Third Generation iPad: It’s All in the Pixels

| In-Depth Review

Apple’s third generation iPad, known simply as the new iPad, made it into stores only a couple days ago with the usual pre-launch hype and excitement. Customers broke the Internet trying to pre-order Apple’s latest and greatest tablet, and some of the company’s stores had lines forming days ahead of the launch. Was the new iPad worth the build up and the wait? Read on to see what The Mac Observer thinks.

Apple's iPad with Retina DisplayWith the first iPad, Apple defined the tablet computer space — a market that PC makers had been floundering in for years. When the iPad 2 came out a year later, Apple was facing copy cat tablet makers that couldn’t match features and price points, and now the company is adding even more distance to its lead with the third generation iPad.

Apple chose to stick with a 9.7-inch multi-touch display for the new iPad, but radically bumped up the resolution and added the Retina Display moniker. It includes a faster processor, better graphics performance, built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0 support, a built-in microphone, front and rear-facing cameras, offers the same ten hour battery life as the iPad 2, comes in 16GB, 32GB and 64GB capacities, and augments 3G wireless data support with LTE.

The new models are available in black or white, but weigh slightly more than the iPad 2, and are a fraction thicker as well. Despite the slight increase it size and weight, the new models are practically indistinguishable from the iPad 2.

The new iPad weighs 1.44 pounds and is 0.37-inches thick, whereas the iPad 2 weighs 1.33 pounds and is 0.34-inches thick. The difference is slight, and from my limited testing isn’t that big of a deal. It’s hard to tell the difference when holding each model, and most soft and flexible iPad 2 cases seem to fit the third gen model without any trouble. Rigid cases, however, didn’t fit at all.

The third generation iPad’s video out support has been bumped up, too. Instead of supporting up to 720p through its Dock port to HDMI adapter, the new models support full 1080p video.

Pricing hasn’t changed with the 16GB Wi-Fi-only model costing $499, but budget conscious shoppers can pick up the 16GB iPad 2 for a US$100 less than entry level new model. This marks the first time Apple has offered a discount iPad like it does for the iPhone.

The full pricing line up includes the Wi-Fi models coming in at $499 for 16GB storage, $599 for 32GB storage, and $699 for 64GB storage. The Wi-Fi plus LTE wireless data models cost $629 for the 16GB model, $729 for the 32GB model and $829 for the 64GB model.

Despite rumors to the contrary, and the dreams of consumers, Apple didn’t bump up its top of the line models to 128GB storage.

Let’s Get Technical
The new iPad uses Apple’s brand new dual-core A5X processor with quad-core graphics and includes 1GB RAM. In comparison, the iPad shipped with a dual-core A5 processor running with 512MB RAM. Both the iPad 2 and third generation iPad run at 1GHz.

The beefed up processor and extra RAM in the third gen iPad gives the tablet a nice performance boost, but not so much that it’ll blow your socks off. Instead, common tasks that previously might have felt a little sluggish have that snappy response you expect from the iPad, and those few seconds of frustration that come along with waiting for the onscreen keyboard to pop up are gone.

Apple’s own apps really show off the A5X’s performance boosts in a clear way: Mobile Safari pages load much faster and smoother than on the iPad 2, Mail renders email messages quicker, and system-wide searches are more fluid.

The raw numbers don’t show that the third gen iPad is substantially faster than the iPad 2, which fits with my findings that the new model’s performance improvements are subtle. Our GeekBench tests showed both tablets were neck and neck in overall performance with the new model barely eking out a lead.

Third generation iPad GeekBench test results

The new iPad runs iOS 5.1, which is available as free update for iPhones, iPads and iPod touches running iOS 5. For our comparison tests, our iPad 2 was running iOS 5.1 as well.

The performance improvements I saw in graphics rendering didn’t surprise me at all when I compared the new iPad’s GLBenchmark test results to the iPad 2. I included the original iPad in my tests just to show how dramatic the graphics performance improvements are.

Third gen iPad GLBenchmark test results

I also put the iPad 2 and third gen iPad through the SunSpider JavaScript test and found that they performed fairly in line with each other. The iPad came back with a 1.82 second score, and the new iPad clocked in at 1.72 seconds.

With tapered edge Apple introduced on the iPad 2, I was concerned that the Dock connector could lead to a broken port since the cable doesn’t sit flush against the tablet’s body. After a year of heavy use, that turned out to be a non-issue. Considering Apple’s push for wireless data syncing and backup, the Dock connector is more of just a charging port for many iPad users, so the connector will likely see even less use now than it did last year.

