Pros: Includes everything found in last year’s excellent iPad 2, plus more: a dramatically superior, groundbreaking 2048×1536 screen, faster graphics processor, much improved 5-Megapixel rear camera, and reasonably good voice dictation. Screen and rear camera offer particularly pronounced upgrades from prior models, enabling iPad to perform full-resolution HDTV content, record full HD 1080p videos, and snap cleaner, more detailed still photos. Runs virtually all prior iPad applications without hiccups, and updated versions with much-improved detail and richer colors; graphics can now look photorealistic, roughly equivalent to printed paper. Finally adds ability to display iPhone/iPod touch Retina apps at full resolution, missing from prior models. New “4G” versions are capable of dramatically faster cellular speeds when on LTE, in some cases outperforming conventional wired broadband connections. Improved headphone port audio. Still available in two colors, with familiar design that’s substantially compatible with iPad 2 cases and accessories, and similar (though not identical) battery longevity.
Cons: Power-hungry new screen and graphics processor require 70% larger battery pack to maintain prior run times, resulting in dramatically longer recharging – roughly 6.5 hours versus prior iPad’s 3.5 hours – when using iPad-certified chargers, and leading to warmth on part of the rear aluminum casing during normal use; like original iPad, additional seasonal heat may lead to overheating-related device shutdowns. Fails to include new, faster wall charger to accommodate larger battery; most computer USB ports won’t recharge tablet when in use. Availability of LTE networks remains spotty, leading to extremely uneven, sometimes halting cellular performance from neighborhood to neighborhood when transitioning from LTE to older networks, and users without LTE will see small speed benefits at best. Front camera remains low-resolution. Voice dictation is less accurate than on iPhone 4S, varying with ambient noise levels. Apart from superior resolution, user interface looks identical to prior models. Storage capacities remain unchanged despite greater demands of high-resolution apps and videos.
Apple’s first two iPads were barnstormers. Prior to its actual release, the original iPad (iLounge Ratings: A- (Wi-Fi) / B+ (3G)) was dismissed by many critics as pointless, mocked for—remember this?—its name, and questioned by Apple’s competitors because of its sparing approach to connector ports. Yet by the time the iPad 2 (iLounge Rating: A-/B+/B) was released, the first version was already so popular that rivals were lining up to clone it, which Apple anticipated by streamlining the sequel’s body, radically improving its performance, and adding twin cameras. These changes led to another surge in sales, and left only a few obvious things unaddressed: the 1024×768 screen, which looked good rather than cutting-edge, the cameras, which were pretty poor, and the weight, which while lighter than the original’s was still too heavy to hand-hold for extended periods. Apple had released two genuinely great devices in a row, but as always, there was room for improvement.
There’s a familiar story to tell about the third-generation iPad ($499-$829), which Apple alternately calls “iPad” or “the new iPad” rather than “iPad 3.” It looks and feels largely the same as its predecessors, taking several steps forward in certain areas while falling a couple steps back in others. As was the case with the iPhone 4 to 4S transition, the new iPad’s chassis appears indistinguishable from the iPad 2’s unless you line them up and closely inspect their backs and camera holes. Only then might you notice that the third iPad is a hint thicker than its predecessor, and equipped with a slightly larger rear glass lens than before. The front white- or black-painted glass looks exactly the same, as do the ports, buttons, and holes for speaker and microphone components; you’d be hard-pressed to tell them apart until you turned them on.
But at that point, the differences start to become clear—in large part because of the new iPad’s screen. Deemed a “Retina display” by Apple, the 9.7” screen has a resolution of 2048×1536, or 264 pixels per inch: so many tiny colored dots that, unlike the first two iPads, they cannot be individually distinguished at typical or even unrealistically close viewing distances by the human eye. Apple uses the term “2x” for the resolution change, but there are actually four times the dots in the new screen, and the difference is stark: photographs and text on old iPads looked obviously digital, but now, they look almost as clear as printed versions on paper. Videos look as detailed on the third iPad as they do on huge high-definition TVs, but the tablet can be carried in a backpack, watched from your lap, and placed on any nightstand—or all three, whenever you desire. Apple also added a faster graphics processor and more RAM to offset the resolution jumps, as well as optional 4G LTE cellular chips in freshly-anointed “iPad with Wi-Fi + 4G” models.
Unlike the iPad 2, which jumped beyond its predecessor in power and features while shrinking, the new iPad arrives with noteworthy consequences. In past designs, Apple ruthlessly fixated on shrinking prior designs while eking out modest performance gains—“lighter and thinner” became a tradition for next-generation Apple products. The third-generation iPad breaks that tradition. It’s an admittedly trivial 0.6mm thicker, and also a tenth of a pound heavier, packed with a 70% larger battery that takes nearly twice as long to recharge. While some have blamed 4G LTE cellular chips for the added power drain, our testing suggests that the new screen and graphics processor are actually more responsible, the latter making one side of the iPad warm to the touch during regular use. Due to the power drain, accessories that used to easily refuel the iPad in a car now struggle to do so, and more users will notice that the iPad loses power when connected to their computers’ USB ports. Additionally, despite the larger file sizes of videos, photos, and apps optimized for the new display, the third-generation iPads’ storage capacity remains unchanged from prior models at 16, 32, and 64GB. These are issues that Apple unquestionably will attempt to address in next year’s update.
