Review: Apple iPad (2012)

Apple goes all-out in display technology for its new tablet. (March 19th, 2012)

Once having the tablet arena almost entirely to itself, Apple is now in the middle of a full-scale battle: everyone who could have a tablet does, and even Amazon's Kindle Fire is in the fray at a very low price. The new iPad, then, faces the challenge of not just being the best but of giving buyers a reason to spend more than $199. A record-setting display, new graphics and 4G go a long way, but we'll learn in our review of the new 2012 iPad to see if it's enough to keep the crown.

Electronista Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: Apple

Price: $499 (16GB Wi-Fi), $629 (16GB 4G)

The Good

  • Exceptional display.
  • Much faster graphics performance; 1GB RAM.
  • 4G and fast 3G without battery life hits.
  • Finally viable rear camera.
  • iOS 5.1 still tops in tablet software for now.
  • 1080p video recording.
  • iPhoto (optional) and a strong app ecosystem.
  • Price is right.
  • Voice dictation.

The Bad

  • Thicker and heavier.
  • No real gain to main CPU performance.
  • Signficantly longer charging time.
  • 16GB a tight fit for growing apps.
  • Anemic front camera.
  • No Siri (yet).

Once having the tablet arena almost entirely to itself, Apple is now in the middle of a full-scale battle: everyone who could have a tablet does, and even Amazon's Kindle Fire is in the fray at a very low price. The new iPad, then, faces the challenge of not just being the best but of giving buyers a reason to spend more than $199. A record-setting display, new graphics and 4G go a long way, but we'll learn in our review of the new 2012 iPad to see if it's enough to keep the crown.

Design

Apple is currently in one of its conservative phases: the iPhone 4S was near-identical to the original, and to some extent, that applies to the new iPad. If you've read our iPad 2 review, you'll know many of the basics. It's the definition of a minimalist design, with a glossy glass-and-plastic bezel and a tapering aluminum back that gives it a more upscale look than most contenders. Black and white colors are available, which isn't much but is more than others offer; we'd go with white, since it's both less smudge-prone and seems a better-suited backdrop to reading and web browsing.

Things have changed slightly, however, and it's one of the few moments where the iPad has taken a step back. To accommodate a much more advanced screen and bigger battery, the new iPad is about 0.11 pounds heavier and 0.02 inches thicker. That may not sound like much, but for a device that's supposed to be held entirely by your two hands, it's important. It's still slightly lighter and definitely thinner than the original; it's just not ideal for handheld reading.

Thankfully, it still feels good to hold in the hand, and because of the slightly thicker body and steeper tapering, may be better for grip. The smooth aluminum back still does mean that you'll want to be more considerate about your hand hold. Things are helped if you get a third-party case or one of Apple's Smart Covers, which continues to fit perfectly and is a boon if you want your iPad to wake as soon as you open the cover.







Of course, that minimalism also translates to a small number of controls and ports. Apple still has one of the smarter designs with a wake button, a volume rocker, and a mute switch (optionally flipped to a rotation lock) that are all easy enough to hit intentionally, but rarely if ever by accident. There's still just the Dock Connector for ports, so those hoping Apple would buckle and use standard USB or go next-generation with Thunderbolt will be disappointed. We think the insistences by some on regular ports are overstated, especially in an era of AirPlay video and cloud storage. All the same, there would be times where an SD card slot or HDMI out would be nice instead of having to buy a special adapter.

That's especially true given the lack of progress in storage. Apple is still selling 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB capacities. Along from marking the third generation in which these are the only options, they're more squeezed now that many apps will have much larger art assets to take advantage of the new iPad's screen. Realistically, 16GB now only truly works if you spend most of your life in the cloud, such as on iTunes Match, Netflix, or Rdio. If you still have a significant library -- especially if you tend to subscribe to tablet magazines -- we'd consider 32GB a practical minimum. Issues with their experience aside, tablets like the ASUS Transformer Prime are smartly equipped with 32GB out of the box. There may have been cost reasons behind the display to make Apple stick to 16GB, but that still leaves it a truly barebones option.

