The iPad 2 is on the cusp of greatness – but we believe in full disclosure. While we had access to the original iPad, and loved it, we always felt that a laptop was a more suitable solution for the majority of people. Now that Apple is back with the second generation slate, that’s just changed. Read on for our iPad 2 review, find out about the tipping point, and how the iPad 2 sits with an army of Android tablets at its door.
When you spend £429 to £679 on a tablet, expectations run high. Considering the cost of a high-end netbook barely tops the £350 mark, many find it difficult to justify the purchase. While this is understandable, the real value of a tablet is in the way we interact with the web and apps. Like a NBA jump shot, it’s all in the fingertips.
The iPad 2 is built from a slab of aluminium like the original, but up to 33 percent thinner and 15 percent lighter. Tablets are not immune to expectations, and we demand the next generation to be thinner and lighter, but what makes the iPad 2 special is that it did so while also maintaining the same 10-hour battery life. We’ve tested it, and it really does match Apple’s claim in real world usage.
After holding the iPad 2 in your hands for a few hours, the lighter weight becomes obvious – your hands are not nearly as tired. Combine the ultra thin form factor with solid materials and you feel validated in your purchase. The subtle change in design feels dramatic thanks to the tapered edges, reminiscent to holding the iPod touch for the first time.
Sometimes we get too caught up with spec sheets instead of focusing on what really matters — real world performance. Increasing the number of processors and clock speed can be great in theory, but at the end of the day it’s all about writing better software to maximize the potential of the hardware while preserving battery life. This happens to be an area Apple excels.
Apple’s iOS operating system has had plenty of time to mature since being released in 2007. Over the past three years Apple has fine tuned its software, added multitasking and slowly implemented features many of us previously jailbroke our iPhones to attain. The dual-core A5 chip inside the iPad 2 has been reported to run at 900 MHz according to GeekBench results. Although the clock speed might be slower than the A4 chip used in the iPhone 4, original iPad and Apple TV, the performance speaks for itself.
Loading websites is faster, switching between apps is faster and games start more quickly. The improved graphics of the iPad 2 also make games smooth and fluid. Even Angry Birds HD gameplay benefits from the new chip. Let’s be clear, the boost in performance is not life changing and it certainly would not justify upgrading from the iPad to iPad 2 in itself, but the iPad 2 is visibly faster than the original. Seeing how developers leverage that dual-core chip will be the true test of performance and potentially further validate the upgrade.
As the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Apple has embodied this philosophy with the iPad 2′s display. The screen remains the same 9.7-inch LED-backlit 1024×768 resolution with IPS technology. A “Retina display” would have been nice, but supply chains were likely tight, costs high and the higher resolution would have compromised performance. With that being said, the screen still looks impressive and IPS technology provides excellent viewing angles.
Wireless connectivity is in tow, with 802.11a/b/g/n support baked in. Other features include Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR technology, the standard Apple 30-pin dock connector port, 3.5mm headphone jack, built-in speaker, microphone, three-axis gyro, accelerometer, ambient light sensor, digital compass (aGPS on 3G model), and video playback on the device up to 720p resolution. Video mirroring supports up to 1080p via Apple’s Digital AV Adapter with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround pass-through.
Video calling: FaceTime
The iPad 2 cameras are sufficient, but certainly not life changing. Their primary purpose, and usefulness, is to shoot video. If you’re looking to snap photos for anything other than replacing your instant messaging icon, you’ll want to look elsewhere. We’d recommend pulling out a smartphone or digital camera to do the job instead.
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FaceTime works as advertised, but as ever, unfortunately it’s limited to WiFi. Skype on the other hand is ready and willing regardless of your data connection. The only catch is that Skype has not been optimized for the iPad so it runs in a very tiny window or can be stretched to fill the 9.7-inch display in unimpressive fashion (think NES Mario Brothers graphics). For those concerned with technical details, the back camera is capable of recording HD 720p video at up to 30 frames per second and the still camera offers 5x digital zoom. The front-facing camera records video and still shots at VGA resolution. You an control the exposure on both video and stills and geotagging over WiFi is standard.
