In-depth preview:The iPad 2

A year ago, nobody had an iPad. Then Apple sold 15 million of them in just nine months, creating a whole new category of technology product. The iPad may have become, in the words of Steve Jobs, 'the most successful consumer product ever launched'.
  • Jason Snell (Unknown Publication)
  • 09 March, 2011 22:00

NameTablet: iPad 2
Contact:www.apple.co.nz

This a hands-on preview for a US version of the iPad, so features may differ slightly. We'll review the New Zealand version of the tablet as soon as we get a device.

A year ago, nobody had an iPad. Then Apple sold 15 million of them in just nine months, creating a whole new category of technology product. The iPad may have become, in the words of Steve Jobs, “the most successful consumer product ever launched”.

It turns out that a lot of people saw the iPad’s appeal: it’s a supremely portable device that’s well suited for checking your e-mail, surfing the Web, playing games, reading books and other stuff you get off the Internet, and even for getting work done. Kids and the elderly have embraced it.

It’s awfully hard to follow such a massive success, but that’s the task set out for Apple’s new iPad 2, which goes on sale 25 March. At least the iPad 2 has this going for it: the original model caught the technology industry so flat-footed that only now are true competitors beginning to appear.

Those competitors will now face a new iteration of the iPad, one that’s faster, smaller, and lighter than the model introduced a year ago.

A game of inches (and ounces)

Call it Jobs’s Law if you like: the latest version of any Apple product is likely to be thinner and lighter than its predecessor. And so it is with the iPad 2. The size difference between the original iPad and the iPad 2 may seem slight, but that’s only because we’re dealing with such small products to begin with. But for products this small, every ounce and fraction of an inch counts.

The iPad 2 measures 185 by 241 by 86mm, and weighs in at 603 grams (in the case of the Wi-Fi-only version, that is). That means Apple shaved 77gm off the Wi-Fi version and 118 to 122 grams off the 3G version. The iPad 2 is also 4mm narrower, 1.5mm shorter, and 4mm thinner than the original iPad.

A matter of small degrees, to be sure, until you consider the percentage change: the iPad 2 is roughly two-thirds the thickness of the original iPad, and 88 percent of its weight (83 percent when comparing 3G models). Pick up an iPad 2 after handling an original iPad, and you’ll notice the difference right away. This is a lighter, thinner device.

In order to shave off that 4mm of thickness, Apple has transformed the anodised aluminium back panel of the iPad. The original model’s back panel was a frame with four flat edges and a gently curved back surface. The iPad 2 eschews the frame, opting for a single surface that much more rapidly transitions from curve to flat. (This has the effect of making the iPad 2 much less wobbly than the original when laid on a flat surface.)

Without those edges, the iPad 2’s ports and buttons are now positioned on a curving portion of the back panel, rather than on its side. The feel is quite different, a bit like reverting the flat surfaces of the iPhone 4 to the curved back of an iPhone 3G. I found myself struggling to insert cables into the iPad 2’s dock connector at the proper angle because I was confused by the curve of the back panel.

The iPad 2 is easier to carry with one hand, and the decreased weight should make it easier to hold for longer periods of time.

Eighteen variations on a theme

The original iPad came in six different variations — Wi-Fi-only and Wi-Fi/3G versions, each available with 16GB, 32GB, or 64GB of storage. The product was such a hit that Apple apparently decided that even more variations would be better — as a result, there are twice as many different versions of the iPad 2. It’s a little crazy.

The storage variation remains: every model is available in 16GB, 32GB, or 64GB capacities. You can also choose an iPad with either a traditional black bezel or a new white bezel — which Apple insists will be available on day one, despite the company’s failure in ever shipping the promised white version of the iPhone 4.

What hasn’t changed

Though it’s thinner and lighter, the iPad 2, at a glance, looks very much like the original iPad. Its front is a sheet of glass over a bright 1024-by-768-pixel display surrounded by a bezel (again, now available in black or white) that’s going to be necessary so long as humans grasp with opposable thumbs. The aluminum frame around the outside of the bezel of the original iPad has been reduced to a thin edge, almost entirely invisible, in the iPad 2.

