Once again it seems like it's Apple vs the world. While potential rivals for the iPad have been growing in number over the last few weeks, Apple is fighting back with a new and improved version of its ground-breaking touchscreen tablet. The iPad 2 is clearly designed to help Apple stay one step ahead of the game in the tablet market, and although it's very similar to the iPad 1—with the same screen and interface, for example—it also has a few key differences.
As Apple is proudly proclaiming, the iPad 2 is lighter, faster (double the processing power) and slimmer than the original tablet. Another key difference is the arrival of two built-in cameras—one for Apple's FaceTime video chat function and the other for taking photos and shooting videos. On top of that, the price tag has been trimmed of a few pounds, a white model will be available alongside the tradition black-framed device, and a selection of Smart Covers have been designed to accompany the upgraded tablet. All in all then, the iPad 2 is nothing revolutionary, it's just (slightly) evolutionary.
So just how good is this second version of the iPad? Does it have what it takes to stay ahead of the competition—especially since this year's contenders are better prepared to put up a decent fight? Is it time to trade in your iPad for this new and improved tablet? Read on to find out.
Design & HandlingThe iPad 2 is slimmer than its predecessor (8.8 mm compared with 13.4 mm for the iPad) and lighter (by 80 to 120 g depending on whether it's a 3G or Wi-Fi-only model). You can really feel the difference in size and weight when you switch from using one model to another. That doesn't, however, mean that holding the iPad 2 at arm's length when reading, for example, has suddenly become a pleasant experience. A 600 g tablet is certainly an improvement, but it's still not exactly light. Plus, attaching a Smart Cover adds an extra 135 g to the tablet's total weight.
While the original iPad had a similar design to the iPhone 4, the iPad 2 bears more of a resemblance to the iPhone 3G and 3GS.
We've got no complaints about the product's finish: it's quite simply impeccable. Apple has used high-quality materials and the lack of visible screws and fastenings makes for a very high-end look. All the buttons and connections have been effectively integrated into the curve of the tablet's sides so that they're completely invisible when you view the tablet from the front. It's a far cry from the all-plastic finish adorning some of the iPad 2's most heavyweight competitors.
The Smart Cover can be used to prop up the tablet. The virtual keyboard is as effective as ever
and is now even more responsive!
Note that the Smart Cover is an optional extra that isn't supplied with the tablet as standard.
ScreenBefore you get your hopes up, there's no giant Retina display on the iPad 2—that would almost certainly have pushed the tablet's price up. Instead, you'll find the same IPS screen as on the original iPad, which is still the best tablet screen we've ever tested here at DigitalVersus. One new feature, however, is LED backlighting. This gives the screen's brightness a boost—the maximum brightness of the iPad is equivalent to 60% of the total brightness of the iPad 2.
Contrast has been improved too, upped from 760:1 on the iPad to 960:1 here. That may not sound like much next to the latest TVs and monitors, but it still runs circles around Apple's tablet-based competitors. In fact, only the ViewSonic ViewPad 7 and Samsung Galaxy Tab can get any higher than 580:1. In terms of colour fidelity, the average DeltaE is now 5.7 (compared with 5.2 for the iPad), which is certainly better than most touchscreen tablets, even if the colours are still not entirely accurate (the average DeltaE should be under 3 for the colours to be considered accurate). Although the image does have a blue tinge, it's not noticeable to the naked eye thanks to a colour temperature that's consistent across the spectrum. What's more, viewing angles are nice and wide, making the screen easy to read even from the sides.
There's no difference in screen responsiveness compared with the original iPad, with a ghosting time measured at 23 ms. That's something you'll probably only really notice in games, as fast movements may look a little blurred. Again, though, the iPad 2 still does a better job than most competitors' tablets.
Interface & Navigation[UPDATE 27/10/2011]
The new version of iOS hasn't brought any revolutionary changes to the tablet's general operation—not at first glance in any case. Minor improvements include new rounded check boxes to select and deselect settings and, above all, multitouch control gestures—you know, the same ones that were supposed to come with iOS 4. The most significant new gesture is used to switch from one application to another when multitasking, as sweeping four or five fingers left or right allows you to switch apps rather than using the horizontal toolbar underneath.
Note that these new gestures aren't available for the original iPad—they can only be used with the iPad 2—although we don't really understand why.
