Apple’s new iPad 2 is finally in customer’s hands, and based on the company’s PR machine, it’s the best thing to hit the tech world ever. After cutting through the PR, is Apple’s second generation multimedia tablet really worth the upgrade? Read on and find out.
The iPad 2 is Apple’s second take on what a tablet computer device should be. Like the original, it sports a 9.7-inch multi-touch display, built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth support, a built-in microphone, offers a ten hour battery life, comes in 16GB, 32GB and 64GB capacities, runs iOS and is compatible with Apple’s App Store. Keeping with tradition, the new models cost the same as their first generation brothers, but add new features.
Apple’s new iPad 2 in black or white
iPad 2 is about a third thinner than the original model, is slightly narrower and shorter, and weighs in at about two tenths of a pound less. The tablet’s tapered edges make it more comfortable to hold, and its flatter back means it’s more stable when laying flat on a table.
The new model also includes front and rear-facing digital cameras, a built-in gyroscope, GSM and CDMA-compatible 3G wireless versions (think AT&T and Verizon), faster graphics, a dual-core Apple-designed A5 processor running at 1GHz, and white or black bezel options — yes, unlike the iPhone 4, Apple is actually shipping a white version of the iPad 2.
Under the Hood
The iPad 2 sports a dual-core A5 processor and includes 512MB RAM. In comparison, the original iPad shipped with a single-core A4 processor running at 1GHz and includes only 256MB RAM.
The extra horsepower and memory should gives apps a little more breathing room, and makes Apple’s interpretation of multitasking a little faster. The iPad 2 feels a little snappier overall, and some Apple apps, such as Mobile Safari and Mail, seem noticeably faster when you first start playing with the tablet.
After a few days of using the iPad 2 while leaving my trusty first gen iPad collecting dust on my desk, I picked up the old model and took it for a spin again. That’s when I realized just how dramatic the performance differences between the two generations really are.
Launch times for apps where quicker on the iPad 2, jumping between apps was noticeably faster, and those little lags I grew accustomed to over the past year were gone. Even turning off and on the new model was substantially faster.
Everything felt more fluid and smoother. As Steve Jobs says, “Like butter.”
Even with the noticeable performance improvements, I’m betting we’ll see even more speed boosts out of the iPad 2 over the next few months as developers find ways to tweak their apps to take advantage of that A5 processor, and as Apple releases new system updates that run faster and more efficiently.
The iPad 2 includes new graphics hardware that Apple claims is nine times more powerful than what was offered in the original iPad. The 9.7-inch multi-touch display didn’t change with the second gen model, although it does seem brighter and colors feel a touch warmer, too, which tells me iPad 2 has a slight yellow shift compared to the first generation’s slight blue shift.
Text seems to render a little more sharply on the iPad 2, which is nice, but the new graphics horse power really shows in games that have been optimized to take advantage of the new hardware.
The popular fantasy fighter game Infinity Blade is a great example of what the new graphics hardware is capable of. While the graphics look great on the original iPad, they look positively fantastic on the iPad 2. Shapes are smoother, lighting looks more natural, and characters that appeared as if they were rendered on a nice gaming console now look more like they were rendered for an animated movie.
Infinity Blade on the original iPad looks nice…
…but looks much better on the iPad 2.
Beefed up graphics support also comes with another bonus: The iPad 2 can mirror to external displays and projectors, just like the Mac. Apple offers two video adapters for the iPad’s dock port, now, designed to take advantage of the tablet’s video-out features.
The Dock to VGA adapter that Apple introduced with the original iPad is still available and works great for mirroring the tablet’s display during presentations, demos and classes. The new Dock to HDMI adapter, however, offers substantially higher resolution output, and can play out copy protected movies, too. It also includes a Dock port so you can charge your iPad while watching movies.
Both video adapters work seamlessly, and the video mirroring feature is reason enough for people that demo or train from their iPad to upgrade to the new model.
Apple claims the iPad 2 gets about ten hours of battery life, and based on my tests, that sounds just about right. Under normal usage — which includes Web surfing, online research, lots of email, too much time in Twitter and Angry Birds, and video watching — I went from a full charge to 10 percent over four full days on 32GB Wi-Fi-only model. I was able to blast through most of a charge over two days with heavy video, music and gaming.
My rough estimates show I managed at least ten hours on a charge with normal use, and dropped down to about six hours of heavy use. That falls in line with Apple’s advertised specs, and tells me I won’t have to worry about my battery through out the day when I’m using my iPad at conferences and expos.
Video and Photos on the Go
Apple was finally able to stop the never ending “Why doesn’t it have a camera?” questions that started the day the original iPad was introduced. The iPad 2 includes two cameras, a front-facing camera for FaceTime video chats, and a rear-facing camera capable of capturing 720p video.
Unfortunately, Apple has a new question to deal with — at least until the iPad 3 is announced — because both cameras are, quite frankly, crap. The front facing camera is VGA-quality, meaning it offers only 640x480 resolution, and doesn’t perform well unless the lighting conditions are near perfect.
