Review: Apple iPad 2

Apple cements an early lead through speed, size and apps. (March 16th, 2011)

Tablets were a veritable niche until the iPad, which made Apple's launch easy: it practically walked into a market uncontested. In 2011, however, it's virtually surrounded on all sides, mostly by Android but also by the upcoming BlackBerry PlayBook and even the left field entry from the HP TouchPad. In our full review of the iPad 2, we'll look at whether it can fend these off and if it can appeal to what could be its toughest audience: existing iPad owners.

Electronista Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: Apple

Price: $499 (16GB Wi-Fi), $699 (64GB Wi-Fi, tested)

The Good

  • Much faster in some areas.
  • Thinner and lighter.
  • Huge, intuitive app library.
  • Smart Covers are slick.
  • iMovie and GarageBand are killer apps.
  • Dual cameras add functionality.
  • Still excellent battery life.
  • Tough-to-beat price.

The Bad

  • Not night-and-day better for some iPad owners.
  • Cameras are sub-par by Apple standards.
  • Android sometimes more powerful and open.
  • Smart Cover doesn't guard the back.
  • Still the same 1024x768 display.

Design

Over the past year, most of the complaints about the size or weight of the original iPad were from those coming from e-readers like the Kindle, not another tablet: it wasn't light enough to hold in one hand for long periods of time, but it was much lighter than a netbook or a Windows Tablet PC. Apple nonetheless decided to go ahead and put the most conspicuous improvements of the iPad 2 into exactly this area. It claims to have created a device that's thinner than the already thin iPhone 4, and the iPad 2 squeaks does this while also shrinking down the overall footprint. With a thickness of 0.34 inches (versus 0.50 inches), a 9.5-inch height (versus 9.56 inches), and 7.3 inches in width (versus 7.47 inches), it's noticeably more compact. Weight, arguably the most contentious point, has also been shaved off, and the iPad 2 comes in at just 1.33 pounds versus its 1.5-pound ancestor.

All of these trimmings don't sound like much, but as soon as we picked up the iPad 2 it just felt smaller, and lighter -- not by a little, but by a lot. It's much more comfortable to hold during long flights or while reading a book on the couch, although we'd still advise against holding it over your head lest you fall asleep and rain that much aluminum and glass on your face. And while we like the size of the iPad 2 for magazines and certain other large-format layouts, we can't help but think that a seven-inch iPad would be a treat to use and that Steve Jobs is somewhat wrong in saying that people don't want a smaller tablet. Sometimes, an e-reader sized device would be the perfect option for carrying in a coat pocket or in a crowded briefcase.

The backside of the iPad 2 is made of the same aluminum that Apple owners are sure to be familiar with from the previous iPad and recent notebooks. In this version, it's most reminiscent of the fourth-generation iPod touch without the scratch-friendly chrome: it tapers down to the edges to give it a more comfortable feel in your hands as well as a perceptibly thinner design. Thankfully, this time around the iPad will sit flat on a table or kitchen counter, unlike the original iPad that rocked back and forth because of its curves.





The single speaker was moved a bit more to the side on the iPad 2, but the sound level remains about the same; hearing audio or music was just fine in a reasonably quiet space, but nothing to write home about. We did like it more than the stereo speakers found on the Motorola Xoom because of the placement issue. We're hoping that a future generation will add in a second speaker to create stereo separation, although this might have design challenges of its own.

It's in many ways a subtle and even inevitable upgrade, but we're still amazed that Apple is able to fit so much technology and battery power into such a small design. It still comes at a price of fragility, however. We wouldn't want to drop a Xoom, Galaxy Tab or most other tablets, but the aluminum shell and all-glass front still leave you wary, even for a drop of a few inches. Certain issues also haven't gone away, such as the tendency for the oil-resistant screen to eventually load up on smudges or the aluminum to take a scratch from an abrasive surface.