One almost unsung addition is Bluetooth 4.0. Compared to the 2.1 spec on the iPad 2, it's a major expansion of capability both in speed and power It can use Wi-Fi for much faster data if needed, although we've seen few uses of that to date. The 4.0 format is more interesting on the low-power side. If you have something that sips little bandwidth and power, such as fitness trackers and even home appliances, they'll get their full potential here. We can see future keyboards that last much longer than a few weeks on a charge.

The Retina Display

By far the centerpiece of the new iPad is the LCD. At 2048x1536, it's exactly four times higher in resolution than the 1024x768 Apple had been using until now and one of the sharpest mid-sized displays ever made. It's not as high-density as on the iPhone 4S, at 264 pixels per inch instead of 330, but it doesn't need to be. Apple isn't kidding when it says the viewing distance makes all the difference; you can just notice the pixels up close, but at usual distances, it's perfectly crisp.

Top in each photo pairing, iPad 2; bottom, 2012 iPad









Our reaction was less of being blown away -- we had time for that with the original iPhone 4 -- and more one of wondering why no one could do this kind of resolution on a tablet any sooner. The main interface suddenly looks more like a concept rendering, it's that sharp. Text isn't quite print-like, but it's so close that you can read smaller text and catch the nuances of fonts. Photos are now limited more by their original capture size than by the screen. You can now not only load 1080p clips, but watch them at their intended resolution whether or not it's at a native aspect ratio; even 720p looks better, and you can now watch video in portrait mode without losing detail.

The irony is that it can potentially highlight the weaknesses of content. If someone is using a low resolution image on the web, you'll know it. The same applies to low-bitrate video or anything else made to save bandwidth. Still, it's a good problem to have, and it means that many of the new iPad's owners will have a sharper screen on their tablet than on anything else they own. If you're an apartment-dwelling TV cord-cutter, it may make you question why you have an HDTV in the first place.

Top, iPad 2; bottom, 2012 iPad





It should be noted that Apple won't be alone in the high-resolution stakes for long. Acer's Iconia Tab A700 and ASUS' Transformer Pad Infinity will both have 1080p displays. We've seen them, and they'll often look as good. Both will have slightly larger screens and slightly lower resolutions, though, so Apple will still be unambiguously ahead for the near future.

What might be the impressive element is how few sacrifices exist to get that resolution. Apple's display makers, believed to be LG Display, Samsung, and Sharp, have done some clever engineering to keep it bright and colorful. We couldn't notice a functional difference in the brightness between this and the iPad 2 despite the many smaller 'portholes' created by a dense display. The LCD's designers have raised the pixels above their circuitry and added extra LED backlighting, which contribute to the slight thickness increase but also lead to a device that's very comfortable to look at indoors, if still too dark or glossy to really be visible outdoors.

Apple is still using IPS (in-plane switching) for its LCD, or what many still consider the benchmark for display quality. That means accurate, rich colors that are genuinely helpful if you're image editing or just browsing your friend's Flickr gallery. IPS likewise means very good viewing angles, so you don't have to be in a sweet spot to get the full effect. The new screen should have a roughly 44 percent better color saturation, and it certainly appears vibrant here.





The drawbacks mostly come from the previously mentioned thickness as well as the need for a heavy battery, which we'll address later. Other tablets with super-dense displays haven't superficially had to make that sacrifice, although we'll see if their batteries last when they arrive. Either way, if you're looking for a no-compromise display on a larger tablet, you might have to wait for AMOLED or Sharp's IGZO (iridium gallium zinc oxide) to become widely available and inexpensive enough to reach a device of the iPad's stature, giving it all the brightness and battery life without the extra heft.

iOS 5.1

Every iPad launch so far has introduced a minor iOS update that's both ready to support the new hardware and which introduces a few new features. Sure enough, iOS 5.1 was unveiled almost in the same breath as the new iPad itself.

What the new iPad gets from 5.1 is mostly an optimization of all its apps for the new resolution: Calendar, Contacts, and all the core apps are now both extra-sharp and very large, though whether or not you like the skeuomorphic designs of some apps (resembling real-world objects) is up for debate. You can now delete individual photos from iCloud's Photo Stream (a much-requested feature), use iTunes Match with Genius list playback, and get the same podcast controls that iPhone and iPod touch owners have had for awhile. But if you were expecting Apple to redo its OS concepts to more explicitly use the extra space, such as side-by-side apps, home screen widgets, or just denser interface elements, you'll be disappointed. Even the lock screen hasn't changed to allow quick camera access.