As is always the case, iLounge’s full review of the third-generation iPad was produced independently from Apple, as we do not participate in the company’s pre-release review program. We purchased seven new final production iPads for testing, including three with Wi-Fi and four with Wi-Fi + 4G; two were built for AT&T’s LTE network, one for Verizon’s, and the last for Canadian LTE networks. Due to the substantial similarities between the new iPad and its predecessor, we’ve opted to focus substantially on their differences, with limited recaps of well-established and otherwise unchanged features. In short, the new iPad is—like its predecessors—an exceptionally capable, market-leading product that has no true peer, and few reasons besides the inevitable release of an improved sequel to hold off on a purchase. However, Apple’s latest design is again saddled with small issues that are as obviously in need of being addressed as the ones we noted in last year’s model. The only question is whether they’re important enough to you to wait another year—maybe more, maybe less—for the company to address them.
The New iPad: Packaging, Design Basics + Pack-Ins
Though we learned back in January that the new iPad would look nearly identical to the iPad 2, we were nonetheless surprised at how similar their packaging has remained. Whereas the original iPad’s box was filled with an image of the device’s screen, both the second- and third-generation models have largely white fronts with the same angled side view of the iPad, de-emphasizing the screens in favor of showing off their tapered right sides. This angle enables 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 photography renders invisible. All that’s changed on the front is the iPad’s screen: the iPad 2’s box showed a gray-screened device, while the new iPad’s box depicts a blue-screened tablet, alternating between a white or black bezel depending on the color of the model inside.
As with the iPhone 4S’s package, what was once an Apple logo on the bottom edge has been replaced with an iCloud badge in matching silver foil, while the iPad name remains untouched in dark gray on the box’s left and right sides, and a foil Apple logo remains 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 required download of iTunes 10.6—up from 10.1.2 on the iPad 2.
The new iPad’s body looks virtually identical to the iPad 2’s. Apple still uses a single piece of 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. None of these elements have changed in any discernible way.
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. The taper has changed only subtly to accommodate the 0.6mm of added thickness, which brings the new iPad to 0.37” versus the iPad 2’s 0.34”—such a small difference that photographs can barely capture it.
Markings on the back are unchanged apart from numerical tweaks, while a large Apple logo remains centered, gleaming like black chrome. The rear camera lens remains in the same place below the top Sleep/Wake Button, increasing in diameter to match the slightly larger glass lens of the iPhone 4S, while 4G 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 models both have micro-SIM card trays in the same location next to the top headphone port, with barely larger tray ejection holes on their sides; the tray’s presence is only a change from the SIM-less Verizon CDMA iPad 2 to the Verizon third-generation iPad.
Cosmetically, the changes from model to model are so modest that you’d almost have to be obsessive to care about them—they’re not noticeable when the new 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 model’s slight weight jump from 1.33 pounds to 1.44 pounds, or the 4G models’ jump from 1.34/1.35 pounds to 1.46 pounds; both 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.
Speaker performance is the same from model to model; 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 louder and clearer than the iPhone 4S’s, no improvements are apparent in the new version. By comparison, headphone port audio sounds a little better. A clicking noise that was evident every time headphones were connected has been fixed in the new iPad, and small improvements have been made to the treble and mid-treble definition, as well, which we noticed when testing with top-of-the-line Ultimate Ears earphones.
Apple’s pack-ins remain almost entirely unchanged. The company continues to ship the new iPad with the same 10W USB Power Adapter as was sold with its two predecessors—down to a 2010 trademark and copyright notice on one of its edges—as well as a three-foot USB to Dock Connector cable (with increased strain relief joints introduced with the iPhone 4S last year), instruction manuals, and in the case of the 4G versions, a micro-SIM card with a 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.
The similarity of these pack-ins is noteworthy for two reasons. First, Apple was rumored to be considering bigger changes, such as a radically revised Dock Connector plug and the removal of the micro-SIM card in favor of a purely software-based cellular registration option, but didn’t pull the trigger on either of them this year. Second, Apple could have opted to ship a more powerful wall adapter with the new and power-hungrier iPad, as it does with its larger-batteried MacBook computers, but didn’t. As a result, the new iPad takes much longer to recharge than its predecessors, as further discussed below.
The New iPad: The Screen, CPU + GPU
As is generally the case when Apple keeps the housing of a product the same, the new iPad has changed a lot under the hood. But the differences all need to be experienced up close; if you’re five feet away from both devices’ screens, you mightn’t even notice that anything’s different. The third-generation iPad launched with the same iOS 5.1 operating system that was released a week earlier for the iPad and iPad 2, retains the same fonts, icons, backgrounds, and apps, plays the same games, and displays the same web pages. What’s new, of course, is four times the visual detail in almost everything that appears on screen. Take note of the word “almost.”