The positioning of the volume rocker and mute/screen lock switches hasn’t changed, and I’ve found it’s far too easy to accidentally push the volume up or down when putting my iPad on a table or even just holding it in landscape mode. That may be related to the fact that I’m left handed and always end up with the volume buttons on the bottom edge when I hold my iPad in landscape mode. This wasn’t, however, an issue for me with the original iPad.

The iPad’s tapered edges, despite my complaint about the volume rocker position, make the tablet far more comfortable to hold.

It also seems to include the same speaker used in the iPad 2, and it sounds good for what it is. Even though some iPad owners were hoping for stereo speakers this time around, Apple decided to stick with the single speaker setup it used last time around.

Retina Display: Apple’s Big Pixel Party
The first thing you’ll notice on the new iPad is its high resolution Retina Display, and rightly so. The screen is, in a word, magnificent. The iPad 2’s excellent display looks fantastic on its own, but compared to the Retina Display on the new iPad, it seems almost chunky.

FaceTime icon on iPad 2 (left) and new iPad (right)FaceTime icon on iPad 2 (left) and new iPad (right)

Text on the new iPad looks as if it’s printed instead of pixels, smooth edges are even smoother, plus icons and other graphics that haven’t been updated to take advantage of the new display tend to look better, too.

To put help put the third gen iPad display into perspective, it sports a 2048x1536 resolution with 3.1 million pixels. HD televisions have 1 million fewer pixels and a viewing area that’s substantially larger than the iPad’s 9.7-inch screen. The iPad 2 display offers only 1024x768 resolution — and I say “only” simply because the new iPad display packs in that much more.

Now imagine how much better the iPad’s already beautiful display will look as more developers update their apps to take advantage of the extra resolution. Many apps have already been updated, and more are on the way.

Apple says the new iPad can show a wider range of colors than previous models, which makes me very happy. Each new iPad release gets us closer to being able to use our tablets as an on-the-go replacement for our desktop and laptop Macs, and this is good news for content creators that need to see the extra color depth in their work.

The iPad’s Retina Display may be a hidden boon for optometrists, too, since you’ll want to make sure your eyesight is in tip-top shape for appreciating the quality of text and graphics.

Despite all my raving about the iPad’s Retina Display, I found one glaring problem that may be enough to keep some people from upgrading to the new model: The promised deeper color saturation comes at a price in that hues are shifted noticeably towards yellow. The shift makes colors seem warmer, but for any work that involves having a reasonable idea what your colors really look like this display comes up short.

As an example, photographs viewed on the new iPad and compared to the same image on an iPad 2 have a significant yellow color shift. If you applied any color changes to those images on the iPad 2, then moved them to the third gen iPad, you won’t see the colors you expect. This is a big problem for anyone planning on doing any kind of color adjustments on their iPad since whatever you do is now a crap shoot.

Oranges on iPad 2 (left) look like lemons on new iPad (right)Oranges on iPad 2 (left) look like lemons on new iPad (right)

Oranges comparison photoOranges comparison photo

I first noticed how dramatic the yellow color shift can be when I loaded up a photograph of oranges I snapped with my iPhone 4S. On the iPad 2, the orange’s color looked reasonably close to the actual fruit I photographed. On the new iPad, however, they looked like lemons — and everyone I showed the photos to thought so, too. In fact, most people assumed the yellow shifted image was the iPad 2 and the deeper orange color version was the third gen model.

My discovery led me back to my local Apple Store where I loaded the same oranges image onto a few third gen iPads to compare the colors. The good news was that the colors were stunningly consistent across all of the iPads. The bad news was that they all showed the same heavy shift towards yellow.

The average consumer that may not be able to see the color differences, or doesn’t care, probably won’t be bothered by the iPad’s yellow shift, but it’s a big problem for anyone that’s expecting to get a good idea as to how their photos look when they’re out in the field.

If Apple hadn’t also released iPhoto for iOS with its color adjustment options, and Adobe hadn’t dropped Photoshop Touch in the App Store, it wouldn’t seem like that big of a deal. Since those apps are there, however, we’re essentially being told that the iPad is a perfectly fine image editor on the go. The reality is that I wouldn’t trust the Retina Display’s colors for any photographic work — at least not without further testing.