That's not necessarily a bad thing. In our view, the iPad has succeeded precisely because it's not trying to replicate the desktop on a smaller touchscreen; it's providing a quicker, simpler alternative that, sometimes, is as good or better than a desktop or notebook at the same task. We like Android and suspect we'll like at least parts of Windows 8, but at their heart, they're trying to introduce some of the complexity of a desktop OS back into mobile. Having more theoretical flexibility and power is nice, but not if it brings in some of the complexity you were hoping to escape.

The app ecosystem also can't be overstated. At least as of March, Apple could count over 200,000 native iPad apps, many of them fairly polished. Android and RIM's BlackBerry Tablet OS on the PlayBook can at most count a few thousand; we can't give an exact count, because neither has been willing to say exactly how many tablet-native apps they have. For them, there is no Djay, no Flipboard, no Bento (admittedly an Apple app), and far fewer top-tier games. Fewer apps are genuinely optimized, too; it wasn't just marketing when Apple chief Tim Cook noted that most Android apps have no choice but to just upsize an existing phone app and hope for the best. What good is having the potential for a more capable Android app if no one is willing to write it?

There are two additions that iPad owners might appreciate. One is a significantly altered camera app, which we'll cover when we reach photography, while the other is voice dictation. Much as it works on the iPhone 4S, any app that uses the standard keyboard has a microphone button to dictate commands. It works roughly as well as the equivalent in Android 4.0: that is, you can speak as long as you like, using common language with punctuation, and expect it to transcribe much of what you say accurately. Both the iPad and Android do trip up occasionally, though, so we mostly kept it to simpler phrases. You'll find yourself correcting or adding content more than you like, and you need an Internet connection for Apple's servers to process the data, but for those who hate typing on glass, it's potentially faster.



What you won't find is what many wanted the most: Siri. As quirky and at times unreliable as it can be, it's a very fast way to create a reminder, check the weather, or message someone by name. Apple hasn't said why it excluded Siri, but we suspect it's to keep the load on its servers more manageable, and to polish the experience, before it expands. We can understand why; Apple has normally been about having features that work well over simply having them. All the same, it's something Apple ought to address, whether in a mid-cycle update or iOS 6.

We haven't encountered much in the way of significant bugs during our testing, although we have encountered a few instances where copy-paste text behaved oddly. Trying to drag and select a few times would make the copy-paste interface particularly jittery, and in one point it crashed Safari. We'll see if it's an ongoing problem, although it's minor.

Performance, Retina-native apps, and app scaling

Driving the huge resolution increase depends on having much faster graphics, and that's what Apple is using here. Apple's A5X is using Imagination Technologies' PowerVR SGX543MP4; it's a quad-core version of the dual-core video in the iPad 2, and it's the exact same graphics as in the PlayStation Vita. While it's unfortunately not a complete remake in architecture, the brute force nature does wonders for the core OS. Virtually everything in the basic interface has that same immediate responsiveness from the iPad 2. That's more important than it might sound: even an ASUS Transformer Prime has that characteristic if small Android lag between touch and action, and the iPad's one-for-one response goes a long way towards making the user feel connected.



There's also 1GB of RAM versus the 512MB of the iPad 2. That's largely in place to accommodate the sheer volume of art and video frame buffers that it needs to hold in temporary memory, although it does have a slight benefit. Apps tend to stay in a suspended state for a bit longer, Safari avoids flushing its cache for that much more time. It's true that Android tablets have had 1GB of RAM since at least the Xoom, but they've needed it because of Android's basic overhead, not to keep an already quick OS running at four times its normal visual detail.

Underneath, though, the A5X is at most only slightly changed from last year's A5. It's still using the same architecture (ARM Cortex-A9, if you're curious) and it's still dual-core. There may be a small clock speed increase, as synthetic tests have shown it running at 1GHz instead of the roughly 900MHz of before. We very rarely noticed it, but there were a few websites whose complex overlays and scripts triggered slight hitching that a genuinely redesigned processor or a big clock speed increase might have overcome.

