Apple iPad 2 Review: An Improvement All Around

Apple iPad 2
A year ago, nobody had an iPad. Then Apple sold 15 million of them in just nine months, creating a whole new category of technology product. The iPad may have become, in the words of Steve Jobs, "the most successful consumer product ever launched."

It turns out that a lot of people saw the iPad's appeal: It's a supremely portable device that's well suited for checking e-mail, surfing the Web, playing games, reading books and other stuff you get off the Internet, and even for getting work done. Kids and the elderly have embraced it, too.

It's awfully hard to follow such a massive success, but that's the task set out for the new Apple iPad 2, which goes on sale Friday. At least the iPad 2 has one thing going for it: The original model caught the technology industry so flat-footed that only now are true competitors beginning to appear.

Those competitors will now face a new iteration of the iPad, one that's faster, smaller, and lighter than the model introduced a year ago--all while retaining the $499 entry price that has proven all but impossible for Apple's competitors to match. It's almost unfair.

A Game of Inches (and Ounces)

Call it Jobs's Law if you like: The latest version of any Apple product is likely to be thinner and lighter than its predecessor. And so it is with the iPad 2. The size difference between the original iPad and the iPad 2 may seem slight, but that's only because we're dealing with such small products to begin with. But for products this compact, every ounce and fraction of an inch counts.

The iPad 2 measures 7.31 by 9.5 by 0.34 inches, and weighs 1.33 pounds (in the case of the Wi-Fi-only version, that is--the AT&T and Verizon 3G versions are 0.01 and 0.02 pound heavier, respectively). That means Apple shaved 0.17 pound off the Wi-Fi version and 0.26 to 0.27 pound off the 3G version. The iPad 2 is also 0.16 inch narrower, 0.06 inch shorter, and 0.16 inch thinner than the original iPad.

A matter of small degrees, to be sure, until you consider the percentage change: The iPad 2 is roughly two-thirds the thickness of the original iPad, and 88 percent of its weight (83 percent when comparing 3G models). Pick up an iPad 2 after handling an original iPad, and you'll notice the difference right away. This is a lighter, thinner device.

In order to shave off that 0.16 inch of thickness, Apple has transformed the anodized-aluminum back panel of the iPad. The original model's back panel was a frame with four flat edges and a gently curved back surface. The iPad 2 eschews the frame, opting for a single surface that much more rapidly transitions from curve to flat. (This has the effect of making the iPad 2 much less wobbly than the original when laid on a flat surface.)

Apple iPad 2
The iPad 2's back is a single curved surface. The sleep/wake button (left) is perched on the curve. Also pictured here: the rear-facing camera and the orientation/mute switch.

Without those edges, the iPad 2's ports and buttons are now positioned on a curving portion of the back panel, rather than on its side. The feel is quite different, a bit like reverting the flat surfaces of the iPhone 4 to the curved back of an iPhone 3G. A few times I found myself struggling to insert cables into the iPad 2's dock connector at the proper angle because I was confused by the curve of the back panel.

The end result of all this slimming down is that the iPad 2 is easier to handle than the original model. In my review of the original iPad, I said it was "heavy enough and slippery enough that I found it difficult to hold in one hand." In fact, the original iPad turned out to be a product that really demanded a case of some sort, just to make it easier to handle.

The iPad 2 is easier to carry with one hand, and the decreased weight makes it easier to hold for longer periods of time. But if you're planning on using the iPad 2 to read a lot, you'll still find yourself propping it against your chest or setting it on a table--the tablet is still not light enough to hold in one hand for extended periods of time. (For that, you'll need something more on the scale of the Amazon Kindle 3, which is less than half the weight of the iPad 2.)

Eighteen Variations on a Theme

The original iPad came in six different variations: Wi-Fi-only and Wi-Fi/3G versions, each available with 16GB, 32GB, or 64GB of storage. The product was such a hit that Apple apparently decided that even more variations would be better--as a result, the company is offering 18 different versions of the iPad 2. It's a little crazy.