Close up: iPad 2 textClose up: iPad 2 text

Close up: Retina Display iPad textClose up: Retina Display iPad text

Considering the amazing consistency between third gen iPad displays, it would probably be a fairly easy task for Apple to bring the colors back in line with the iPad 2, but I don’t expect that to happen. I’m betting Apple spent a lot of resources to find out what looked most pleasing to the average consumer and went with that.

If you read books and watch movies on the new iPad, you’ll be very pleased with with Retina Display’s colors. In other words, Apple may be telling us the iPad is a great content creation device, but the company’s decision to shift colors as they have says they’re still targeting just content consumers with the Retina Display.

That said, I’d really love to be wrong with my assessment of, and concern over, the Retina Display’s color shift. In fact, I’m even going to try to prove myself wrong be digging even deeper into the new iPad’s display, and I’ll let you know what I find.

Smart Cover
The Smart Cover Apple introduced with the iPad 2 fits the third generation iPad without any problem at all, so if you’re upgrading from last year’s model there isn’t any reason why you can’t keep using the same cover. It uses the same magnetic connections to hold it in place, and shuts off or wakes up your tablet when it’s closed or opened.

Last year's Smart Cover, still going strongLast year’s Smart Cover, still going strong

Leather and polyurethane models are available in several colors, and they still work just fine as fold up stands.

Instead of devoting an ungodly number of words talking about the Smart Cover, I’ll just refer you back to my iPad 2 review. I’ll add that the leather smart cover I bought for my iPad 2 on launch day last year is still holding up, although it is showing a few signs of wear.

The leather smart cover costs $69, and the polyurethane version is priced at $39.

Photos to Go: Ready for My Closeup
Apple included front and rear-facing digital cameras in the iPad 2, and as I recall, my take was that they were crap. Yes, I really said “crap.”

While the front-facing video chat camera remains at VGA resolution, the rear-facing camera received a very welcome boost from less than a megapixel resolution up to 5 megapixels. If you’re happy with the camera in the iPhone 4, you’ll be happy with the camera in the third gen iPad because they’re the same.

I set up several comparison shots with the iPad 2, third gen iPad, and iPhone 4S and it wasn’t any surprise that the newest iPad’s camera produced much better images than the second generation model. Photos from the new iPad pack in much more detail and offer overall better clarity.

Photo comparison: iPad 2 (left) iPad 3 (center) iPhone 4S (right)Photo comparison: iPad 2 (left) iPad 3 (center) iPhone 4S (right)

The iPad 2 camera (left) doesn't catch as much detail as the new iPad (right)The iPad 2 camera (left) doesn’t catch as much detail as the new iPad (right)

The new iPad can capture 1080p video, up from the iPad 2’s 720p, and it includes built-in image stabilization. This means shots where you have more movement than you want — an issue the iPad’s size will likely introduce — are less likely to make viewers sick. Videos captured with the new iPad’s camera look good, and despite the awkwardness that goes along with holding an iPad in front of you to capture video and photos, it’s actually a nice camera setup.

What the new iPad doesn’t have is a flash, and that may be a problem for some users since the cameras aren’t all that great in low light conditions. It does, however, include much improved auto-focus support, although I found it easy to confuse the iPad’s focus, and even had trouble at times forcing it to focus on specific points in my shots.

To be fair, most of my focus issues came into play when my subjects were backlit. Despite my best efforts, the third gen iPad refused to focus on my close-in subjects and instead gave me a wonderfully sharp background. Ironically, the iPad 2’s crap camera dutifully focused on exactly what I wanted when taking the same photo.

The iPad’s front-facing FaceTime camera works fine for video chats, although I would’ve liked to have seen a resolution bump here, too, since Apple is using substantially better cameras for FaceTime chatting on its Mac lineup. FaceTime on the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch is still limited to Wi-Fi connections, so don’t expect to video chat with friends and family over your wireless data connection even if you’re in an area with fast LTE coverage.

Third gen iPad: Better camera, but still no flashThird gen iPad: Better camera, but still no flash

FaceTime is easy to use on the iPad, and the image quality is good as long as you have adequate lighting available, which means dark rooms are right out. Holding an iPad to video chat feels a little awkward, and this is where that extra tenth of a pound in weight will catch up with you. You’re better off finding some way to prop up your iPad for FaceTime chats, and this is a place where Apple’s own Smart Cover works really well.

The new iPad isn’t a replacement for you point-and-shoot camera or iPhone, even with its 5 megapixel camera. The size makes it awkward and even cumbersome for snapping photos and video. Instead, the iPad is more of a camera of opportunity, and thanks to its substantially better camera, can handle that job while giving you good photos — which is exactly what you want from your camera.

