We were sceptical when Apple launched the original iPad, but it’s proved a roaring success. Where previous attempts at tablet computing have repeatedly stalled (anyone remember the MID?), Apple got it just right, completely reinvigorating the tablet market in the process.
While manufacturers of other tablets are still struggling to produce a credible rival (the Motorola Xoom looks set to be the best effort so far), Apple has already moved on to its next generation.
In typical Apple fashion, the iPad 2 isn’t a massive overhaul but a refinement, leaving much of the original intact. It looks very similar, the screen is the same 9.7-inch, 1024 x 768 IPS unit as before, and even where significant new features have been added (the cameras, for instance), there’s plenty of room for improvement.
Say what you like about Apple’s drip-feed approach to new features, there’s no denying that this is a worthy update. To start with, the new iPad is smaller and lighter than before: it weighs just a whisker over 600 grams and measures a mere 8.8 millimetres thick.
Its slenderness is striking. The new iPad is actually half a millimetre slimmer than the iPhone 4, and 4.6 millimetres thinner than the original iPad. That’s some feat of engineering, and with its lighter weight and flat back, the iPad 2 feels significantly more comfortable in the hand than the original.
The overall shape has been tweaked slightly, with the aluminium rear panel flattened out and edges that gently curve up to meet the edge of the screen.
The speaker grille has moved from the bottom-right edge to the bottom-left, and is now a rectangular patch of pinhole perforations. It feels closer to a giant iPod touch than to the squared-off design of the iPhone 4 or first-generation iPad.
The controls have been wisely left alone, though: the home button remains bottom-centre, with the volume and hold switch on the right top edge. The power switch remains on the top edge on the right-hand side, with the 3.5mm headphone/mic socket opposite it along the same edge; Apple’s proprietary USB interface stays on the bottom edge.
There are more changes under the hood, with an updated CPU, a new GPU and a doubling of the original iPad’s RAM allocation to 512MB.
The CPU is the most interesting update, replacing the single-core 1GHz Apple A4 processor with the dual-core A5. In real-world use it’s immediately obvious that the iPad 2 is a faster and more responsive device than its predecessor. Applications seem to launch more quickly, websites appear in the blink of an eye, and the iTunes Store and App Store feel snappy.
It’s even more impressive when compared to its Android rivals. Even the original iPad had a significant edge over the Tegra 2-based Android tablets we’ve seen, and the extra CPU core gives a further boost – although it still can’t match the browsing speed of even the most modest desktop PC or laptop.
The benefit of the new GPU is more difficult to measure. Apple claims it’s nine times faster than the first iPad, although games on that platform already enjoyed rich graphics and smooth frame rates.
We expect that games enhanced for iPad 2 will use the extra power for advanced effects such as anti-aliasing, more detailed textures and the like.
We tested Infinity Blade, one of a handful of enhanced-for-iPad 2 titles available at launch, and can confirm that the graphics do look slicker. There’s more detail to characters, edges are smoother with less obvious stepping, and textures look more lifelike. We also noticed quicker load times and slightly smoother frame rates.
Although the number of games enhanced specifically for the iPad 2’s graphics is small at the moment, that will undoubtedly change over time. The experience could also be enhanced by use of the iPad 2’s new three-axis gyroscope, which allows the device to sense movement more accurately, and in three dimensions rather than two.
Amazingly, the iPad 2’s stamina easily surpasses that of its predecessor. In order to test it, we set the screen to about 30 percent brightness (still bright enough to view comfortably in most situations), downloaded a series of standard-definition video podcasts, and played them continuously until the battery ran out of juice.
The first iPad lasted 13hrs 44mins in this test; the iPad 2 managed an even more impressive 16hrs 49mins (using the non-3G model).
This is way out in front of the rest of the tablet pack. For comparison, the ViewSonic ViewPad 10S, one of the better Android tablets, managed only 8hrs 34mins doing nothing but displaying the Android desktop.
The last major addition to the iPad 2 is not one, but two cameras: one at the front and one at the back. The one on the front is standard enough – with a 640 x 480 resolution it’s no great shakes, but it’s serviceable for video calling using applications such as Skype, and Apple’s proprietary FaceTime application.
The 960 x 720 stills/1280 x 720 video camera on the rear, however, is a disappointment. It’s certainly responsive, allowing you to shoot image after image with barely a pause between each, but the results are noisy and can’t hold a candle to those produced by the iPhone 4’s fantastic 5-megapixel camera.
Even in good light, photos look heavily grained, and in low light that’s compounded by chroma noise, with fine detail lost in a morass of red, green and blue pixels. Video capture isn’t much better: although recorded at 720p resolution, iPad 2 footage looks decidedly low-definition next to the crisp quality produced by the iPhone 4.
It’s also annoying that the shutter button lies right in the centre of the screen, making it a big stretch to click while holding the iPad two-handed. For a company that prides itself on attention to detail, this is a surprising slip.
It’s a shame, since the iPad could make a cracking imaging device. Its 9.7-inch screen makes a great viewfinder, and because you have a wide grip on the device, shooting steady video is far easier than with the one-handed grip of most phones and camcorders.
With the addition of iMovie to the App Store, it’s a wonderfully convenient capture and editing device. In light of its image quality, though, we can’t recommend you upgrade to an iPad 2 just for the camera. We’d have preferred Apple to leave off the cameras altogether, rather than leaving us to make do with this half-hearted effort.
Conclusion and pricing
Right now, there’s nothing to touch the iPad 2. Even if a plausible alternative does emerge, it will be tough to compete with Apple’s library of more than 65,000 iPad-specific apps.
For now, in terms of design, battery life and app support, the iPad 2 is in a league of its own. Even the price is sensible, undercutting the original iPad’s launch price. A Wi-Fi-only 16GB iPad 2 will cost a reasonable $579, increasing for the larger capacities and 3G versions.
You may not like the way Apple does business – its 30 percent cut on app-generated revenue has been branded anti-competitive by some – and the way it locks you into the dreadful iTunes is hardly enticing. There’s still no USB or SD card slot, and still no support for Flash.
Overall, though, the iPad 2 experience is overwhelmingly positive. We wish the cameras were better, and that Apple would open up its closed system just a bit; but in all it’s a resounding success in a market where Apple’s every competitor has so far fallen short of greatness. If you’re in the market for a tablet, you’d be mad not to put the iPad 2 at the top of your list.
Accessories and software
An ingenious addition to the iPad 2 is its magnetic left edge, which allows the new Smart Cover to snap into place. Costing $45 (or $79 for a leather version), it’s split into four segments, with a hinged spine.
It can snap neatly onto the iPad 2 or fold back for use as a stand. When it’s placed across the surface of the iPad 2, the screen turns off automatically. It flops around disconcertingly when folded back, though: we preferred to remove it when using the iPad 2 handheld.
The PhotoBooth snapshot application also comes preinstalled. Similar to the Mac version, this allows you to apply all sorts of funky effects to your photos. The live preview, which displays nine effects in a grid, is fun to watch – but ultimately, it’s a bit of a gimmick.
There are two major new iPad apps in the App Store too. There’s now a version of iMovie for the iPad 2, although not for the original model. It makes editing onboard video incredibly easy, with new themes and improvements to audio editing. The large screen helps to make precise edits. At $4.99, it’s a bargain.
At the same price, GarageBand (available on both iPads) is even more impressive, with a huge array of instruments – including drums, keyboard, guitars and fun effects – to play with, and also what Apple calls “Smart Instruments” to help non-musical types hit all the right notes.