Apple has finally introduced a notification system, which does borrow slightly from the Android system. You bring up the Notification Centre by swiping the screen from top to bottom. The system can be fully customised, so you can set precisely how each app interacts with the Notification Centre (FaceTime, Calendar, Mail, Reminders, iMessage, Game Centre etc.). That means you can remove alerts from the notification list, set others to pop-up as they arrive etc. Note that the notification panel can still be displayed when the screen is locked so you can keep an eye on what's going on.
While FaceTime is on hand for video chat with other iDevice users, the new iMessage service offers free messaging over Wi-Fi between other iOS products. It's clearly designed to rival BlackBerry Messenger and conversations are just as fast as with BBM. In other words, iMessage is still slower than regular SMS but, like with web chat services, it's free and you can see whether your correspondent is in the process of replying.
Apple's marketing machine is back with a vengeance with iCloud. So while we like the idea of giving iOS users 5 GB of free cloud-based storage, accessible on any MacOS or iOS device linked to the same user, the fact that iCloud always wants to automatically sync everything to the cloud does seem a bit excessive. We're not so sure about the Photo Stream function either, as although pushing all the photos taken with an iPhone to your iPad or other Apple devices may seem like a great idea, it's not necessarily something we found we wanted going on all the time. In this respect, iCloud is more than just storage, as it automatically transfers your images here there and everywhere, which can feel rather intrusive.
Otherwise, we found it nice to see all our meetings, Internet bookmarks and documents duplicated on all our iProducts. Plus, you can now start editing a document on your iPad then pick up where you left off on your iPhone, which is really very handy.
Like any storage service, you can buy more room in the iCloud as and when required, with prices starting at £14 per year for 10 GB or extra storage.
Finally, one real disappointment with this iOS update is that it doesn't bring a full keyboard, as there are still no number keys on the main keyboard. That said, the iPad touch-sensitive keyboard is still one of the best we've seen in a tablet.
With a dual-core processor clocked at 1 Ghz, Apple's iOS goes from fast to even faster with a noticeable boost in overall responsiveness. However, some of that is down to the iOS 4.3 update too, since this version OS is already a little bit speedier on the original iPad. This new operating system also allows you to share the 3G connection of an iPhone 4 with an iPad via Wi-Fi. Plus, it makes surfing the web with Safari much quicker.
Web browsing has been improved with iOS 5. For starters, Safari now offers tabbed browsing (finally!) and has a direct link to Twitter so you can tweet pages as you surf the web. All in all, the new features make Safari a great all-round browser for iOS. Another bit of good news is that while surfing with iOS 4.3 was already very fast, things get even quicker with iOS 5. In fact, pages load up much faster than in any other tablet we've seen. Note, however, that Safari still can't load Flash content, so the web experience isn't always 100% complete, but for day-to-day surfing on most general sites, the new browser gives things a noticeable boost.
What's more, switching to iOS 5 even speeds up web browsing in the first-generation iPad (in fact, the improvement is even more noticeable in the older model).
You can now sync content automatically to iTunes over the air via Wi-Fi. To do this, you'll need at least version 10.5 of iTunes (the minimum is Mac OS 10.6.8 for iTunes on Mac). Plus, you can now actually use your iPad/iPad 2 during synchronisation. Gone are the seemingly endless waits while your tablet finishes syncing, and the intense frustration when you unlock the screen without thinking and see the whole process cancelled. Note that synchronisation can be forced from iTunes on a computer if the product is nearby.
Plus, all the content you buy from iTunes with an iDevice can be transferred wirelessly into the iTunes of one or all of your other iDevices (including Mac and iMac).
Finally, anyone with Apple TV can stream whatever's on their tablet to their TV wirelessly with no need for an HDMI adapter. That can be handy for looking at photos, playing games or surfing the web on a large screen.
The camera on the front of the iPad is designed for use with Apple's FaceTime function for face-to-face video calls over a Wi-Fi connection. This function has already been seen in the iPhone 4, and is especially good for showing your friends and family something in your surrounding environment rather than actually chatting face to face. The picture quality is nothing out of the ordinary, but the function still works well.
With the front-facing camera you can play around with PhotoBooth, the built-in photo app,
then use the multitouch screen to transform your face in all kinds of fun ways.
Taking pictures with a tablet, no matter which tablet, is only something you'll ever really do from time to time—holding the tablet out at arm's length while trying to keep it as still as possible is neither practical nor particularly discreet. That said, the rear-facing camera is a nice, fun additional feature, and the concept itself won't make the iPad 2 lose any points in our test. However, there's not much point providing a built-in camera if it's not decent enough to actually use.