Talk to Me: Voice Dictation
The third generation iPad puts its built-in microphone to a new use thanks to the addition of Voice Dictation. You can use the feature to speak to your iPad and see your words converted into text on the fly.

Voice Dictation worked surprisingly well in my tests, even when there was background noise when I was in public places. And by “public places,” I mean my favorite coffee shop.

You can access Voice Dictation by tapping the microphone key whenever the onscreen keyboard is visible. Just speak clearly so your iPad can sort out what you’re saying, and it does the rest.

Tap the microphone key to enable Voice DictationTap the microphone key to enable Voice Dictation

The limitation is that you need an Internet connection to use Voice Dictation, so Wi-Fi-only iPad owners won’t be able to use the feature when they aren’t on an Internet-connected network. Wi-Fi plus LTE iPad owners, however, can take advantage of Voice Dictation where ever they can get a data signal from their service provider.

I was surprised that Apple chose to leave Siri voice control off of the new iPad, especially since Voice Dictation is included. Siri support would essentially turn the third gen iPad into the Knowledge Navigator Apple envisioned back in the 1980’s. Interacting with my iPad by voice while it sits on my desk? Yes, please.

I’m hoping Apple chose to skip Siri support while it continues to refine the service. It is, after all, still in beta. Maybe Apple will add Siri support as a software update when the feature is closer to an official product.

Charge Me Up: The iPad’s New Battery
Apple claims, despite the introduction of the Retina Display and LTE wireless data support (both potential power hogs), that the new iPad gets about ten hours of battery life, just like the iPad 2. That seems just about right, and we can thank the new iPad’s substantially larger battery for that.

I charged my new iPad over night on the Friday I got it, and then started in on fairly heavy use for this review on Saturday and Sunday. By Monday afternoon, I finally dipped down to the 15 percent mark after spending a substantial amount of time over the weekend surfing the Web, checking email, playing video games, watching video and listening to music, and running the tablet through a series of benchmark tests.

That power storage comes at a price, however impressive it might be. The battery in the third generation iPad is about 70 percent larger than the iPad 2’s battery, and recharge time took longer because there’s just more battery to fill up. That’s not a complaint; just a warning so you don’t get caught without enough juice if you’re crunched for time when recharging.

Bring in the Apps: GarageBand, iMovie & iPhoto
When Apple unveiled the new iPad, it also updated its iLife apps for iOS. GarageBand and iMovie both gained new features, and for the first time we have a version of iPhoto for iOS.

GarageBand for the iPad added the ability to link up to four iOS devices together and collaborate in real time on songs in a feature called Jam Session. You and your musician friends need to be together so you can share the same wireless network, and GarageBand will handle the heavy work of keeping everyone in sync and in the same key.

Jam Session works remarkably well, and it’s loads of fun to play with. The person that starts the Jam Session records each participant on their own track and can edit the piece later, too. Even if you aren’t a musician, it’s worth trying out.

iMovie for the iPad brought the Mac version’s Movie Trailers templates to the small screen. It includes nine trailer templates, complete with professional soundtracks, and the same tips to show you what types of clips to drop into each template.

Both apps take what could be daunting tasks with intimidating interfaces and make music and video editing easy and friendly. Add the fact that you’re working with just a touch interface, and it’s easy to see how Apple is usually far better than its competition and understanding how user interfaces should work.

iPhoto for the iPad and iPhoneiPhoto for the iPad and iPhone

The new addition to the mobile iLife family is iPhoto, and I’ve been waiting for this ever since the original iPad shipped. It’s a far more capable image editor than the Photos app that ships with every iOS device, and includes image sharing support via email, Twitter, Flickr, Facebook, and iCloud’s new Journal feature. You can print pictures from iPhoto, and even “beam” images to other iOS devices on the same network.

iPhoto’s image editing and correction tools let you adjust color levels, apply photo effects, retouch images, and the Brushes feature lets you “paint” effects onto specific parts of your photos. Like GarageBand and iMovie, iPhoto is easy fairly easy to learn. The apps are all priced at $4.99 each.

The Bottom Line
The third generation iPad raises the bar yet again for the tablet market and puts an even bigger gap between Apple and its competition. Other companies simply can’t match the combination of features and tight integration with entertainment services and app purchasing Apple offers, and certainly not at the price point Apple has hit.