The position of the iPad 2’s buttons and ports are, likewise, more or less undisturbed. There’s a sleep/wake button at the top right edge, a standard headphone jack at top left, a volume rocker and a sliding switch (configurable to lock screen orientation or mute alert sounds via the Settings app) at the top of the right side, a 30-pin dock connector port at the bottom, and a home button at the bottom of the front face. The iPad 2’s built-in microphone is dead center at the top edge of the device—it was next to the headphone jack on the original iPad.

Dual-core speed

The iPad 2 uses a new Apple-designed processor called the A5, which is making its first appearance on the scene. Apple is generally cagey about tech specs for products like the iPhone and iPad, but by all accounts, the A5 is a dual-core version of the 1GHz A4 chip that powers the iPhone 4 and the original iPad. The iPad 2 also has 512MB of RAM—twice that of the original iPad—and a 200MHz bus speed, likewise twice that of the original.

Because the A5 is a dual-core processor, Apple claims the iPad 2 can run at speeds up to double that of the original iPad. As with any dual-core processor, the key about “up to double” is that software must be optimized to take advantage of multiple processor cores, or that speed goes to waste. This is the first dual-core processor to appear on an iOS device, and it’ll be interesting to see under what circumstances the A5 is noticeably faster than the A4, and when it’s not.

But processor speed isn’t the only part of the system that determines how it performs. Graphics performance has become a major component in determining how fast a computing device feels. And Apple says that the graphics performance on the iPad 2 is as much as nine times faster than on the original iPad.

So does the iPad 2 measure up to Apple’s claims? Looks like it, though it’s hard to determine whether the dual-core processor or the improved graphics performance deserve the credit. (Maybe the question is moot.) From the moment I started using the iPad 2, I could tell that the system was faster. I thought scrolling through tweets in Twitterrific on my iPad was smooth as can be … until I scrolled through the tweet list on the iPad 2. Everything felt smoother, and items loaded faster.

Part of the speed boost, especially in Safari, probably needs to be credited to iOS 4.3, which ships with the iPad 2 and includes a dramatic improvement to Safari’s JavaScript engine.

In short, the iPad 2 may be the fastest iOS device ever made, by a long shot. And it’s not just an academic distinction: you can sense the speed when you use it, because everything’s faster and smoother than it was on the original iPad.

Despite the boosts in processing power, Apple claims that the iPad 2 has the same ten-hour battery life as the original model.

Cameras and FaceTime

The original iPad debuted just before Apple embraced video chat with its FaceTime software and added a front-facing camera to the iPhone. (It subsequently added both front- and rear-facing cameras to the iPod touch.) With the iPad 2, the company has brought two cameras to all of its mobile iOS devices.

The cameras in the iPad 2 are essentially the same as those in the fourth-generation iPod touch: it’s nice that they’re there, but they’re not particularly impressive in terms of quality. The front-facing camera is the same one used in the iPhone 4 and the iPod touch, offering only VGA resolution (640 by 480 pixels). It’s grainy in low-light settings, but looks perfectly serviceable for its intended purpose, which is video chat.

FaceTime works on the iPad 2 much like it works on the iPod touch; in the Settings app you log in with an Apple ID and set an e-mail address to use as your FaceTime “number,” so people can call you. From the FaceTime app, you can call people in your contacts list and set favorites. (FaceTime on the iPad is, like FaceTime on the iPhone 4, supported only over Wi-Fi connections.)

The rear camera on the iPad 2 appears to be identical to the one found on the iPod touch. (It’s positioned just beneath the sleep button on the back side of the device, creating a challenge for iPad casemakers everywhere.) Apple touts this camera as being “for video,” and there’s a reason: as a still camera it’s about seven-tenths of a megapixel, with poor performance in low-light conditions. But it’s capable of shooting 720p HD video and, in well-lit environments, the quality seems decent.

Smart accessories abound

With the release of the iPad 2, Apple is also releasing several accessories related to the iPad 2.

Most notable is the Smart Cover, available in either leather or polyurethane. A Smart Cover magnetically adheres to the side of the iPad 2 and protects the front, locking and unlocking the iPad when you open and close the cover. It’s pretty nifty, and it sets the bar pretty high for all future iPad 2 accessories.

But there are other accessories: the Apple Digital AV adapter finally lets capable iOS devices display HD video on HDTVs, and even lets the iPad 2 mirror its own screen on an external display.