Apple did something crazy with the new iPad’s display: rather than taking the modest iterative approach that numerous companies—historically including Apple, particularly in past iPods—have adopted for second- or third-generation devices, the new iPad has rapidly achieved a quantum and 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 has used over the years for almost all of its more expensive MacBooks—the company instead retained the past iPads’ 4:3 aspect ratio and quadrupled the pixel count to surpass the resolutions of HDTVs. As was noted during its introduction, the new iPad’s 2048×1536 screen actually has 3.1 million pixels, or 1 million pixels more than the best HDTV in your house. Only Apple’s most expensive iMacs and standalone monitors offer higher resolutions, and then, they’re 27” on the diagonal and weigh between 23 and 31 pounds.
There are numerous ways to quantify the new iPad’s resolution, but it suffices to say that the screen can display more detail than the rear screen on any digital camera, phone, digital media player, or even every MacBook computer—including the current top-of-the-line MacBook Pro, which sells for $2,500 and peaks at an HDTV-like 1920×1200 pixels. The new iPad’s screen has a pixel density of 264 pixels per inch, higher than any Apple device save the most recent iPhones and iPod touch. 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. Moreover, 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— and yet, it’s here at the same price points as last year’s iPads.
Given what it has achieved in resolution, it was somewhat surprising that Apple hasn’t attempted to otherwise quantify the screen’s performance beyond a claimed 44% greater color saturation than its predecessor. It hasn’t promised 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—enough to make professionally shot photographs look like blotchy messes—we were concerned.
There’s good news and bad news here. Judged solely on color, the third-generation iPad’s screen (above, right) is better overall than its predecessor (above, left). At peak brightness, the new iPad’s 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.
It should be mentioned that the improved color saturation is far less noticeable when the new iPad and earlier iPads 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. 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 were literally 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 new 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.
Another surprise concerns the chips Apple chose to include in the new iPad. Rather than radically departing from the A5 processor found in the iPad 2, Apple largely carried it over to this model, naming its new chip “A5X.” Notably, the company describes the new iPad as having “quad-core graphics” but not a quad-core CPU, which is accurate because Apple has kept the same 1 GHz ARM Cortex-A9 dual-core processor, augmenting it with a four-core Power VR SGX543MP4. This is the same graphics processor as the iPad 2, only with twice the processing cores, and 1GB of RAM rather than the previous 512MB. (For those keeping count, these specifications place the third-generation iPad in the same ballpark as Sony’s PlayStation Vita handheld game console, with a nearly identical CPU and GPU, more RAM, and a higher-resolution display, but half the CPU cores.)
While all of these numbers and letters can easily become confusing, the key things you need to know are as follows. Higher-resolution screens require more RAM and more powerful graphics chips just to keep up with the work of updating all the additional pixels. Since the third-generation iPad has four times the pixels of the prior models, one might imagine that it needs four times the RAM and four times the graphics processing power in order for its visuals to remain as fluid at the higher resolution. However, that’s not actually the case, so long as the prior-generation model was designed with more RAM and GPU power than its screen needed. The original iPad’s screen had no problems with 256MB of RAM or a considerably less powerful, single-core PowerVR SGX535. This iPad has four times the RAM and four times the GPU cores of the original model, with faster RAM and more capable cores.
Comparative testing with unoptimized GLBenchmark 1.1.7 benchmarking software suggests that the new iPad enjoys 1.5- to 1.9-billion texel per second fill rates, versus 0.91- to 0.97-billion texels on the iPad 2, with superior lighting capabilities when dealing with more on-screen objects. Almost everything else has remained roughly the same. GLBenchmark rates the new iPad’s CPU at 14815 in floating point math performance, versus 13333 for the iPad 2, with nearly identical integer performance at 18467 versus 18198 points. In other words, the new iPad has seen its textured pixel fill rate roughly double, with a tiny bump in CPU power for some math, but it’s otherwise mostly the same in horsepower. On paper.
Early real-world testing bears this out: the third-generation iPad feels almost precisely like the second-generation iPad in app loading and running speeds, except that the screen is capable of quietly performing considerably superior levels of detail for everything. Initial games and apps that have been updated to support the new iPad have the same frame rates, transitions, and smoothness they enjoyed on the iPad 2, but with higher resolutions. It remains to be seen what developers will be able to achieve after months of optimization, but we’re guessing that detail will be the major difference between generations.
The New iPad: Updated Apps + Accessibility
Not surprisingly, hardware is only half of the story with the new iPad: Apple has updated the entire iOS operating system and each of the past iPad apps with Retina-quality artwork and fonts. When it’s first turned on, the third-generation iPad’s 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 placid lake background, which truly looks photorealistic behind the somewhat cartoony icons and UI elements, and all of the other backgrounds available to older iPads running iOS 5 have been upgraded to high-resolution versions.
