Review: The third-generation iPad

by Jason Snell,  

The iPad has been a remarkable success story. Apple sold 15 million of the original model in the first nine months of the product’s existence, a number that blew away even the most optimistic prognostications. with last year’s introduction of the iPad 2, things kept accelerating. In a little less than two years, Apple has sold roughly 60 million iPads, dominating the market it created.

Maintaining Apple’s lead in tablet devices is the job of the third-generation iPad, a product that doesn’t mess with success. like the iPad 2 before it, this new iPad is not a re-thinking of the original concept. instead, Apple has chosen to focus on a few areas of improvement while keeping the overall package the same. Though it’s an approach that can frustrate people who are disappointed by anything that’s not a quantum leap, Apple executes it to perfection and reaps the rewards.

In my review of the iPad 2, I suggested a rule of Apple product evolution I called “Jobs’s Law”—that the latest version of any Apple product is likely to be thinner and lighter than its predecessor. the third-generation iPad breaks that law. It’s actually slightly thicker and slightly heavier than the iPad 2, and in many cases users won’t perceive it to be faster.

But the changes Apple has wrought with this iPad aren’t about making it thinner or lighter or faster, but about making it better. And on nearly every front, the third-generation iPad is markedly better than its predecessor.

A photo comparing the new iPad’s Retina display (top) to the iPad 2 display.

In mid-2010 with the release of the iPhone 4, Apple introduced us to a new concept—the “Retina display,” so called because the screen was packed tightly with so many pixels that the dots would be imperceptible to the human eye. At 326 pixels per inch, the iPhone 4 and its successor, the 4S, provide text that looks like it was printed on paper and display photos and videos in high definition.

Far and away the most important feature of the third-generation iPad is that it, too, has a Retina display. Its 9.7-inch screen has a resolution of 2048 by 1536 pixels (a total of four times the pixels in the same space), or 264 pixels per inch. although that’s a lower pixel density than the iPhone’s Retina display, you tend to hold an iPad further away from your eyes than an iPhone, so the Retina definition still works out.

A portion of a full-size screen shot from the third-generation iPad.

The result is similar to going from an early iPhone to an iPhone 4—it’s a big leap in quality. Text, video, and photos all benefit. whether you’re reading a webpage in Safari, a long article in Instapaper, or an even longer work in iBooks, text is razor-sharp. Of course, the display on previous iPads was no slouch. But the moment you pick up a third-generation iPad, you can tell the difference. All the slight jagginess and oddly misshappen characters we take for granted on lower-resolution displays just vanish on the Retina display, and you’re left with the same sort of typographic excellence you’d expect in a printed book.

The effect is even more dramatic with photos and video. Pictures reveal small details that simply weren’t there before. A photo that looks just fine on an iPad 2 looks almost undefinably better on the new iPad. It’s the same image, but all of a sudden, there’s much more information there—small textures and tiny details that were previously omitted.

That’s also true with high-definition video. the third-generation iPad’s screen actually contains more pixels than an HDTV. As a result, the Videos app actually has to blow up 1080p videos slightly in order to display them across the full width of the its screen. (The screen of previous iPads didn’t have enough pixels to show a complete HD picture, so it had to either scale things down or cut off the sides of the frame.)

The videos look great. Watching an HD movie or TV show on the new iPad is like having a home theater in your lap. (Well, assuming you’ve got some good headphones, of course. the iPad’s mono speaker seems to be unchanged from the previous model.)

Buyers of this third-generation iPad will love the Retina display, but the fact is that the iPad 2’s screen was also excellent. it may be that there just isn’t quite as dramatic a contrast between the two screens as there was between the pre- and post-Retina iPhones two years ago. maybe I’ve been spoiled by my iPhone’s Retina display, or maybe the iPad 2’s display is really that good.

I found the color temperature on the new iPad to be warmer and more yellow than that on the iPad 2. In isolation, both screens seemed perfectly normal. Only when I placed old and new iPads together did I notice that one is slightly warmer than the other.