Display and battery life

The 9.7-inch size may be a liability for portability, but it also affords plenty of room inside for a large battery, and in that respect the iPad 2 really shines. Our tests saw it get between 10 to 11 hours of heavy battery use, mostly including web browsing and video but also content creation. That's not much different than the original iPad, but the slimmer profile and the dual-core processor make it that much more impressive. Moreover, battery life will vary wildly on some of the iPad 2's peers. A Xoom can get hours more, but only when it's not playing video; do that and you suddenly drop to seven. Seven-inch tablets like the Galaxy Tab can be worse and typically get no more than seven hours, even with lighter duties.

One of the most talked about rumors leading up to the iPad 2 unveil was that it would feature an iPhone 4-like Retina Display; unfortunately, this didn't happen and we're stuck with the exact same 1024x768 resolution screen that was featured on the original iPad. With tablets like the Xoom packing a 1280x800 resolution, this is one of the areas in which the iPad 2 isn't up to snuff. Photos and videos still look fantastic, but a small bump in resolution would have been welcomed. We suspect technical reasons prevented Apple from increasing the resolution, such as the panel cost, performance, and the challenge of smoothly upscaling apps. It's still glossy, too, so you probably won't be reading in the park on a bright summer day.



We'll still add, though, that the iPad 2 still has a better display than the Xoom and most of its peers, and for one reason: IPS, or in-plane switching, in the LCD. The technique produces very rich, accurate colors and a picture that's visible from nearly any angle. Try the same on a Xoom and you'll quickly notice cut corners on the display. Motorola's tablet produces duller colors and more quickly washes out at wide viewing angles. Some would argue these are worth the trade-off, but we disagree; tablet owners are much more sensitive to image quality and off-angle viewing, so anything that makes the screen readable and pleasant to look at is an edge.

Performance, iMovie, and GarageBand

Apple has made just enough changes to the insides to make previous generation owners consider an upgrade but not enough for the choice to be automatic. The iPad 2 features a new processor, the A5; it's a dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 chip much like NVIDIA's Tegra 2 in the Xoom, but it doesn't behave in quite the same way. Tests like Geekbench put it at 900MHz, but it's now clear it's using dynamic clock rate adjustment and will ramp up for a high-demand task but slow down when it's just on the web or otherwise lightly tasked. Apple also doubled the device's internal memory from 256MB on the original to 512MB; we would have liked to see Apple match the Xoom's specs by including 1GB of memory, but the number is not the most important factor; it's the usable memory and the actual experience.

The RAM upgrade helps with certain resource-heavy apps and Apple's take on mobile multitasking. We noticed that apps opened much faster on the iPad 2 and system crashes or a need for manual restart were non-existent. Apps like Djay for iPad practically demand the extra memory, too. Moreover, web browsing is also noticeably better. Safari no longer has to randomly reload pages once it runs out of cache. It has even scrapped the infamous "checkerboard" that indicates the WebKit engine hasn't loaded the rest of a given page. If you thrive on heavy-duty iPad apps, web writing, or complex (plugin-free) pages, you've found your device.



Graphics are perhaps the real deadly weapon for the new iPad. Apple is using Imagination Technologies' PowerVR SGX543MP2, a dual-core video chipset with support for more advanced shaders (pixel effects) and, of course, much more in the way of simultaneous processing. Apple estimates a ninefold speed boost, but in practice that simply means many of the earlier ceilings were removed. An example is the updated version of Infinity Blade from Epic and Chair. On an early iPad, it still looks good but has flat textures and is pixelated; an iPad 2 adds much more vibrant texturing and antialiases the scene to clean it up. The Digital AV Adapter can output up to 1080p on an iPad 2 as well, although Apple isn't yet at the point where it's readily enabling 1080p video clips or games.