Taken as a whole, and considered in light of prior iPhone 4 and iPod touch resolution jumps, the effect isn’t so much “stunning” as something between “inevitable” and “impressive.” iOS 5.1 doesn’t look different or incredible running on the new iPad—it just looks better. And while there’s obviously precedent for Apple to announce a major iOS software update only shortly after releasing an iPad, its UI changes are very rarely profound. The simple fact that the company took the time to redraw all of the old icons and UI elements, then featured them on the new box, suggests that new iPad users can expect few major interface changes for the next year.
Most of the new iPad’s integrated apps—Messages, Calendar, Notes, FaceTime, YouTube, Reminders, Contacts, Game Center, the iTunes Store, App Store, Photo Booth, Mail, Photos, and Music—look nearly identical to their predecessors, though details such as the stitching on the edges of Notes’ landscape folio are even sharper, while leather and book page accents in other apps similarly look more realistic. Text is uniformly more readable, and 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 before, at least under certain conditions.
At virtually any level of magnification other than the maximum stage of zoom, Maps packs considerably more detail onto the screen with only a small loading time penalty as a consequence of its added tile complexity. When you reach the maximum zoom level, the same images look crisper and more pixelated on the new iPad than the iPad 2, solely because the screen is displaying the same images with superior sharpness. Street View images also display more detail in the same way, zooming in subject to the same limitations.
The Videos app now synchronizes, streams, and displays 1080p videos in H.264 format, which do look considerably more detailed than the prior iPad’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.
The only small hitch with the new iPad’s ability to perform 1080p content is Apple’s unusual reluctance to properly advertise the presence of 1080p videos in the iTunes Store. Perhaps because there is comparatively little 1080p content available, the company does not yet have a “full HD” section of the Store, and 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, as shown above. As we discussed in our review of the similarly impacted third-generation Apple TV, this approach leads to confusion for consumers, and should be remedied with larger and more easily searchable 1080p labeling.
Camera now offers 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. It continues to display heavily upscaled video from the 640×480 front camera, now with even more obvious noise than before, due in equal parts to the new screen, and iOS software that attempts to brighten previously dark imagery. We discuss the cameras further in a separate section of this review.
Safari is another beneficiary of the iPad’s new display. Now 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 benefit from displaying 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.
High-resolution updates to third-party iOS applications are currently “in progress.” Dozens if not hundreds of major titles were updated just before the new iPad had even hit store shelves, suggesting that Apple seeded some developers with new units a little early rather than making them wait in lines.
Serving as inspiration were Apple’s own iOS titles, most notably iBooks and iPhoto, which function identically to their iPad 2 versions but look fantastic thanks to high-resolution text and photographs.
Two-page spreads in full-color books, magazines, and similar PDF files that were previously legibility-challenged on iPads now have so much additional resolution that they can be easily read without zooming in—assuming that your eyes are up to the task of reading small print. iBooks’ smallest font size was good for older iPads, but now doesn’t look small enough to take maximum advantage of the new iPad’s screen.
As of today, the vast majority of iPad apps lack the sort of high-resolution artwork that the new model can render. Consequently, as has repeatedly been the case with Apple’s new product releases, users should expect a one- to three-month lag before many of their favorite apps have been updated to fully support the new iPad, and quite possibly longer stretches before web sites start quadrupling the resolution of their graphics to make optimal use of the new display. Until that time, the new iPad will continue to display some apps, icons, and web pages with a mix of high-resolution text and obviously pixelated artwork, gradually switching over as developers decide to redraw graphics and offer additional photograph sizes for larger Retina screens.
While the first round of iPad Retina-ready app updates vary considerably in impressiveness, and most are presently little more than just raw resolution upgrades without improved polygonal models or textures, there are hints that the next generation of games will be truly remarkable. Some of the most impressive titles we’ve seen so far include:
EA/Firemint’s Real Racing 2 HD. While the core of this realistic racing game remains virtually identical to prior versions, Firemint has increased the detail so much that you can clearly make out gear shifters inside the cars you’re viewing from behind. Shadows visible on your car’s dashboard from an interior view still have rough edges, but move convincingly to simulate your position relative to the sun. Performance suffers noticeably over AirPlay, however, as the frame rate drops a lot and large video artifacts appear during sharp turns.
Epic Games’ Infinity Blade 2. Unveiled alongside the iPhone 4S, this Asian-tinted sequel to the widely acclaimed, Unreal Engine 3-based medieval fighting game looked great on the iPad 2, and now looks even better on the third-generation iPad. A pure resolution boost enables the already amazing backgrounds, characters, and blooming lights to look closer than ever to photorealistic, though menus and textures could benefit from additional improvements.
Gameloft’s Modern Combat 3: Fallen Nation. This engaging first-person shooter’s polygonal models and textures looked great on the iPad 2, and now run in high-resolution, making the realistic depictions of besieged cities, military vehicles, and smooth-edged people even more believable. Modern Combat 3 now feels like a Mac game, minus some bleeding-edge special effects, but including visual tricks that debuted a generation or so ago on consoles.
