March 19, 2012 -- For the last year, the iPad 2 has become as big of a staple in my evening routine as my toothbrush. I get into bed, read articles I may have missed during the day, check Facebook and Twitter, attempt to beat my mom in Words with Friends, and when I'm traveling, I watch a few TV episodes on the 9.7-inch display.
The truth is I've never once thought my iPad screen wasn't nice enough and the performance not fast enough; in fact, I never even think about the hardware, which as a tech reviewer is unusual. That's part of what has made the iPad such an amazing product.
But Apple has spent the last year pursuing ways to improve the world's most popular tablet. The new iPad (no number) has a better display, with double the resolution of the older model; a faster A5x processor; a better 5-megapixel iSight camera; and there's now an LTE option from Verizon and AT&T for faster web browsing.
So, how much better is the new iPad, which starts at $499, than the iPad 2, which now costs $399? And with a flood of new Android tablets, is the iPad still the best tablet on the market? There was only one way for me to find out: replace my bedside iPad 2 with the new iPad.
An Eye Popping Display
When the iPad 2 and the new iPad are sitting next to each other you wouldn't notice any differences, unless you look at them from the side. From that view you might notice that the new iPad is .03 inches thicker than the iPad 2. That also results in the new iPad weighing 1.44 pounds: 0.11 pounds more than the iPad 2. (The size difference is a result of the bigger battery inside, but more on that below.)
I could tell the difference ever so slightly in the weight when I held the iPad 2 in my right hand and the new iPad in my left, but I didn't notice the increased weight of the new iPad when using it alone. The rounder edges of the new tablet are more obvious though, making it more comfortable to hold than its predecessor.
Still, there are lighter tablets out there now, especially those that have 7-inch displays, like the Kindle Fire. I much prefer that size for reading in bed and one-handed use. There are rumors that Apple might join the smaller tablet space, but for now there's just the 9.7-inch screen option.
When you turn on the display of both tablets the difference is much clearer, especially when viewing a high-definition movie, picture, or text. Everything on the Retina display, which has a whopping 2048 x 1536 resolution, is crisper. And I mean, much crisper. It's like holding an HDTV in your hand; in fact, it has a higher resolution and more pixels than even the newest HDTV.
It's hard to find words to describe the viewing experience. The best way I can put it is that switching from the iPad 2 to the new iPad is like switching from an standard definition channel to a high defintion channel when watching a football game. You immediately notice how much clearer and vivid the field and the players look. And because the new display has an increased color saturation of 44 percent, everything just pops and appears brighter.
What's amazing about all generations of iPads is their responsiveness to taps on the touchscreen and fluidity of navigation. When you use some tablets on the market, like the Kindle Fire or other Android tablets, you realize the iPad offers a rare and smooth experience. The new A5x processor allows the new iPad to maintain and even enhance in some graphics intensive applications, like games or movies. In fact, the A5x processor delivers quad-core graphics, resulting in some stunning visuals in games.
For instance, when I played Air Supremacy side-by-side on the new iPad and iPad 2, the graphics were much clearer on the new tablet. In this particular fighter jet game, I was actually distracted by the vivid skyline above and the crispness of the mountains underneath while trying to fly.
However, I didn't notice a performance difference on the new iPad when it came to web browsing, emailing, or using basic applications. In that regard, the old and new iPads provide a similar experience.
A Much Improved Camera
There is one place I have been completely dissatisfied with my iPad 2, and that's with the camera on the back of the tablet. It takes very grainy and sometimes-blurry images. In fact, some have been so bad that I haven't wanted to even share them.
The new iPad's 5-megapixel iSight camera fixes those issues. I've been very impressed with the shots I've taken over the past couple of days. The auto-focus is fast, and despite not having a flash, pictures I shot in lower light were decent. (Here's a shot taken with the new iPad and one taken on the iPad 2 -- you see, much clearer.) Overall, they aren't as crisp as images captured with the iPhone 4S camera, but I don't think they have to be. How often do you really want to hold up a 9.7-inch viewfinder to take a picture?
Now able to capture 1080p high-definition video, the new iPad's video quality is considerably better than I've seen on most phones. However, the video files do take up a bit of space on the tablet, so if you plan to use it for heavy video use it might be worth stepping up to the 32GB or 64GB versions. I do wish Apple would allow you to shoot lower resolution video on the tablet, but for now it just defaults to the higher resolution setting. The front-facing camera, which hasn't seen an upgrade, is still perfectly adequate for making video or FaceTime calls.