As with the transition to Retina displays on the iPhone, app developers will need to step up to take advantage of the higher resolution offered by the new iPad’s display. Surely many (if not most) of them knew this day would come, but it’s quite a job for developers to create new, Retina-sized versions of every graphic in their apps, and it may be some time before all iPad apps are updated. (Non-Retina apps look more or less like they did on previous iPads—but on the new iPad’s Retina display those pixels really stand out.)

Still, it’s not all bad news. Text in most apps will take advantage of the Retina display without modification, even if the graphics don’t. There are odd exceptions, however. when I tested Amazon’s Kindle app with the new iPad, I found that its text was pixelated, not Retina-crisp. presumably Amazon will fix this in an update. I saw some weird behaviors in a few existing apps, but most of them worked just fine even without being updated. And some work better than you’d think—I tried Comixology’s Comics app and discovered that there’s more resolution to those digital comics than I had realized.

If you’re running an iPhone app on the new iPad, it will display it in high-resolution Retina detail—but in a small compatibility window in the center of the iPad screen. (You can, as always, tap a 2x button to make iPhone apps bigger but more pixelated.)

The iPad 2 was much faster than the original iPad, thanks to its dual-core A5 processor. But the A5X processor that powers the third-generation iPad doesn’t really offer more processing power than its predecessor. In all our processor-based tests, the new iPad ran about as fast as the iPad 2. (Which is not to say it’s slow—they’re the two fastest iOS devices ever.)

With this update, Apple wasn’t as concerned about boosting the iPad’s speed even further, because it had another, bigger problem to solve: Boosting the iPad’s graphics capabilities so that it could update the 3.1 million pixels on its Retina display. (Keep in mind, previous iPad screens only had about 786,000 pixels.) Updating that many pixels requires a whole lot more graphics power just to keep things running as smoothly as before.

That power comes from the X factor in the A5X processor—a new quad-core graphics engine. And sure enough, the third-generation iPad blows away every other iOS device in terms of graphics performance. In our tests using the GLBench 3D graphics testing app, the third-generation iPad could draw a complex 3D scene at the full frame rate of its display, 60 frames per second, without breaking a sweat. And in GLBench offscreen tests, which aren’t constrained by the display’s refresh rate, the third-generation iPad had a frame rate 1.6 times that of the iPad 2 (and 13 times that of the original iPad).

So the new iPad definitely has the horsepower to render high-quality graphics on its Retina display. However, app developers will need to update their apps to work well on the new iPad. All of Apple’s built-in apps worked well with the Retina display, scrolling smoothly at all times. But several third-party apps had glitches, including unresponsive interfaces and stuttering scrolling.

What this suggests is that developers who could get away with some inefficiencies when painting the relatively small canvas of previous iPad screens will find those inefficiencies laid bare when they first run their apps on this new hardware. Apple’s apps show that the new iPad has the power to keep it all smooth; but it looks like app developers will need to run their apps on this new hardware and then spend some time optimizing their code so that it shines on this new, bigger display.

Going beyond pure graphics performance, my tests found the new iPad to be roughly the same speed as the old one. the GeekBench testing app said the iPad 2 was slightly faster. the Sunspider JavaScript benchmark gave them both the same scores. And in my webpage-loading test, the new iPad was faster.

Usually when I review a new Apple product, I start with the physical changes. People always want to know how the new thing is different from the old thing. But the third-generation iPad is almost physically identical to the iPad 2. you can’t tell them apart unless you look very closely.

The new iPad (left) and iPad 2 (right).the differences I’ve noticed: the inside of the dock connector is silver and not black, and the rear camera is a little bit bigger. Yeah. That’s it.

Almost imperceptible is the fact that the new iPad is a bit thicker than its predecessor. the iPad 2 was 8.8 millimeters thick, and the third-generation model is 9.4 millimeters thick. so there’s an extra six tenths of a millimeter there now, I suppose, but it was imperceptible to me. (The original iPad was 13 millimeters thick—now that’s a difference you could feel.)