Illusion Labs’ Touchgrind BMX. While this BMX bike simulation game has looked great on every Apple device, it becomes nearly photorealistic when viewed at higher resolution on the new iPad’s screen; the developer’s models, lighting, and shadowing all work fantastically together here.
Less impressive titles such as Namco’s Sky Gamblers: Air Supremacy and Asphalt 6: Adrenaline still manage to look like PlayStation 2 games with superior shading and blurring effects. And numerous third-party applications that have been rushed to offer Retina Display compatibility have generally done little more than update their fonts and bitmapped artwork to look clean on the new screen.
Twitter and Reeder are just a couple of the apps that have been modestly improved, but benefit now from crisper text and superior-looking photographic elements whenever they’re loaded. Other apps, such as Another Monster at the End of This Book… Starring Grover & Elmo!, demonstrate how bitmapped artwork will need to be completely remastered for the new screen, and how much more detailed it looks once that’s been accomplished.
Though some of these changes seem minor, they do improve the apps, leaving as-yet-unfixed titles looking particularly rough around the edges. As just one example, Namco’s one-on-one fighting game SoulCalibur looked very good on the iPad 2, particularly after Namco updated it to bring the frame rate to an arcade-like 60 frames per second. But on the iPad 3, custom fonts and life bars that previously blended in with the artwork now have more obvious jagged edges that need to be smoothed out. It’s no small feat for developers to quadruple the resolution of key artwork after release, but given that rumors of a Retina-capable iPad have circulated for so long—and that a title as massive as Infinity Blade 2 was ready with updated graphics by the official launch day—it’s reasonable to expect that other developers will be able to bring big titles quickly to the new iPad.
It’s also worth noting that the new iPad finally does something that we’ve 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 last iPads’ 1024×768 screens, seeing the same graphics on the new iPad’s display is better than getting stuck with the upscaled 480×320 versions that have 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.
The New iPad: 4G LTE + 3G Cellular Performance Tests
After selecting AT&T as its exclusive American iPhone partner, Apple occasionally seemed to be chafing at the consequences: iPhone launches were clouded by cellular signup and eligibility problems, while audiences jeered Apple executives during product unveilings due to AT&T’s intransigence and network issues. Some of the same issues carried over to the 3G cellular version of the iPad, for which Apple promised both limited and unlimited data plans; AT&T waited only two months to kill its unlimited option, replacing it with a 2GB capped offering for nearly the same price. In addition to iPhone data speed inconsistencies and dropped call issues, AT&T dragged its feet when Apple added new features such as tethering and FaceTime video calling over 3G to its devices, rather than aggressively supporting them. So when Apple added Verizon as an iPhone and iPad partner, customers cheered—only to discover that Verizon’s larger 3G network was dramatically slower than AT&T’s almost everywhere their services overlapped. When the dust settled, Verizon only had an advantage in places where AT&T didn’t offer service, or was plagued by oversaturation of its network.
Finally, the tables have turned—sort of. After watching competitors add notoriously power-hungry but faster “4G LTE” (“Long-Term Evolution”) cellular networking chips to their devices, Apple has taken the same step for the third-generation iPad. Consequently, the new AT&T and Verizon “Wi-Fi + 4G” iPads promise 5X to 10X cellular speed improvements relative to their predecessors, with up to 73Mbps peak performance. However, Verizon’s LTE network is larger than AT&T’s, and the networks are incompatible, so Apple is still selling separate devices to cater to both companies’ customers. The AT&T version of the new iPad supports 700 and 2100MHz LTE networks, while the Verizon version supports 700MHz LTE and slower CDMA EV-DO Rev. A at 800 and 1900MHz. Canadian customers get what appears to be the same device and LTE support as the AT&T version, with compatibility across three different Canadian carriers (Bell, Rogers, and Telus).
Thanks to an advanced cellular antenna system—and Apple’s mandate that both versions allow users to swap micro-SIM cards to access international networks, rather than being stuck with AT&T or Verizon roaming charges—each of the new 4G iPads is capable of roaming on 3G UMTS, HSPA, HSPA+, DC-HSDPA, GSM, and EDGE networks if they can’t get LTE signals outside the United States. Verizon’s iPad falls back to its own CDMA EV-DO network in the U.S., and can be made to run on AT&T’s non-LTE networks with a proper micro-SIM card, though AT&T’s iPad will not run on Verizon’s CDMA EV-DO network, and has very little reason to do so. Buyers elsewhere in the world get the same LTE hardware as AT&T and Canadian customers, but are forced to rely upon whichever 3G networks their carriers support.