The storage variation remains: Every model is available in 16GB, 32GB, or 64GB capacities. You can also choose an iPad with either a traditional black bezel or a new white bezel--which Apple insists will be available on day one, despite the company's failure in ever shipping the promised white version of the iPhone 4. That's six variations right there. Now multiply them by three, since the iPad 2 comes in a Wi-Fi-only version as well as two separate Wi-Fi/3G versions: one compatible with AT&T's GSM-based cellular network, and a different one compatible with Verizon's CDMA-based network. (Apple seems to be differentiating between the two by referring to the AT&T model as "3G with Micro-SIM card.")

The good news is that the iPad 2 costs just what the original iPad did. The base-model Wi-Fi editions cost $499 (16GB), $599 (32GB), and $699 (64GB). Both sets of Wi-Fi/3G models cost $130 more than their Wi-Fi counterparts. There's no price difference for white or black models.

What Hasn't Changed

Apple iPad 2
Although it's thinner and lighter, the iPad 2, at a glance, looks very much like the original iPad. Its front is a sheet of glass over a bright 1024-by-768-pixel display surrounded by a bezel (again, now available in black or white) that's going to be necessary so long as humans grasp with opposable thumbs. The aluminum frame around the outside of the bezel of the original iPad has been reduced to a thin edge, almost entirely invisible, in the iPad 2.

The position of the iPad 2's buttons and ports are, likewise, more or less undisturbed. A sleep/wake button sits at the top-right edge, a standard headphone jack is at top left, a volume rocker and a sliding switch (configurable to lock screen orientation or mute alert sounds via the Settings app) are at the top of the right side, a 30-pin dock connector port resides at the bottom, and a home button sits at the bottom of the front face. The iPad 2's built-in microphone is dead center at the top edge of the device (it was next to the headphone jack on the original iPad). Both 3G models feature a black plastic cutout along the top rear face in order to improve cellular reception; the AT&T 3G model also has a micro-SIM card slot along the top-left edge.

Dual-Core Speed

The iPad 2 uses a new Apple-designed processor called the A5, which is making its first appearance on the scene. Apple is generally cagey about tech specs for products like the iPhone and iPad, but by all accounts the A5 is a dual-core version of the 1GHz A4 chip that powers the iPhone 4 and the original iPad. The iPad 2 also has 512MB of RAM--twice that of the original iPad--and a 200MHz bus speed, likewise twice that of the original.

Because the A5 is a dual-core processor, Apple claims that the iPad 2 can run at speeds up to double that of the original iPad. As with any dual-core processor, the key about "up to double" is that software must be optimized to take advantage of multiple processor cores, or that speed goes to waste. This is the first dual-core processor to appear on an iOS device, and it'll be interesting to see under what circumstances the A5 is noticeably faster than the A4, and when it's not.

But processor speed isn't the only part of the system that determines how it performs. Graphics performance has become a major component in determining how fast a computing device feels. And Apple says that the graphics performance on the iPad 2 is as much as nine times faster than on the original iPad.

So does the iPad 2 measure up to Apple's claims? Absolutely, though it's hard to determine whether the dual-core processor or the improved graphics performance deserve the credit. (Maybe the question is moot.) From the moment I started using the iPad 2 with familiar apps from my original iPad, I could tell that the system was faster. I thought scrolling through tweets in Twitterrific on my iPad was smooth as can be--until I scrolled through the tweet list on the iPad 2. Everything felt smoother, and items loaded faster.

Part of the speed boost, especially when I started to test performance in Safari, probably needs to be credited to iOS 4.3, which ships with the iPad 2 and includes a dramatic improvement to Safari's JavaScript engine. When I installed the golden-master version of iOS 4.3 on an original iPad, performance improved as well. But even when both devices were running iOS 4.3, the iPad 2 was 1.6 times as fast as the original in running the SunSpider JavaScript test, and 1.9 times as fast as an iPhone 4 running the iOS 4.3 golden master.

In short, the iPad 2 is the fastest iOS device ever made, by a long shot. And it's not just an academic distinction: You can sense the speed when you use it, because everything is faster and smoother than it was on the original iPad.

iOS Speed Tests

Except where otherwise noted, we tested all devices with iOS 4.3 . All results are in seconds. Sunspider is a WebKit JavaScript performance test, with results in seconds. The Web-page test measured the number of seconds to load www.nytimes.com in its entirety. Don't be surprised by the faster startup time of the iPad 1 running iOS 4.2; iOS devices without cellular radios have much shorter startup times than those with cellular radios, for whatever reason.

