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.
New iSight camera.
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.