To put this alphabet soup in some perspective, we need to start with some harsh truth: in much—possibly most—of the United States, Apple’s devices don’t come close to their “theoretical maximum” speeds. LTE has a supposed top download speed of over 100Mbps, with Apple claiming up to 73Mbps—5 times what a typical wired broadband connection offers. Yet our tests of the AT&T iPad 2 last year achieved nowhere near the “theoretical maximum” speed of 7.2Mbps promised by AT&T’s HSPA network, achieving a miserly 2.2Mbps download speed, while the Verizon version also fell well below the 3.1Mbps cap of Verizon’s EV-DO, managing an even worse 0.9Mbps for downloads. Speeds vary from area to area, and Apple customers in Canada and certain major U.S. cities routinely see better performance than others, but as baselines go, last year’s iPad was said to be capable of 1/10th this year’s model’s peak cellular performance, yet neither model should be expected to actually hit those marks.
It should also be noted that our HSPA+-capable iPhone 4S now generally ekes out only 3.8Mbps download speeds, peaking at around 6Mbps at full strength in Western New York despite a “theoretical” peak of 21Mbps.
These speeds are what we expected the third-generation AT&T iPad to fall back to in the absence of LTE service. In short, our iOS cellular connections have been at best less than half as fast and more commonly a third or less the speed of common 10-13Mbps Wi-Fi connections, falling well below their “theoretical” promise. Our editor in Toronto, Canada has achieved nearly Wi-Fi-rivaling iPhone 4S cellular speeds of 9-10Mbps, better than what we’ve seen elsewhere, but still nothing close to 21Mbps.
The third-generation iPad’s support for LTE will be a big deal for some users. LTE promises peak speeds of 73Mbps, and though we didn’t come anywhere close to that in our testing, we saw incredible jumps—between 15Mbps and 30Mbps downloads on Verizon’s LTE network in the United States, falling 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. Put another way, if you’re able to access LTE, your cellular connection may be faster than basic or mid-range wired broadband.
[Updated April 11, 2012: Following publication of our review, we were table to test AT&T’s LTE service in Washington, D.C. Speeds varied considerably, delivering downloads ranging from 13.6Mbps to just over 50Mbps during our testing in 3- to 5-bar areas of the city, with uploads in the 13 to 20Mbps range. Within the city, we most commonly saw speeds in the 15Mbps down, 15Mbps up range. Notably, LTE coverage fell off very quickly as we exited Washington, disappearing by the time we traveled through Bethesda. We’ve added two screenshots and additional Canadian Rogers LTE test details to this piece.]
Once again, there are some big hitches: if you’re outside of a major metropolitan area, you probably can’t access a LTE network. And if you’re outside a major metropolitan area in the United States, you still may have only one LTE option: Verizon. Moreover, while Verizon’s LTE towers are growing in number, they just missed the neighborhood where we do most of our testing, forcing our Verizon iPad to fall back to CDMA. We noticed that LTE to CDMA signal drops were handled roughly by the new iPad, with data speeds sometimes dropping to nearly zero before picking up again 15 or 30 seconds later. And going from 30Mbps to 1Mbps based on coverage gaps is brutal—the only reason we would ever consider using AT&T’s non-LTE “4G” network, which was never as slow or as fast as Verizon’s 3G/LTE networks, even though you’re paying the same price for data services.
AT&T’s LTE service remains a question mark at this point. The company dragged its heels on installing LTE towers across the United States while Verizon undertook a major cross-country LTE expansion, today covering 200 cities versus AT&T’s mere 28. As was the case with 3G service, AT&T promises that its network will grow and be faster than Verizon’s, but for users across most of the U.S., the difference will again be purely theoretical: most of iLounge’s editors live outside of areas with AT&T LTE coverage, but inside cities with Verizon LTE. Verizon’s network currently has a higher chance of offering better speeds where you live and travel, but over time, that may change as AT&T grows and improves its 4G LTE network. Or it may not.
In our testing, AT&T’s non-LTE “4G” (HSPA+) speeds for the third-generation iPad were consistent with the iPhone 4S, ranging between 3.36Mbps to 7.97Mbps for downloads and 0.77Mbps to 2.34Mbps for uploads in our tests, most commonly resting in the 4.5Mbps download and 1.3Mbps upload zone. On the Bell network in Canada, our Canadian editor saw comparatively impressive speeds between 14-21Mbps for downloads and a similarly broad 1.75 to 6.43Mbps for uploads, most often in the 4Mbps range.
Verizon supports a new iPad feature that AT&T doesn’t: Personal Hotspot, which was once called “tethering.” This enables up to five other devices to share the iPad’s cellular connection using Wi-Fi for free, albeit with the heightened risk of quickly using up your limited cellular data plan. AT&T has not committed to offering the Personal Hotspot feature for iPads, and it doesn’t appear within the AT&T iPad’s settings. Canada’s Bell and Rogers will support it; Telus will likely do so, but hasn’t confirmed as much yet. We were able to achieve 10-27Mbps downloads and 8Mbps uploads using a MacBook Air on a Personal Hotspot, versus more consistent 18Mbps download and 10Mbps upload averages using a dedicated MiFi 4510L hotspot. Speeds will vary based on the number of connected devices sharing bandwidth, as well as other factors.