Apple pretty much mailed it in with the cameras on the iPad 2. The front-facing camera is really the bread and butter of the upgrade, but it would have been nice to see FaceTime HD (like the new MacBook Pro) included in place of VGA (640×480). For comparison, the Motorola Xoom offers a two megapixel front-facing camera (1600×1200). Although, in practice the video and still image quality of the Xoom’s front-facing camera is not noticeably better, in fact low light conditions actually seemed worse.
iOS 4.3 improvements
A new Apple product release always signals a software update. The iPad 2 was no different, and with it came iOS 4.3 – although Apple released the update a couple days early for existing iPod touch, iPhone and iPad owners. For the iPad and iPad 2, the real improvements come in expanded AirPlay support and iTunes Home Sharing. The update is certainly not as ground breaking as iOS 4.0, but for those with Apple TVs who do not want to jailbreak their tablets, the improvements are certainly welcomed.
AirPlay support, Apple’s nifty solution to wireless stream your iTunes content throughout your home, now includes third-party apps and websites. In the US, you’ll soon be able to send Hulu content to your HDTV assuming you have an Apple TV connected and Hulu updates its app – fingers crossed that the BBC offers the same for iPlayer in the UK, since the UK Apple TV is still missing this most crucial IPTV service. The benefits are certainly more theoretical for now. If you just want to share your iPad’s screen with your TV and don’t mind a wire, the Digital AV Adapter is the way to go.
Apple loves to upsell. The two primary accessories being offered with the iPad 2 are the Smart Covers, ranging in price from $39 to $69 (UK prices are still TBC), and the Apple Digital AV Adapter, better known as the HDMI adapter. Contrary to popular belief, there is also a camera connector kit which transforms the 30-pin adapter on the bottom of the iPad into a USB port. There’s also an SD Card Reader attachment. Yes, you can attach a SD card to your iPad and import files.
For the original, Apple released a case which covered the entire iPad. This case was thick and the lid doubled as a stand. The downside, like most cases, was that it nullified the excellent craftsmanship and design – turning the iPad into a thick slab for the sake of protection. Plus, it looked and felt horrific. Protecting your gadget is important, but not at the complete expense of design. The Smart Cover solves this paradox and in practice, it’s a must have accessory for the iPad 2. Connecting magnetically to the side, it both locks and wakes your iPad, working like the lid of a laptop. Rolling the cover into a triangle provides just enough articulation to angle the iPad on your desk or lap.
The Digital AV Adapter transforms the 30-pin adapter into a HDMI port and an additional 30-pin connector so that you can charge the iPad 2 while mirroring its display on your HDTV or projector. This is certainly a great way to show off the content on your iPad or bring iOS gaming to the living room. We’re not convinced that it’s an essential add-on, but with time third party manufacturers will surely release their own version of the adapter for half the price (it is currently $39.00 or approximately £24 in the Apple Store).
In the world of mobile tech, a year is an eternity. With each week and month that passes, the bare minimum for a high-end tablet entering the market is that it must outperform all current models. The Xoom took the initiative and entered the market before the iPad 2 and for that Motorola earns our plaudits, while almost everyone else seems to push vapourware.
However, the Xoom’s Achilles’ heel, like all Android tablets, lie in the hands of Google and its Android 3.0 Honeycomb OS. Until developers can match the 64,000 dedicated iPad apps, the experience of the Xoom, outside of the core Google apps, is not much different than an Android phone. For those that believe the iPad is simply a giant iPhone, this is really a case of the kettle calling the pot black.
For now, the current Galaxy Tab and Motorola Xoom lack the build quality and polish of the iPad 2. In terms of Android tablets as a whole, they’ll likely eventually outsell the iPad 2 but this is expected. A single artists does not outsell an entire genre in music. We saw more than 50 Android tablets at CES 2011, if each sells 5,000 units per week, Apple will need sell 12 million units per year to match. There’s really only one mainstream tablet that’s been announced which could damage Apple’s game; the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1.
The biggest obstacles facing the Galaxy Tab 10.1 are released date and price. If Samsung waits too long, the tablet will never live up to our growing expectations as gadget lovers. If the price is higher than the iPad 2 for a WiFi-only model, the mainstream will opt for the iPad 2. Hopefully developers rally and build a collection of Honeycomb apps this month; this will only improve Samsung’s position. Truth be told, the ball is in Samsung’s court.