The front-facing camera is adequate for FaceTime video chats, but adequate seems not good enough with the new MacBook Pros sporting FaceTime HD cameras and widescreen video chat support. Since FaceTime on the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch is limited to Wi-Fi connections, 3G wireless bandwidth can’t be a concern, so I’m left wondering why Apple chose to go with “just acceptable” for its iPad FaceTime Camera.
Actual size photo comparison: iPad (left), iPhone 4 (right),
both pics taken from the same distance from object
Even with the VGA camera, however, FaceTime is easy to use on the iPad, and as long as you have good lighting the image quality is fine. Holding an iPad to video chat feels cumbersome, so don’t plan on holding one in front of your face for extended calls even with the weight Apple shaved off the tablet body. This is one place a stand will be handy, or just use your iPhone for FaceTime chats instead.
Where the front-facing camera is mostly “meh,” the rear-facing camera is “what the frak?” Sure, it captures 720p video, but its photos are lower resolution than the original iPhone camera, and the image quality is down right disappointing without the best of lighting conditions. Photos are grainy and full of noise, they aren’t sharp, and the color quality is just OK.
Holding the iPad 2 to capture photos or video makes it very clear Apple didn’t intend for people to use their tablet as a point-and-shoot digital camera replacement. It’s awkward, and the camera button placement is practically out of reach unless you have exceptionally long fingers.
Despite my extended rant, I can see where the rear-facing camera could turn out to be really handy for augmented reality apps, capturing barcodes for warehouse inventory tracking, realtors logging properties, and other out-of-the-office tasks that need quick photos for tracking purposes.
Going Skin Deep
The iPad 2 is a testament to beautiful industrial design. The sleek lines and curves attract your eye, and look smart and professional without compromising on comfort in your hand.
Those aesthetics, however, come at a small price. While the tapered edges do make the tablet more comfortable to hold, they also make the ports and side controls just a little more difficult to access.
The new iPad’s dock port leave plenty of connector exposed
The Dock port, for example doesn’t have a flush face, so it can be hard to get the dock cable in and properly seated. Once the cable is connected it seems firmly attached, but looks like it is exposed to accidental breaking if you aren’t careful. Since the iPad 2 hasn’t been available for even a month yet, it’s hard to say if the new Dock port simply looks a little flimsy, or if there will be real issues with users breaking the connector.
The headphone jack is on a curved surface, too, as are the volume rocker and mute/rotation lock switch. Cables seated in the headphone jack port feel stable and sturdy even though the base of the connector isn’t sitting flush against the iPad body. Reaching the volume rocker and mute/rotation lock switch takes some getting used to since they feel more like they are back behind the glass instead of off the side of the tablet.
I found the mute/rotation lock switch to be the most difficult control to reach, and I usually end up turning my iPad on its side so I can get at it. If you expect to adjust your iPad’s volume often, or use the mute/rotation lock switch regularly, be ready to spend some time learning where they sit because they aren’t easy to hit thanks to that tapered edge.
Power, volume and mute/rotation switches hide on a tapered edge
Like the original iPad, the iPad 2 includes a single built-in speaker off to the side of the dock port. The audio quality isn’t anything spectacular, but it is good enough for alerts, most game sounds, quick YouTube videos and a little casual music listening. If you’re expecting high fidelity audio out of this speaker, you’re asking for too much because it isn’t a replacement for headphones or external speakers.
The speaker’s audio seems to aim away from the iPad 2’s back, which makes it appear like the speaker is louder when there’s a flat surface behind it. If you use your iPad on desks and tables — especially with a case that holds the tablet at an angle — the sound bounces back at you so you don’t have to crank up the volume quite as loud if you aren’t using headphones.
Apple’s Smart Cover doesn’t ship with the iPad 2, and I wish it did. It’s an accessory that truly enhances the device and shows just how much attention the company pays to the little details.
The Smart Cover attaches to the iPad with magnets that are arranged to make it really difficult to put the cover in the wrong place. The magnets are strong enough that the cover shouldn’t pop off accidentally, and it even puts your iPad to sleep when it’s covering the display. Open the cover, and your iPad automatically wakes up.
The Smart Cover is available in leather (US $69) or polyurethane ($39), with five unique colors for each material. The leather covers have a professional look, but not too stuffy. The polyurethane covers look more casual, but don’t slip into seeming cheap or like toys.
The leather iPad 2 Smart Cover
I carried my Smart Cover-clad iPad in a bag that wasn’t designed specifically to hold a tablet for over a week and never had any surprises with the cover popping off. It looks sharp, and it’s available in several colors so there’s a good chance you’ll find one that fits your style. Since it’s easy to attach or remove, I’m betting Apple is hoping customers will buy more than one just so they can swap out colors depending on what they’re wearing or the activities they’re involved in.
Apple designed the cover as a series of panels with flex points so it lays flat when you need it to, and folds into a stand that positions the display at a comfortable angle for on-screen typing, or upright like a digital photo frame. Unlike Apple’s first attempt at an iPad case, the Smart Case is stable in either position.
How stable, you ask? Where the original iPad case bounced a little when you typed with the on-screen keyboard, the Smart Cover is rock solid. I tend to type fairly aggressively on my iPad screen — so much so that people can hear the thumping sound as my fingers smack the screen — and there wasn’t any movement. It was as if my iPad had become a solid angled slab.
