bighugenerd - iPad 2, review
bighugenerd
 
It hasn’t even been a year since Apple unleashed iPad 1 on the USA, but here we are again. iPad 2 is out, and it costs exactly the same as the first iPad did on release (from $499 to $829). But is it all it that and a bag of low-fat salt & vinegar chips?

When iPad 1 was released on April 3, 2010, many complaints were voiced by those who didn’t see the point or the need for it. I mean, after all, it was just a giant iPod touch. Of course, it was just a giant iPod touch in the same way that a swimming pool is just a giant bathtub, or that a 27” iMac really is just a giant 15” iMac.

That argument aside, there was something just incredibly futuristic and unique about using an iPad, much more so than using an iPhone, which had already been around for nearly three years when the iPad was spawned. Visions of the 2002 sci-fi movie The Minority Report swirled around in my head as I pinched and zoomed and rotated the larger display.

But let’s not get too caught up in nostalgia. iPad 2 is here, and it’s smaller and better in pretty much every way.


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But let's get technical for just a second...

The Getting Technical for Just a Second

With both the iPad 1 and iPad 2 inside cases, you’d be hard pressed to tell them apart at a glance. The same 9.7” LED IPS 1024x768 adorns the front, with the now classic Home button at the bottom. The eagle-eyed will notice the small camera lens on the front of the iPad 2, which is the only discernible difference.

Getting more up close and personal with a case-less iPad and iPad 2, more significant differences make themselves known. The most apparent change is just how thin the iPad 2 is. Apple have managed to shrink it from 13.4mm thick to 8.8mm this generation. If you were an iPad 1 owner, the difference is quite remarkable, and for new buyers, well, you’ll have to take our word for it!

Weight has been dropped from the first generation iPad’s 1.5lbs (1.6lbs for 3G models) to 1.33lbs (1.34/1.35lbs for 3G models) in iPad 2. While this difference isn’t as impressive as the thickness decrease, it’s still something noticeable and appreciated.

Oh, and the white iPad is available day 1. Take that, iPhone 4!

The Unboxing

Because pretty much the whole world (yes, the whole world) has seen the new iPad in countless pictures, I tried to make things interesting, but likely failed. So here’s my take at making things interesting. Look, an empty iPad 2 box!

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OK, so I failed. But at one point there was a worldwide power adapter, a USB-to-dock connector cable, and a tiny quick-start guide. And no, no screen cloth. Once again, Apple flummoxes us by including a display cleaning cloth with the iMacs and MacBook Pros, whose screens are not meant to be touched. And with the iPad? Nada. No, I don’t get it either.

The Speed

Apple has made no secret that the iPad 2 is very fast. The processor is twice as fast as iPad 1 and is now dual-core, and the graphics chip is apparently up to 9x as fast as the original iPad’s. We’re not sure what benchmark Apple is using to determine this, but in our testing the new iPad is markedly faster than the first generation in all games and apps!

Interestingly, though, Apple says the new iPad is running at 1GHz, but Anandtech and other publications have tested it to be around 900MHz. This raises a potentially ethical question:

If a product is advertised as featuring a 1GHz processor, don’t we deserve a 1GHz processor? Let’s try a car analogy: A lot of performance cars are electronically limited to 155mph. Let’s take BMW’s current-generation 3-series king, the M3. This car, from the factory, is electronically limited to 155mph, but with the limiter removed it is capable of traveling at speeds in excess of 180mph. Does BMW advertise the M3 as having a top speed of 155mph or 180mph? Even more troubling is that it’s considerably easier to unlock the potential speed of the BMW than it is to unlock that extra speed in the iPad 2, yet Apple advertises the iPad 2 as a 1GHz processor, and BMW’s advertised M3 top speed? – 155mph.

Number games aside, we are encountering one bizarre speed issue on iOS 4.3, which we attribute to a software bug. Using the Apple Photos app to browse our pictures on the iPad 2, the scrolling through them is not particularly smooth, a problem we didn't have on the first-generation iPad. Hopefully Apple will address this problem.

Memory-wise, iPad 2 brings a doubling of the system memory to 512MB RAM, up from iPad 1’s paltry 256MB. This is still half the 1GB RAM that Motorola’s Xoom tablet features, but in our testing the Xoom doesn’t run as smoothly or easily as the iPad 2. After all it’s not how much RAM you have, - it’s..err.. how you use it. The iPad 2's RAM increase really helps. One of the issues we had with the first-generation iPad was if you viewed picture-intensive Web sites and switched tabs a lot in the Safari browser, the iPad would run out of memory pretty quickly, forcing a reload of the entire site quite often when you switched between tabs. This issue has been mitigated to a large degree with the iPad 2. 