Despite the boosts in processing power, Apple claims that the iPad 2 has the same 10-hour battery life as the original model. In nearly a week of use, I never saw a reason to disbelieve the claims. The iPad's all-day battery life, perhaps its killer feature, remains intact.

Cameras and FaceTime

The original iPad debuted just before Apple embraced video chat with its FaceTime software and added a front-facing camera to the iPhone. (It subsequently added both front- and rear-facing cameras to the iPod Touch.) With the iPad 2, the company has brought two cameras to all of its mobile iOS devices.

The cameras in the iPad 2 are essentially the same as those in the fourth-generation iPod Touch: It's nice that they're available, but they're not particularly impressive in terms of quality. The front-facing camera is the same one used in the iPhone 4 and the iPod Touch, offering only VGA resolution (640 by 480 pixels). It's grainy in low-light settings, but is perfectly serviceable for its intended purpose, which is video chat.

FaceTime works on the iPad 2 much as it works on the iPod Touch; in the Settings app you log in with an Apple ID and set an e-mail address to use as your FaceTime "number," so people can call you. From the FaceTime app, you can call people in your contacts list and set favorites. (FaceTime on the iPad is, like FaceTime on the iPhone 4, supported only over Wi-Fi connections.)

Once you've connected, the iPad's larger screen definitely exposes the low quality of FaceTime video (whether it's caused by the low-quality camera or the intense bandwidth required by a live video chat, or both, is debatable). Still, the video is good enough to be usable. The iPad's size, however, makes it a bit ungainly as a FaceTime device. It's hard to have a long conversation while holding the iPad in your hand. Propping the tablet on a tabletop or in your lap works better; propping it up with Apple's Smart Cover in typing position gave my interlocutor a nice view of my ceiling fan, while putting it in the Smart Cover's movie-viewing position made me hunch down to get in the frame.

The rear camera on the iPad 2 appears to be identical to the one found on the iPod Touch. (It's positioned just beneath the sleep button on the back side of the device, creating a challenge for iPad casemakers everywhere.) Apple touts this camera as being "for video," and there's a reason: As a still camera offers about seven-tenths of a megapixel, with poor performance in low-light conditions. But it's capable of shooting 720p HD video and, in well-lit environments, the quality is decent.

I'm not sure I'm ever going to hold up the iPad 2 and use it as a video camera, but it does work -- and most important, you can use that camera from within FaceTime, so you can shoot video of your kids crazily running around and send it all back to grandma.

Apple iPhone 4, iPod Touch 4g, iPad 2 test photo

Pick Your 3G Network

Apple's relationship with Verizon Wireless in the United States continues to deepen. The first sign of an alliance was when Verizon began selling iPads in its stores, bundled with a MiFi wireless router. Then came the Verizon iPhone 4.

Now, at last, there's an iPad that can use Verizon's cellular data network without the user's needing to tote around some other piece of tech. This means that iPad 2 owners can choose between AT&T's (generally faster) 3G network and Verizon's (generally more reliable) 3G network. That's the good news. The bad news is, iPad 2 buyers will need to decide up front which network they want to use--separate models are sold for each network, so once you've bought a Verizon iPad 2, you have no way to switch it to use AT&T's network (or vice versa).

The iPad 2's connection to AT&T's network has been upgraded from the original iPad models. Like the iPhone 4, the iPad 2 supports AT&T's HSUPA/HSDPA system, which will result in faster 3G transfer in areas where that protocol is available. I managed a 2.2-mbps upload rate and a 1.1-mbps download rate from my house, comparable to the speeds I saw from the iPhone 4 on AT&T's network. (Apple didn't provide us with a Verizon-compatible version of the iPad 2 for review, but its transfer rates will likely be similar to those on the Verizon-compatible iPhone 4: generally slower than AT&T's.)

