Apple iPad (Third Generation) full review - Page 2

More power? Sort of.

The iPad 2 was much faster than the original iPad, thanks to its dual-core A5 processor. But the A5X processor that powers the third-generation iPad doesn’t really offer more processing power than its predecessor. In all our processor-based tests, the new iPad ran about as fast as the iPad 2. (Which is not to say it’s slow—they’re the two fastest iOS devices ever.)

With this update, Apple wasn’t as concerned about boosting the iPad’s speed even further, because it had another, bigger problem to solve: Boosting the iPad’s graphics capabilities so that it could update the 3.1 million pixels on its Retina display. (Keep in mind, previous iPad screens only had about 786,000 pixels.) Updating that many pixels requires a whole lot more graphics power just to keep things running as smoothly as before.

That power comes from the X factor in the A5X processor—a new quad-core graphics engine. And sure enough, the third-generation iPad blows away every other iOS device in terms of graphics performance. 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. And in GLBench offscreen tests, which aren’t constrained by the display’s frame rate, the third-generation iPad had a frame rate 1.6 times that of the iPad 2 (and 13 times that of the original iPad).

So the new iPad definitely has the horsepower to render high-quality graphics on its Retina display. However, app developers will need to update their apps to work well on the new iPad. All of Apple’s built-in apps worked well with the Retina display, scrolling smoothly at all times. But several third-party apps had glitches, including unresponsive interfaces and stuttering scrolling.

What this suggests is that developers who could get away with some inefficiencies when painting the relatively small canvas of previous iPad screens will find those inefficiencies laid bare when they first run their apps on this new hardware. Apple’s apps show that the new iPad has the power to keep it all smooth; but it looks like app developers will need to run their apps on this new hardware and then spend some time optimizing their code so that it shines on this new, bigger display.

Going beyond pure graphics performance, my tests found the new iPad to be roughly the same speed as the old one. The GeekBench testing app said the iPad 2 was slightly faster. The Sunspider JavaScript benchmark gave them both the same scores. And in my webpage-loading test, the new iPad was faster.

Dead ringers

Usually when I review a new Apple product, I start with the physical changes. People always want to know how the new thing is different from the old thing. But the third-generation iPad is almost physically identical to the iPad 2. You can’t tell them apart unless you look very closely.

The new iPad (left) and iPad 2 (right).
The differences I’ve noticed: The inside of the dock connector is silver and not black, and the rear camera is a little bit bigger. Yeah. That’s it.

Almost imperceptible is the fact that the new iPad is a bit thicker than its predecessor. The iPad 2 was 8.8 millimeters thick, and the third-generation model is 9.4 millimeters thick. So there’s an extra six tenths of a millimeter there now, I suppose, but it was imperceptible to me. (The original iPad was 13 millimeters thick—now that’s a difference you could feel.)

The new iPad is also heavier than the iPad 2. The new model weighs either 652 grams (1.44 pounds) for the Wi-Fi-only model or 662 grams (1.46 pounds) for the 4G model. In contrast, the Wi-Fi iPad 2 weighed 601 grams (1.33 pounds) while the AT&T model of the 3G-equipped iPad 2 was 613 grams (1.35 pounds). So your standard Wi-Fi iPad has put on about 50 grams or a tenth of a pound. It’s a small weight gain, but I can’t call it imperceptible. The first time I picked up the third-generation iPad, I could tell that it was heavier.

What does this increased weight mean in practice? Probably not very much. Even the iPad 2 is not a product that you can just hold indefinitely with one hand. It’s too heavy and too bulky for that. This is a device that’s best when held in two hands or propped against your lap. The iPad 2 was easier to hold than the original iPad, and the new iPad feels pretty much the same on that score. The extra tenth of a pound may be noticeable, but I don’t think it’s meaningful.

The 2011 and 2012 iPad vintages are so alike, in fact, that they can use the same Smart Covers. And all but the most exacting iPad 2 cases will probably work on the third-generation model. I tried the new iPad with a few assorted iPad 2 cases hanging around our offices and it fit in all of them just fine.

Now, the big question is: Why this deviation from Jobs’s Law? Isn’t every new Apple product supposed to be smaller, thinner, and lighter? I do believe that’s Apple’s ultimate goal. But in this case, it’s clear that the boosted graphics processor, the support for 4G networking, and the high-resolution display and its corresponding LED backlights, all add up to a device that requires a lot more power than the iPad 2 did. And so Apple did what it had to do in order to keep that famous 10-hour iPad battery life: It made room for a bigger battery at the cost of size and weight.

According to Apple’s tech specs page, the new iPad has a 42.5 watt-hour battery. Compare that with the iPad 2’s 25 watt-hour battery. That’s a whole lot more battery just to keep the iPad running for the usual amount of time. Apple wasn’t willing to trade away battery life for thinness and lightness, so here we are: with a new iPad that’s imperceptibly thicker and immaterially heavier. It’ll do.

I wasn’t able to do extensive battery testing, but in my use over the past week I’ve found that Apple’s claims of comparable life to the iPad 2 are accurate. I can get through an entire day using my iPad and I don’t run out of juice. I suspect that this new battery will take longer to charge than previous models, though—so prepare for an overnight recharge in order to completely juice up your battery.

Picture perfect

The original iPad didn’t have cameras. The iPad 2 added a low-resolution, front-facing camera for video chat and a rear camera with just enough resolution to shoot 720p video. That rear camera was, to put it bluntly, not very good. It was the weakest feature of the iPad 2, in fact.

The good news is, with the third-generation iPad, Apple has finally righted this wrong. Apple’s dusted off an old brand name (just as it did when the old iBook laptop became the new iBooks app) and applied it as a label to that camera: iSight. iSight, apparently, means “camera good enough to shoot photos and videos with.” And it is. It’s a five-megapixel camera, not quite on a par with the one in the iPhone 4S, but still quite good.

When I compared images from the new iPad’s iSight camera against test images taken by other mobile devices, I found that the new iPad’s camera fared quite well. It offered roughly the same image quality as the iPhone 4S and the Asus Transformer Prime, and clearly outdistanced both the Samsung Galaxy 10.1 and the iPad 2. It seems safe to say that the new iPad has the best camera of any tablet device, and among the best of any mobile device. Most notably, the quality of the 1080p video I shot with the new iPad was very good, even in low light.

The iPad’s sheer size doesn’t make it an ideal camera, but if you do need to shoot something and your iPad is at hand, the third-generation iPad’s camera is of a high enough quality that you won’t regret your choice.

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