iPad review: Road-testing the new tablet
It is sharper, clearer and faster than its predecessor, but is the price right?
When I first tried the new iPad — it goes on sale in Canada on Friday, March 16 — there was one thing I wasn't sure I could get past: the added weight.
Weighing in at a 50-gram premium over the iPad 2, it's almost obese in comparison.
The difference is noticeable to anyone used to the older device, which, at only 613 grams, is one of the thinnest, lightest and slickest tablets out there.
The comparable 662-gram top-end version of the new iPad initially feels chunkier, which prompts a few lines of thought.
Namely, "Is this thing going to be comfortable to use?" And, "Isn't technology always supposed to be getting lighter and smaller?"
After a week of playing with it, the answer to the first question is yes. The extra weight quickly becomes negligible, which lets you get back to the positive side of the tradeoff — the big graphical improvements.
With regard to the second question, then, it's now clear that sometimes you need to add more to get more.
Tale of the tape
The new iPad is all about these improved graphics, or the same "retina display" that has been used in the previous two iPhone iterations, and the results are immediately clear.
The first thing I did was load up the same photo — a mountain scene — on both versions for a straight-up comparison.
On the new iPad, flowers and bushes in the foreground were much sharper and more detailed and the colours overall were considerably brighter. On the earlier iPad 2, the same picture looked comparatively blurry.
Also, zooming in on the text in an email or web page with the newest version doesn't lessen the quality, which is good news for seniors or anyone else worried about eye strain.
The new iPad can also finally play high-definition games and videos, which brings Apple up to speed with some rival tablets.
The improved visuals come as a result of the A5X processor, which is twice as fast as that used in the iPad 2, and a graphics chip that's four times as capable.
Apple says the device offers 44 per cent more colour saturation, and short of having bionic eyes that can calculate such things exactly, that figure looks about right.
Perhaps the best showcase for the faster processor and better graphics is Apple's new iPhoto app, which has a nifty "journal" function that generates a photo-album-like grid.
The app can also take hundreds of photos and distill them into a single processor-intensive sheet that can then be uploaded and shared with others.
What's more, it does this quickly. A hundred photos or so take about 30 seconds — about twice as fast as the iPad 2. And of course, the images look sharper.
Bundled in with all this high-resolution fanfare is an improved camera. The new iPad has the same front-facing camera for video conferencing as its predecessor. But its five-megapixel back camera is a step up and can record 1080p HD video.
That's a big improvement, in that photos and videos are not as grainy as they are on the iPad 2, but Apple still has a long way to go before the image quality is comparable to a standalone camera.
Higher-end versions of the new iPad also boast fourth-generation long-term evolution (4G LTE) wireless connectivity for those who simply must be online no matter where they are. In Canada, Bell, Rogers and Telus are all offering monthly plans.
I tested the device on Rogers' LTE network in around Toronto, and the results were mixed. In some downtown areas, it blazed along with download speeds around 14 megabits per second and uploads around two megabits; outside the core it topped out at around five down and one up.
The new LTE networks are still being rolled out, so there may well be holes in coverage for some time.
One added bonus with the LTE version is that it can be turned into a portable Wi-Fi hotspot, much like many smartphones.
Usually this process works in reverse: users connect a tablet to their phone's internet connection, which is why it's believed that Wi-Fi-only iPads outsell the more expensive cellular versions by a wide margin.
Still, with creative applications of Skype and similar communications apps, it's conceivable that some people might choose to do away with a phone in favour of just a cellular-connected iPad.
The final new feature is voice dictation, which can be used whenever a keyboard would normally enter into the equation.
The function is surprisingly accurate and was in fact, used to write this paragraph (any grammatical errors are purely the author's).
Unfortunately, Apple has opted against including Siri, the voice-controlled assistant that has become popular on the iPhone 4S. The iPad appears to have all the tools needed to run the application, so its absence is puzzling.
Beyond all that, the new iPad is pretty much the same as the old iPad. Apple hasn't addressed some of the long-standing complaints — no removable batteries or upgradeable memory, for instance — so if you didn't like it before, you probably still won't.
Which to buy?
The real question for anyone considering buying an iPad, however, is not its weight but which one to get. The new device is measurably better than its predecessor, but with the basic Wi-Fi model of the iPad 2 now selling for $419, the older version is starting to look like a deal.
Potential buyers have to ask themselves whether the incremental improvements in the new tablet are worth the extra $100.
It's a classic conundrum that's hard to answer now, but will likely become clearer in the months ahead as app developers take advantage of the greater horsepower.
A number of great-looking applications, particularly games, are in development and will be available soon.
The buyer's dilemma therefore comes down to saving some money now and potentially regretting not being able to take full advantage of some of those apps later.
The flip side of thinking long-term, however, is that a faster and better "new" iPad is eventually going to come along, and knowing Apple, probably sooner than later.