If you live in a place where both carriers offer good coverage, then deciding which model to buy will prove to be an interesting challenge. The data plans of the two companies differ, though they're generally competitive with one another. If you don't use much data, AT&T has an advantage with its $15-a-month plan for 250MB of data. If you use more than 3GB per month, Verizon becomes the better deal. In between, it's a toss-up. (AT&T also offers a post-paid plan that can be added to your phone bill and offers better overage rates.)

If you travel internationally, the AT&T iPad is a better deal, since it uses the GSM standard that's more widely in use internationally. And since the iPad is an unlocked cellular device, you can buy a foreign micro-SIM card and save a bunch on data rates by not paying AT&T's expensive roaming charges.

Then there's the question of whether you need to buy an iPad 2 with 3G at all. Many smartphones--including the iPhone 4--have a Wi-Fi-based hotspot feature that lets them share their Internet connections with other devices. Verizon and AT&T charge $20 a month for the feature, which comes with 2GB of data. (AT&T's plan requires a user to also be on the $25 a month Data Pro plan.) Two gigabytes for $20 is a pretty good deal when compared with iPad 3G plans (other than AT&T's ultracheap 250MB plan). So if you, your iPad, and your iPhone (or other smartphone with a personal-hotspot feature) are seldom parted, you might be better off saving the $130 and buying a Wi-Fi-only model.

You have a lot of variables to think about here, clearly. But once you've chosen your iPad 2, you're locked in, so it's wise to consider your options before you buy. The good news is, if you spend $130 for a 3G model, you have no contract to sign and you're not required to buy a data plan--so the extra cost of the 3G-equipped iPad might not be too much to spend if you aren't sure and you want to keep your options open. You'll still have to pick between AT&T and Verizon, however.

One final wrinkle to the 3G buying decision: Only 3G iPad models come with GPS capabilities. There's a good reason for this--iOS devices use something called assisted GPS to dramatically decrease the amount of time the devices take to determine their location. (Despite the name, this is not some sort of phony GPS; the "assisted" just means that the devices look for nearby cellular towers to get a general fix on their location, which prevents a minutes-long GPS scan that would be required on a GPS device without the cellular assist.) In any event, if you dream of using your iPad as a jumbo GPS navigation console, you'll absolutely need a 3G model.

Smart Accessories Abound

With the release of the iPad 2, Apple is also releasing several accessories related to the iPad 2.

Apple iPad 2
The iPad 2 with a leather Smart Cover.

Most notable is the Smart Cover, available in either leather ($69) or polyurethane ($39). A Smart Cover magnetically adheres to the side of the iPad 2 and protects the front, locking and unlocking the iPad when you open and close the cover. It's pretty nifty, and it sets the bar fairly high for all future iPad 2 accessories. To read a whole lot more about it, be sure to see my iPad 2 Smart Cover review.

But other accessories are available, too: The $39 Apple Digital AV adapter finally lets capable iOS devices display HD video on HDTVs, and even allows the iPad 2 to mirror its own screen on an external display. (Read on for details, or see Macworld's full review.)

You'll also find a new $29 iPad 2 Dock, which I wasn't able to test. Like the original iPad Dock, it allows you to set your iPad upright in portrait orientation and charge, sync, or even play audio- or video-out. Now the bad news: The iPad 2 and the original iPad's dock connector are different enough that accessories that tightly fit to the hardware won't be compatible with the new model, so you probably won't be able to reuse many of your iPad accessories if you buy an iPad 2. Apple also seems to have discontinued the iPad Keyboard Dock entirely. (No great loss, in my opinion--you'd be better off with a dock or a case and the excellent $69 Apple Wireless Keyboard, a combination that allows you to type in either portrait or landscape orientation, rather than the forced portrait orientation of the Keyboard Dock.)

A Video Breakthrough

Apple Digital AV Adapter
The Apple Digital AV Adapter gives the iPad 2 the ability to output HD video and mirror its own screen.
One of the most pleasantly surprising features of the iPad 2 is its improved support for HDTVs and HD video. A combination of iPad 2 hardware upgrades, a new adapter from Apple, and updates to the iOS share the credit, but the end result is great news for both entertainment and education.

