TechCrunch Review — The iPad 2: Yeah, You're Gonna Want One.

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In January 2010, shortly after its unveiling, I first got my hands on an iPad. My initial reaction? “The iPad is like holding the future.” And that’s funny because here we are, just a little over a year into that future, and something new has come along that makes holding the iPad 1 feel like holding the past: the iPad 2.

A week ago, after its unveiling, I got some hands on time with the new hardware and my initial assessment was that it pushed a device that already had no true competition, even farther ahead. But now I’ve had the chance to actually use the thing non-stop for a week. Is my feeling the same?

Actually, it’s even stronger.

The original iPad was considered a huge hit — but that was with no real competition. The iPad 2 has some competition — right now, the Xoom, and many more are coming. But I have no doubt that the iPad 2 will be an even bigger hit than the original.

Hardware

Here’s the peculiar thing about the iPad 2: if you’re just looking at it head on, it doesn’t really look any different than the iPad 1. Sure, there’s a tiny camera just above the screen, but you can barely see that. Unless you get the white version, it will be just like looking at the iPad 1. And that will undoubtedly lead some people to conclude that the iPad 2 isn’t that big of a deal. But as is the case with most Apple products, you really have to use it to safely make that assessment.

The single biggest change form a physical perspective is the thickness. Holding the original iPad now feels a bit like holding a slightly bulky monitor compared to the iPad 2. The iPad 2 feels much more like holding a clipboard — albeit a mildly heavy one. The move to cut the thickness from 13.4mm down to 8.8mm really makes a huge difference when you switch from holding one to holding the other.

And while the iPad 2 isn’t actually all that much lighter than the iPad 1 (about 700g versus 600g — depending on if you get the 3G or WiFi version, obviously), the change in thickness almost tricks you into thinking it is significantly lighter.

Overall, the device has a much more fluid design. Apple notes that the body now consists of two parts instead of the three that made up the iPad 1. This makes it feel even more solid, and even more like a natural object instead of a machine.

The tapered edges of the iPad 2 feel better in your hands. And those edges also make the buttons on the side and top more pronounced (and a bit easier to use). Of course, the tapered bottom also makes the dock connector a bit harder to use, but that’s a minor nit.

Perhaps my favorite small upgrade is the main button. Previously, it was a somewhat heavy and loud click. Now it’s a light and quiet click.

As you’ve undoubtedly heard by now, the cameras on the device are not great. But it’s hard to imagine anyone using this as a point-and-shoot camera replacement — or even a smartphone camera replacement. Instead, the cameras are clearly meant for FaceTime and to shoot 720p HD movies (with the back camera) that can then be edited on the fly using the new iMovie app (more on that below).

The battery life remains excellent. Apple made a point of saying that despite the new thinness, they didn’t sacrifice battery life. From my use this past week, that does seem to be the case.

But the biggest changes to the hardware that people will care about are undoubtedly the upgraded processor and RAM. Apple has stated that the iPad 2 uses their new A5 chip, which is a dual-core chip, meaning it’s much more powerful than its predecessor, the A4. They have not said anything in terms of the RAM included in the iPad 2, but it seems fairly obvious at this point that it has double the RAM (512 MB) of the original iPad, putting it on equal footing with the iPhone 4.

Do these upgrades make a huge difference? It depends. For more memory intensive apps, obviously the answer is going to be yes. The Daily is a good example of this. It launches and works much more smoothly on the iPad 2 than on the iPad 1. And that’s without any optimization being done on their side. Certain games like Infinity Blade also load faster and generally seem to run a bit more smoothly. App switching as a whole is clearly faster. And you can have many more Safari browser windows open at once before Apple starts reloading them.

But the truth is that most of the apps weren’t slow to begin with on the iPad. The real key here will be what developers are able to do now that they know they have this second core and more RAM available to them. I suspect we’re going to see a lot of game-changing apps spring up on the iPad 2 that weren’t possible before. In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly why Apple made GarageBand and iMovie — to show developers what they can now do. iMovie iPad 2-only (though it is available for the iPhone 4 as well). And they are awesome (again, more below).

Software

Speaking of software, earlier today, Apple unveiled iOS 4.3. It’s the OS that will come pre-installed on the iPad 2. There’s nothing hugely different from an aesthetic perspective from iOS 4.2, but a little digging does reveal some welcome additions.

The biggest of these is probably the new Nitro JavaScript engine that comes baked into Safari. Apple is touting huge improvements in terms of speed, and using JavaScript-heavy web apps like Facebook definitely shows a difference.

The other big additions are AirPlay upgrades and Home Sharing. AirPlay in iOS 4.3 now includes the ability for third-party apps to take advantage of it. Those apps aren’t out just yet, but hopefully they will be soon — so we can all kill cable. Home Sharing allows you to play your media from another machine on your WiFi network (just like from Mac to Mac). It works well — but I think we all just wished it worked over the web as well. Soon… soon.

For the iPad 2 specifically, two great pieces of software now bundled into iOS 4.3: FaceTime and Photo Booth. Both are iPad 2 only because both obviously require a camera. But Apple says that the real-time rendering for the 9-photo view in Photo Booth also requires the graphical power of the A5 chip.

FaceTime on the iPad 2 is particularly nice because the nearly 10-inch screen seems much better suited for the feature than the 3.5-inch screen found on the iPhone. I’m still not a huge fan of the mechanism for initially finding people to FaceTime with (especially because the iPad has no phone app), but once you establish that first connection, FaceTime is a breeze to use. And it remains WiFi-only, so the quality is solid.

OS X users will recognize Photo Booth immediately. It’s little more than a fun app, but again, it shows the type of graphical rendering capabilities the A5 is capable of.