There’s also a new iPad 2 Dock, which I wasn’t able to get hands-on time with. Like the original iPad Dock, it allows you to set your iPad upright in portrait orientation and charge, sync, or even play audio- or video-out. Now the bad news: The iPad 2 and the original iPad’s dock connector are different enough that accessories that tightly fit to the hardware won’t be compatible with the new model, so you probably won’t be able to reuse many of your iPad accessories if you buy an iPad 2. Apple also seems to have discontinued the iPad Keyboard Dock entirely.

A video breakthrough

On the entertainment side, the new Apple Digital AV Adapter lets the iPad 2 spread its wings. With this adapter, the iPad 2 can output high-definition video at resolutions up to 1080p, as well as Dolby Digital surround sound, all served via a standard HDMI cable that the owner of any HDTV will be familiar with.

I played back HD video files on a TV via the iPad 2 and the HDMI adapter, and the video quality seemed excellent. The inability to output HD video has been a sore spot on the iOS since the release of the original iPad, but now that it’s here, it looks (and sounds) great.

Exclusive to the iPad 2 that will be hailed by educators, presenters, and anyone else who has ever wanted to show off their iPad’s screen to a large crowd: video mirroring. When connected to the HDMI adapter, the iPad 2 will display a duplicate version of the contents of its screen on an external monitor. Want to demo an education app via a projector or HDTV for a classroom full of kids? The iPad 2 makes it possible.

For the record, the iPad 2’s mirroring mode and its video-out mode don’t fight with each other. If an app supports direct video output to an external display, the iPad stops mirroring and switches to that mode. In addition to the Video app, there are lots of other examples: Keynote uses the external display as a presentation screen, for instance.

The software story

The iPad 2 arrives with a new version of the operating system that powers the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. This version, iOS 4.3, is hardly earth-shattering, but does offers a few nice new features.

In iOS 4.3, the slide switch on the iPad can be put to use in one of two ways: It can either function as an orientation-lock switch, as it did when the iPad was first released; or it can function as a mute switch for alert sounds, as it did upon the release of iOS 4.2. In iOS 4.3, users can choose either behavior via the Settings app. Now can’t we all just get along?

Along with the new version of the operating system, Apple is introducing two apps as a part of the iPad 2 launch. One, iMovie, is an update to the existing version of iMovie that runs on the iPhone 4 and iPod Touch. The other, GarageBand, is an all-new app for the iPad. Both apps are excellent, showing off the power of the iPad, the iOS, and, specifically, the iPad 2.

It’s interesting that for the original iPad launch, Apple showcased three iWork apps: Keynote, Numbers, and Pages. It sent a message that the iPad could be used for productivity, not just for consumption. And in the intervening 11 months, we’ve seen all sorts of interesting productivity applications released for the iPad. (Along with lots of games.) The iPad app ecosystem launched strong and has continued to grow, making it one of the iPad’s biggest advantages over competing tablets.

This time out, Apple has launched its new iPad with a pair of creativity apps. What’s the message? In the case of iMovie, it’s clearly tied to the existence of the iPad’s cameras. Now you can shoot video with the iPad (ideally the HD-capable rear-facing one) and then edit it right within iMovie. Apple’s also enabled a video workflow that starts with video shot on an iPhone 4, and then ends up being transferred to an iPad 2 for editing. For more of my impressions after spending a few days with iMovie, check out my hands-on with iMovie for iPad.

Conclusion

The iPad was a huge hit, vastly surpassing anyone’s expectations for it. (In my review last year, I set a ceiling for success at 10 million, meaning my most optimistic estimate was still five million iPads short.)

It’s hard to bet against Apple these days. The company is on a roll, not only in terms of sales but in terms of product design. Less than a year on from the original iPad, the iPad 2 is an improvement that doesn’t divert any of the iPad’s powerful momentum. It’s the original iPad, only more so—even smaller, even thinner, even faster than before.

If you’re one of those people who practices remarkable feats of self-discipline when it comes to buying first-generation hardware products, it’s time to celebrate: the second iPad is here, and you can finally slake your thirst.

For everyone else, the iPad 2 is a triumph, an iPad that seems even more iPad than the original. And the original one was really good.