iPad (3) Review: You Won’t Believe It Until You See It

You Won't Believe It Until You See It

You Won’t Believe It Until You See It

Apple’s iPad is iconic in design. Competitors try to emulate Apple’s success, but nobody can mistake the aluminum frame and its companion piano black or pearl white bezel for any other product. While it’s a product known for its distinct shape and size, the iPad’s character is only truly revealed when you power on its display and begin to explore the contained interface. With the Retina display, the new iPad is unlike anything you’ve seen before.

Getting the new iPad

There’s a definite comfort in experiencing the justly decided thrill of purchasing and unboxing an iPad. Any iPad. The ordering process online is seamless and can be completed under a minute provided you have an Apple ID. At an Apple Retail Store a lively blue-shirt is more than helpful in bringing you a new iPad before seamlessly emailing you a receipt as you turn to walk out the glass doors. The purchasing experience is unmatched.

The unveiling of the product itself is just as carefully thought out. Removing the lid will reveal a bare slab of display, bezel, and aluminum that dominates the entirety of the box’s width and length. Underneath, you’ll still find Apple’s signature wall charger, neatly packaged documentation, and a folded USB cable that might be slightly altered from an older white cable. Everything is in its place, confidentially packaged in such a way that provides immediate access to your new device.

Certainly the new iPad isn’t different from the last generation iPad in appearance. It measures slightly thicker and weighs a little heavier, but with the display off you probably could not tell them apart. Nothing has changed in placement of the buttons on the rounded edge, and the speaker grill is still precisely ported behind the lower left corner. Maybe a keen eye could tell the difference by looking at the rear camera up close. Some might complain that Apple is losing their creative edge by reintroducing the same design, but Steve Jobs never believed looks alone constituted a product’s design. The new iPad has been completely reengineered in ways we don’t see.

Unworried about the updated specifications, I turned on the iPad to find the Apple logo glowing in the center of the display. The blacks were black. The Apple Retina logo looked promising. After a brief moment the initial setup page appeared, giving me a first glimpse at the new Retina display. The display was bright and vivid. Not one pixel could be differentiated from the rest. It was an exciting moment, but I just wanted to get to the apps.

For new iPad owners the setup process will be seamless and stress free. Setup pages guide owners to connect to their Wi-Fi networks and create or log in with their Apple IDs before use. Previous iPad owners still have to restore their old iPad backups from iTunes or iCloud, which isn’t nearly as seamless. Through either process, it isn’t until you finally reach the home screen that you can appreciate Apple’s “resolutionary” update.

The Retina display

Since Wednesday night, I’ve taken a lot of interest in a repeating theme that could be found in plenty of iPad (3) reviews around the web. Many tech journalists have compared the display in the new iPad to a glowing sheet of paper, which is true if we’re talking about glossy, high-production print. In comparison to E Ink Kindles whose print resembles a newspaper or paperback book, the latest iPad’s sharp text closely mimics the text found in a good magazine. I’d say my appreciation for the additional sharpness in text and the crispness in images is akin to rediscovering music through a worthy pair of headphones.

The new iPad’s display is an incredible accomplishment that opens up an unsurpassed clarity never before seen on a general purpose computing device. While the iPhone 4 introduced the Retina display, no one has really explored and cheaply mass produced a display quite like the iPad’s at scale. The display is so dense that Apple has essentially packed in four pixels where there used to be one. Text looks sharp, images are crisp, and watching HD movies and TV shows could not be more enjoyable on a tablet.

By itself, the display is the sole reason to buy the latest iPad. You really do have to see it to believe it.

Many iPad owners have taken the time to compare the iPad’s display to previous generations, and found that the display is either slightly cooler or warmer than its predecessor. The color temperature differences aren’t great enough to make an impactful difference for most iPad users, and photographers can still produce and edit amazing images on the device. While pros may have to finalize images and video on their Apple Thunderbolt Displays or Dell Ultrasharp monitors, no one would otherwise notice temperature variances on the display without another iPad to compare it to.

