I have a love-hate relationship with Apple. Unlike many people I fall into a somewhat neutral ground (comparatively speaking) where I can recognise what Apple wants to achieve, and what Apple manages to screw up in the process. For example, I can recognise that marrying hardware and software into an elegant form like the iMac is actually not a bad decision. But I can also fully admit that it’s friggin’ ridiculous how expensive some of them are, even taking into consideration the screens they come with. One thing I just can’t put up with is OS X which still does some absolutely ridiculous things (SORT FOLDERS FIRST, for Christ’s sake it’s NOT DIFFICULT!) but given the way that Windows 8 is progressing with its fullscreen modal apps the arguments may soon become moot.
Anyway, one thing I do like is Apple’s iPhone and iPad. The iPhone remains a ridiculously expensive phone when bought off contract (it’s like $800 for a 16GB 4S here in Australia), but the iPad’s new price point is actually fairly good. The iPad has its flaws (namely being a closed system without a jailbreak applied) but it does generally do exactly what tablets should do: offer quick access to information. Tablets aren’t really good at “creating” content because they’re a bit too unwieldy for that. In effect they won’t be replacing a desktop for quite a while. If anything they’ll replace laptops, the desktop (with its capacity to be upgraded) will remain strong for quite a while to come, despite what the doomsayers are saying. A tablet with an overloaded interface that tries to do too much usually ends up doing nothing particularly well, and it wasn’t until operating systems like Android and iOS came out that tablets really took off. Prior to that they were basically Windows-based laptops with a touchscreen, and they were pretty piss poor at doing… well, just about everything really.
My original iPad review from 2010 is right here, so you can compare my thoughts back then to now if you’d like. Namely I stick with iOS not because of its “rich feature set” (because Android probably has the measure there) but because Apple tie it into the hardware. I almost went Android. Almost. But then I noticed that OS releases tended to depend on the manufacturer of the tablet, and some just didn’t get an update at all, or got it ridiculously late, or you had to jump through hoops to install it. I really can’t be bothered with that. Jailbreaking is enough of a pain in the arse without having to wonder what updates will be supported or when they might turn up. So while a stock iPad doesn’t have the same flexibility as most other tablets, it does at least mean a fairly stable operating platform that sees continued support and a standard interface that 3rd parties don’t insist on screwing up. Seriously, why do some manufacturers insist on putting shit all over the Android home screens? It’s ridiculous.
Anyway, after about iOS 5 my original iPad turned into a worthless piece of shit. Apart from suffering a massive hit to speed and responsiveness, lots of applications would crash due to the system running out of free memory. Safari was particularly notorious for this; it’d crash seemingly at random regardless of how small a website was. Is there a memory leak or something? I don’t know, but after trying several restores and resorting to rebooting it every so often, I’d had enough. So either way this is a significant upgrade for me.
Hardware-wise, the new iPad sports a A5X chip offering a dual-core CPU and a quad-core GPU, which appears to actually be two dual-core GPUs operating together. Everyone assumed we’d get a quad-core CPU but that didn’t happen here. Like the iPad 2 there’s two cameras; one on the front, and one on the back. The one on the back is basically an iPhone 4 5MP camera, which does work quite well when the lighting is good, but looks terrible when the lighting isn’t so good. Of course I’m one of those people who really questions why the hell the iPad needed a rear-facing camera. Who the hell is going to take pictures with this thing? It looks silly. The forward-facing camera is a standard webcam-style cam, which is fine for using Skype or something but not much else. It still has the standard assortment of controls, with volume, power, the mute/lock switch and a home button all being present and accounted for. Design-wise it looks like a cross between an iPad and iPad 2; it has the smoother back of the iPad 2 but it’s also a bit thicker, and it’s also fairly heavy too. I’d say it’s about close to the original iPad in weight.
Of course the most obvious change is the inclusion of the “retina” display, which is… actually let’s stop, this “retina” display thing has GOT to stop. The term actually refers to a display where you can’t distinguish the pixels in normal use, but you might as well call my LCD TV a retina display, because when I’m sitting back from it I can’t tell the pixels apart. Anyway I digress, the resolution is actually 2048×1536, which is incredibly high. Just holding it next to an older device highlights the difference. Apart from looking much nicer, I actually found it made text a lot easier on the eyes. Text looks incredibly sharp and distinct, and reminds me of the eInk screen on my old Amazon Kindle, which I absolutely loved. This does come with a disadvantage in some ways though, namely in app support. Some apps use icons (both on the home screen and in-app) built for the older displays, and they look fuzzy and pixellated (like they’re upscaled) on the retina display. It’s a minor annoyance but it’s one I hope they sort out.
The cameras aren’t bad, but I wouldn’t exactly say they’re great either. In decent lighting the images are fairly good, so long as you don’t try to zoom in… but they have a really weird aspect ratio and they’re a little bit noisy. But it’s a fairly decent camera given its size, and really such cameras are for quick snaps, you can’t expect a DSLR or something. Video performance is really good, just as it is on the iPhone 4. The cameras clearly do a much better job at video than stills… though I did encounter a weird issue in my tests where the audio suddenly cut out towards the end of the video. Not sure what that was about.
In terms of general system performance, this new iPad is a lot quicker than my previous one. iOS is far more responsive, Safari doesn’t choke and crash every 15 seconds for no apparent reason, and most apps load up very quickly. Some games see a fairly decent performance boost, such as Infinity Blade II. I don’t know if games will have to be rewritten to space specific advantage of the new multi-core GPU, but if that’s the case then we might expect to see even better performance in the coming months. I don’t have one with 4G… but that doesn’t make a difference here in Australia where our “4G” provided by Telstra operates on a completely different set of frequencies, so if you’re here in Australia all you’ll get is dual-radio 3G, which actually provides a fairly good performance boost according to those using it. Personally I just can’t justify the expense since I’m rarely without either my phone or WiFi access.
So really, the advantages are in the better screen and improved performance. It appears the new iPad has 1GB of DRAM which is a significant boost from the 512MB in the iPad 2, and a far cry from the piddling 256MB in the original iPad. In general the system feels a lot faster and is a lot more useful coming from an original iPad. But… and here’s the “but”… from an iPad 2, the difference would be less noticeable. The iPad 2 uses the A5 dual-core CPU, which is the same as the A5X save for the fact that the A5X comes with the “quad-core” GPU. So the performance jump won’t be as pronounced coming from an iPad 2. Of course the extra RAM definitely helps (double the RAM, double the fun, and hopefully half of the crashes) but the CPU is still more or less the same. They’re both clocked at 1Ghz after all. If you’ve got an original iPad and are happy to stay with iOS, picking up a new iPad is a no-brainer. If you’ve got an iPad 2 though, as it stands I can’t see much of a reason to upgrade.
Of course your alternatives are the Android tablets, many of which make use of quad-core CPUs and nVidia’s TEGRA3 GPUs… though they’re getting rather pricey, and the new iPad’s pricing is frequently getting undercut by big retailers (the 16GB WiFi model can be had for around $480AUD), so when you look at the higher-end Android tablets the price point becomes a larger factor. You’d also have to consider changing to new software and entering the minefield of Android OS updates and manufacturer support. The other potential challenger is the impending influx of Windows 8 tablets, but after playing with the Consumer Preview I’m not actually convinced that Win8 ARM tablets are going to be all that good, nor am I convinced that a full x64-based tablet will really offer significant benefits over the more specific tablet operating systems. But more on that another time.
For now, the new iPad is a compelling piece of hardware which makes for an excellent upgrade from the original iPad. From the iPad 2? Not so much.