Lest you think that it means trouble for Apple in high-demand apps, though, our experience suggests that the new iPad is still on the strong side. Performance in areas where raw computation is the only factor isn't significantly changed; when we ran Sunspider, a synthetic test to gauge web browser JavaScript speed, the 1,819ms time was within a few milliseconds of an iPad 2. It's still ever so slightly faster than a Transformer Prime's (or any other Tegra 3-based tablet's) 1,830ms even in Chrome, which ought to be humbling for Google and NVIDIA given that they're supposed to have speed optimizations, two extra cores, and 500MHz more clock speed to work with.



Any app that leans on the graphics even partially is where the iPad truly pulls ahead. NVIDIA has been keen to show games like Shadowgun running mirrored out to a 1080p TV; the iPad can handle games at an even higher resolution. Although they're still in the minority, there are now games that can use the full 2048x1536 picture. We only got to try a few given that many had just reached the App Store days earlier, but it's almost startling that a game as visually lush as Infinity Blade II can quadruple its resolution and still run as well as it did before The main questions are whether developers can catch up and whether AirPlay-capable games like Real Racing 2 HD could output wireless video at 1080p.

For context, current-generation Android tablets aren't even really close. Previous benchmarks had shown the iPad 2 already outrunning Tegra 3 tablets by a small degree despite several months' difference and the quad-core Tegra. Android 4.0 won't have changed this, and with 32 gigaflops of peak computing power in the A5X versus just 12 in the Tegra 3, it's entirely possible that the new iPad will stay out in front for gaming performance against most of its competition in 2012, including yet-to-ship hardware from Qualcomm and TI. Real-world performance is what matters, and for now, that ball is still is in Apple's court.

Apps that don't fit the resolution are still mostly acceptable, too, because Apple has chosen a resolution that scales perfectly with that of earlier iPads. If it's a 3D title or an app that depends heavily on iOS' native approach to text, the differences are either small or invisible. A game like Mirror's Edge looks as good as it did pre-Retina, and apps like WeatherEye HD still get an extra benefit through sharper-looking fonts. What's mostly hurt are titles that use a heavy amount of custom 2D graphics. Many tablet magazines are simply large collections of images, and that creates the unenviable problem of having to not just re-render past issues at a higher resolution but to factor in both old and new iPad resolutions at once. File size considerations aside, it could lead to either a lot of work ahead or a lot of underused new iPads.

Top, an example of unoptimized art; bottom, a Retina Display-ready iPhone app blown up in 2X mode





A somewhat unforeseen benefit of the sheer resolution gain from the new iPad rests in support for iPhone-sized apps. Before, the "2X" (really 4X in practice) zoom mode produced apps that were usable, but were using the ugly, 320x480 version of a given app to scale up. If you're using a new iPad, the 2X mode now relies on the 640x960 version meant for the iPhone 4 and 4S. While you'll still get a comically oversized on-screen keyboard, the app itself is now presentable. You don't have to wince as much when you load Instagram, and in a pinch it's possible to play a Retina Display-aware but iPhone-only version of an app like Plants vs. Zombies instead of paying a second time just to get a higher-resolution copy.

iPhoto and the mobile iLife suite

Apple has been making it increasingly evident that it wants to replicate much of the Mac's iLife software experience on iOS devices, starting with iMovie and GarageBand. The culmination of this has come side-by-side with the new iPad in the form of iPhoto. It's a strictly optional $5 app, but Apple is positioning it as an important part of the iPad's experience and proof that mobile tablets are good for content creation, not just consumption.

In our time with it so far, it's a surprisingly capable, though not perfect, way to tune photos after the shot. At the least, it's now more organized, with a clearer split between albums, events, and pure photos. You can now also create more formal presentations known as Journals: they amount to a photo mosaic, but they're a creative way of presenting a vacation or an event that doesn't simply involve a traditional album. These can be posted online and even have their own widgets that can be inserted in between, such as a map to show where photos near in the Journal were taken (if they were tagged with the location) or a weather widget to show what the weather was like that day.





Delving into the central editing interface shows where Apple has had its real success. For the most part, iPhoto is one of the most intuitive image editors you'll come across. You can apply an automatic enhance if you like, but you get many of the controls of the desktop iPhoto brought into an even simpler interface. By far our favorite is the palette tool, which lets you adjust color values just by putting your finger on a relevant point of the screen and dragging vertically or horizontally. It's not only smart enough to have considerations for only saturating certain colors, such as flesh tones or greenery; it can tell when the sky features prominently in a shot and let you make color adjustments just to that.