While some initial iPad 2 units were unfortunately marred by light leakage, my iPad has no display imperfections. Overall, I’ve seen relatively little complaints around the Samsung display used in the device. Even better, I’ve noticed this display’s brightness is able to be adjusted dimmer than the last displays. It’s a wonderful panel and a marvel to look at no matter how you use it.

The other new features

While the aesthetic of the iPad hasn’t changed, the guts have been completely renovated. Apple’s new A5X processor drives graphics on the pixel dense display through a quad-core GPU, accompanying a dual-core CPU. The A5X is an A5 processor that’s tailored to give you the same performance of the iPad 2 with the iPad (3)’s display. The new iPad doesn’t perform much faster than its most recent predecessor, but it’s no a slouch and is a big upgrade from the original iPad. With the updated processor comes twice as much memory: one gigabyte of RAM lends itself to support applications updated for the Retina display.

The iPad 2 may have introduced a rear-facing camera, but it was a camera that was a half-hearted effort at best. I still feel that Apple could have launched a decent camera in last generation’s iPad, but they did deliver a comparable shooter this time around. Offering similar performance to the iPhone 4’s camera, the 5 MP shooter (named an iSight camera) can take good photographs for a mobile device, and also records decent 1080p video that’s stabilized thanks to additional processing on the A5X. While it’s not something I’d want to take pictures with given the choice, I appreciate having a camera capable of snapping a picture for when life provides an unexpected opportunity. The iPad’s display does a great job of framing the moment before it’s even captured.

Sadly the front facing camera is the same as last generation’s model, meaning that your face doesn’t get the high definition treatment when talking over FaceTime. I think it’s a bummer considering it doesn’t take advantage of the Retina display, and I’m hoping we’ll see a FaceTime HD camera in next year’s model that can really shine. If network performance over FaceTime was the concern, there’s no reason the iPad or Apple’s pipe couldn’t regulate the resolution presented to the participating party based on available upstream and downstream bandwidth.

As a side note, the camera app on the latest iPad has been ergonomically updated. Placing the camera button at the right side of the display makes the camera much easier to use, although southpaws will be disappointed to find that the button’s position can’t be switched to the left side.

When most people imagine the inside of an iPad, they probably think there’s a giant green motherboard behind the aluminum casing. That assumption couldn’t be farther from the truth! The majority of the iPad’s guts is nothing but battery, and Apple’s advances in battery technology lend itself to the same (or better than) advertised ten hour battery life that I got and maintained throughout the lifetime of my iPad 2 when browsing the web, reading, and watching a youtube video or two at average brightness. When watching a forty minute television program, video playback drained about 6% of the battery at average brightness. I got about ten and half hours of battery out of the new iPad after a full charge. Out of the box, my Wi-Fi iPad was 80% charged (I did not have to charge it all weekend).

To give you an idea about how incredible the battery is in the new iPad, let’s take a look at the 11-inch MacBook Air. Most users get around five hours of battery life thanks to a 35-watt-hour battery that keeps a Sandy Bridge processor, Intel HD graphics, and a 1366 x 768 display powered on when the laptop is in use. The new iPad’s battery is a 42-watt-hour battery that provides power to an A5X processor and a 2048 x 1536 display for twice as long. Much of the iPad’s weight can be attributed to the battery which makes up most of its guts.

The downside to this monster of a battery is it takes a long time to recharge. Based on my findings, the new iPad charges around 16% per forty minutes. Starting with a 3% charge at ten o’clock yesterday evening, my iPad was only 40% charged by midnight. Where the original iPads quickly charged to 80% then took a while to top off, the new iPad takes a long time to charge and longer to top off.

