
Those who will be most inclined to love the fourth-generation iPad are first-time iPad customers and people seeking a more powerful upgrade from the original iPad or iPad 2. For these users, the latest iPad contains such substantial upgrades in most regards—screen quality, speed, both cameras, and wireless functionality—that its three key issues, namely battery life, recharging time, and the pricey consequences of the new Lightning port—will seem comparatively trivial. Had the fourth-generation iPad been released seven months ago, it might have been perceived as so polished and improved in most regards that it would have merited a flat A; with the exception of adding storage capacity, reducing its weight, and getting the A6X chip to run a little cooler, there wouldn’t have been a lot else to ask for.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, Apple released the third-generation iPad, which as we said seven months ago “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.” The last iPad already brought most of this model’s marquee features to an eager group of early adopters—loyal fans who in some cases now feel justifiably burned by their investments in a rapidly discontinued model. With the fourth-generation iPad, Apple didn’t just interrupt its standard one-year upgrade interval with a sequel; it did so with a product equivalent to the “enhanced fifth-generation iPod” or “third-generation iPod touch,” all but forgotten models that showed up at the same price points as their predecessors, with little more than processor upgrades to differentiate them. That said, the new iPad is for the time being Apple’s flagship iOS product, so developers will begin to optimize their games for the more powerful A6X rather than the A5X. Third-gen iPad users can content themselves with the large array of Dock Connector accessories that are already in the marketplace (and likely headed for their own discounts), as well as Bluetooth and AirPlay wireless options that will continue to be developed and viable for the foreseeable future.
Despite the fact that the third-generation model merited an A- seven months ago, and the new version is more powerful, there’s little question at this point that the iPad is no longer the only worthwhile tablet on the market. Put aside the less expensive Android-based tablets that are not going away or staying as mediocre as last year’s entries, despite Apple’s suggestions of “failure” to the contrary—at this point, the new iPad mini delivers such a compelling experience for old and new users that the full-sized iPad needs a serious rethinking. While the iPad mini lacks for the iPad’s Retina resolution, and its battery life in some situations will fall shorter, it is a remarkably competent and arguably more convenient option for many people: 10 hours of run time for key tasks, with the ability to fully recharge in less than 3 hours if needed, and compatibility with virtually every iPad application out there. It took rival $199-$249 tablets with high-resolution screens and their own market appeal to make people ask whether larger, heavier tablets were really necessary, and a significant fraction of the population will skew towards them and the iPad mini. We strongly suspect that Apple understands this, and is using the fourth-generation iPad as the last hurrah for the old enclosure, battery, and “big processor” as we’ve known them; a lighter but at least equally powerful fifth-generation model carrying on similar design language from the mini and iPod touch seems inevitable.
All of this is to say that the fourth-generation iPad doesn’t strike us as a must-buy tablet right now; in fact, it feels like the last gasp for a design Apple knows that it needs to reinvent thoroughly next year. It is undeniably a faster device than its recent predecessor, and apart from the still underwhelming battery performance and as-yet-unnecessary Lightning connector, it would be easy to recommend more highly in a world without the iPad mini. But if we were shopping this holiday season, we’d be more likely to grab iPad minis, instead. Smaller, lighter designs are the iPad’s future, and although the fourth-generation iPad is the shiniest and most expensive new thing Apple’s offering, the iPad mini points in the direction the company and industry should take going forward.
iPad (4th-Gen) with Wi-Fi
iPad (4th-Gen) with Wi-Fi + Cellular
Company and Price
Company: Apple Inc.
Model: iPad (Fourth-Generation)
Price: $499-$699 Wi-Fi / $629-$829 4G
Compatible: PC / Mac / iCloud