Most other tools work in a similar way. Apple is often jabbed for that skeuomorphism we mentioned earlier, but it works very clearly here to explain what's happening. Brushes to fix or tweak parts of an image are explained with easy-to-pick brush metaphors; straightening an image uses a wheel at the bottom. There's even some features that aren't present in iPhoto on the Mac that are a big help in the iOS version, such as quick white balance correction (such as for a photo in bad incandescent light). We're not so keen on the pseudo-Instagram effects filters, but they're part of a larger set and easy to customize. All edits are thankfully non-destructive, so you can experiment and either skip back a step or revert to the original.

There's also some sharing support that's overdue in the core Photos app on the iPad itself; you can post photos directly to Facebook or Flickr and even share between your iOS devices. Third-party apps exist for this, to be sure, but it's good to have an official solution that aggregates what's sometimes split into separate programs.

Some things could stand to be improved with this initial version. While a lot of the controls are fairly simple, there's a lot of unlabelled content that usually requires trying it out to learn what it does. There's a chance some features might go undiscovered simply for not knowing what they do. Likewise, we didn't see many opportunities to learn about the properties of an image, and the options for sharing to Facebook and Flickr only give a handful of options. You can choose basic destinations, but you can't give exact titles, tag faces, choose categories, or otherwise get as much control as a dedicated app. Even so, iPhoto on the iPad feels like a real tool to make an image interesting, not just apply a basic filter and send it on its way. It's currently something which would typically either require a considerably more complicated app like Photoshop Touch or a desktop to accomplish.



The other mobile iLife apps aren't as dramatic, although they have been changed. iMovie now has storyboarding to help provide a guideline for producing a video, and you can create trailers that tease a larger project or provide a summary for friends who might not want to see a half-hour vacation video. GarageBand's most interesting feature by far is Jam Session: you can now have up to four iPad and iPhone users play on the same track and have a complete song without needing either to overdub after the fact or to use real-world instruments.

None of these individually will necessarily replace a traditional computer, but they do underscore a difference in attitude towards tablet owners at Apple versus Google or RIM. Google with Android 4.0 has only just started to realize the importance of giving creative tools like a movie editor from the start; RIM doesn't even really go that far on the BlackBerry PlayBook. As much as you might never need to use iPhoto or GarageBand, they show Apple's interest in giving you a reason why you might want to supplement or replace a traditional PC for some tasks. Google and RIM are mostly leaving it to other companies with a hit-or-miss track record, and that doesn't help when they're already facing deficits in app quantity and quality.

Camera app and image quality

One of the most frequent criticisms of the iPad's camera app was that it was literally the iPhone version writ large, and not very well-suited to the much larger screen. That's changed with iOS 5.1. Most of the interface elements have now been moved to corners and other areas where they're more likely to be reachable. The shutter button is now moved up to the right side of whichever view you're using, which isn't as great for left-handed photographers but is overall much easier than reaching awkwardly towards the bottom center.

Otherwise, it's not a major revolution, although it doesn't necessarily need to be. While some would complain that Apple gives very little manual control over settings, it's often the gold standard for making automatic settings that work properly. The iPad still has one of the better tap-to-focus interfaces, and you can press and hold on a given point to get autoexposure and autofocus lock for off-center or equally difficult to compose photos. Face detection exists as well. We'd like the ability to demand a particular white balance or sensitivity setting, but it's so rarely an issue that it's hard to object.



For photographers, the real highlight is just having a truly workable rear camera. The iPad 2's back camera was a one-megapixel sensor borrowed from the iPod touch. It was really just there to enable certain kinds of apps and keep pace with competition. The new iPad's camera is just about exponentially better, and for good reason: it's the same five-megapixel camera as the iPhone 4, but with the iPhone 4S' optics. Along with a fivefold increase in resolution, it's far more tolerant of less-than-ideal conditions, has a wider dynamic range, and works for the occasional near-macro shot. Having the iPhone 4S lensing leads to a pleasingly soft background in close-ups.

