Apple iPad 2 Review

We were not particularly impressed with the iPad when it was launched. There are a number of improvements and updates in this new version (which was announced on 2nd March 2011) but, there are also some notable exclusions too. Overall it is still a bit of a disappointment for us and it looks like we will have to wait for the iPad 3, to get the tablet that we really want.

That said, we bought one anyway along with a Smart Cover, to see if living with the iPad 2 for some time would convince us that it really is a must have device.

The iPad 2 shipped 11th March in the USA and 25th March in the UK and other EU countries. The iPad 2 shipped with iOS 4.3. Orders placed online had a 2-3 week wait time.

Case & Form Factor

The iPad 2 is thinner and 15% lighter, with a flatter back to the case. This is good because the original iPad was simply too heavy to hold like a book for any length of time. The first generation iPad was 13.4mm thick, the new one is 8.8mm thick. This is a big improvement and means the iPad is now thinner than the iPhone 4. The new iPad will now work on both AT&T and Verizon and will also come in black and white. With all the colour combinations, memory sizes, Wi-Fi/3G, etc. there are now 18 variants of the iPad 2.

ifixit have done their usual teardown of the iPad 2 and it is worth a read.

whilst the new model is easier to hold that the previous incarnation, it is still simply too heavy to use for any length of time. We find that it has to be used whilst sitting down and rested on your legs. It's not a particularly easy shape to hold in one hand.

Proximity Sensor

The new iPad has a new proximity sensor on the front. This is to enable it to auto-lock if the Smart Cover is closed and not to react to users faces being up against the screen (like the iPhone 4).

This is the new Smart Cover that attaches with magnets, designed specifically to make use of this sensor. The new cover also doubles up as a stand with two main orientations. This is the kind of stuff that Apple does best. ifixit have had a look inside the Smart Cover to see how it works.

On paper the Smart Cover looks really good. In real-world use, it has a few problems though. Firstly, it only protects the screen. We also found that the folds cause it to leave dust bands on the screen. It doesn't protect the rear of the device at all. The clever folding design is nice and allows it to be used as a stand in two orientations. These are only useful if you set it down on a flat surface though.

The biggest problem we have with the Smart Cover is when you fold it around the back of the device. It then makes the iPad 2 much harder to hold securely. It moves around a bit making it feel even less secure. On a couple of occasions it also disconnected from the iPad 2. It also obscures the rear camera. If you want to protect you device whilst in transit, you still need to put it in something soft to protect the back of the device. Basically, you need a full case or storage jacket for the iPad 2.

Speakers

The audio output from the iPad is a bit puny. This is not helped by the rear location of the speaker. The iPad 2 features a larger speaker but, it is still at the rear of the device. It is an improvement though and is more up to playback of TV and film content. It seems to be able to acheive higher volumes too.

We are really hoping that the iPad 3 will provide stereo speakers but, that is probably an engineering challenge too far and we can't see Apple making major case modifications before the launch of the iPad 3.

A5 Processor

The iPad 2 features an improved A5 dual-core processor that is twice as fast and a new dual-core PowerVR SGX543MP2 GPU that is a claimed nine times faster. The drivers for this chip were found in the iOS 4.3 beta. This processor will also feature in the iPad 3 and will also be used in the iPhone 5. This is not an unexpected or spectacular announcement. There are dual-core Android phones and tablets available now and Apple is keeping up with the competition by releasing this new processor now.

Contrary to the many predictions the A5 processor is running at 900Mhz (to reduce power consumption) and not 1Ghz. Tests done so far show that the GPU is not actually 9 times faster either but it is a significant improvement over the iPad.

Memory

The thinking was that there would be a RAM increase in the iPad 2, to at least 512Mb to match the iPhone 4 and Apple TV and this has now been confirmed. It is going to need more RAM than the iPad, to better handle multi-tasking and video playback and editing.

There are now three models, with 16, 32 and 64GB of user memory.

Battery

Battery technology might have moved on a little but, not enough to offset the impact of a processor like the A5. It is likely that a slightly larger battery has been squeezed into the smaller case by reducing the size of other components. The claimed battery life is the same as the previous version though. The specification lists the battery as being a 25-watt-hour rechargeable lithium-polymer item.

Cameras

The iPad 2 now features dual cameras front and rear like the iPhone 4. The back camera supports video recording at 720p and 30fps. The still camera features a 5x digital zoom only. The front camera supports video recording at VGA resolution and at 30fps. It is a VGA-quality still camera.

It is difficult to envisage scenarios using the rear camera on an iPad. It's not a device you can hold up easily to take pictures or use for augmented reality applications. The rear camera is also missing a flash, the reason cited for this as being incompatibility with the iPad white case (allows light leakage from the flash into the camera). The biggest problem is going to be the camera quality though. The rear camera is not tha same quality as the iPhone 4 but, similar to the camera on the iPod Touch 4th generation and the performance is not very good.

Gyroscope, Accelerometers & GPS

The gyroscope is an interesting inclusion but we can see it leading to lots of dropped devices. It makes much more sense in a proper mobile device. All models feature the accelerometer as before but only the 3G version gets GPS.

Note that the iPad 2 does feature a compass and by clever design, it is not affected by the magnets used for the Smart Cover.

