The New iPad Makes Apple’s Tablet Domination Clearer Than Ever

Even if you have perfect vision, indulge me here for a second. You know when you go in for an eye exam and you’re asked to look at a combination of letters and numbers on a chart against a far wall? You read the first few lines, then realize you actually can’t go any further. Then you get prescribed glasses (or contacts) and you can all of a sudden read every letter and number. And even the ones you could read before are now so much clearer.

That’s what it’s like looking at the new iPad versus the older iPads.

It’s weird because I was never one of those people who thought the original iPad’s and the iPad 2’s screen was poor (but there were plenty of those people in the post-iPhone Retina world). I guess it’s just like a pre-glasses world — you never realize how blurry things are because that’s just how you’ve always seen everything. And then you put the glasses on and you wonder how you ever managed without them.

Once you see and use the new iPad, there will be no going back.

Perhaps it’s unfair to say the older iPad screens look “blurry” compared to the new iPad. It’s more along the lines of “fuzzy”. After using the new iPad for an extended period of time then switching back to an iPad 2 (or 1, for that matter), you’ll cringe at the pixelated cloud the appears to surround every app icon. Text will look murky. Colors will look muted.

The iPad 2 is still far and away the best tablet on the market today (the iPad 3 officially comes this Friday, of course), and the new iPad screen manages to make it look like antiquated technology. That’s not to say you shouldn’t get an iPad 2 at the new $399 price, it’s just that if you go that route, don’t bother looking at the new iPad first. It will ruin the iPad 2 for you. Again, this is the best tablet out there right now that we’re talking about.

Ever since Apple unveiled the “Retina” display on the iPhone 4 over a year and a half ago, there’s been speculation about a Retina iPad. To some, it seemed inevitable. To others, it seemed impossible.

There’d be no content. It would cost far too much to make. It would require too much power for a portable machine. Or it would be too thick to accommodate the required huge battery. These were arguments made just a year ago. But Apple has done it.

What we have is a 9.7-inch slab of aluminum and glass that when illuminated, becomes an absolutely stunning display of light and color. At first glance, the new iPad is almost indistinguishable from the iPad 2. The same Smart Covers even fit on both. But it doesn’t matter what the device looks like. What matters is what you’re looking at: the screen.

Web pages look almost as if they’re being displayed in a high-quality glossy magazine. Photos look like photos — the printed out kind. Text is razor sharp and crisp, just like print.

And while the screen is the single biggest selling point of the new iPad, there are a few other things I’ve been enjoying nearly as much in my week testing out the device.

The most notable of these is the LTE functionality. Put simply: it’s fast. Really fast. Faster-than-my-WiFi fast.

Yesterday, I clocked the new iPad using LTE at over 40 mbps down and 20 up on Verizon’s network. That’s about twice as fast as my current home cable broadband. For good measure, I tethered the new iPad to my iPhone 4S to compare it to Verizon’s 3G speeds. It’s about 40x faster for downloading.

(My LTE speed tests ranged from about 15 mbps down to 42 mbps down and 10 mbps up to 20 mbps up. Most of the time I was in the upper range in both categories.)

I never saw the point of getting the 3G version of the iPad because WiFi is available in many places, and where it’s not, you could just tether to your phone. But I will absolutely get an LTE iPad. Again, it’s faster than most WiFi networks I usually connect to.

And the Verizon version of the new iPad comes with LTE hotspot functionality right out of the box at no additional cost beyond the standard data plans. AT&T does not yet offer tethering from the new iPad, though apparently they’re talking about it.

Apple’s stated reasons for not including LTE technology earlier in their products include both design and battery considerations. They’ve clearly solved both issues with the new iPad. The battery life is said to be the same (10 hours on WiFi, 9 hours using a cellular connection) as the iPad 2. In using it, I’ve found this to be the case. LTE may drain the battery a bit quicker than 3G did, but it’s not noticeably worse. Battery life overall is still excellent.

