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Review: Apple iPad (third-generation)

Apple's new iPad is an incremental upgrade rather than a revolutionary one.
Apple's new iPad

Apple's new iPad

Apple's new iPad is an incremental upgrade rather than a revolutionary one.

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Retina display

There is one key feature that makes the new iPad a great device — the "retina" display. The resolution of 2048x1536 is double that of the original iPad. This gives it a pixel per inch (ppi) of 263, a significant increase over the 132ppi of the iPad 2. The display resolution is higher than most high-definition televisions.

If you couldn't care less about numbers, you should care about the end result — a brilliant, crystal clear screen. It's by far and away the best display on any mobile device I've seen. Text is crisp and clear with no visible aberrations, even when zoomed right in. Photos and videos look bright and vivid but not over-saturated like many other mobile displays. In fact, the iPad's screen is so sharp that it constantly highlights the low quality of many images on the Internet. After using the new iPad, going back to the iPad 2 (or most other mobile displays) makes text and images look blurry and low quality by comparison.

As a result of the retina display, iPad apps need to be updated by developers to take advantage of the higher resolution. Apple has naturally updated its default apps (like Mail, Safari, Calendar etc.) but many third-party apps have yet to be updated. You can easily tell which ones these are by simply looking at the logo on the iPad's home screen: they are blurry in comparison.

Most upgraded apps that support the iPad's retina display are significantly larger in size. For example, Apple's Pages app is now 269MB compared to the 95MB it was previously. For users with 16GB iPad models, its foreseeable that they will run out of storage space if they install a lot of apps. For this reason, it's disappointing that Apple hasn't released an iPad with a larger storage capacity than 64GB.

New iSight camera

There are a few other aspects of the new iPad that need to be mentioned. It has a significantly upgraded camera to the one on the iPad 2, which was a dreadful 0.7-megapixels. The new iPad's camera features some of the same technology used in the iPhone 4S, but in a 5-megapixel lens with backside-illuminated sensor. It also doubles as a full HD 1080p video recorder. Personally, I don't see the big deal about a rear camera on a tablet: taking photos with the iPad is simply impractical, but if you are to use it as a snapper it will do a relatively good job. Images aren't as sharp or clear as the excellent camera on the iPhone 4S, but they are certainly good enough for small prints.

The more important camera on any tablet is the front-facing one, and on the new iPad this disappointingly remains a low quality, VGA snapper. The front camera is used for a wide variety of video apps, including video calls over Skype and Apple's own Facetime application. While both of these particular apps work, the quality of video isn't great.

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Other features

Interestingly, the new iPad is slightly thicker and heavier than the iPad 2. A larger battery was needed to power the new display, so the Wi-Fi models are 51g heavier, and the Wi-Fi + 4G models are 49g heavier. If you're upgrading from an iPad 2, you'll definitely be able to notice the difference. If the new iPad is your first tablet, the weight isn't really a concern during day to day use.

I found that the new iPad gets rather warm during regular use, particularly on the lower left corner. It doesn't get so hot that it becomes unusable, but when watching a video or constantly browsing the web the device does become noticeably warm.

The new iPad is 4G, LTE capable in the US but us Aussies aren't so lucky — while the new iPad is technically 4G, LTE capable, it uses the 700MHz and 2100MHz LTE bands. Telstra, the only carrier in Australia to currently have a 4G network, uses the 1800MHz band, which isn't supported.

It's not all bad news, however. Aussies benefit from dual-channel HSPA+ technology, which provides a theoretical maximum download speed of 42Mbps: faster than the iPad 2. At this stage, only Telstra supports DC-HSPA+ technology in Australia. Running a speed test in my North Sydney office, I managed to achieve download speeds of up to 19Mbps on Telstra's network. The speed you achieve will depend on a number of factors including your location, network congestion and data content, but there is no doubt mobile Internet speeds are faster on the new iPad when compared with previous models.

The new iPad is powered by a dual-core A5X processor, but it has a quad-core graphics chip, too. The main beneficiary here is gaming, though apps like iPhoto and iMovie should also benefit. During day to day use we didn't notice a significant speed increase in the new iPad compared to the iPad 2. It was also tough to judge the graphics processor given there aren't currently many games that take advantage of the new chip. Infinity Blade II is one such title and admittedly, the graphics are very impressive.

The new iPad comes with a dictation feature, activated by pressing a microphone button that appears on its virtual keyboard in various apps. It will transcribe your voice into text. Like all voice-to-text software, the results aren't always accurate but in a quiet environment the feature works fairly well.

Although it isn't a new feature, Apple's iOS software once again makes the new iPad a compelling product. The iPad is dead easy to use. It's simple, effective and engaging. It has more apps than any other software platform, but more importantly, it has a large range of excellent, quality apps built specifically for a tablet device with a large screen.

The battery life on the new iPad is also impressive. It lasted almost 10 hours during testing, which isn't too much less than Apple quoted figures.

Should you buy it?

The big question is, should you buy the new iPad?

The answer really depends on your situation. If you don't own a tablet already and do intend to buy one, it's a no brainer. The new iPad is by far and away the best tablet on the market.

If you already own an iPad, the choice isn't as simple. If you still have a first generation iPad, the new iPad may be a worthy upgrade. It's lighter and thinner than the original, has a much better screen and provides faster performance thanks to significantly upgraded internals.

For those with an iPad 2, however, the new iPad doesn't offer enough new features to justify splashing out on an upgrade. Yes, its screen is much better and the camera is improved, but these two features aside, it is a very similar device to the iPad 2.

Apple has not reinvented the tablet with the new iPad, it simply refined a product that was already a clear market leader.