Software and Apps
From a software standpoint, the new iPad includes mostly everything featured on the iPad 2, save for two things. Apple hasn't brought Siri – the iPhone 4S' voice-enabled digital assistant over to the tablet – but it did add a dictation function. Now the keyboard has a small microphone icon.
Tap it, speak your sentence, and it will convert it to editable text. For the most part this feature works very well, and I failed to stump it multiple times with words like "arachnophobia." You do have to be connected to the Internet for it to work though.
The other difference comes with the new Retina display optimized apps. Many apps available in the app store have been tweaked for the display so images, video, and text appear crisper on the new screen. Still, apps that haven't been updated look great.
While we are on the subject of apps, the iPad continues to provide the best selection of tablet apps; there are 200,000 of them now in the store. And many of them provide absolutely engrossing experiences, with smooth navigation and clean interfaces.
In my opinion, a tablet is only as good as its apps, which is why the Android tablets simply cannot compete. The apps available for Android tablets pale in comparison when it comes to overall selection and quality; they are just not as compelling in design or usability.
I have assembled a list of favorite iPad apps here. Included is Apple's new iPhoto, which lets you edit photos right on the tablet. Apple's whole new iLife suite for the iPad, which includes iPhoto, iMovie, and GarageBand, all help morph the tablet into a device capable of content creation. They cost $4.99 each, but they're open up the possibilities of what you can do on an all-touchscreen device.
I expect Apple to update its iPad software within the next year. As in years past, that update should be available to all iPad owners as a download. I hope that update shakes up the design of the operating system slightly and makes working in multiple applications easier. Also, a native alarm clock would be great.
Battery Life and Faster LTE
Because the new screen and processor suck more power, Apple has increased the size of the battery inside the tablet, which has had a slight impact on the thickness and weight. The company claims you will net 10 hours of battery life when connected to Wi-Fi and nine when connected to LTE.
I saw just about that on my own tests; the tablet lasted nine hours and 19 minutes when looping a high definition video on Wi-Fi and brightness set at 65 percent. However, the iPad 2 lasted about an hour and a half longer on that test under the same settings. You willl get less juice out of the new iPad, but it still lasts longer on a charge than all the other tablets on the market. Also, when in airplane mode you'd get even more juice, which means the tablet can get you through a flight from New York to Spain and then some.
On LTE, I got more than a full day's use, which is better than other LTE tablets and phones out there. However, that long battery life comes with the price of long recharge times. It took six hours for the new iPad to go from 0 percent battery to 50 percent.
The new iPad is also now available with LTE from AT&T and Verizon. If you plan to use your iPad mostly at home where you have Wi-Fi, this version, which costs at least $130 more, isn't going to be necessary. But if you use it out and about where it may be challenging to find a wireless connection, you'll be happy you opted for the more expensive tablet and monthly data plan.
While testing the AT&T version I have enjoyed incredibly fast speed, even faster than my home Internet connection, with download speeds averaging around 15Mbps and upload speeds at 12Mbps. Sites just pop up; for instance. ABCNews.com loaded in just three seconds. This is in part because AT&T's network is fairly new so there aren't as many people accessing it; however, Verizon's LTE network is also much faster than any 3G network.
After two full days with the new iPad, I switched back to the iPad 2 last night. For the first time, I noticed the hardware – the screen just didn't look as crisp or bright. The text in my Twitter feed seemed dull, the icons on the screen weren't as sharp, and an episode of Grey's Anatomy just didn't jump out at me the same way.
And that's where Apple has done a powerful thing with the new iPad. Even if it's slightly heavier, gets less battery life, and not a complete overhaul of the last generation, the biggest change affects the most important part of the experience. It has altered what meets the eye, spoiling every other screen experience out there.
While I suspect most tablet users won't find the new screen, improved camera, and other additions alluring enough to replace their iPad 2 with the new tablet now -- unless they plan to sell it or pass it on to someone else -- if you are in the market for a new tablet, the new iPad is hands-down the best choice out there. The Android competition simply cannot match what Apple offers in the entire user experience and hardware. Windows 8 shows a lot of promise, but Microsoft hasn't announced when it will be available on tablets. Either way, it's actually hard to imagine the competition catching up any time soon.
Oh, and what does a techie and gadget reviewer like myself opt for after two full days with the new iPad? Well, that new screen is just good enough to make it my one and only bedside tablet.