Review: Why the New iPad Doesn't Deserve a "3"

Hard to distinguish at first glance from an iPad 2, the new iPad's changes are welcome but subtle for business users

Don't mess with success: That was clearly the mantra for the third-generation iPad, which went on sale this past Friday. Although it has many improvements, they're all evolutionary -- unsurprising enhancements that will please users but do not justify an upgrade if you already own an iPad 2. Nor do they justify the whole-number version update that many expected. It's appropriate that Apple didn't call the new iPad an iPad 3.

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The business users who will most appreciate the third-gen the iPad are those with aging eyes (such as myself), who travel internationally, and who do image- and photo-oriented work. For personal use, the 2,048-by-1,536-pixel Retina display ushers in a new era of hyperrealistic game play and noticeably crisper HD video playback. And you get all that for the same price as the previous iPads: $499 for a Wi-Fi-only model with 16GB of storage, $599 for 32GB, and $699 for 64GB. The Wi-Fi + 4G models cost $130 extra. (The iPad 2 remains available in just its 16GB models, which now cost $399 for Wi-Fi only and $529 for the Wi-Fi + 3G model.) Color options for the front bezel remain black and white.

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IT pros will be happy about the new iPad too; as far as they're concerned it's just another iPad. There are no changes in the third-gen iPad that will impact their mobile device management (MDM) tool, mobile application management strategy, or any other aspect of supporting the device compared to the previous models.

Most of the iPad's short list of improvements are in its hardware, such as the Retina display, an optional 4G LTE cellular radio, use of the faster and more power-efficient Bluetooth 4 radio technology, and a 5-megapixel rear camera that can shoot 1080p HD video. The new iPad is a tenth of a pound heavier than the iPad 2 and a tad thicker to accommodate the Retina display and the extra battery needed to maintain the iPad's 9- to 11-hour range (which my tests show are unchanged). The heavier weight is perceptible but barely so. Protective skins and the Apple Smart Cover for the iPad 2 fit just fine on the third-gen iPad, so you don't need to buy new ones.

I also noticed that the connector for the standard Apple 30-pin-to-USB cable is a tighter, surer fit on the the new iPad. On the iPad 2, it was a bit loose -- I sometimes had trouble keeping a constant connection when sending presentations to a projector via that cable. However, another hardware annoyance of the iPad 2 has not been addressed in the new iPad: The volume rocker is still at the bottom of the iPad when a Smart Cover is in use, at just the right spot to constantly shift as it pushes against your lap or other surface.

The few software-oriented changes either take advantage of the new hardware -- such as the ability to tether computers and other devices to the iPad's cellular connection -- or enhance existing capabilities, such as the new Dictation tool available in any text field. The third-gen iPad's iOS 5.1 is the same as in the previous iPads, as well as the iPhone 3G S and later and the third-generation iPod Touch and later. (iOS 5.1 itself is a minor update from iOS 5.0, with some bug fixes, support for iCloud syncing of iTunes-purchased movies over Wi-Fi, a revamp Camera app UI, and the added ability to delete images in iCloud's Photo Stream sync service via the Photos app.)

What you get are individually solid changes that solidify the iPad's advantages, but don't create new ones.

A better display for eyes of all agesThe Retina display has rightfully received most of the attention in the mainstream press -- it really is a big user experience improvement. The Retina display doubles the number of pixels from the previous iPad models but doesn't shrink the screen to pack in those pixels. Instead, it essentially has four subpixels for each pixel, allowing greater levels of gradation and, thus, greater smoothness and sharpness. The screen's color range is also wider, allowing for more natural-looking hues.

Where you really notice the benefit of the Retina display is in the lowly word. Text in all forms -- emails, Web pages, e-books, and legal fine print everywhere -- is much sharper, so it's easier to read and to read longer. Anyone much past their mid-30s will appreciate this textual sharpness. Although the previous iPads were quite readable, once you have a third-gen iPad, you suddenly feel like you've been using the wrong eyeglass prescription all this time.

Standard videos and photos seem no clearer or crisper on the Retina display than on the iPad 2's display. However, you'll see quality improvements on the new iPad versus the iPad 2 if you play an HD video, both in reduce artifacting during playback and better color balance. When zooming into graphics, the Retina display shows smoother lines and edges and, for high-resolution images, more detail.

