iPad 4 with Retina display review

Update, 20 Mar 2014: The iPad 4 is back! Apple has announced that the iPad 2 is being discontinued, and that the iPad 4 - which is just called 'iPad with Retina display' on the Apple Store - is being revived to takes its place. In this article we present our updated iPad 4 review, and help you decide whether you should buy the iPad 4 or the iPad Air (or something else entirely).

For more info, see also our iPad Air review and our specific article iPad Air vs iPad 4 comparison review.

The iPad 4 with Retina display launched in November 2013, and we promptly reviewed it (you can see our original review on the second page of this article). Handing out a 4-star rating, we pointed out that the iPad 4 was an exceptional tablet but represented a limited upgrade from the iPad 3. "If you have an iPad 3 there really is no reason to get an iPad 4 - unless you really want 4G LTE," we wrote.

Sixteen months later - during which time the iPad 4 has been briefly discontinued and then returned to the line-up - we return to our iPad 4 review and reconsider that verdict. We've had long-term use with the iPad 4 now, and more experience of its advantages and limitations. And the market has changed somewhat; rival tablets have moved on, and Apple's iPad Air has launched. With the iPad 2 consigned to the dustbin of history, is now a good time to buy an iPad 4, or are better options available?

iPad reviews | iPad Air review

iPad 4 with Retina display review: The basics

iPad 4 review

iPad 4 review

iPad 4 review

The iPad 4 with Retina display is currently one of four main tablet options offered by Apple, the other three being the iPad Air, the iPad mini 1 and the iPad mini 2 with Retina display. A quick warning: those version numbers are used by the media and many Apple fans, but on Apple's Store the company often leaves them off. At the moment the Apple Store calls its four tablets:

  • iPad Air
  • iPad with Retina display (that's the iPad 4)
  • iPad mini (that's the iPad mini 1)
  • iPad mini with Retina display (which is the iPad mini 2 with Retina display)

We made a video discussing the pros and cons of each tablet. Here's our iPad buying guide, updated for spring 2014:

The iPad 4 comes in white and black, and you can choose to buy it with Wi-Fi only, or with Wi-Fi and cellular functionality. (The latter was sold as 4G LTE at launch time but the limited availability of that service in this country has led to Apple since playing it down - more on that later.)

Normally the last choice to make when you're buying an iPad is storage capacity, but since it's now the lowest tier of the iPad range, the iPad 4 only comes in the lowest storage capacity: 16GB. If you need more storage than that then you either need to find a second-hand iPad 4 (it has been available in 32GB, 64GB and 128GB capacities in the past) or go for one of Apple's other iPads.

The iPad costs £329 for the basic Wi-Fi model and £429 for the version with 3G/cellular.

The iPad mini 1, meanwhile, costs £80 less in each version (£249 for Wi-Fi and £349 for Wi-Fi + 3G) and the iPad mini 2 costs £10 less at the equivalent storage points (£319 and £419) but is also available in higher storage capacities all the way up to 128GB.

Finally, the iPad Air is £70 more than the equivalent iPad 4: it starts at £399 for the 16GB, Wi-Fi-only version and goes up to £739 for 128GB of storage and cellular/3G connectivity.

Here's the full iPad range and their prices, as of March 2014:

iPad 4 review: iPad range prices

iPad 4 with Retina display review: Build quality

iPad 4 review

iPad 4 review

Physically the iPad 4 is identical to the iPad 3. By any standards it's thin and light (186x241x9.4mm and 652g - or 662g for the cellular model - which is the same as the iPad 3), not to mention sumptuously engineered and a pleasure to hold and use. But the launch of iPad mini models and the iPad Air now offer still more portable alternatives.

The iPad Air is abour 20 percent slimmer than the iPad 4, as is the iPad mini 1; the iPad mini 2 with Retina display is thinner still. And all three devices are substantially lighter. Here are the dimensions and weights of the full iPad range:

iPad range dimensions and weights

iPad 4 with Retina display review: Speed/performance testing

The principal upgrade from iPad 3 to iPad 4 was the processor chip: the A5 was replaced by the A6X, which Apple claims is twice as quick.

In the GeekBench 2 speed-testing app (available from the App Store), the A6X was rated at 1.39GHz with 1GB of RAM - 988MB for our exact sample. And this setup was seriously fast, setting a new record score in in the GeekBench 2 benchmark of 1,769. To put that in perspective the iPad 3 scored 764, the iPad 2 managed 765 and the iPad mini was rated at 751 - so yep, twice as fast sounds about right.

iPad Geekbench Score

Geekbench scores for various iPad models (and iPhone 5) using Geekbench 2 app (available from App Store). Higher score is best.

In the SunSpider JavaScript test, which measures a device's speed loading web pages, the iPad 4 managed a speedy average of 854ms. And the gaming graphics benchmark GLBenchmark 2.5.1 rated the iPad 4 at 39 fps (frames per second) compared with 14 for the iPad 2, 22 for the iPad 3 and 25 for the iPad mini.