The new iPad is also heavier than the iPad 2. the new model weighs either 652 grams (1.44 pounds) for the Wi-Fi-only model or 662 grams (1.46 pounds) for the 4G model. In contrast, the Wi-Fi iPad 2 weighed 601 grams (1.33 pounds) while the AT&T model of the 3G-equipped iPad 2 was 613 grams (1.35 pounds). so your standard Wi-Fi iPad has put on about 50 grams or a tenth of a pound. It’s a small weight gain, but I can’t call it imperceptible. the first time I picked up the third-generation iPad, I could tell that it was heavier.

What does this increased weight mean in practice? Probably not very much. even the iPad 2 is not a product that you can just hold indefinitely with one hand. It’s too heavy and too bulky for that. This is a device that’s best when held in two hands or propped against your lap. the iPad 2 was easier to hold than the original iPad, and the new iPad feels pretty much the same on that score. the extra tenth of a pound may be noticeable, but I don’t think it’s meaningful.

The 2011 and 2012 iPad vintages are so alike, in fact, that they can use the same Smart Covers. And all but the most exacting iPad 2 cases will probably work on the third-generation model. I tried the new iPad with a few assorted iPad 2 cases hanging around our offices and it fit in all of them just fine.

Now, the big question is: Why this deviation from Jobs’s Law? Isn’t every new Apple product supposed to be smaller, thinner, and lighter? I do believe that’s Apple’s ultimate goal. But in this case, it’s clear that the boosted graphics processor, the support for 4G networking, and the high-resolution display and its corresponding LED backlights, all add up to a device that requires a lot more power than the iPad 2 did. And so Apple did what it had to do in order to keep that famous 10-hour iPad battery life: it made room for a bigger battery at the cost of size and weight.

According to Apple’s tech specs page, the new iPad has a 42.5 watt-hour battery. Compare that with the iPad 2’s 25 watt-hour battery. That’s a whole lot more battery just to keep the iPad running for the usual amount of time. Apple wasn’t willing to trade away battery life for thinness and lightness, so here we are: with a new iPad that’s imperceptibly thicker and immaterially heavier. It’ll do.

I wasn’t able to do extensive battery testing, but in my use over the past week I’ve found that Apple’s claims of comparable life to the iPad 2 are accurate. I can get through an entire day using my iPad and I don’t run out of juice. I suspect that this new battery will take longer to charge than previous models, though—so prepare for an overnight recharge in order to completely juice up your battery.

The original iPad didn’t have cameras. the iPad 2 added a low-resolution, front-facing camera for video chat and a rear camera with just enough resolution to shoot 720p video. that rear camera was, to put it bluntly, not very good. it was the weakest feature of the iPad 2, in fact.

The good news is, with the third-generation iPad, Apple has finally righted this wrong. Apple’s dusted off an old brand name (just as it did when the old iBook laptop became the new iBooks app) and applied it as a label to that camera: iSight. iSight, apparently, means “camera good enough to shoot photos and videos with.” And it is. It’s a five-megapixel camera, not quite on a par with the one in the iPhone 4S, but still quite good.

When I compared images from the new iPad’s iSight camera against test images taken by other mobile devices, I found that the new iPad’s camera fared quite well. it offered roughly the same image quality as the iPhone 4S and the Asus Transformer Prime, and clearly outdistanced both the Samsung Galaxy 10.1 and the iPad 2. it seems safe to say that the new iPad has the best camera of any tablet device, and among the best of any mobile device. most notably, the quality of the 1080p video I shot with the new iPad was very good, even in low light.

Portions of full-resolution images from three different Apple devices.

The iPad’s sheer size doesn’t make it an ideal camera, but if you do need to shoot something and your iPad is at hand, the third-generation iPad’s camera is of a high enough quality that you won’t regret your choice.