The new Retina Display is amazing despite my concerns over color shifting, and it’s especially welcome for anyone that spends a lot of time reading text. Book readers and online researchers, this display is reason enough for you to upgrade.

While overall performance may not be dramatically better than the iPad 2, the new model does offer subtle speed boosts that can help improve productivity, and the new quad-core graphics processor helps push even more detail out of images and video.

The new rear-facing camera is actually usable for taking photos, although I beg of you not to use your iPad as your primary camera. It’s a camera of opportunity, not a camera of choice.

And now that I’ve dished out spec after spec on the new iPad, I’ll ask you to toss all of that information aside and look at what Apple gave us: a device that’s all about user experience, not processors and color depth. This is what Apple excels at, and everyone else fails to match.

So, should you buy the new iPad? If you don’t already own an iPad, or never upgraded from the original model, now is a great time to get Apple’s latest and greatest tablet. If you own an iPad 2 and are happy with its performance and display, upgrading to the new model is a tougher choice.

If reading is the primary use for your iPad 2, then check out the Retina Display on the new model and break out your credit card because you’re going to love how it looks. If not, maybe it’s OK to sit this one out — but don’t look at the new display. Ever.

Product: Third Generation iPad

Company: Apple

List Price: Starting at $499

Pros:

Retina Display is a thing of beauty, better rear-facing camera, voice dictation, marginal performance improvements.

Cons:

Yellow color shift could be a problem for serious photographers, no Siri voice control, slightly heavier than iPad 2, charge times take longer.

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Comments

Chris / Interealtime

As a dev, I can say that I’ve been plugging and unplugging dock cables in my iPad 2 (and iPhones) quite a lot. Sync might be wireless, but for devs it’s still wired all the way. And as I write camera apps, I’m usually moving the device around to take photos while it’s tethered.

So far I’ve not had any issues at all, the dock port is still rock solid. Actually I did have one issue, but that was with a 3rd party cable - I think it wore out internally and started randomly disconnecting. The apple cables all work fine still.

So I reckon that it’s a total non-issue smile

Jeff Gamet

Yep. I agree. My Dock port concerns were unwarranted, and I have a year of heavy use to back that up. I’m not worried at all about the Dock port on the third gen iPad.

David Chilstrom

From the Displaymate review: “...the new iPad?s picture quality, color accuracy, and gray scale are not only much better than any other Tablet or Smartphone, it?s also much better than most HDTVs, laptops, and monitors. In fact with some minor calibration tweaks the new iPad would qualify as a studio reference monitor.”

It’s possible that the yellowing you’ve seen is a revisitation of the glue drying issue we’ve seen on other screens in the past. It may take a few weeks for the glue to cure for the yellowing to disappear. I’ve done side by side comparisons with the same photo on my iPad2 vs new iPad, and the blues and reds on the new iPad are significantly more accurate than on my iPad2.

Anandtech agrees with Displaymate and finds the color gamut on the new iPad to be substantially improved over the iPad 2 and iPhone 4.

Jeff Gamet

I’d love for the yellow cast to be a curing issue with the display glue. My concern that it might not be stems from the fact that every iPad I checked at my local Apple Store showed the exact same color cast. I’m watching closely to see what comes of the whole color discussion, and this is one situation where I’d rather be wrong on my assessment. Fingers crossed for curing glue.

NightRelic

I decided to go to the Apple store tonight to check out the yellow cast to the iPad 3 screen and discovered you were dead on. It’s really cool you can look at iPad 2 and 3 side by side at the store.

I discovered something else while I was there. I went to the bookshelf and opened the news magazine they had there as a sample in both iPad 2 & 3. The iPad 2 loaded the whole magazine immediately, including all the pictures. The iPad 3 took a long time and a lot of the pictures didn’t load for over 5 minutes. When I walked away from it, they still hadn’t all loaded.

I don’t own an iPad yet. I came away wanting the iPad 2 more than the iPad 3. The clearer picture just didn’t make up enough for the other issues I was finding in the new iPad. I may end up with a 32 gb refurb iPad 2.

deasys

I?d really love to be wrong with my assessment of, and concern over, the Retina Display?s color shift.

Then your wish has come true. See David Chilstrom’s posting.

Yep, I think I’ll go with Displaymate and Anandtech’s assessment here. (By the way, yours is the only review that has noted such an issue with the new iPad’s screen…)

Nightrelic

I was glad to see those new assessments before I bought anything. I’ll definitely be picking up the 3rd gen unit when I can. I came close to buying a 2nd gen refurb.

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