As for LTE being a burden on the design of the product, Apple has been able to keep the shell of the new iPad almost exactly the same as the previous iteration. It’s ever-so-slightly thicker (0.37 inches versus 0.34 inches), which you can only really tell when you hold the two at the same time. The new iPad also weighs slightly more than the iPad 2 (1.46 pounds versus 1.36 pounds — for the cellular versions), but the weight difference is basically indistinguishable.

So how was Apple able to keep the battery life the same while adding LTE and without drastically changing the design? It appears that they’ve had a fairly major breakthrough in their battery technology. While the new battery clearly isn’t much bigger than the old one, it can hold much more juice (42 watt-hours versus 25-watt-hours). The downside of this is that I’ve found it takes quite a bit longer to charge the new iPad. As in several hours — you’ll probably want to do it overnight.

One other slight downside which I have to assume is related to either the battery or the LTE functionality is that unlike previous iPad models, the new iPad does get noticeably warm in the lower left corner after prolonged use. It’s never hot, just warm. But again, I never noticed this on other models.

Another big upgrade in this new iPad: the camera. Previously, the iPad camera was more or less a joke for still photography. Apple’s line on this is that it was really only meant to shoot 720p video, but plenty of people would use it to take pictures — and the resulting 0.7 megapixel images were well, not good (see below).

Seeing that use case, Apple included a much, much, much better 5 megapixel five-element lens. It has a ƒ/2.4 aperture and a hybrid infrared filter. I honestly don’t know what half of that stuff means, all I care about is the fact that the images from the new iPad look very good now. There is no flash on the new iPad, but the flash on the iPhone tends to be fairly poor anyway.

This new lens can also shoot 1080p video (again, up from 720p) at 30 frames-per-second. And it features video stabilization.

The front camera, meanwhile, remains the ho-hum VGA-quality variety. But Apple bills that as being primarily for FaceTime (and presumably, higher-quality images would lead to lag). One sad aside here: despite the fact that the LTE networks are so much faster (faster than my WiFi even), Apple says that FaceTime will still be WiFi-only for now.

In terms of speed, the new iPad feels very fast. But the iPad 2 felt very fast. There’s probably a good reason for this: reports have the A5 chip being similar to the new A5X chip. One key difference is in the graphics capabilities. It takes a lot of GPU horsepower to run the Retina display. The A5X’s quad-core graphics are the key there.

And the boosted graphics should also lead to some major advances in iPad gaming. Apple showed off a few demos during their keynote last week, but sadly, those games are not yet available.

The new iPad also reportedly comes with double the RAM (1GB versus 512MB), Apple never gives out that spec, but tear-downs don’t lie. Again, I haven’t noticed too big of a bump from this, but it’s the early days and apps aren’t yet optimized for the new device.

Speaking of apps, Apple has upgraded just about all of their own applications to be Retina-ready. The result are apps that look amazing while still being responsive. I tested out iPhoto, Pages, Keynote, Numbers, iMovie, GarageBand, and a few others.

iPhoto is the clear star, as it’s the brand-new app that Apple unveiled last week. Combined with the better camera, it works great for most photo-editing needs. There are slight bits of lag here and there when doing things like adjusting brightness by dragging your finger over a large image, but overall it’s very solid.

And if you want to take images with the still-better 8 megapixel camera on the iPhone 4S, you can easily move them over to edit on the iPad via the Beam functionality.

The only third-party app which I could find that was available as Retina-ready at the time of this review was Tweetbot, a Twitter client made by Tapbots. Pushed to the App Store yesterday, the difference side-by-side with the iPad 2 version is readily apparent.

Apple tells me that more Retina-ready apps should be ready to roll by the actual iPad launch on Friday. But unless your favorite apps are graphics-heavy, they shouldn’t look too bad since iOS will automatically upscale the text in each app on the new iPad. Even scaled-up iPhone apps look significantly better on this new screen.

The one downside of the new Retina-ready apps is that they’re going to take up more space. Apple has raised the cap on download limits over wireless, but for many apps, you’ll need WiFi to download them. And you should think about this storage requirement if you’re considering the 16 GB version of the new iPad.