Much of what's in the iPad 2 is potential. Most apps and iOS itself are still mostly optimized for the single-core, ARM Cortex-A8 chip in the first iPad. As much faster as we saw just after launch, we suspect it will get much more interesting with iOS 5 and once enough developers have had time to improve their graphics or otherwise work the device harder.

Along with the improved hardware, Apple has included iOS 4.3 on the iPad 2 and within that software update is a much better version of its web browser code. Earlier, the iPad still felt very much like a mobile device despite Apple's claims of a desktop-like experience. At least in complex web apps, this has been virtually fixed with the Nitro engine for JavaScript included with iOS 4.3. Even when we were testing it on the original iPad, the engine was about 2.5 times faster; the iPad 2 is about 50 percent faster with the same software, taking under 2,100ms on average.



Apple also released two all-new apps, iMovie and GarageBand, to show iPad 2 owners exactly what the updated internals can do. Both apps are fantastic examples of what happens when an app is designed from the start for a modern tablet. We've only just scratched the surface for these, but they're genuinely complex, desktop-grade apps. iMovie's revamped interface from '09 onwards suddenly makes more sense through the grab bars for precision editing and the drag-and-drop clip splicing. GarageBand has a surprisingly hefty eight-track recording system and allows for surprisingly advanced composition and instruments that would be difficult to pull off with even a mouse. We're excited to see what other great developers will do to up the ante in terms of software.

How does the performance stack up against rivals, then? Our Xoom review unit departed days ago, but both recent benchmarks and our own subjective experience would suggest that some of Motorola's bluster has been overstated. Versus an original iPad, the Tegra 2 in the Xoom is undeniably faster. Compared to the iPad 2, however, it's noticeably sluggish. Android 3.0's deeper multitasking gives it an edge for parallel tasks but, on the Tegra 2, is noticeably slower in interface transitions and even doesn't maintain Google's supposed edge in web page load times.

What shocked us the most was video performance. You would expect an absolute expert in fast graphics like NVIDIA to dominate Apple and Imagination, but early benchmarks and the sheer visual punch of early optimized games outright humble the Tegra 2. Since virtually every Android 3.0 tablet in the next few months will use the Tegra 2, that guarantees that Apple will have at least a theoretical performance lead for months to come. We could only see the BlackBerry PlayBook, and possibly the HP TouchPad, coming close.

Notes on software: advantages, limits, and the app count

Before we celebrate Apple's feat too much, we should note that Android does, at least for now, have some advantages over iOS as it first shipped on the iPad. Android 3.0's notification system is both subtler and cleverer, popping up in the corner and more gracefully stacking up multiple events. The Chrome-inspired browser is better, with real tabbed browsing. Finally, Android still has an edge in support for a more complex home screen with widgets.

There's also the question of Flash, too. Like it or not, the plugin does mean that pages that use Flash exclusively for animations, games, and video will render where they turn up the infamous "?" on the iPad's browser. Now that a beta of Flash is arriving for Android 3.0, it will have a more complete web experience, at least on paper.

That said, Android 3.0 and Flash are not quite the coups Google, Motorola, and Adobe make them out to be. We've tried multiple Android 3.0 tablets, and in each case the OS wasn't the mind-searing experience Google promised. It's not just the slightly chugging performance. The OS fosters a certain amount of attention deficit disorder by forcing the user to alternate between the top and bottom navigation bars almost constantly, and there are times where it borders on feeling like a desktop OS -- in the bad, complex sense. Flash is much better now that it has a dual-core processor and graphics acceleration, but we've heard from beta users that it still chokes whenever there's more than one browser tab with significant Flash or anything HD. Any Flash component that demands more than simple tapping also falls apart, since they're rarely optimized for touch and won't be until developers get used to recent code additions. HTML5 video is young but is still faster and simpler.

Then there's apps. Simply put, it was patently obvious that Google and Motorola rushed to get an Android 3.0 device out the door whether or not the apps were ready. Android Market had just 16 native, third-party tablet apps on day one, only a few of which were vital. The finished developer kit came out just days before the Xoom was in stores and gave virtually no one time to build apps. We expect that situation to improve in the months ahead, but it's hard to convince someone to drop hundreds of dollars on a tablet when they don't know what it can do.



