Apple iPad 2: Tablet Is Thinner, Lighter, Faster to Use
The Apple iPad 2 is neither a revolution nor a revelation. Rather, it's an evolutionary bump over its predecessor, which is enough for iPad 2 to be competitive with, and stay ahead of, its tablet competition, even if only by a hair. While the iPad 2 still leaves much room for improvement, it delivers a largely satisfying tablet experience at an appealing price (in 18 variants, starting at $499 for a 16GB, Wi-Fi-only version).
The iPad 2's industrial design follows the model established with the first-generation iPad and with the iPhone 4: The 9.7-inch display dominates the device, with a home button on front, a volume rocker and slider switch on the side (now usable as either a mute button or rotation lock, your choice), and a power button up top. The back and sides continue to be anodized aluminum--a design trait that enables Apple's new Smart Cover (in 12 colors and two materials; prices start at $39.95) to attach on the underside using magnets, and to flip over the display to "smartly" lock and unlock the screen. Nifty. Regrettably, the aluminum back is highly prone to scratches--so if you don't put some sort of protective sheath over the back, you're bound to end up with scratches just from putting it on a surface.
Compared with the original, the iPad 2 is physically streamlined: At 0.34 inch deep, it's thinner than the original's 0.5 inch, and its chassis is now surround by tapered edges, which make it easier to hold. The tablet weighs 1.33 pounds (Wi-Fi version; the AT&T and Verizon models weigh 0.01 and 0.02 pounds heavier, respectively, to accommodate the 3G radio). The 12 percent to 17 percent weight reduction as compared to the original iPad--which weighed 0.17 and 0.26 pounds more for the Wi-Fi and AT&T 3G varietals--truly does make a difference, particularly when holding the tablet in one hand. And you will use any tablet one-handed: Anytime you don't use the tablet when resting on a surface, you'll at some point have to hold it one hand while you use the other hand to navigate the screen. While the change in weight isn't enough for me to say I'd hold the iPad in one hand for reading a book for an hour, I found it did make the one-handed general operation much more pleasant and viable. And I found the difference in weight very obvious compared with the Motorola Xoom, an Android 3.0 tablet that weighs 1.6 pounds.
This model's tapered edges provide a single unibody-style design, leading to a flat back (the first-gen iPad had a slightly curved back that left it wobbly on a surface). The buttons are now located along this curve, as is the dock connector. Though I had no issues with the button placement, the curve repeatedly made it challenging for me to properly align and insert the cable into the port.
The tapered edges also required moving the speaker. Previously, it was located flush on the bottom bezel, facing downward. Now, it's along the taper, running about half an inch up to the back. The new location gives you a chance of getting audio even if you rest the tablet directly with the bottom edge on your lap (before, audio would be muffled in this position). But now, audio can be muffled if you lay the tablet flat on its back and expect to hear output from the speaker. The speaker still sounds tinny and barely passable, but it's there if you need it. For better audio, flip that Smart Cover around to the back; the audio will reflect off the cover, amplifying the sound.
Like its predecessor, you won't find any ports, slots, or connectors (beyond the 30-pin dock connector and the headphone jack). Video-out is handled via a bulky but effective dock connector to HDMI cable.
While the iPad 2's display is one of the best I've seen on any tablet in use today, it still disappoints. Here's why. The display is unchanged from the first-generation iPad: It's bright, with 1024-by-768-pixel resolution, at 132 pixels per inch. After using an iPhone 4 for the better part of the past year, though, I couldn't help but wish we had the Retina Display (960 by 640 resolution at 326 pixels per inch) on the iPad instead. I've seen some reports that say the display is comparable to the iPhone 4's, but I find that the sharpness of both images and text suffers on the iPad 2 versus the iPhone 4.
Text, in particular, is a sore point for me: The pixelation and fuzziness in many fonts--including the font for the icon labels, and the standard text I see in the Web browser or in iBook--borders on unbearable, in the same way that I cringe when I go back to my iPhone 3GS after using my iPhone 4. I imagine that some of these complaints could be solved by better antialiasing in the iOS operating system to compensate for the lack of native resolution, but no such tweak is evident in the version of iOS shipping on the iPad 2 (iOS 4.3).
Those complaints aside, in comparison with the Motorola Xoom and the (7-inch) Samsung Galaxy Tab, the iPad 2 display more than holds its own. Of the three, the Tab has the sharpest text and images, but its colors are oversaturated. The Xoom is fuzzy, and suffers from similar antialiasing issues in text--despite its higher-res 1280 by 800 display. Though the iPad 2 has issues with fuzzy, pixelated text, too, it's colors are pleasingly balanced and accurate, and images are reasonably sharp.
The guts of the iPad have been stepped up to include 512MB of RAM (twice the RAM of the original iPad), a 200-MHz bus, and the new dual-core A5 chip. The inclusion of a dual-core CPU was necessary; competing Android 3.0 tablets all use a dual-core chip. The RAM on the iPad 2 is half that on the Android models, but whether this will truly impact usability or is merely a reflection of Apple's home-team advantage as both hardware and operating system manufacturer remains to be seen.
I didn't need a benchmark result to confirm the zippier feel of iPad 2. Some things didn't feel especially different (like swiping between home screens), but scrolling in iTunes felt faster, as did navigating photo galleries, for example. And I found the iPad 2 could actually keep up with my fast, touch-typist fingers; neither iPad 1 nor Xoom could do so.