And that's exactly the problem with the iPad 2 camera. While video quality holds up OK, the photo mode is actually quite bad. The shots are visibly pixellated, especially when taken in low light—the Apple iPhone Edge, for example, does a better job. We really can't understand why Apple would equip the iPad 2 with such a bad camera, especially when it's supposed to be a selling point for the tablet ... then again, developers of photo-enhancing apps are probably already rubbing their hands together with glee.
As announced when the tablet was officially unveiled, web browsing is mush faster with iOS 4.3. With good 3G or Wi-Fi coverage, pages are very fast to load up, in fact, they appear almost instantly. It's a far cry for the likes of the Galaxy Tab, to name but one example. The lack of Flash compatibility could put some people off but, then again, the iPad 2 deals with browser-challenging HTML5 better than any Flash-compatible tablet seen so far.
Sound was already a strong point of the original iPad, and the speaker has been further improved. With the coarse resonance chamber effectively eliminated by the new slim design, the iPad 2 has a more powerful and, above all, clearer sound output. There has been no change to the headphones output, with clear sound only tarnished by a slight gushing noise detected by users with near-bionic ears.
As this is an Apple device, you have to expect it to be tied into Apple's 'walled garden' world and, like all the brand's portable devices, the iPad 2 is designed for use with iTunes—the multimedia library in which content such as music, videos, photos and podcasts are bought and stored. Beware: you won't be able to transfer films in formats like DivX or AVI by simply copying and pasting them onto the tablet—you have to use file conversion software or a special multimedia player app to get round the restricted compatibility of iTunes (OPlayer HD, for example).
The App Store is very user-friendly and has a huge choice of apps specially designed for the iPad. It easily puts the competition to shame. Plus, it won't be long before apps specifically designed for this new version of the tablet start to crop up, and developers will undoubtedly be quick to take advantage of the improved capabilities of the iPad 2 processor.
Battery Life[UPDATE 27/10/2011]
The switch to iOS 5 brings new functions to the iPad 2, such as regular synchronisation to iCloud or iTunes via Wi-Fi. These obviously require power and therefore wear the battery down a bit quicker. However, Apple's tablet isn't quite the ultra-portable, ever-connected 3G-guzzling device that the Phone 4/4S is, with tablet surfers using services in different, less intense ways than in the Apple mobile phone.
Even if the update does have a slight impact on battery life, the iPad is still largely above average in the world of touchscreen tablets, with an average battery life of 8 hours 30 minutes no matter how you use it. The standby mode is just as effective as ever too.
The battery life of the original iPad was already pretty good, and it's just as good in the iPad 2, which got very similar results in our tests. Apple has used the same triple lithium-ion battery combo, which can last from 8 hours (video playback only) to 10 hours (mixed use: web browsing, videos, typing, games and apps). For games, however, the iPad 2 out-performs the original model, as with games like Dead Space and Epic Citadel, the iPad 2 runs for longer. While the original iPad could only manage 3 hours of gaming with Dead Space, the iPad 2 can hold out for 7 hours. The tablet can be recharged via your computer's USB port—so long as it's powerful enough, that is.
So who exactly is the iPad 2 aimed at? Users who already own an iPad would probably think twice about upgrading to the iPad 2 given that the improvements are so minor. That said, the upgrade could perhaps be of interest to hardcore mobile gamers looking for enhanced graphics and portable FPS gaming. However, one major brake on sales could be rumours of an upcoming iPad 3, which apparently is a more 'genuine' upgrade, with seriously souped-up tech specs. This is rumoured to be up for release before the end of the year.
Clearly, Apple has re-affirmed its position as the leader of the pack in the tablet market with this higher-spec, upgraded iPad, but the iPad 2 has the faint odour of a certain iPhone 3G, released as a kind of stop-gap to temporarily make up for the iPhone's much-criticised lack of Edge compatibility. The iPad 2 therefore feels like a model that's in limbo, designed to bridge a gap while waiting for the real upgrade, the iPad 3(GS), to arrive.
In spite of that, for anyone who doesn't already have an iPad, the iPad 2 is still a great product and a good buy, so long as you don't mind being tied into the world of iTunes. The Apple iPad 2 is currently the best tablet on the market, but in a few weeks' time, it could well see itself knocked off the top spot. We'll just have to wait and see how the market develops.
Note: the overall score of the original iPad hasn't changed, as it still offers great performances by 2011 standards and even more so since its upgrade to iOS 5.