OK, So let’s leave all technical mumbojumbo behind and talk about design!

Design

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The iPad really is, once again, a lesson in industrial art form. It’s a handsome device in black or white, though we tended to prefer the black models; we found the white bezel a tad distracting, especially while watching movies. However, perhaps because the iPad 2 isn’t as substantial a device as the first iPad, somehow it doesn’t look or feel as high-end. The original iPad has a beautiful curving back, and a real presence. The iPad 2 seems a little blockier from the rear while at the same time adding some noticeable problems...

The iPad 2 is thin, yes, but due to its thinness it’s not as easy to access the volume rocker and the dock connector port (power port) because they’re on a slope where the casing tapers down to the rear of the device. If you turn your iPad 2 over while you’re plugged in, you see this: 
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Not very reassuring in terms of connectivity, and it’s considerably harder to get the cable in due to the angle of the iPad 2. By the way, this is as far into the iPad as the cable will go. 


(Note: We had some issues with some larger third-party dock cables not actually fitting due to this sloping design)


Usability

Those of you familiar with Apple’s iOS devices, that is – any iPhone, iPod touch or iPad model out there, you’ll quite at home with the iPad 2. It’s in Apple’s interest to make the new iPad as easy for new owners to adjust to as seasoned iPadders, and they’ve succeeded greatly in this regard. It’s simple to zip around apps, muli-task by double-tapping the Home button etc. This is great stuff, and no other interface on any other phone or tablet as of March, 2011 is as simple to use.  Those of you new to Apple's iOS devices, you'll be at home with the iPad in no time!

Cameras

Let’s take a second to focus on the not-so great things about the iPad, and where better to start than the cameras!

When the iPad 1 came out, there were plenty of complainers that there was no camera of any sort included. Well, now we have two, sort of…

To say the quality of the included cameras is bad actually does a disservice to all bad cameras out there.  They are just terrible on the iPad 2. Admittedly, you’re not going to replace that expensive camera you own with an iPad, but the photos it produces really are just ugly. Here’s one I snapped using the rear camera. This is a full resolution 720p image (actually 720x960 resolution) in very good lighting.
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The camera on the front is even worse, taking only 640x480 images. Apple expects you to only use this camera for FaceTime conversations (video chat, for the uninitiated). The front camera is the same resolution as the iPhone 4’s front camera, but the big difference here is the screen size! 640x480 on an iPad’s 9.7” screen looks pretty awful compared to the same 640x480 size on the iPhone 4’s 3.5” screen. To make matters worse, there’s no autofocus on the rear camera like there is on the iPhone 4.

In any case, don’t expect miracles with the iPad 2’s cameras. For videos, they suffice, which is the kindest way to put it. For photos, well… don’t bother unless you absolutely have to.

The Screen 

Not much has changed since the iPad 1 was released, and this is a good thing and a bad thing. The 1024x768 resolution 9.7” IPS LED (whew!) display is a joy to behold in terms of viewing angles and brightness, but it does pale in comparison to the 960x640 3.5” IPS LED (whew!) display on the iPhone 4. The iPhone 4’s diminutive size lends itself to one of the sharpest displays we’ve ever seen, at 326 ppi (pixels per inch). By comparison, the iPad has a paltry 132 ppi. But don’t get all bent out of shape, - that’s still pretty good…. but many of us been spoiled by iPhone 4.

There are some potentially larger issues. When iPad 1 was released, many of them suffered from an issue known as “backlight bleeding,” where the screen had some “hot spots” that look like brighter areas of the screen. This was usually only noticeable on something dark being displayed (think the black bars in movies), but it was still distracting. We at bighugenerd encountered many first-generation iPads with this issue, and we were hoping it would have been addressed in iPad 2.

But it hasn’t. Our two new iPads both suffer from it to varying degrees. Here’s one of our new iPad 2 units, a black 32GB WiFi model, at a reasonable brightness level (70%).

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Here's the same photo again, but overexposed to show clearly the trouble areas..

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We’d wager some people won’t be bothered by the issue, but it is troubling that Apple hasn’t addressed it since the first-generation iPad was released.

The other major issue we have with the screen is simply reading on it for extended periods of time. Smudges and glare are just as bad as the iPad 1 ever was, so reading outside in the sun is a big no-no.