I do not have a Wi-Fi + 4G model available for testing, so I cannot comment on its battery life or mobile network performance (nor can I talk about supposed “heat issues” with this model that I’ll discuss later). The Wi-Fi + 4G equipped iPad provide an amazing range of wireless connectivity from EDGE / EV-DO (depending on carrier) to HSPA to LTE. Both the Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi + 4G models offer Bluetooth 4.0 for connecting to low power peripherals such as bluetooth headsets or speakers.

As with the iPhone 4S, most of the updated hardware took place inside the device. For software, the big update for the iPad is the inclusion of dictation in its version of iOS 5.1, which I found to be accurate around 90% of the time (I speak quickly). Dictation does have trouble with names, some slang, and occasional goofs with possessives, but it does take the grunt work out of typing out an email provided you can dictate well. While it’s a great addition, I do wish the iPad launched with an updated version of Siri that could take advantage of performing iOS specific actions like opening apps or changing settings. I’m sure Siri will get its due time in the spotlight at WWDC later this year.

Talking about software, it’d be a shame to miss the latest AirPlay news. The iPad’s new processing capabilities allow it to playback and output 1080p video over a cable or over AirPlay to your flatscreen. Where the iPad 2 could only playback 720p video, the new iPad can handle pixel dense, high-definition movies on a variety of mediums. The Apple TV was updated alongside the iPad (3) release to take advantage of 1080p content from the iTunes Store or streaming from your iPad on the coffee table.

There is one minor note, but one that should be mentioned for buyers looking to upgrade from the iPad 2. Apple has changed the polarity of the magnets in the new iPad to solve an issue where flipping the Smart Cover around and lying it flat on the iPad 2’s back caused it to enter sleep mode. In the new iPad and in revised Smart Covers, the polarity of the magnets has been switched to address the issue. Smart Covers purchased during the launch of the iPad 2 won’t lock or sleep the iPad 3. My understanding, however, is that customers can replace their Smart Covers for updated versions if you politely ask at your local Apple Retail Store. Old iPad 2 docks and cables should work fine.

Using the new iPad

Apple’s Retina display is amazing. Where my eyes quickly got tired when reading on previous generation iPads, I found the Retina display helped me stay focused and interested in reading texts for much longer periods of time. Where I wasn’t too interested in reading long form articles on the iPad before (I mainly relegated that to the iPhone 4S at the kitchen table), I now consider the iPad to be a great e-book reader. Images and text can be presented on the display with unremarkable grandeur. Games, Retina optimized applications, and photographs look stunning. My favorite reading app, Instapaper, was quickly updated with a carefully chosen set of new fonts that couldn’t look better.

The Retina display is also a clear acknowledgement that Apple is ahead of its time. There are growing pains that have to be dealt with along the way that won’t be immediately addressed until devices like the new iPad become much more common. It’s not the resolution of the display that’s necessarily the problem (high resolution LCD displays have been on the market for a while), but it’s the density (the number of pixels-per-inch) at which they’re packed. It’s not always the case that lower resolution images are scaled down (as you might think would happen), but rather that lower resolution graphics on websites and in apps are presented at the same physical size as before but with imperfections (scaled up). Low resolution pictures and graphics can look noticeably pixelated on the display. Websites that aren’t updated to take advantage of the new iPad may simply be imperfect — text won’t be a problem, but images and resources like navigation bars and social icons may not be as crisp as you’d expect them to be. It personally doesn’t bother me, but it could lend itself to a less enjoyable web browsing experience.

On the note of performance, it feels essentially the same as the iPad 2. The biggest differences are made with websites, video, magazines, and apps that have to cache or load a lot of information. I didn’t notice a big improvement between opening apps and using them to check Twitter or take notes, but I do see a definite improvement when it comes to loading webpages and issues from The Daily. The A5X processor is an A5 processor that is specifically updated to support the Retina display, so I’m not surprised performance is similar. Additional RAM seems to be the biggest improvement in how the software feels, and you’ll quickly get an idea for which apps take advantage of it and which apps don’t if you’ve used an iPad before.