On the entertainment side, the new Apple Digital AV Adapter lets the iPad 2 spread its wings. With this adapter, the iPad 2 can output high-definition video at resolutions up to 1080p, as well as Dolby Digital surround sound, all served via a standard HDMI cable that the owner of any HDTV will be familiar with.

I played back several HD video files on several different HDTVs via the iPad 2 and the HDMI adapter, and the video quality was excellent. The inability to output HD video has been a sore spot on the iOS since the release of the original iPad, but now that it's here, it looks (and sounds) great.

A feature exclusive to the iPad 2 that will be hailed by educators, presenters, and anyone else who has ever wanted to show off their iPad's screen to a large crowd: video mirroring. When connected to the HDMI adapter, the iPad 2 will display a duplicate version of the contents of its screen on an external monitor. Want to demo an education app via a projector or HDTV for a classroom full of kids? The iPad 2 makes it possible.

In mirroring mode, the iPad 2's interface is crystal clear. It looks great. Because the iPad 2's video interface is a 4:3 aspect ratio, you'll find black bars on the sides of the TV when it's in mirroring mode. The bars grow even wider if you put the iPad 2 in portrait orientation, but the image of an iPad 2 in portrait mode still looks good, albeit smaller, on an HDTV.

On a few TVs I tried, however, I needed to adjust the video settings to display the entire picture. It depends on how your TV set frames HD content; my advice is to fiddle with the video settings until you get a picture that pleases you.

For the record, the iPad 2's mirroring mode and its video-out mode don't fight with each other. If an app supports direct video output to an external display, the iPad 2 stops mirroring and switches to that mode. In addition to the Video app, there are lots of other examples: Keynote uses the external display as a presentation screen, for instance.

The Software Story

iMovie for iPad
iMovie for iPad.
The iPad 2 arrives with a new version of the operating system that powers the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch. This version, iOS 4.3, is hardly earth-shattering, but does offers a few nice new features.

Third-party apps can now take advantage of streaming video via AirPlay, the system that lets iOS devices stream audio and video to various devices, most notably the second-generation Apple TV. The Videos and iPod apps can now connect to Macs or PCs running iTunes via the Home Sharing system, meaning--at long last!--you can stream music or videos from any Mac or PC in your house to your iOS device, elsewhere on your local network.

In iOS 4.3, the slide switch on the iPad can be put to use in one of two ways: It can either function as an orientation-lock switch, as it did when the iPad was first released, or it can function as a mute switch for alert sounds, as it did upon the release of iOS 4.2. In iOS 4.3, users can choose either behavior via the Settings app. Now can't we all just get along?

iOS 4.3 has a bunch of other additions; stay tuned for a full report on iOS 4.3, which is forthcoming.

Along with the new version of the operating system, Apple is introducing two apps as a part of the iPad 2 launch. One, iMovie, is an update to the existing version of iMovie that runs on the iPhone 4 and iPod touch. The other, GarageBand, is an all-new app for the iPad. Both apps are excellent, showing off the power of the iPad, the iOS, and, specifically, the iPad 2.

It's interesting that for the original iPad launch, Apple showcased three $10 iWork apps: Keynote, Numbers, and Pages. It sent a message that the iPad could be used for productivity, not just for consumption. And in the intervening 11 months, we've seen all sorts of interesting productivity applications released for the iPad. (Along with lots of games.) The iPad app ecosystem launched strong and has continued to grow, making it one of the iPad's biggest advantages over competing tablets.

This time out, Apple has launched its new iPad with a pair of $5 creativity apps. What's the message? In the case of iMovie, it's clearly tied to the existence of the iPad's cameras. Now you can shoot video with the iPad (ideally the HD-capable rear-facing one) and then edit it right within iMovie. Apple has also enabled a video workflow that starts with video shot on an iPhone 4, and then ends up being transferred to an iPad 2 for editing. For more of my impressions after spending a few days with iMovie, check out my hands-on with iMovie for iPad.