By using the 2010-era iPhone's camera, however, Apple is also passing along some of that camera's flaws. We've noticed that highlights, such as a bright sky, tend to lose detail much faster. Colors are just slightly off in accuracy. Noise is more pronounced, and the camera doesn't cope as well with moving subjects; we noticed people becoming blurs that really shouldn't have in a reasonably bright scene. Having said this, Apple isn't entirely kidding when it says the new iPad's rear camera is something you can be proud of. There's no avoiding the social awkwardness of bringing out a 9.7-inch tablet to take a photo, but it's at least enough to produce solid results and is noticeably better than the oftentimes muddy or slow cameras on devices like the Xoom and most Galaxy Tabs.









The front camera is another matter. Apple badges it as a FaceTime camera, and that's a clue that it's still the old 0.3-megapixel (640x480) camera from the earlier generation with a narrow purpose. Although serviceable, it creates an odd discrepancy between the front and back cameras. We'd add that it's something of a mismatch given the sheer amount of detail the display just underneath can show. A FaceTime or Skype video chat between two 2012 iPad owners won't look any better than it would for the earlier generation.



Movie making does improve dramatically with the new back camera and improved graphics. You can now shoot at 1080p, like the iPhone 4S, which gives Apple a true first in movie capture: it has the first mainstream device that can not just record 1080p but show that full resolution on its screen. The older sensor isn't as color-rich and shows a certain amount of common mobile camera artifacts like streaking and the "tower of Jell-O" effect that distorts images during fast movement. Nonetheless, the image quality is good enough to do iMovie justice.

Apple really needs to include more substantial post-shot editing, though. Android 4.0's editor is crude, but it gives multi-video stitching and backing soundtracks for free. There are free third-party apps, but just as Apple excels at having a paid app suite Android lacks, Google has an edge in what comes for free.





Battery life and cellular speeds

We've mentioned that Apple has a much larger battery, but it's hard to convey just how much larger: at 11,666mAh versus 6,944mAh, it's a full 70 percent larger in raw capacity than the previous generation, and is visibly bigger if you ever see it exposed. It's much like a Motorola Droid RAZR MAXX in that it's a conscious abandonment of sheer thinness and lightness for good battery life with more advanced technology.

It's apparent that the screen, and possibly the quad-core video, are the main reasons why that battery exists. Operating purely on Wi-Fi, the new IPad gets only just as much battery life as its predecessor at just over 10 hours in our early tests mixing the web, music, photo navigation, and some gaming with screen brightness at the halfway mark. That's great in maintaining expectations, and still makes it one of the longest-lasting tablets on the market, but it shows just how much of a strain there is on the lithium polymer cells to feed that display, backlighting, and graphics.

Our initial run was with a Wi-Fi only model and didn't let us directly test battery life on cellular access; we hope to fill that gap soon. Much as with the iPad 2, we're hearing numerous reports of even LTE access netting about nine hours with half brightness, and over eight hours even with brightness elevated. While it doesn't sound spectacular, it's exceptional among LTE tablets, many of which have to lop an hour or two off of Apple's longevity. Using slower access should extend battery life a bit more.

There is a major drawback to having such a big battery, and that's charging. Where an iPad can normally go back to a full battery in roughly four hours on an AC adapter, the larger battery means that it takes closer to six to seven hours to replenish, depending on how seriously you take your low battery warnings. This isn't unlike the problem the RAZR MAXX has, but it does mean that you'll want to be more thoughtful about plugging back in.



LTE in itself is noteworthy. The 2012 iPad revision is the first Apple device of any kind to support LTE, and it should benefit tremendously from the technology. It's not just a lot faster in this implementation (73Mbps if you 're virtually touching the tower) but much lower latency, which helps in volumes for two-way chat and multiplayer gaming. We're hoping to verify this ourselves, but early results from friends and fellow technology pundits have speeds ranging between 12Mbps to 20Mbps downstream on average, and between 2.5Mbps to 20Mbps for uploads -- often with lag well under 100ms versus the 300ms we've often seen on plain HSPA 3G. As we can vouch for in our own tests of LTE in the past, the leap in speed leaves a very real chance that you'll have a better experience on LTE than you will tapping into landline Internet access over Wi-Fi.