The big benefit of browsing the web on the new iPad is that tabs don’t load as often. Throughout the time taken to review the iPad (3), I’ve never had a website reload or refresh without my input. Web pages will simply stay cached longer.

The new iPad does feel a little heavier than the iPad 2, and in reality Apple’s only added around 0.1 pounds. The difference is moot, however, as I didn’t feel any additional fatigue or notice myself changing how I use the new iPad. Looking at the big picture, the iPad still is a weighty tablet because of the glass display, the aluminum frame, and its large battery. No matter what version you use, it’s always been a tablet that you’ve had to prop on your knees or on an armchair to use for a long period of time. For occasionally browsing the web and checking Twitter, the weight won’t make a difference. Readers who spend hours on the iPad will want to find a grippy case or cover and a comfortable chair.

I personally use my iPad with a leather Smart Cover, which I’ve called a genius product in the past. With other cases, I often worry about corner clips or rough plastic that might dig into the iPad. The Smart Cover is thin and adds very little bulk or weight. While there plenty of beautiful third-party cases like the DODOcase, the Smart Cover performs two functions that I constantly use it for: standing up the iPad for watching video and providing an elevated surface for typing. It’s configurability and quick attachment alone make it invaluable for my use. I do have some gripes about the Smart Cover after using it for a year, but I will revisit those issues in a future article.

Warm to the touch?

While I noticed it after an hour of using the new iPad, I didn’t think anything of it until Consumer Reports and various tech blogs ran sensational headlines about how warm the iPad gets with use. I’ve amended this section to the review to follow up on my previous comments and explain what lots of people are making a big deal about. For the “too long; didn’t read” version, just read Bloomberg’s quote on The Loop and skip to the concluding sections.

Owners of previous generation iPads are used to a tablet that runs cool to the touch. The first iPad barely got warm to the touch, the iPad 2 only got slightly warm after playing a game like Infinity Blade for a while, and the latest iPad gets noticeably warm at the lower left edge in general use and warmer still when gaming or watching videos. My position is that while the new iPad gets warm, it is a non-issue. I would say the same about an Android or Windows tablet that got just as warm.

The headlines and statements written about the average increase in temperature are generally misleading to consumers. My specific problem with the Consumer Reports review is that they didn’t just state the facts, but added scaremongering statements such as the one I quoted. The statement that the new iPad gets so hot that you cannot comfortably hold it after a brief period of time is false, at least with the Wi-Fi model I’m reviewing. Keep in mind that there are many people who tolerate hotter temperatures dissipated through the bottom of their laptops on their thighs. Unless the iPad actually leads to Toasted Skin Syndrome, I do not think an iPad that is warm to the touch is a problem.

To compare how warm the new iPad is, you only have hold the iPhone 4S and the iPod touch. Playing Angry Birds or Tiny Tower will make these devices get warm with use. The new iPad, just like Apple’s other products, expends some heat while playing games in this case. Those who had the first iPhone will remember that device actually got hot.

I do not believe there is oversight by Apple concerning how the new iPad operates. The fact is that in order to deliver the performance you’d expect on a Retina display, the components in the new iPad run hotter than before. This topic could have been a great debate at Apple — the small tradeoff made might have been considered acceptable for a number of reasons concerning cost, thickness, and weight. I’m not giving Apple a free pass, but the new iPad had not gotten to a point where I felt like I had to put it down because it was too hot (it hasn’t even made my palms sweat). If that was the case, there would be a legitimate cause for concern. Just like before, I still find myself lost in the experience of the device itself, perhaps even more-so than before thanks to the Retina display.

Displaymate’s Dr. Raymond Soneira reached out to Tested to explain that the additional number of LEDs in the new iPad’s Backlight give off over twice the amount of heat as the old display. Combined with the higher performance components in the new iPad, this leads to a warmer device. Tested ran their own tests against all three generations of the iPad, and found that the heat issue is much ado about nothing. And heck, these guys work with the best of the best: The Mythbusters. Their test and measurements are well worth the short read.