Digital AV Adapter

For us, this accessory was one of the most exciting announcements. It finally allows you to connect your iOS device to your TV using a digital HDMI lead. The adapter is compatible with the iPhone 4, the NOT DEFINED, and the 4th generation iPod touch. The adapter plugs into the 30-pin connector on an iOS device and the other end provides an HDMI port and a second 30-pin connector that lets you charge your iOS device while you are connected to your TV. An HDMI cable is not included.

There are some differences between the iPad 2 and the older iOS devices. The iPad 2 is the only device that supports mirroring and 1080p video. Mirroring means you can send your apps, presentations, websites, and more to your HD TV in full HD. The only exception is movies which are streamed at 720p. The iPhone 4, iPod Touch 4th generation and the iPad will only supply 720p slide shows and movies. The adapter will also send over digital audio to TVs that support it.

We bought one of these leads. It's very expensive for what it is but it works well with both our iPad 2 and our iPhone 4. Because it has such a fat piece of cable, it doesn't really bend and is best suited to use with a dock.

iPad Dock

One item that didn't get much coverage in the launch presentation was the new iPad dock. Like the first iPad dock, this new version has a 3.5mm audio output jack and the normal dock connector, to sync or charge your iPad 2. It doesn't come with a cable or power adaptor. You can also connect up the new Apple Digital AV Adapter and thus connect the iPad 2 up via HDMI to a bigger display.

What's Not In This Version?

Display

Despite the many rumours, there was simply no way the iPad 2 was going to feature a 'retina display' with a pixel density to match the iPhone 4. The iPad will tend to be held further away from the face than an iPhone so the pixel density doesn't need to be as high to achieve the same effect. The iPad 2 features the same size and resolution 9.3" display as the first version but, it is noticably better in terms of contrast.

It is looking like the iPad 3 might feature a 10" display but, with a resolution that is double that of the current iPad at 2048 × 1536 pixels. This is very high, higher than an HD TV (at 1920 × 1280) in fact, and equates to 260dpi. This also makes sense from an app developers perspective and Apple did this with the iPhone, doubling the size from 320 × 480 to 640 × 960 pixels.

This doesn't address the rather annoying aspect ratio issue in our view and a display of this size and resolution will be expensive to manufacture. It is very likely that the iPad 3 will be more expensive and the old models are likely to sell alongside each other for a while. Apple have taken this approach and discounted the NOT DEFINED for now.

There is a really dumb article on Techcrunch about the lack of content that will look good on the iPad. No content in the commonly found 16:9 aspect ratio looks good on the iPad! It's a letter box display device when it comes to films or you zoom in and miss a big chunk of the action. Ironically, the usable screen estate on the 10" iPad screen is not hugely different from that of a 7" Android tablet with a decent screen aspect ratio. My 1080p HD TV rarely has HD content displayed on it but it still looks good. That's why up-scaling was invented.

Even if the iPad did reach the pinnacle of a 'Retina' display, there are still plenty of improvements to come in terms of viewing angle, contrast and readability in daylight. As well as the improved resolution, you can be sure Apple will be looking to make these improvements too.

Supporting articles:

SD-Card Slot

A lot of the rumours suggested that the iPad 2 will finally get an SD-card slot. This was a huge omission in the original device as many people like to take a look at photos and video footage taken on other devices (e.g. a DSLR camera). It is still not included in the iPad 2 and if it ever is included, it will almost certainly limited to content and data transfer and not for expanding the total memory on the device.

This feature is only of benefit if the apps are in place to support different media formats (i.e. non-Apple ones). Apps like VLC are good at this and the added processing power should make this a better experience too.

Thunderbolt

There was an expectation that Thunderbolt was going to make it into the iPad 2 but this was possibly one of areas where the technology wasn't quite ready in time.

Summary

Some nice updates to the basic iPad concept have made it into this latest version but it doesn't address the main problems we have with the device:

  • After an iPhone 4 it feels decidedly 'low-res' and the other announced changes are just minor tweaks really, pointing at the iPad 3 to come. If you have an iPhone 4, then it really doesn't compete in terms of portability and display quality. The bigger screen is an advantage when browsing but, the lack of resolution and its extra weight negate this benefit. The lack of portability is where it really loses out, it is never 'to hand' like an iPhone 4. The iPad 2 is not a mobile device.
  • In our home the iPad has to be a shared device and it really does not work well when used like this. Many of the more useful apps are designed to work with one person's iTunes account and one person's authentication credentials. You can't configure these apps if your kids can then access all these services as you.
  • We have yet to find more than a few apps where the iPad excels over the iPhone 4. Apps like iPlayer, Google Maps, Twitter, etc. provide a better big screen experience but there are not enough of them and the advantages are not so great as to justify the device. I guess this also goes to show just how good a device the iPhone 4 really is.

There is no denying that the iPad 2 is beautifully designed but, that's not enough to make us want to keep the one we bought. If there were no iPhones in our house and this was a personal device, then the conclusion might have been a bit different. The bottom line is that we have tried living with the iPad 2 but, it simply is not getting used very often. It's for this reason that it is being sold on.

The pricing is pretty good and other tablet manufacturers are struggling to compete with Apple in this respect. The main reason being that Apple owns the whole thing from underlying technology, to OS, to apps store and content delivery channels. No other tablet manufacturer is in this position and it may be that Apple are actually making a small loss on each iPad 2 sold, recouping this through their many other revenue channels.

Some rumours have the iPad 3 arriving later in 2011 and given the progress of the competition and the limited new features in the iPad 2, we can see this being realistic. With a higher resolution display, it will be a different proposition and we could see it sitting more credibly alongside the iPhones in our home.

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