Compared with earlier iPads, will the iPad 4's undoubted processing muscle and graphic speed translate to performance gains that you'll notice in real-world use? That depends on how you use your tablet. Tasks such as email, simple web browsing and basic apps and games will be fine on the iPad 2 and 3; you won't see a significant improvement here. Where the iPad 4's under-the-hood power comes into its own, however, is when apps get more demanding: high-powered video-editing suites and graphically ambitious games, for instance.

Infinity Blade 3

Infinity Blade 3, a graphically demanding game that will bring out the best of the A6X processor. See more iPad games reviews

And while you may consider these sorts of activity unnecessary, bear in mind that apps are only going to get more demanding as developers design software with the latest hardware in mind. In the nine months since the iPad 4 came out, we've noticed games in particular becoming more slanted to chips with power that's comparable to the A5X. Buying the iPad 4 instead of the iPad 2 gives you an element of future-proofing.

There are even more powerful options, of course: the most recent iPads, the iPad Air and the iPad mini 2 with Retina display. Both of these use the next processor chip along, the A7. We don't think you're likely to see a significant difference between the iPad 4 and the iPad Air in processing speed, even though the Air is considerably faster on paper. The apps simply aren't demanding enough at this point - with the exception of a few very graphically ambitious 3D games, and some video editing packages.

Should I buy an iPad mini or an iPad 4?

iPad 4 with Retina display review: 4G LTE high-speed internet

A major selling point of the iPad 4 with Retina display when it launched was its compatibility with the new 4G high-speed internet service. In theory this should provide vastly quicker mobile web browsing - 4G is about five times faster than 3G - but in the UK 4G is only available through EE, which is expensive (unsurprisingly, given its effective monopoly on this market). The EE network reaches about 60 percent of the UK population at time of writing, and expects to reach 70 percent by the end of the year and 98 percent by the end of 2014.

Vodafone, O2 and Three all have plans to offer 4G, however, so it's possible that prices will come down as supply grows to match demand. Our colleagues on PC Advisor have more details on the 4G rollout in their article '4G LTE network rollout schedule in the UK: When will I get 4G?'

In other words, 4G wasn't much of a tempter when the iPad 4 launched, and still isn't much of an advantage given its cost and limited availability, but will be more valuable as the UK mobile web infrastructure catches up with the rest of Europe.

iPad 4 review

iPad 4 with Retina display review: Screen quality

The Retina display, which is so important that it's right there in the name of the product, is a killer feature, but it's the same as the display on the iPad 3 and the iPad Air.

What's a Retina display, you may be asking? It's a term that applies to screens with a pixel density so high that the human eye can't distinguish it from real life - but the precise pixel density necessary for such an accolade can be fudged depending on the distance from the eye - so the iPad 3 and 4 are rated as Retina displays even though they have lower pixel density than the iPhone 5, because you're supposed to hold them further away from your face.

Nevertheless, the resolution of the iPad 4's screen is so high that you won't be worried about definitions. It's stunningly clear (and bright and colourful into the bargain). Photos leap out at you, videos sparkle, and the latest games look fantastic. Retina displays genuinely advanced the user experience on multiple fronts. But we've had Retina since the iPhone 4, so you may not view this as A Big Deal.

(The iPad 2 and iPad mini are both non-Retina, mind you. They're equipped with decent screens, and compared to most mobile devices look great, but if you've used a Retina screen you'll notice the difference. We compare Retina and non-Retina displays in our article 'iPad mini vs iPad 3: Display comparison'. It's also worth checking out What is a Retina display, and are they worth the money?

Comparison of non-Retina and Retina displays

The iPad 2 and iPad mini 1 (above left) both have good screen quality, but on fine detail and especially text it is possible to tell the difference. The iPad 4's Retina displays (above right) is sharper and clearer. It's not a vast difference by any means, however

The Retina display in the iPad 3 and iPad 4 is so powerful that the entire device had to be redesigned to accommodate it, which leads us on to the next topic…

iPad 4 with Retina display review: Battery life

The iPad 4 was equipped with a heftier battery than the iPad 2, in order to maintain battery life while running the super-charged screen. The result is a device with a similar battery life to its predecessors and to the iPad Air: somewhere in the region of 10 hours when surfing the web and playing music.

The downsides to this chunky battery is the slightly higher weight compared to the iPad 2 (only about 50g extra) and fractionally thicker chassis (a barely noticeable 0.6mm: 9.4mm compared to 8.8mm). If you compare it to the far slimmer and lighter iPad Air, the difference is substantial.