The iPad 2 may be closer to its phone-based predecessor's interface than Android 3.0, but we consistently found it more enjoyable to use. It's more direct and intuitive, even if its home screen is simple. It's much faster; Apple's goal with iOS is to keep the main interface running at 60 frames per second or faster, and virtually everything feels fluid. More importantly, Apple has a genuinely meaningful app economy. Say what you will about app limitations and policies, but 65,000-plus titles means you're still more likely to find an app that does what you want.

Cameras and FaceTime

Easily the most noticeable update in the iPad 2 has to be the addition of front and rear cameras. The front VGA camera is intended primarily for use with Apple's video chat software, FaceTime, as well as Photo Booth. It's competent, but lackluster. We did make a few FaceTime calls, and as long as the room is well lit, the front-facing camera does exactly what it's supposed to and does that one thing very well. Photo Booth is something Mac users will be very familiar with and is meant solely to take fun effects-laden shots with the front facing camera; it 's really a utility to draw in younger buyers at the store, but it also shows the power of Apple's new tablet as it can render nine unique photo effects in real time.

Both apps themselves are basic, but they're very easy to use and, importantly, built-in. Android 3.0 has Gmail's AV chat, but it's less easily grasped and counterintuitively drives you into the mail app much of the time. Apple's version of video chat is relatively seamless and, importantly, has an ecosystem that already includes phones and MP3 players along with desktops and tablets.



The rear camera turned out to be a major disappointment. Despite shooting decent 720p video, it's basically unusable for truly high quality still shots. We were hoping to get the iPhone 4's high-quality, five-megapixel sensor, but instead got what seems to be an exact replica of the most-recent iPod touch's rear camera at just under one megapixel. It can handle some low-light conditions, but it's still noisy and crops the shots to a low 960x720 image. It's not very realistic to think that people would be running around taking still shots with a 9.7-inch iPad 2, but the availability of a nice camera would be appreciated, especially when the Motorola Xoom has a five-megapixel back camera.

Again, Apple does make up for it with video, and it's with apps like iMovie that it somewhat redeems itself. The rear camera is good enough to keep up with fast movement without blocky artifacts or streaking, and when you polish a video with titles, cuts and background music, it can turn what would be a mediocre video in a basic editor -- Android 3.0's is nowhere near in this class -- into a reasonably enjoyable presentation. We trimmed a short, simple video to show just a hint of the potential, but we could see more patient users creating a family vacation video worth watching entirely from the iPad; that's unheard of for a tablet.



The Smart Cover

If someone had told us before March 2 that a new cover/case/screen protector would have stolen away some of the spotlight from the iPad 2 at Apple's recent press conference, we probably would have laughed that person right out of the room. The Smart Cover did just that, and after a couple of days of heavy use, we have to say that the new cover, while not perfect, is one of the highlights of this new product's launch. We're not sure how much Apple saw the cover as a revenue generator versus genuinely advancing tablet protection, but we're happy to see a cover that does something genuinely better and unique.

At its heart, it's doing what BlackBerry holsters have done, but in a book metaphor that makes sense for a tablet. The Smart Cover snaps on to the side of the iPad 2 with one set of magnets and closes down over the screen with another set, auto-aligning itself near-flawlessly and staying put even when wrapped around the back. The Smart Cover also wakes and sleeps the iPad 2 upon open and closing, akin to quickly flipping open a book or magazine, and goes a long way towards removing that momentary but persistent need to unlock the device every time on an iPad. It works well as a stand either at a low angle for typing or upright for a video.