Coverage and bandwidth caps are issues. Most LTE networks are still very young and often don't exist outside of major urban centers, which for Verizon users can mean a painful step down to EVDO's maximum 3.1Mbps. Caps also aren't moving much, so you'll have to be prepared not to let your enthusiasm for LTE speeds run over the limit. We wouldn't opt for anything less than a 1GB monthly plan (or an equivalent in flex-rate access), and if you make serious use of 4G, consider opting for a 3GB or 5GB plan.

Thankfully, if you're on AT&T, a Canadian carrier, or some international carriers, Apple has included not just its earlier, regular HSPA but also full HSPA+ (up to 21Mbps) and even dual-carrier HSPA+ (42Mbps). You won't get quite the breakneck speeds of LTE, particularly not in AT&T's most heavily populated areas, but having used numerous HSPA+ devices, the performance is enough that it's still hard to make complaints. Unlike most of its peers, Apple's 3G and 4G are truly unlocked. After some minor configuration, you can get even a Verizon iPad to work on AT&T's HSPA+ network, and every version can pop in a SIM from a foreign HSPA carrier if you're traveling and need Internet access.

One important touch: for the first time, the iPad can now serve as a hotspot. Most owners we feel will still be using their phone as the hotspot, but it's one less thing to pack on a trip and can be much faster than sharing the iPhone 4S' 14.4Mbps HSPA if you're on the right provider, all while providing more battery life than most Android-based LTE smartphones or tablets.

Wrapping up

In a sense, Apple almost didn't have to do much to stay ahead of the current crop of tablet opponents. Android and BlackBerry Tablet OS haven't caught on like their creators assumed they would, and in many cases the individual hardware partners have seemingly done their best to take themselves out of the race. Most 4G Android tablets are priced well above where they need to be. A Galaxy Tab 8.9 LTE on AT&T matches a new iPad's contract-free price, but with far inferior hardware; a Droid Xyboard 10.1 with LTE starts at 32GB, but at an $800 price, it's both $70 more expensive than an equivalent iPad and again held back by poorer performance and displays.



As of this writing, the situation was going to change soon enough, although we couldn't see it getting much brighter for others. Knowing that the new iPad is still clearly faster than even the fastest Android tablets now or to come, and that the displays of upcoming tablets won't be any better, it's tough to play the pure numbers game and not pick the iPad. Many of the previous attempts at lording specifications over Apple are gone; you can't point out a lower resolution, a poor (rear) camera, or the lack of 4G anymore. Samsung is rumored to have a major card up its sleeve later in the year, but until then, it's relying on the Galaxy Note 10.1 and Galaxy Tab 2, which are respectively just slightly upgraded and downgraded versions of the Galaxy Tab 10.1. They're simply not in the same league, even before you factor in the app ecosystem.

That's not to dismiss some areas where Apple really ought to make improvements. The 2012 iPad update is an instance of determination to meet certain hardware goals and being willing to make certain tradeoffs to make that happen. It needs to be thinner and lighter, not thicker and heavier; this will come as Apple moves on to next-generation displays like Sharp's IGZO or to smaller and more efficient processors. Our iPads need better front-facing cameras, more storage, and more meaningful processor upgrades, not just graphics. Such additions are almost inevitable for 2013, but they're not of much consolation to a 2012 buyer. iOS could stand to get a serious shakeup as well, even if just to excite users; that might come in mid-year with iOS 6.

Does the new iPad help fend off the Amazon Kindle Fire, so far the only other tablet to have any meaningful market share? Yes and no. The price gap is still a huge one, and even with a $399 iPad 2 in play, Apple is unlikely to change the minds of those who are only looking at the price tag or can't reasonably justify $499 on any tablet. A family of four can buy two Kindle Fires for as much as one iPad 2, let alone a new iPad. Keeping this in consideration, the new iPad is at least a much more convincing case for those who want more than what Amazon's prepared to offer, since you're getting more than four times the display resolution on top of a larger screen, the existence of cameras, faster performance, and more storage.

The new iPad, then, is still the go-to tablet if you want anything approaching its size and quality. Unless you're adamant about theoretical app flexibility or specific features, it's hard to see why you'd opt for anything else. An outstanding display with fast graphics, a quality camera, both 4G and fast 3G with good battery life, and that all-important app base set a high watermark that might not be overcome until the 2013 iPad is rolling out the door.

by Jon Fingas


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