The iPad 2 adds both front and rear-facing cameras, for use in FaceTime chats and for video and still capture. Sadly, Apple's approach to cameras in iPad 2 feels cursory, as if the cameras are there just as a checkbox item; the company hasn't made tweaks, or included good enough hardware, for either camera to produce a truly satisfying experience. That stands in stark contrast to Apple's approach with the 5-megapixel, 720p iPhone 4 camera (which has satisfactorily captured over 3000 images and videos, and counting).
My casual snaps with the iPad 2 proved not worth the trouble; I'd only use the camera if I had no other available. This isn't surprising, since Apple doesn't state a spec for its rear-facing camera for still images, and in PCWorld's photo tests, the iPad 2 scored a Poor, in line with what the iPod Touch scored for its camera. By comparison, the iPhone 4 scored at the high end of our Fair rating, besting both the Motorola Xoom and the Samsung Galaxy Tab.
The iPad 2 did do better than the Tab on video, and performed comparably to a Cisco Flip Ultra HD 2HR, earning a rating of Fair. For video, the camera can capture 720p HD, at up to 30 frames per second. The front-facing camera also underwhelmed. It's rated at just VGA (640 by 480 pixel resolution), and as such, I found video looked pixellated during Facetime video chats with another iPad user over Wi-Fi.
Another gripe: Apple doesn't endow its cameras with any additional controls to enhance image capture. Furthermore, iOS 4.3 doesn't do anything to adjust the location of the camera's capture button on screen, so it's positioned at horizontal right center, as, oddly, it is on the iPhone. Without repositioning, most hands will have difficulty reaching the capture button (in horizontal orientation, in falls to the lower center of the screen--nowhere near where you fingers will be holding the tablet at the left/right edges).
iOS 4.3 and Software
Apple has done little to push iOS's evolution. While this is disappointing, given its recent updating patterns that's not entirely unexpected: The company has announced major new iOS revisions at its Worldwide Developer's Conference, and released those updates tied to iPhone's summer bump first (last year, iPad didn't get its big iOS update until fall).
But the incremental updates in iOS 4.3--while welcome (hooray for choosing whether the switch on iPad's side is a mute button or a rotation lock, and for providing Home Sharing)--are frustrating. They do nothing to refresh or improve upon iOS, and that's something that feels necessary in the face of the pressure coming from competing operating systems on current and forthcoming tablets (Google's Android 3.0, HP's WebOS, and RIM's PlayBook OS). Notifications, widgets, and multitasking are all topics that need revisiting now that Apple's iPad is no longer the only tablet around (at least to speak of).
Likewise, Apple's reliance on iTunes to facilitate all data transfers and backups is getting increasingly tiresome. On Windows, iTunes is more kludgy and more limiting than it is on Macs; and ultimately, it's wrong to require consumers to connect a tablet to a PC for basics like data backup and software updates, especially if the tablet is supposed to replace the computer.
One point worth noting about software: The iPad has 65,000-plus apps that are optimized for its large screen. While we've seen much interest in Google's Android, both from game makers and others, Android 3.0's tablet apps, at this point, rank only in the hundreds (optimistically), not thousands. I believe Android 3.0 app development will ramp up considerably in the next six months, just as app development stepped up rapidly for Android 2.X smartphones; but, if you're after a breadth of apps today, be aware that Android--at least for version 3.0--is a still-evolving marketplace.
In my hands-on, I experienced no discernible difference in battery life compared with the iPad 1. Macworld's battery life tests confirmed this real-world usage impression; there, the 32GB iPad with AT&T 3G lasted 504 minutes, just 14 minutes longer than a 16GB iPad 1 with AT&T 3G. After using the Motorola Xoom, however, I must say I found the iPad 2's lengthy recharge time highly annoying: Compared with the Xoom's rapid recharge, the iPad 2's wall-connected recharge seemed to progress at a trickle.
Pick an iPad 2
Apple provides no fewer than 18 different variations of the iPad 2, with the differentiators tied to color, capacity, and connectivity. You have a choice of white or black, Wi-Fi-only or Wi-Fi/3G on either AT&T or Verizon. The capacity options remain unchanged from last year: 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB.
And the prices corresponding to those capacities also remain unchanged: $499, $599, and $699. Add another $130 for the Wi-Fi/3G version, regardless of the carrier you choose. The 3G models have one cosmetic difference versus the Wi-Fi models--a black piece of plastic at the top, to enhance 3G reception.
The iPad 2 is the first Apple tablet to come in black and white varietals. Although some might consider the white to be the epitome of Apple chic (as on the iPhone), on the iPad you might want to think twice before getting the white bezel. Unlike the iPhone, where the white is really limited to the outside of the device, here the white is the bezel surrounding the display. And as on other e-readers and televisions, the display can be harder to read, and you'll have a perception of less pop and poorer contrast compared with a black bezel.
Should You Buy an iPad 2?
No question that the iPad 2 lacks some elements that would make it a complete package. It has no built-in hotspot, it's cameras are weak, and the OS needs better notifications and greater flexibility for file handling and updating without a computer.
If you're considering upgrading from the iPad 1, you'll see your most satisfying boosts in the lighter weight and zippier performance. Gamers will want the new model for its graphics handling, which is improved thanks to the new processor design.
If you're in the market for a tablet today, though, iPad 2 remains the class act to beat. Yes, it has limitations and omissions in its hardware, but on balance, it is the tablet that is best prepared, right now, for the mass-market consumer. The question that remains to be seen is whether iPad 2 can hold its crown for a year, as its predecessor did.