The Smart Cover comes in ten different colors, five of the polyurethane variety and five less vibrant, if more tasteful, leather colors. We don't agree with the high costs of the Smart Cover, at $39 for polyurethane and $69 for leather. That it doesn't actually protect the back of the expensive iPad 2 could also be a problem in the long term if you scratch the back. Still, there's something about the new cover that just works and feels right. Cases and covers are very subjective, but if you can keep the back relatively safe, the Smart Cover eases a lot of the burden of a tablet without adding a lot of bulk.

Wrapping up

Much ado was made at Apple's special event that it was the "year of the iPad 2." Steve Jobs was confident no one would come close. That's not entirely true. There are a few things Android 3.0 tablets are doing better, a few things the PlayBook will do better, and a few things the TouchPad will do better. A Xoom usually takes better photos and has a higher resolution display, the PlayBook will be extremely portable and secure data, and the TouchPad will excel at multitasking.

The iPad 2 may not have the most RAM, the cameras may be less than optimal, and it's still using very nearly the same display, but the combined effect of its various changes is more than the sum of the parts. Games and especially content creation see the most benefit, but even simple activities such as reading a book, watching movies or podcasts, and certainly web browsing are just more convenient on the iPad 2. The first iPad didn't necessarily feel like a first-generation product, but the iPad 2 in terms of day-to-day use feels much more polished, never bogging down and having a more complete experience.

We also can't stress the importance of the app ecosystem enough. As of this writing, Android 3.0 had just a few dozen apps. It might theoretically stand a better chance of being a full notebook replacement at this early stage, but in the real world, the lack of apps makes it less useful than what Apple has brought to the table. An iPad 2 can be used with real instruments to make music, collect and manage enterprise data in the field, or (if you're patient) write a full report. Apps to fill those holes will likely come to other tablet platforms, but when? And how well will they work? In a market that's barely a year old, gambling large amounts of money on hardware on hopes of future app support could be foolhardy.



Coming from the original iPad, there's nothing revolutionary about the iPad 2; it's a very nice and welcomed improvement and should give owners at least another year or so of usability before the next great Apple tablet, or a true competitor, hits the market. If you're happy with your existing iPad, stay put; the iPad 3 may bring a quad-core processor, a Retina Display, and better cameras, and you'll still have ample support until then. However, anyone truly craving the extra speed, cameras, and even just the more portable design, might find enough to justify an early upgrade.

Competitors? We've spent a significant amount of time with not just the Motorola Xoom but many of the tablets yet to come this year. We've often had a sense of strong potential in their future. "Future," though, is the operative term. Some of these tablets are only arriving months after the iPad 2. And virtually all of their creators are making wagers that the apps will either be there waiting or will come soon afterwards. The iPad 2 and its apps are good, but they have an even better advantage: they're here, right now.



Surprisingly, price also works in Apple's favor here. A more affordable Wi-Fi Xoom will likely be on store shelves by the time you read this, but less than a week after the iPad 2's debut, the only ways to adopt Google's vision of tablet computing is to either pay $800 up front to Verizon or to pay $600 but tie yourself to the same carrier for two years. When a 3G, 32GB iPad 2 costs $70 less contract-free and a basic Wi-Fi version can be had for as little as $500, that's a minor revolution. We've personally known Android fans who wanted to buy a Xoom but picked an iPad because it was the only tablet that felt reasonably priced. When Samsung panics because it didn't expect the iPad 2 to keep the same price for faster performance, you know Apple has scored a rare coup.

We'll reiterate that unless you've been dreaming of a day where the iPad comes with cameras, or you can simply afford to upgrade early, we wouldn't recommend trading in an original iPad. Where the iPad 2 excels is in attracting newcomers. It's an extremely fluid, portable, complete experience that just isn't coming from its competitors, and it's now encroaching on areas once reserved for full-fledged computers. If you haven't taken the plunge into tablet computing, this is the perfect time to get your feet wet, and the iPad 2 is, at least in 2011, the tablet of choice.

by Eric Bush and Jon Fingas


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