Should you get the new iPad? What size?

The big question to be asked by prospect iPad buyers is whether they should get the new iPad or the reduced-in-price iPad 2. The big advantage to the iPad 2 is that it offers the same perceived performance $100 less than the latest iPad, with the obvious benefit of the latest iPad being the display. We could argue about whether you need the better camera, but it’s unlikely most people are going to use it as a daily point-and-shoot or iPhone replacement to snap pictures. With most people buying an iPad to browse the web and read on, I’d say the display is the deciding factor.

If you spend considerable time reading Instapaper or Read it Later; reading long form articles or magazines such as The New Yorker; reading Kindle books or iBooks; or reading a lot of blogs online, I’d say spend the extra $100 to get the latest iPad. If you have poor vision, I’d also recommend not compromising on the display. The amount you read is a key ingredient in determining if the higher price is worth it to your eyeballs. Getting an iPad 3 will also mean it will be better compatible with the latest software and iOS updates for a year or two longer than previous models. While you could get away with the 16 GB model, I do recommend getting the 32 GB model instead (especially if you own lots of applications or plan to play a lot of games). Retina-enabled applications will be a lot bigger than their counterparts, and pretty soon most developers who care about their software will have made significant updates to their apps to include higher resolution graphics that will shine on the Retina display. For heavy app users and magazine subscribers, picking a larger model is a must.

First time iPad owners who will occasionally browse the web and don’t expect to read a large quantity of text will be fine with an iPad 2. For potential tablet buyers who simply want a portable device to frequent your favorite websites, Facebook or Twitter with, you can’t go wrong with a $399 price tag. The iPad 2 is a perfectly acceptable tablet for first time buyers. I’d recommend sticking with the 16 GB Wi-Fi model.

If you are considering getting a 3G or a 4G equipped iPad, I would not recommend getting the iPad 2. Word on the street is that 4G on the iPad 3 is blazing fast. Available to Verizon iPads is a personal hotpost feature that allows you to connect up to five devices through your iPad to connect to the Internet. Plans on all iPads are prepaid, but the Verizon iPad (3) in the United States will go a long way towards giving you the most options and fast LTE web browsing. AT&T does not offer hotspot connectivity at this time.

The new iPad comes in both white and black at various price points depending on storage and carrier connectivity.


iPad 2:

  • Wi-Fi 16 GB: $399
  • Wi-Fi + 3G 16 GB: $529

iPad (3):

  • Wi-Fi 16 GB: $499
  • Wi-Fi 32 GB: $599 *Recommended for base storage
  • Wi-Fi 64 GB: $699
  • Wi-Fi + 4G 16 GB: $629
  • Wi-Fi + 4G 32 GB: $729 *Verizon recommended for LTE connectivity
  • Wi-Fi + 4G 64 GB: $829

Final thoughts

The new iPad is a big step forward for Apple and mobile technology as a whole. Being able to see detail where it wasn’t seen before on a virtual display breaks the notion that what’s on a screen can never be as clear as the amount of detail we soak in when experiencing life around us. It cannot be more true that the iPad has had a dramatic impact on how we perceive the general computing experience, and it is consistently setting the pace and changing our notions about how people and machines can interact with each other. Developers making software on the new iPad will be able to deliver a kind of quality not seen before on any other tablet. Only Apple and the developers making the experience what it is can meet the kinds of expectations set with this product’s release.

Apple is not a company of incremental improvements, but of great incremental improvements. The iPad has not taken on new skin, but has rather built upon previous success to deliver a completely new visual experience currently unmatched. Specs can only take a tablet so far — it’s what you interact with on the display that counts. With the new iPad, the canvas has been expanded into something immersive. What’s been said is entirely true - seeing is believing.

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