It’s somewhat of a relief that prices for contract-free 4G LTE service have remained similar to earlier 3G plans. Both AT&T and Verizon offer 250MB per month for $15, jumping to $30 for 2GB (Verizon) or 3GB (AT&T), with identical $50 pricing for 5GB of data. Verizon also has a 10GB plan for $80, and a 1GB plan for $20. By comparison, Canadian operators start at 10MB per month for $5 to $7, jump to either 100MB for $10 (Telus) or 250MB for $15 (Bell) or $17 (Rogers), then up to 500MB for $20 (Telus) or $22 (Rogers), then to 5GB for $35 (Bell/Telus) or $37 (Rogers). Each carrier charges overages for an additional GB of bandwidth.
As much as we would like to be able to announce that one 4G version of the iPad is a definitively smarter purchase than the other, the conclusion we reached after testing is more nuanced. The new Verizon iPad has a much higher 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. If it doesn’t, however, Verizon’s 3G performance falls so short of AT&T’s speeds that we’d call the results intolerably slow; AT&T’s “4G” HSPA+ network has ironically become akin to Verizon’s 3G network, with a nationwide footprint and merely competent speeds. Only in the 28 cities where AT&T LTE exists can it claim to be faster than Verizon.
You’ll have to choose the 4G iPad version 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 4G iPad choice, and speeds will vary based on market.
The New iPad: The Cameras
Only one change Apple made from the iPad to the iPad 2 was as infuriating as it should have been thrilling, and that was the addition of two surprisingly low-resolution cameras. The front was a 640×480 video-focused camera designed to be adequate for FaceTime, while the back had a remarkably poor 1280×720 camera that similarly was passable for FaceTime use but very little else. Regardless of whether taking pictures or making movies with a tablet seemed crazy to some people, the iPad 2’s snapshots and videos were both so grainy that they generally weren’t worth sharing. Apple’s release of “FaceTime HD” cameras for Mac computers and ever-improving rear iPhone cameras demonstrated that it could have done better with both of its iPad sensors, but chose not to, either for cost or other reasons.
Apple has taken a big step forward with the third-generation iPad’s rear camera. When we first saw the new iPad’s body in January, we noted that the glass lens on the back was the same size as the iPhone 4S’s, though we couldn’t write off the possibility that Apple would go with a lower-resolution sensor than the 8-Megapixel one in the 4S—the company seems predisposed to leaving the current iPhone as the king of the camera hill. We also noted that there was no LED flash, just as has been the case with camera-equipped iPod touches, iPod nanos, and the iPad 2.
So we weren’t surprised when Apple announced that the new iPad sports a 5-Megapixel sensor with similar but not identical features to the iPhone 4S camera: rear illumination, a tighter design, and bigger lens for improved low light performance and color rendition over the old model. As it turns out, it has just reused the same 5-Megapixel sensor found in the iPhone 4 while improving the software and lens elements.
Frankly, the iPad 2’s rear camera was so bad that anything would have been better, so it would have been easy for us to just say “improved” and move on to the next section of this review. But we wanted to make direct comparisons between the third-generation iPad and the iPhone 4, iPhone 4S, and iPad 2 to see just what this particular sensor and lens combination delivered.
In bright light, the iPhone 4, 4S, and new iPad cameras take extremely similar photographs, though colors look a little more artificially saturated on the iPhone 4 relative to the iPhone 4S and new iPad, and the iPhone 4S reduces grain-like noise beyond the levels of the other two, offering slightly better optical resolution.
Dim lighting yields more grain on both the iPhone 4 and new iPad than the iPhone 4S, which can use lower ISOs for cleaner images under the same conditions. The iPad 2’s images look like jagged messes by comparison with the others, with fewer colors, blotchy and seemingly overprocessed pixels, and far lower resolution.
Focusing is hugely improved on the third-generation iPad relative to its predecessor, which effectively had a fixed lens without autofocus or macro capabilities. Just like the iPhone 4 and 4S, the new iPad is capable of shooting images with dramatic depth of field blurring, and selectively sharpening something only inches away from the lens. The results were nearly as good on the new iPad as on the iPhone 4S, which tended to produce more accurate colors, but was equally capable of isolating nearby subjects. Our only issue was one that may not easily be solved without a redesign of the Camera application: holding the large iPad steady while trying to select a focus point isn’t as easy as with smaller cameras and phones. You can produce similarly impressive results, but you need to work harder to get them.
Another addition to the third-generation iPad’s rear camera is 1080p video recording—something missing from both the lower-resolution iPad 2 sensor and the otherwise extremely similar iPhone 4 sensor. The differences between the iPhone 4 and third-generation iPad’s rear video recordings are primarily in resolution: the iPhone 4 is limited to 720p output, or half the pixels the new iPad can record. Videos recorded by the iPhone 4S and new iPad differ more in medium to low light than in brighter conditions: outside, you can barely see noise, but inside in typical light, both cameras have a grain that distinguishes their sensors from the ones in good pocket cameras today.