More significantly, the iPad 4's battery takes a long time to charge, and can get rather warm while doing so, particularly if you charge it while it's in use.

iPad 4 with Retina display review: iOS 7

The iPad 4 arrives preinstalled with iOS 7, Apple's most recent mobile software, and this is one of its advantages over tablets by rival firms: most non-Apple tablets come with Google Android, which is highly rated by its devotees but can't match iOS's simple user-friendliness and quality and reliability of apps.

iOS 7 represents a big step forward from the previous version of Apple's iPad operating system (iOS 6), not to mention a major visual rethink. The iPad 4 is fully compatible with iOS 7 and can access all of its features. (The same applies, naturally, to the iPad Air and iPad mini 2, but earlier models don't get the full set of features.) Not everyone likes iOS 7, mind you, and a lot of people have been looking into ways of downgrading to iOS 6. Unfortunately, it's virtually impossible for most users.

[Related: Will I be able to update to iOS 7 on my iPhone? | What people hate about Apple iOS 7: review of reviews | What people love about Apple iOS 7]

iOS 7 Siri

iPad 4 with Retina display review: Lightning port/connector

Whereas the iPad 2 and iPad 3 featured Apple's old 30-pin Dock connector port and cable, which Apple had been using for about a decade, the iPad 4 with Retina display (like the iPad Air) has the newer Lightning connection. The Lightning cable is slimmer than the 30-pin and reversible - Apple has talked that up as a convenience, since you can plug it in either way up in the dark or when you can't see what you're doing, but we don't this makes much difference to you.

The real difference for you (other than the fact that it helps Apple to slim down components and optimise the design) comes with accessories: speakers, docks and the cables themselves. All your old 30-pin gear won't be compatible with the iPad 4, which could be a major annoyance (you can buy an adaptor, but it's not as cheap as you might expect). On the other hand, future third-party accessories will be made to be compatible with Lightning, so the future-proofing option is again the iPad 4's setup.

By this point, pretty much everyone has moved across to Lightning. All four of the iPads that Apple now sells are Lightning-equipped models. It does still sell a 30-pin iPhone, though: the iPhone 4s.

You can buy an adaptor to make the iPad 4 fit older docks, but it's generally felt that these are somewhat overpriced. Shop around for third-party alternatives, but make sure you buy from a reputable supplier. See more advice: Are cheap, unofficial non-Apple iPhone chargers safe?

A last thought, however: more and more speakers are wireless these days, and wired connections aren't as important as they used to be. Why not buy a nice AirPlay speaker and run it with both old and new iOS devices? (Our audiophile reviews editor would probably pipe up here to point out the limitations of AirPlay when handling high-quality music, but most listeners will be perfectly happy with the audio quality provided by decent wireless speakers.)

iPad 4 review

The top and bottom edges of the iPad 4 with Retina display, showing the narrower opening of the Lightning connector

iPad 4 with Retina vs iPad Air vs iPad mini vs iPad mini 2 (vs iPad 6?)

So is the iPad 4 with Retina display a wise buy? Is the iPad Air worth the extra cash? Is the iPad mini better budget alternative, or the iPad mini 2 better as a high-power portable? Should you even wait for the iPad 6 or 'iPad Pro'?

The iPad Air is more powerful than the iPad 4 - about twice as fast, at least on paper. But you won't experience that in your day-to-day use, since most apps aren't demanding enough to push even the iPad 4's processor to its limits. As more and more demanding and ambitious apps are released in the coming months and years, the iPad AIr will come into its own.

A more significant difference is weight and portability: the iPad Air is beautifully slim and light, and ideally suited to one-handed reading and browsing.

Budget buyers may want to consider the original iPad mini. It's still fairly new (and therefore reasonably future-proofed in terms of iOS updates) and more portable than the full-size iPads; it's also Apple's cheapest iPad. (For more on that, see our article 'Should I buy an iPad mini or an iPad 4?')

As for the iPad 6/iPad Pro launch, we wouldn't put off a purchase because of that. You're never totally sure, since Apple sometimes pulls big surprises, but its hardware releases lately tend to leak beforehand through its supply chain, and we think the next iPhone will launch before the next iPad.

If you're unlucky and the iPad 6 launches the day after your iPad 4 is delivered, expect to see the price drop - that'll hurt - and your sparkling new unit will no longer have half the bragging rights it did. But with tech updates your gear is always going to become out of date fairly soon, and if you keep waiting you'll never buy anything.

And what about the iPad 3? If you've still got an iPad 3 then we'd probably not recommend upgrading to the iPad 4 unless you're addicted to 4G, but remember that 4G availability is limited in this country - and it's not cheap. You might well wish to skip a generation and go for the iPad Air, which is slimmer, faster (particularly on paper - newer apps will appear that showcase its extra muscle) and more future-proofed.

On the next page of our iPad 4 with Retina display review: our original review of the iPad 4, written at the time by Mark Hattersley. >>

See also: iPad mini 1 review | iPad 2 review

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