Apple iPad 4 with Retina display review
Update, 31 October: the iPad 4 is no longer available, now that the iPad Air has launched (see our iPad Air review). If you've already bought an iPad 4 and want to know whether it's worth upgrading to the iPad Air, see our article iPad Air vs iPad 4 comparison review.
Should you buy an iPad 4 (also known as the fourth-generation iPad with Retina display) or wait for the iPad 5? In our iPad 4 review, we also consider whether the iPad 2 or iPad mini are better options. All this plus speed and battery testing, features, build quality and software, in our Apple iPad 4 with Retina display review.
The iPad 4 with Retina display launched in November 2013, and we promptly reviewed it. 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.
Nine months later 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 5 launch is continually rumoured. Is now the worst possible time to buy an iPad 4, then, or is it a bad idea to second-guess Apple's release schedule?
iPad 4 with Retina display review: The basics
The iPad 4 with Retina display is currently one of three main tablet options offered by Apple, the other two being the iPad 2 and the iPad mini. 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.)
The last choice to make is storage capacity. The iPad 4 comes with 16GB, 32GB, 64GB or 128GB of storage.
That UK price list in full, then:
- Wi-Fi: £399 (16GB), £479 (32GB), £559 (64GB), £639 (128GB)
- Wi-Fi plus cellular: £499 (16GB), £579 (32GB), £659 (64GB), £739 (128GB)
The iPad mini, meanwhile, costs £130 less in each version (except for the 128GB capacities, which aren't available). And the iPad 2 (which is only available with 16GB) is £329 for Wi-Fi only and £429 with cellular. Is the iPad 4 with Retina display worth the extra cash?
iPad 4 with Retina display review: Build quality
Physically the iPad 4 is identical to the iPad 3, but that's no bad thing; 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.
The real changes from the iPad 3 take place inside the chassis. Which leads us on to...
iPad 4 with Retina display review: Speed/performance testing
The principal upgrade from iPad 3 to iPad 4 is the processor chip: the A5 has been replaced by 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.
Geekbench scores for various iPad models (and iPhone 5) using Geekbench 2 app (available from App Store). Higher score is best.
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.
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.
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 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.
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?
The iPad 2 and iPad mini (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 has been equipped with a heftier battery to maintain battery life while running the super-charged screen. The result is a device with a similar battery life to its predecessors: 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). 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.
The iPad 4 arrives preinstalled with iOS 6, 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.
The next version of iOS, iOS 7, is due in the autumn, and Apple has already allowed app devs to try out several beta versions. Early signs are that this will be a big step forward and a major visual rethink - take a look at our iOS 7 review/preview to get an idea of what it will be like. The iPad 4 will be fully compatible with iOS 7 and be able to access all of its features; the iPad 2 will also be able to run iOS 7, but misses some features - not the least of which is updates to Siri, Apple's voice-activated personal assistant. The iPad 2 doesn't get Siri at all.
iPad 4 with Retina display review: Lightning port/connector
Whereas the 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 has the newer Lightning connection. The Lightning cable is slimmer than the 30-pin and reversible, but this doesn't make much difference to you.
The real difference 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.
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.)
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 2 vs iPad mini vs iPad 5
The iPad 2, first of all, is decreasing in appeal as time passes, although it's still the right choice for a few prospective buyers: namely budget buyers who want a full-size screen but don't need high high screen resolution or strong processing power. Most budget buyers would do better to get the iPad mini, we'd suggest, since it's newer (and therefore more future-proofed in terms of iOS updates) and more portable; it's even cheaper. (For more on that, see our article 'Should I buy an iPad mini or an iPad 4?')
As for the iPad 5 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.
[Keep track on the latest rumours, leaks, hints and speculation with our iPad 5 launch preview]
If you're unlucky and the iPad 5 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 unless you're addicted to 4G, but remember that 4G availability is limited in this country - and it's not cheap.