The third-generation iPad offers dictation features, but not the Siri intelligent-agent feature introduced in the iPhone 4S. My guess is that Apple sees Siri as a feature primarily used by people who don’t have their hands on the phone itself, and therefore the iPad wouldn’t be an ideal product for Siri’s particular brand of voice control navigation.

I actually find Siri useful in many cases where speaking a brief command is more efficient than swiping to unlock, swiping to find the right app, and then tapping through an interface in order to get what I want. I use Siri to set alarms and timers all the time. I don’t see why that wouldn’t be relevant on the iPad. (Of course, those features use the iPhone’s Clock app, which Apple also omits from the iPad! And one of Siri’s other marquee features, getting a weather forecast, uses the Weather app—another iPad no-show. Sigh.)

That said, dictation is still a great feature and I’m happy to have it on the iPad. yes, there have been apps available that allow you to dictate, but now you can dictate from the standard software keyboard just by tapping the new microphone icon, and that’s a big deal. once you get the hang of dictation, which requires you to speak all your punctuation comma you’ll discover that it can be a great way to input text without typing period

Ever since the original iPad debuted, Apple has offered two different models with different networking features. the base-priced models support only Wi-Fi, but for $130 more you can get a model with support for both Wi-Fi and cellular networking. the cellular features don’t require any sort of contract; instead, you can buy access right on the device, a month at a time, and activate and deactivate whenever you want.

That’s all still true. the new wrinkle is that the third-generation model supports LTE (Long-Term Evolution), a new generation of cellular technologies that’s often also called “4G.” It’s fast, but it’s not as widely available as 3G. Verizon says it’s got 4G LTE coverage in 196 cities. AT&T is playing catch-up, with coverage in only 28 markets right now.

With the iPhone 4S, Apple was able to bring the two dominant cellular technologies in the U.S., GSM and CDMA, together in a single piece of hardware. the 4S hardware is the same whether you buy it from Verizon or Sprint or AT&T. unfortunately, 4G LTE circuitry is still in its infancy, and Verizon and AT&T use different LTE systems. so the third-generation iPad takes us right back where we were with the previous iPad models: there are two different versions, one that works with AT&T’s flavor of LTE, and one that works with Verizon’s.

The good news is, both models fall back to 3G networks with ease. A Verizon model will work with Verizon’s CDMA network in the U.S., and will work with GSM networks overseas. the AT&T model will work with AT&T’s GSM network in the U.S. and other GSM networks abroad. like all previous iPads, these devices are unlocked, so if you want to buy a local SIM card when you’re traveling internationally, it should just work.

The new iPad’s cellular radios also support connecting to faster GSM networks. In the U.S. the most common example of this is AT&T’s own HSPA+ network, which AT&T confusingly calls 4G. This has a very odd effect: I began my bus commute home one evening with the iPad displaying LTE, but as we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge the indicator shifted to 4G. that was the sign that we had left AT&T’s LTE network and were now on its HSPA+ network, which AT&T calls 4G even though it’s really just faster 3G. so confusing.

Overseas, LTE apparently isn’t widely used, but carriers have invested in speeding up 3G. In addition to HSPA+, some countries have networks that use the DC-HSDPA (dual-carrier HSDPA) format. the radios in the iPad support all of these speedy formats. (Apple told me that the cellular iPad model sold internationally will essentially be the AT&T model that’s sold in the U.S.)

My experience with AT&T’s LTE network in San Francisco was impressive. While riding through the city, I was able to get speeds that were roughly as fast as my office Wi-Fi. when I turned off LTE (there’s an “Enable LTE” option in the Cellular Data section of Settings), the iPad fell back to AT&T’s “4G” HSPA+ network, and speeds dropped precipitously. However, as with everything cellular, location is everything. when I used the iPad at my home in suburban mill Valley, which doesn’t yet have AT&T LTE coverage, the HSPA+ download speed was more than twice what I had experienced in downtown San Francisco—but still half the speed I saw on the LTE network.