Overall, the third-generation iPad’s rear camera offers small improvements in still quality and bigger video resolution boosts over the iPhone 4 rear camera, but huge improvements in both regards over what’s inside the iPad 2. While we’d call the third-generation iPad’s rear camera just good enough to be used for documenting events if you’re not carrying something better around, there’s definitely something to be said for the fact that you can now create and share highly usable content directly from an iPad without any other accessories. Additionally, third-party apps and Apple’s great $5 iOS versions of iMovie and iPhoto can be used to edit and improve this output without reliance on a computer.
While the rear camera has improved considerably on the new iPad, Apple has left the front camera virtually unchanged—a major bummer given that the new screen, graphics processor, and wireless chips are all capable of delivering 1280×720 FaceTime HD video at least as well as any MacBook Pro with the feature. The front camera hardware has been confirmed to be the same part used in the iPad 2; only the software has changed. Armed with its 1024×768 screen, the iPad 2 presented slightly blurry upscaled 640×480 FaceTime videos that were fine but clearly not pixel-perfect; this year, the same upscaled video looks worse on the sharper screen. As was the case before, Apple relies upon the fact that this camera is primarily used for moving objects, and offers apps such as Photo Booth that can massage the chunky pixels in fun ways. But it could have increased the resolution, and we really wish it had.
The New iPad: Now With Siri… Well, Actually Just Voice Dictation
One of the signature features of the iPhone 4S was Siri, a “virtual personal assistant” that understood spoken commands and responded back with equally understandable speech. Though its underlying speech recognition technology is capable of working on numerous other iOS devices, Siri has thus far remained limited to the iPhone 4S, a limitation that surprisingly continued with the release of the new iPad. Rather than adding Siri, Apple carried over only one of its features—Voice Dictation—to the new device, limiting support to English, French, German, and Japanese speakers. Most American, British, and Australian dialects of English are understood.
Unlike the iPhone 4S, which enables you to trigger Siri at any time by holding down the Home Button for one full second, the third-generation iPad activates Dictation solely when you press a microphone key that’s most often found immediately to the left of the virtual keyboard’s space bar. Doing this causes a Siri-style microphone icon to zoom out of the key, complete with a glowing purple light that moves to indicate that it’s hearing you. You typically need to tap the button a second time to stop Dictation, at which point a series of three dots glow until your words have been translated to text on the screen.
As with the Siri implementation of Dictation, we’ve found the new iPad’s performance to be pretty accurate, routinely transcribing entire sentences—occasionally full paragraphs—with only small errors, most often due to proper nouns or slurred words. We did direct comparisons between the iPhone 4S and new iPad to see which did better with transcription, and found them to be close, with the iPhone 4S possessing a small edge in accuracy within a quiet room, and larger edge 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.
Voice Dictation is enabled or disabled during initial setup of the new iPad using a new Siri-like screen, and a Dictation switch within the Settings > General > Keyboard options turns it on or off. Like Siri, it depends upon an active Internet connection at all times; the microphone key just disappears from the keyboard whenever the iPad goes into Airplane Mode or otherwise loses all wireless connections; certain context-specific activations of the virtual keyboard currently do not bring up Dictation at all. 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 New iPad: Bluetooth 4/Smart, AirPlay, Apple TV + Other Accessories
One disclosed but generally untested feature of the third-generation iPad is its shift from the well-established, popular and highly compatible Bluetooth 2.1 wireless protocol to the cutting-edge, unestablished and currently unsupported Bluetooth 4.0—also known as Bluetooth Smart, which promises incredible power savings for future accessories. While we’d love to be able to confirm that the new iPad’s Bluetooth 4 performance is as excellent as its prior Bluetooth 2 performance, there are still no accessories that actually use Bluetooth 4, and very few that used its short-lived predecessor Bluetooth 3. As a result, we tested Bluetooth 2 and 3 accessories.
Performance with both types of accessories was exactly as expected. Bluetooth 3 accessories such as Bluetrek’s Carbon headset benefit 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.
While Bluetooth 2 accessories take a little longer to pair, they continue to make rapid connections with the new 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 new iPad; when Bluetooth 4/Smart accessories become available, it should be even better.
Digital AV Adapter. Without any explanation, Apple quietly updated the Digital AV Adapter alongside the new iPad, making a collection of small cosmetic changes that improved its case compatibility, slightly lengthened it, and seemingly had no affect on performance with old iPads and iPhones. Yet it turns out that the 2012 version is also electronically different: the old version triggers a surprising notice that “This Accessory is Not Supported,” and though it works with the third-generation iPad, video output appears to be slightly softer than with the updated accessory. No objection is raised when the Apple VGA Adapter is connected.
iPad Camera Connection Kit. Introduced alongside the original iPad, this set of two Dock Connector accessories enables iPads to read SD memory cards and connect to cameras using self-supplied USB cables, transferring photos using the Photos application. These accessories continue to work without complaint when connected to the new iPad, and transferring is at least as fast as it was with the iPad 2, perhaps a little faster.