The next 8 to 12 months
The Android tablet market is in the situation of Android smartphones circa 2008. iOS has the stronghold, maintaining substantial market share and developers. If Apple has proven anything in mobile so far it’s that smartphones and tablets are only as good as the apps which they run. No apps, no dice.
In time, Android 3.0 Honeycomb apps may grow in number to rival iPad, but until then the iPad 2 will remain the most compelling option for tablet buyers. Flash support and expandable memory are certainly worthy considerations, but in terms of the mainstream market these issues are not as prevalent as some might suggest. If Flash support is truly a deal breaker, you’d be better off just purchasing a netbook and taking a pass in the tablet race. In fact, you could buy the 16GB WiFi-only iPad and a netbook for less than the Motorola Xoom 32GB WiFi + 3G model.
2012 will be the true test for Apple and the iPad since quad-core chips will deliver tablet performance that rivals current generation mid-range laptops. The questions left unanswered are whether quad-core Android tablets can offer 10 hours of battery life without adding additional weight or thickness. Even more important is whether these Android tablets can be priced under the iPad 2′s entry level pricing. Without slashing margins this does not seem feasible for most, but Samsung may be in the best position to do so. It’s got the in-house network of memory and displays to drive down the price, competitors (outside of Apple) cannot compete with these economies of scale.
At the end of the day the cost of admission matters. It’s unfortunate that Android tablet manufacturers did not pay close attention to Apple’s quarterly sales to realize the 16GB WiFi-only model has been the company’s gold mine. If you want to do battle with Apple, enter the market at $499/£429 from the start. The materials used on the iPad 2 match its predecessor. The iPad 2 feels like a high-end piece of hardware justifying the price point. When you consider it offers twice the processing power and up to nine times better graphics performance with 10 hours of battery life for the same price as the original, it’s hard to say no.
For owners of the original iPad, the iPad 2 is not as compelling an upgrade as it could have been with a Retina display, 4G connectivity and a 5-megapixel camera. But, this is the game Apple plays and in due time these features will come, likely in the iPad 3 which is rumoured for release in late 2011. Of the aforementioned features, 4G LTE does not seem likely if an iPad 3 is released in 2011. Keep in mind Apple banks on battery life, faster speeds require power which mean even more fine tuning.
In summary, the iPad 2 is most impressive from an engineering standpoint. Slashing thickness and weight, adding a dual core processor, while still maintaining 10 hours of battery life is a frankly staggering feat. In the way Apple dominates battery life in notebooks, the company continues this tradition with tablets. iOS offers a sizable library of apps customized for the iPad, not simply scaled apps to fit the larger display. Even though the resolution difference between the iPhone and iPad/iPad 2 is minimal, the larger display allows developers freedoms not possible on a smartphone screen.
Performance is rock solid, and compared to the original iPad you begin to notice the speed immediately. Switching between applications, playing games and browsing the web are substantially faster. The new Smart Covers are a nice touch and have quickly become an accessory we feel should be bundled with the iPad 2 purchase. Despite these improvements, the original iPad has been upgraded to iOS 4.3 and supports the same HDMI adapter, AirPlay enhancements and iTunes Home Sharing.
Tablets are not for everyone, but once you use one you begin to understand their appeal. High-end smartphones with capacitive displays and multi-touch technology redefined the mobile web. Meanwhile tablets have redefined mobile computing, at least in terms of content consumption. Flicking your fingers through the CNN iPad app is certainly a lot more fun than browsing the web on a desktop or laptop on the sofa – and with none of the start up time or noise too. The question is whether or not you use your personal computer to view or create content. The GarageBand and iMovie iPad apps are certainly changing this convention, but until all the applications we use on our laptops and desktops come to iOS, the iPad 2 will remain primarily a content viewer.
For now the iPad 2 retains the title as the best tablet on the market based on performance, battery life, build quality and library of applications. In time, this may change, but at this point in time Apple keeps its crown. For existing iPad owners, the cost to upgrade may outweigh the usefulness of the cameras, performance boost and new form factor. Like clockwork, Apple will likely release an iPad 3 either late this year or early next so if you’re happy with the first gen, hold tight.