Tests by Jason Snell using the Ookla Speedtest iOS app.

At long last, the iPhone’s Personal Hotspot feature has come to the iPad. This is great news, because it means your iPad can act as a Wi-Fi router and provide an Internet connection to any device that uses Wi-Fi by relaying data from its cellular connection. unfortunately, it appears that only Verizon is supporting this feature at first, with AT&T lagging behind. the third-generation iPad I used was of the AT&T variety, so I wasn’t able to test this feature. But it promises to be pretty cool, since if you’ve got one of these iPads you don’t need to invest in a separate piece of Wi-Fi routing hardware.

AT&T has a track record as an unenthusiastic supporter of tethering features. it took the company a full year to activate tethering on the iPhone. As a result, I’d recommend the Verizon model if Personal Hotspot is a must-have feature. And I’m impressed with Verizon’s approach to Personal Hotspot on the iPad: it doesn’t cost any more. you pay for the amount of data you want your iPad to consume, and if you want to share that data pool with other devices, Verizon’s fine with that.

For a company that likes to keep things simple, Apple has provided us with a whole bunch of options when it comes to buying the iPad. Just as with the iPad 2, the third-generation model comes in 18 different varieties. you can choose from:

  • 16GB ($499), 32GB ($599), or 64GB ($699) of onboard storage

  • White or black bezel (no price difference)

  • Wi-Fi only, or Wi-Fi plus cellular on AT&T ($130 extra), or Wi-Fi plus cellular on Verizon ($130 extra)

In the past, I’ve told most people that 16GB is plenty of storage for most iPad users. But 16GB isn’t what it used to be. Apps updated to contain Retina-level graphics will balloon in size. HD video files are enormous. those iBooks enhanced textbooks can be enormous. And shooting five-megapixel images and 1080p video will fill any remaining storage in a hurry.

I still think most buyers should start with the assumption that they’ll only need 16GB, but then they’ll need to ask themselves a few questions. Anyone who intends to load up with lots of HD movies, shoot videos, or install a whole lot of apps should seriously consider a larger capacity. But a lot of people just don’t use the iPad like that, and for them, 16GB will be fine.

Then there’s the question of whether to spend an extra $130 for cellular networking. with the addition of Personal Hotspot, the cellular iPad has become more appealing. Given that the iPad’s data plan features no contracts—so you can turn it off and on at will—it’s a more flexible option for Wi-Fi tethering than either adding tethering to a cell phone plan or buying a separate Wi-Fi hotspot device such as a MiFi.

If you can see using your iPad as a personal hotspot or envision using it often when you’re out of Wi-Fi range, the extra $130 is probably a good investment. However, lots of people almost never use their iPads out of range of Wi-Fi, so I expect the Wi-Fi version will remain the most popular option.

One last reason to consider buying a cellular-capable iPad: Only cellular models come with GPS capabilities. There’s a good reason for this—iOS devices use assisted GPS to dramatically decrease the amount of time it takes for the devices to determine their location. if you dream of using your iPad as a jumbo GPS navigation console, you’ll absolutely need to pay the extra $130.

When it’s time to ponder a new Apple product, it’s easy to get caught up in the details of the specs, in what’s changed from previous versions. with a product like the iPad, that’s a dangerous game. Apple’s decision to avoid calling the new iPad an iPad 3 or iPad HD or iPad 2S speaks volumes. the iPad is bigger than any single model.

Clearly, Apple’s vision is that we’re in a period where many tasks we previously performed with computers will be transferred to new, different, less computery devices. the iPad, like its brother the iPhone, is ushering in a new world. Microsoft spent a decade trying to define the “tablet computer.” Apple dropped the computer, from both its company name and the tablet category, and has seen massive success. even now, the “tablet market” is really the iPad market, and the onslaught of iPad competitors we all expected two years ago has largely failed to materialize.