GarageBand for iPad is an almost breathtaking achievement. At times it feels more responsive than GarageBand running on the late-model iMac on my desk at work. Strumming its "smart guitars" made me almost feel musical, and I was able to create a (terrible) cover version of Fountains of Wayne's "Hey Julie" in about 30 minutes, complete with vocals, guitar, bass, drums, and organ. My nine-year-old daughter was entranced with the app as well.

GarageBand for iPad isn't as full-featured as the Mac version, but neither does it feel like a toy version. It's a real app with a lot of real power, and I'd imagine that it will become madly popular in schools and garages everywhere. For more information, check out my first look at GarageBand for iPad.

Both apps do suffer from one of the great failings of the iOS: difficulty in getting files in and out and moving them around. To move an iMovie project from the iPhone to the iPad, for example, you have to (1) export the file on the iPhone, (2) connect it to a Mac, (3) go to iTunes, (4) click the Apps tab, (5) scroll down, (6) click on iMovie, (7) click on your project, (8) click Save to put it on your hard drive, (9) detach your iPhone, (10) attach your iPad, (11) click on it in iTunes, (12) click on the Apps tab, (13) scroll down, (14) click on iMovie, and then (15) drag your project back into iTunes.

Apple, there has to be a better way. Maybe in iOS 5?

Should You Upgrade?

Let's say you are one of those 15 million people who bought an iPad last year. Now a new iPad has arrived. Should you dump your old one and get a new one?

Though the iPad 2 is an improvement on the original iPad in numerous ways, it's still an evolutionary product, not a revolutionary one. If you're happy with your current iPad, there's no reason to dump it just because a shinier, newer one is available. (This is not to say that millions of people won't do just that. I mean: shiny!) If you've invested in iPad accessories such as a dock or case, keep in mind that you probably won't be able to use them with the new iPad.

Of course, if someone in your family has been clamoring for an iPad, now might be the time to buy an iPad 2 and hand down the old model to them--or, if you're really nice, give them the new iPad while you soldier on with the classic model.

If you've become a major user of FaceTime or other video-chat apps on your iPhone or iPod Touch, upgrading to an iPad 2 makes more sense, thanks to the integrated cameras. People who want to bestow an iPad on an older friend or relative who is a bit reluctant to use technology can now add video chat to the mix of features that make the iPad a compelling device for the older set.

Anyone who gives demonstrations of iPad apps--in seminars, classrooms, or boardrooms--will want to get an iPad 2 immediately just for the video-mirroring feature. If you're an iPad-toting presenter, it'll be worth the investment.

Finally, if you live somewhere with great Verizon reception and you're stuck with an AT&T iPad, trading up to the Verizon model is worth considering ... but you might want to also consider adding a tethering plan to a Verizon smartphone and deactivating your existing iPad's monthly service.

Buying Advice

In Video: The iPad2 Review

The iPad was a huge hit, vastly surpassing anyone's expectations for it. (In my review last year, I set a ceiling for success at 10 million, meaning my most optimistic estimate was still 5 million iPads short.)

It's hard to bet against Apple these days. The company is on a roll, not only in sales but in product design. Less than a year on from the original iPad, the iPad 2 is an improvement that doesn't divert any of the iPad's powerful momentum. It's the original iPad, only more so--even smaller, even thinner, even faster than before.

If you're one of those people who practices remarkable feats of self-discipline when it comes to buying first-generation hardware products, it's time to celebrate: The second iPad is here, and you can finally slake your thirst. By waiting, you'll end up with a faster, lighter product with the same great price and battery life--and with two video cameras and video-mirroring capabilities, to boot.

For Apple's competitors in the tablet-device market, the iPad 2 is a bucket of water to the face. After more than a year of struggling to catch up to the original iPad, here's a new model that addresses many of the iPad's deficiencies, dramatically improves its speed, and doesn't cede any ground on price, features, or battery life. The iPad 2 raises the bar Apple set a year ago--and it's time for the rest of the industry to scramble again to catch up.

For everyone else, the iPad 2 is a triumph, an iPad that's even more iPad than the original. And the original one was really good. The first iPad was a bolt from the blue, a device that defined an entire category, and a tough act to follow. The iPad 2 follows it with aplomb.

Jason Snell is Macworld's Editorial Director.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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