Another thing to consider: with the new iPad, you’ll obviously want HD versions of movies and TV shows and those tend to be twice the size of the standard definition versions. Apple adding movies as a part of iCloud (they previously added TV shows) mitigates some of this, but it’s still something to note.

So how do HD movies look on the new screen? Very good, but not perfect. Remember, the new iPad has a resolution of 2048-by-1536 — that’s significantly higher quality than the top-of-the-line 1080p movies (which Apple now offers). Amazingly, the iPad has more pixels than my 60-inch HD television which has a resolution of 1920-by-1080. But unless Hollywood starts making 1536p videos, which is highly unlikely (though eventually, they’ll go even higher), movies will not be Retina-ready.

On the iPad I’m testing out, I have three pages of apps, a few hundred photos, one HD movie, and one music album. It’s really not that much stuff, but it takes up over 20 GB of storage. The apps alone are over 10 GB of that.

One thing that is surprisingly lacking on the software side of things is Siri. When Apple’s digital personal assistant launched with the iPhone 4S, many assumed it would make its way to new (and faster) iPad as well. For some reason, Apple has chosen not to do that, at least not yet (the popular theory is that they’re still working on scaling issues with the product in beta). One key component of Siri did make the jump however: Dictation. Clicking the microphone button on the virtual keyboard allows you to talk rather than type wherever there is a text input box. It works well.

I would not be shocked to see Siri come to this version of the iPad in a software update somewhere down the line.

Features and technical aspects aside, how does the new iPad feel? Amazing. It’s the best device out there, made even better. And it’s the same price as it previously was. There’s really nothing not to like beyond a few minor nitpicks.

Leading up to the new iPad unveiling last week, several folks (including myself) predicted the inevitable post-event let-down. The reason is obvious: Apple is a victim of their own success. Because the iPad 2 is already so much better than the competition (and you could certainly argue that the iPad 1 still is as well), the only device Apple could beat is their own. And the iPad 2 was already really good and hard to top.

And because the new iPad looks largely the same at the iPad 2 from an industrial design perspective, many were lulled into believing that Apple was getting complacent. Let me be clear: the new iPad is a huge technological leap forward. It has by far the best screen I’ve ever seen anywhere and it’s something I can hold in my hand and touch and use for 10 hours at a time.

Remember a few years ago when everyone was using CRT monitors with resolutions of 800-by-600? They needed to be plugged in and to sit on a desk with plenty of room behind it. And they weighed upwards of 30 pounds. Think about that when you hold this new iPad.

And think about the days — again, just a few years ago — when most people connected to the Internet via dial-up connections. Speeds were 14.4 kbps or 56 kbps and required a phone landline. This new iPad will connect to the Internet all over the United States at speeds faster than my current broadband connection. And it can do that for about 9 hours without being recharged.

Technology is amazing, and this new iPad is amazing. Also amazing: the only company competing with Apple right now in this particular space is Apple. So the only real question is: do you upgrade if you have a previous iPad model?

If you have the original iPad, I say this is a no-brainer. If you have an iPad 2, it’s a tougher call since it still seems nearly as fast as the new iPad. But if you choose not to upgrade (or to spend $399 for the 16 GB iPad 2 now), again, treat the new iPad as if it were Medusa when you’re in an Apple Store. Do. Not. Look. At. It.

If you’re at all interested in LTE in an Apple product, obviously, get a new iPad. If you read a lot on your iPad, get the new iPad. If you take a lot of photos and videos (yeah you, the joker in the front row of the concert with your iPad in the air), get the new iPad. If you play a lot of games on the iPad, get the new iPad.

If you don’t yet have an iPad, get the new iPad.

The new iPad screen:

The iPad 2 screen:

Photo taken with new iPad:

Photo taken with iPad 2:

The old Tweetbot icon up-close on the iPad 2:

The new Tweetbot icon up-close on the new iPad: