The first hands-on reviews of the new iPad make it clear not only that Apple keeps the tablet crown but why it continues to do so.
On the surface, the leap from the second-generation iPad to the third-generation would appear to be relatively modest," writes USA Today reviewer Edward Baig. But the leap changes an array of things that keep the iPad's overall "user experience" well ahead of its Android rivals.
The display: "spectacular"
The new display, with resolution of 2048 x 1536 pixels, for a total of 3.1 million pixels or four times the number on iPad 2, is the thing everyone notices first. It's better than the high definition flat panel TVs used in homes.
"The display is spectacular," Baig writes. "Examine the new screen side-by-side with one of its near-10-inch predecessors [the iPad 2], and you'll swear you just had Lasik surgery. Text on Web pages or in books is so crisp and sharp that you don't want to go back to reading on an older iPad."
The contrast between the new iPad display and that of its predecessors struck many reviewers. "Using the new display is like getting a new eyeglasses prescription — you suddenly realize what you thought looked sharp before wasn't nearly as sharp as it could be," says Walter Mossberg, reviewing for The Wall Street Journal. As MG Sielger, at TechCrunch says, "After using the new iPad for an extended period of time then switching back to an iPad 2 (or 1, for that matter), you'll cringe at the pixelated cloud that appears to surround every app icon. Text will look murky. Colors will look muted."
Apple didn't rely on just the raw number of pixels to impress. Instead it updated its own on-board apps, and is encouraging third-party developers to do the same, to fully exploit the new iPad's Retina Display technology. "All of Apple's own apps have been updated to suit the higher resolution, with more detailed iconography and text," says Vincent Nguyen, writing at Slashgear. "However, third-party apps also look good, even if they've not been polished to suit the new hardware, though they aren't quite as refined as Apple's own handiwork."
The screen shows vivid 1080p video and high-def photos "though the 4:3 aspect ratio means there are black bars top and bottom," Nguyen says. "Nonetheless, the level of detail is incredibly impressive...."
On the new iPad itself, says Siegler, "Web pages look almost as if they're being displayed in a high-quality glossy magazine. Photos look like photos — the printed out kind. Text is razor sharp and crisp, just like print."
John Gruber, at Daring Fireball: "It's not just sharp; the display also shows great bright colors without any saturation-gimmickry like you get with OLED displays. Photographs look amazingly good, but also amazingly true-to-life....Photos don't just look sharp when zoomed out — they look sharp when zoomed in."
One drawback, according to Mossberg: "One thing Apple hasn't fixed: like all glossy, LCD color displays, this one still does poorly in direct sunlight."
User experience: polished
Nguyen's observation about Apple's high-def app updating is part of the company's obsessive focus on the "user experience," a term that lacks any scientific meaning but something that users know when they experience it.
"User experience is where the new iPad really shines," Nguyen says. "Apple's holistic ecosystem has not only its own native apps but a legion of devoted third-party developers pushing out software that must pass stringent usability testing. It's a recipe for polish and consistency when you first pick the iPad up, as well as longevity as you explore the 200,000+ iPad apps, periodicals, books and multimedia content on offer."
"What is changed — and what is unchanged — in this newest iteration of the iPad reveals Apple's priorities," Gruber comments. "Most important: how things look on screen, how they feel, how smoothly they animate. Not important: a faster CPU. Important: faster graphics. (Those last two priorities emphasize the hole that Intel has dug itself. Their expertise — CPUs — is no longer the most important processing bottleneck for personal computing. Graphics are.)"
The Verge's Jim Dalrymple summed it up this way: "So, what did I like about the [new] iPad? Simple — the experience. Nobody in the market today can touch the Apple experience."
CPU: the right kind of power
As Gruber's comment above indicates, Apple wasn't concerned to match the quad-core CPUs of some rival Android tablets and even smartphones. It upgraded the dual-core A5 processor with a quad-core graphics engine, delivering a dramatic boost in graphics performance.
"[T]he third-generation iPad blows away every other iOS device in terms of graphics performance, " says Macworld's Jason Snell. "In our tests using the GLBench 3D graphics testing app, the third-generation iPad could draw a complex 3D scene at the full frame rate of its display, 60 frames per second, without breaking a sweat."
Slashgear's Nguyen ran some tests to show the new graphics power. "We shot a selection of videos using the new iPad and the iPad 2, and processed them in iMovie [an iOS app] to see how the old and new graphics chips compared," he says. "With a one-minute clip, a 720p HD clip recorded on the iPad 2 took 1 minute 2 seconds to export, while a 720p HD clip recorded on the new iPad took 52 seconds to export. A one minute 1080p clip recorded on the new iPad took 52.6 seconds to export."
"For a five minute 720p HD clip, the iPad 2 took 5 minutes 11 seconds, whereas the new iPad took 3 minutes 39 seconds. A 5 minute 1080p HD clip on the new iPad took 4 minutes 20 seconds to export, still comfortably under the iPad 2 despite the higher resolution."
Battery life: still excellent
Announcing the new iPad, Apple promised users would see the same long battery life as with the previous models. The reviewers agree it delivers.
It's a critical achievement for Apple. Repeatedly, enterprise users have said that being able to use their iPads for up to 10 hours without having to worry about plugging into outlets was a major feature of the tablet, and one that distinguished it from laptops.
Mossberg's tests found that with the new screen, upgraded CPU and optional LTE "battery life degraded by just 11 minutes, a figure that is still much better than on any tablet I've tested."
"[A]fter dicking around on the web and email for close to two hours — all of it using LTE — battery life was still showing over 80 percent capacity," says John Gruber. "I'll leave comprehensive battery life testing to other reviewers, but anecdotally, the iPad 3's battery life seems indistinguishable from that of the iPad 2, even when using LTE. This alone strikes me as a remarkable engineering accomplishment."
Siegler agrees. He points out that Apple carried this off by means of a "fairly major breakthrough in their battery technology. While the new battery clearly isn't much bigger than the old one, it can hold much more juice (42 watt-hours versus 25-watt-hours)."
But he noticed two consequences. "I've found it takes quite a bit longer to charge the new iPad. As in several hours — you'll probably want to do it overnight," he writes. Secondly, the "new iPad does get noticeably warm in the lower left corner after prolonged use. It's never hot, just warm. But again, I never noticed this on other models."
LTE: "as fast...as a rock-solid Wi-Fi" link
Currently, there are separate new iPad models, one each for AT&T's version of LTE, and for Verizon Wireless' version. Where it's available, LTE performance is impressive. Almost as important, the new iPad supports more recent 3G upgrades that give a big boost to non-LTE cellular connections.
Macworld's Snell found the new iPad smoothly transitioned between the two. "While riding through the city, I was able to get speeds that were roughly as fast as my office Wi-Fi," he says. "When I turned off LTE (there's an "Enable LTE" option in the Cellular Data section of Settings), the iPad fell back to AT&T's "4G" HSPA+ network, and speeds dropped precipitously."
As always, location created big differences. "When I used the iPad at my home in suburban Mill Valley, which doesn't yet have AT&T LTE coverage, the HSPA+ download speed was more than twice what I had experienced in downtown San Francisco — but still half the speed I saw on the LTE network," Snell says.
Gruber's review of the iPad was with an AT&T model with 64GB of storage. "In downtown San Francisco I saw remarkable performance on LTE — easily as fast, perceptually, as a rock-solid Wi-Fi connection," he says.
"As for speeds, we tested the new iPad LTE on Verizon with remarkable results averaging 14Mbps+ down and 2.5Mbps up while 3G speeds averaging 1.8Mbps down and 0.5Mbps up," writes Slashgear's Nguyen.
The Loop's Jim Dalrymple argues that a key feature of the new iPad isn't actually a feature of the device itself: iCloud.
"Setting up an Apple device is so easy these days with iCloud," he says. "Apple walks you through all of the main settings when you start the iPad and then you just enter in your iCloud ID. Like magic, all of your contacts, iCloud email and calendars are there waiting for you. What's more, they will automatically sync if you make a change on your Mac, iPhone or other iOS device."
And there's more: "It's my login for the iTunes Store and the App Store accounts," Dalrymple says. "After logging in, you can browse through all of the apps that you bought and download the ones you want all at once. You can do the same for music, but I use iTunes Match, so it's even better. With iTunes Match, I don't sync music to my iPad, I have access to all of my music. Thousands of songs and videos, instantly. Anytime, anywhere. That's the way a service should be."