To prove this point, we managed to temporarily convince an Amazon Kindle 3 to play nice with the iPad...

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The iPad 2 even snuggles up close to the Kindle 3, to show how they are both so similar in thinness!

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But that doesn't last long as the Kindle challenges the iPad to a GLARE FIGHT!

Glare Fight!

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iPad: 0 Kindle: 1


Oh dear. The Kindle mops the floor with iPad, even on an overcast day in Seattle, WA. Not good news for iPadders who venture into the sunlight. Of course, reading an iPad outside on a sunny day is as pointless as reading a Kindle with the lights off, but we digress...

...We've stopped digressing, and have to come back to resolution again. It’s not that the iPad’s resolution is low, as we said, but even by comparison to the non-back-lit Kindle the text on the iPad just doesn’t look very sharp. The Kindle has a 6” E-Ink 800x600 display, and it looks very good, very natural and very easy to read, with little aliasing (or stair-stepping) around the letters. We think the Kindle 3 is as close to reading a real book as it gets. With the iPad 2, you’re always aware that you’re reading a computer screen.

Here is a page from The Girl Who Stepped in Poo (one of those titles, anyway). 

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As you can see, when you go close-up on these “pages,” the Kindle shows a smoother, and much more natural-looking font.
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For us, we'll stick with the lightweight, mostly glare-free Kindle for any real book reading. We don't believe this is one of the iPad's fortes, despite the slick iBooks app.

Photo Booth and FaceTime

New for iPad 2 are some fun camera-related apps. It’s unfortunate that the focus (pun intended) is on the camera, because as we stated before, they’re not very good.

Photo Booth lets you mess around with how your head looks in the camera. You can squeeze your head, explode your head etc. You’ve seen it before in iChat on the Macs if you’re familiar with that application, and it’s fun for about five minutes at which point you’ll likely be bored out of your squeezed/exploded mind and be looking to delete it, which you can’t. You still can’t remove any of Apple’s “stock” apps on any iOS device. Boo!

FaceTime works, but it’s not fantastic. Part of the issue stems from the way you hold the iPad in portrait orientation. You can’t hold it like a book (with the top slightly tilted back) because you end up with the lower part of your head cut off at the bottom of the screen. So the only way to get your head in the center of the display is to hold the iPad 2 perfectly vertical (not tilted forward or back) and lower than your actual head, which is very awkward and makes it difficult to actually see the screen. We’d have liked to see a slightly tilted camera lens to address this issue. 

And of course, holding the camera in landscape orientation for video chat is a bad idea, because this puts the camera on the left or right of you (depending on which orientation you're holding the iPad. So unless you want your FaceTime friend to see a bizarre side profile of your head, stay away from landscape FaceTime!

So let's sum up here...

What's to Like?

For the most part we love the slim design, the great feel in our hands, the simplicity of the user interface, the nice bump in speed, the ever-growing library of apps in Apple’s App Store, the fantastic battery life (10+ hours, easily), and the now tried/tested operating system. It just all works very, very well.

What's Not to Like?

Slimming down the iPad has caused some accessory issues, the dual cameras are barely cameras due to what we suspect is a lack of room for decent sensors/optics, Apple didn’t really push the envelope since iPad 1.

Verdict

For those of you wanting an iPad but just weren’t sure when the first model was released, this is likely the iPad for you. It’s fast, stable, has fantastic battery life, and while the cameras are a weak link, they are included if you absolutely need them. The software is proven, and there’s no question in our minds it’s the best tablet on the market if you don’t live or breathe Adobe Flash support.

For those of you with first-generation iPads, the decision is more tricky. You’ll be looking at the same image quality, and essentially the same device (sans cameras). What you gain by moving to iPad 2 is a speedier gadget, the cameras of course, and the ability to run some even prettier games. Infinity Blade and Real Racing 2 HD, both optimized now for iPad 2, look absolutely fabulous when compared to running them on iPad 1.

It was clear with the release of iPhone 4 last year Apple realized the rest of the mobile industry was making strides to steal its cellular iThrone. Compared to its predecessor the 3GS, the iPhone 4 was a significant improvement in design, screen technology, camera etc. With the iPad 2, though, it’s obvious Apple doesn’t see other tablet manufacturers as much of a threat and has given us an iterative update rather than anything radical.

The decision is yours. But we give the iPad 2 a very solid 4 nerds. We really love it, but just hope that Apple has a tad more imagination this time next year!
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