I noticed an immediate improvement in my typing speed and a dramatic reduction in my typing errors thanks to the Smart Cover because my iPad wasn’t bouncing as my fingers hit the screen.
The Smart Cover works great as a typing and viewing stand
The angle the Smart Cover holds your iPad at is a little shallower and far more comfortable than the angle Apple’s first gen iPad case uses. That may not be a big deal for some people, but anyone that spends serious time typing with the on-screen keyboard with be very happy with the new angle.
Using Smart Cover to turn my iPad into a photo frame stand was another pleasant surprise. Unlike the first gen iPad case, the Smart Cover actually works as a photo frame stand. The case is stable, the screen position is nice, and the Smart Cover looks like it was designed to actually support your iPad instead of looking like someone bent their case backwards in hopes that it would work as a stand.
It’s clear Apple spent a long time working on the Smart Case. In fact, based on many of the tablets I saw at CES this year, I’ll go so far as to say I think Apple put more thought into this cover than most of their competitors did on their tablets.
The Smart Cover surface that touches your iPad display is a microfiber material Apple says will help keep the display finger print and smudge-free. Turns out Apple was right: it really does help keep your display clean.
Unfortunately, the flex points between the cover panel sections don’t touch the iPad screen, so you get clean swaths of display broken up by stripes of finger print smudges. The smudge stripes aren’t too noticeable in lower light conditions, but bright light really shows them off.
The Smart Cover cleans your screen. Well, mostly.
With all those magnets tucked away in the Smart Cover, along with the magnets inside the iPad 2 that help hold the cover in place, I got concerned about the potential for data loss issues with hard drives that get too close.
I checked with the experts at Other World Computing to find out if iPad 2 owners need to take steps to avoid accidental data loss at the hands of their Smart Covers. In a nutshell, the answer is “no.”
The magnets in the iPad 2 and the Smart Cover pose “no risk to flash, and nearly no risk to traditional hard drives,” OWC’s Grant Dahlke said. He added that a magnetic field strong enough to damage your hard drive “would suck the iron out of your blood.”
Considering the health hazards losing the iron in your blood would cause, I’m assuming most people would have bigger concerns than lost data if they were in that situation.
My disappointment with the Smart Cover is that there aren’t magnets to hold it flat against the back of the iPad. You can fold the cover around to cover the back, so it seemed like a natural design feature to include a way to keep it from flopping around.
The cover also obscures the rear-facing camera when it’s flat against the back of the iPad 2. You can fold the cover in half and the built-in magnets will hold that shape so the camera isn’t blocked, but I’m thinking that Apple’s decision to let the Smart Cover block the camera says a lot about what the company thinks of the cameras it used.
Did I mention that I’m not impressed with the iPad 2 cameras?
GarageBand and iMovie to Go
If there was any doubt about the iPad’s ability to handle content creation instead of just content consumption, Apple made that clear with the mobile versions of Keynote, Pages and Numbers. The company really drove that point home with the introduction of GarageBand and iMovie for the iPad.
Just as it does on the Mac, GarageBand for the iPad let’s you mix your own music with real and in-app instruments, offers offers editing tools, and can export your finished songs. It supports up to eight tracks in a file, and includes smart instruments that can turn nearly anyone into a musician even if they can’t keep a beat or carry a tune.
GarageBand for the iPad
iMovie for the iPad is an update for iMovie for the iPhone. It supports video and basic audio editing, includes transitions and other effects, and offers several templates designed to help make your movies look more professional even if you aren’t a designer or film editor by trade.
Both apps do a fantastic job of showing off what the iPad 2 is capable of, and most likely will do at least as much to help sell the tablet as Apple’s ad campaign. Seeing these apps in action shows just how empowering the iPad can be as a creative tool without requiring users to spends weeks reading manuals to learn the built-in features.
There’s plenty more to say about both apps, so be sure to watch for TMO’s GarageBand and iMovie app reviews. They’re coming soon.
The Bottom Line
Apple has done a great job of taking what was already a compelling product and making it even more enticing in its second generation version. If you skipped the original iPad, the iPad 2 is a great place to get in on the tablet action. If you already have an iPad, the second generation model is a nice upgrade, but if what you have still meets your needs it isn’t necessarily a must-have purchase.
The lighter weight and tapered body make the iPad 2 more comfortable to hold and even better looking than the original. The better performance and graphics are welcome, especially if you found the first gen model to be a little too sluggish, or if you play games that take advantage of the improved graphics horsepower.
Video mirroring support makes the iPad 2 a must-have upgrade for teachers and presenters, and support for VGA along with HDMI connections is a nice bonus.
Don’t expect to take prize winning photos with the iPad 2’s built-in cameras. They’re adequate at best, but they’ll do the job to help FaceTime video chatting gain more traction.
The iPad 2 is a welcome upgrade, and feels like the iPad everyone wanted when the first model shipped only a year ago. The fact that Apple was able to shave a couple ounces off the weight, trim the thickness down by a third, beef up the performance and maintain a ten hour battery life is the icing on the cake.