The real software goods come from the aforementioned iMovie and also GarageBand. Both are sold separately for $4.99 in the App Store, and both are well worth the price.

The remarkable thing about both of them is that I like each more than I like their counterparts on OS X. These have been redesigned from the ground up to be useful on the big multi-touch screen that the iPad offers. And it’s amazing how usable they are. If Apple wants to sell a lot of iPad 2s, all they have to do is put them on display in Apple Stores with these two apps installed. When you’re using them, you’ll experience the kind of “wow, I can do this on this device?” type of feeling.

Again, I suspect Apple had multiple motivations for making these two apps. On one hand, they’re great apps that people will get a ton of use out of. One the other, they showcase that yes, the iPad is creating as well as consuming. And with the new chip and its graphical capabilities in the iPad 2, it can do a lot more. These will inspire third-party developers to aim higher.

The Smart Cover

Alongside the iPad 2, I also got to try out one of the new iPad 2 “smart” covers this past week. Simply put: I love this thing.

The first Apple iPad cover, in my opinion, was awful. This one is completely different, and has been designed to not only work with the iPad 2, but be symbiotic with it.

The cover attaches via magnets. This makes sure it is never mis-aligned. And just as important: this allows it to easily detach as well. And the cover can fold up to double as a stand for either typing (slightly elevating the iPad 2) or watching content (elevating the iPad 2 higher).

The coolest thing about it though is that it can put to sleep and wake up the iPad 2. Yes, with the cover you’ll no longer have to hit the sleep/wake button if you don’t want to. That speaks well for the button-less iPad of the future.

I would not be surprised if Apple actually puts these covers on display alongside the iPad 2s in the Apple Stores. I have little doubt that nearly everyone who buys an iPad 2 will also walk away with one of these covers as well if they get a chance to play with one. And that’s yet another genius move by Apple because they’re not exactly cheap at $39 (poly) and $69 (leather). This is Apple ensuring that they’re going to make that much more money on each iPad 2 sold. Brilliant.

Disappointments

The disappointments for the iPad 2 are largely the same as they were for the iPad 1. I still wish the thing was a little lighter. Holding it in one hand is fine in some positions, in others it gets tiring.

I also wish the screen was less reflective. You basically cannot read anything in direct sunlight.

Speaking of the screen, there had been a lot of talk about the iPad 2 getting a higher resolution “retina” display. Obviously, that didn’t happen. That would have been nice, but the iPad screen as it stands is already pretty great.

The rest of my complaints are largely software-based. I wish there was a way to sync media and apps over the air. I wish the notification system was better, etc. Hopefully Apple will have more to show along those lines in iOS 5 shortly.

So, Should You Buy It?

At this point, you’re probably thinking that the hardware, software, and smart cover all sound great. But you’re still wondering if you should buy one or not? If you don’t have an iPad and want one, it’s the easiest call in the world. Of course you should. This is everything that was great about the initial iPad, but better.

If you’re worried about another iPad coming out later this year, remember that it’s at least six to nine months away for something which may or may not even come — a lot can happen between now and then. And if it does come, maybe it will be aimed at a slightly different audience. Who knows. But if you’ve decided that you definitely want an iPad, you’ll probably just be dwelling on it over the next several months if you don’t take the plunge now.

For existing iPad owners, things are a bit murkier. If you have the disposable income, it’s a no-brainer to upgrade. Again, this is everything you like about the iPad 1, but better.

But if you just bought an iPad 1, or you don’t want to drop another several hundred dollars, it’s not like the iPad 1 will be out of date anytime soon. Sure, it may feel like older technology to the touch, but again, it largely looks and acts the same. My advice is just don’t visit an Apple Store or play with a friend’s iPad 2, or you’ll be tempted.

If you do decide you want one, deciding between the 3G versions versus the WiFi version is also a bit of a tricky call. If you have an iPhone 4 with the Personal Hotspot (or any smartphone with a hotspot feature), it’s probably best just to get the WiFi version, you’ll save some money. If you plan on taking the iPad out with you a lot or on trips in the U.S., maybe the 3G will be worth it.

Then it’s a question of AT&T 3G versus Verizon 3G (yes, there are two separate models). I played around with the AT&T model, and it worked well despite AT&T’s notoriously bad network in the San Francisco area. In terms of coverage, the same rule applies: the Verizon network is likely more reliable, but the AT&T network is faster. In fact, the AT&T 3G version of the iPad 2 has technology built in that the Verizon version does not that will make data speeds faster at optimal connections.

In terms of the other competition out there that doesn’t begin with a lowercase “i”, it’s becoming clearer by the day that most don’t yet stack up well against the iPad 1, let alone iPad 2. I’ve only played with a Xoom for a few minutes, and I was generally impressed, but apparently it’s very, very buggy. Just listen to Jason talk about it here.

The tablets from RIM and HP aren’t out yet, and the pricing details around them don’t sound too promising. (The iPad 2, by the way, starts at the same $499 price point of the original iPad.) Further, the app support for all of the rivals isn’t too promising right now either. That’s one of the iPad 2’s greatest advantages that doesn’t show up on a spec sheet.

There are now over 70,000 apps built specifically for the iPad. Obviously, not all of them are great or even good. But if just 10 percent are, that destroys the competition. And given that developers already have experience developing for this platform, they should be able to adjust quickly to make even better apps that take advantage of the iPad 2 hardware improvements. It just doesn’t look too good for rivals at this point.

And just for fun this time around, Apple threw in one more choice: white or black? Good luck with that one.

Let me sum all of this up in a simple way: the iPad 2, should you buy one? Maybe — it depends on a few factors. Will you want to buy one? Yes. Use that information wisely.