The big advantage of the Retina display for users of all ages is in games, and developers have already started releasing eye-popping Retina-enhanced games to tap into that advantage. Also coming in droves are photo-editing, painting, and other pixel-pushing apps. Another advantage will come in the form of rich-media e-books, such as those Apple's free iBooks Author can create for the iPad's iBooks e-reader app.

Better connectivity on the go, sometimesThe other aspect of the new iPad that has garnered a great deal of attention is the 4G cellular radio option, which adds $130 to the cost and ties you to a specific carrier domestically. In the United States, Verizon Wireless and AT&T offer 4G LTE models; Bell, Rogers, and Telus get the honor in Canada. Android fans have been pishposhing Apple's lack of 4G support for nearly a year now, but in truth, 4G coverage is spotty and, as Android users found out the hard way, eats up a lot of battery life. (When 4G is unavailable, the cellular devices use 3G.)

Because of that inconsistent coverage, in the 4G Android devices I've tested in the last six months, I've rarely seen meaningful speed improvement over 3G in the San Francisco area, where I live and work. But when I secured an LTE connection from a Verizon 4G iPad, I found that I got double the download speed on the new iPad compared to an iPad 2 connected to the Verizon 3G network. I placed the two iPads side by side, to minimize external network effects during my tests, and downloaded the same files simultaneously.

When I used the app, it too showed a rough doubling of speed from about 3Mbps on 3G to about 7Mbps on 4G at my home, and a quadrupling from about 500Kbps to 2Mbps at my favorite cafA(c) in a business district. I'm not sold on SpeedTest's results, despite its popularity among bloggers, because its 4G numbers sometimes showed wildly high, improbable performance (15Mbps to more than 20Mbps) that I did not in any way experience in real-world tests. Reports from other reviewers show 4G availability and performance vary widely across the country, with several trusted colleagues claiming consistent 10Mbps SpeedTest results in their areas.

Unless you already know you have good 4G availability where you are, you should think of 4G as icing on a cake, not the cake you're buying. Enjoy the icing if it's available!

Remember, the iPad, like the iPhone, doesn't let you download large files over a 3G or 4G connection; the limit is usually 50MB for iTunes downloads, though the Mail client has much lower limits for automatic downloading of attachments. That keeps you from eating up your data plan's capacity in a matter of days or hours (for example, an HD edition of a TV episode weighs in at 2GB). However, if you get in the habit of streaming rather than downloading, you can eat up your data plan, and the 4G speeds could tempt you to do a lot more YouTube or Netflix streaming than you realize.

But there's more to the iPad's 4G addition than faster throughput. The ability to tether is one. An iPad connected to a 3G or 4G network can act as a hotspot for other devices, which can connect to the iPad via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or the standard Apple 30-pin-to-USB cable. Verizon lets you use the personal hotspot feature at no extra charge -- if it eats up your data plan faster, Verizon is happy to sell you another data tranche. AT&T is "working on it."

As you'd expect, it just works: Turn on Personal Hotspot (under Network Settings), turn on Wi-Fi on your other device, and choose your iPad as the Wi-Fi access point; or establish a Bluetooth connection between the iPad and the other device. You can also tether a PC or Mac to the iPad via Apple's 30-pin-to-USB cable to share your 4G connection, but it won't work that way with other devices.

If you travel internationally, the third-gen iPad has a MicroSIM slot, so you can use a local cellular carrier in the country you're visiting -- usually an order of magnitude cheaper than paying AT&T or Verizon for roaming charges, as is often the case with an iPhone. The previous iPads had this capability for AT&T units, but not for Verizon versions. With the third-gen iPad, Verizon's model now sports a MicroSIM slot that accepts a GSM SIM; GSM technology is used in most of the world, whereas Verizon's CDMA is available in a small portion of the globe. There are some changes to the Cellular pane in the Settings app that let you manage GSM and CDMA international roaming on the Verizon 4G iPad as a result of this newfound flexibility.

Some people have been able to use an AT&T SIM in the Verizon third-gen iPad. If Verizon doesn't block that feature via a software update, road warriors could connect the Verizon iPad to both the Verizon and AT&T networks in the United States, then switch to the best network in the region they're visiting. You can't do the reverse if you get the AT&T model. There's no guarantee you'll be able to continue to pull this dual-network trick on the Verizon 4G iPad, so don't make that a key deciding factor.

Dictation works as well as you speakThe one big software enhancement in the third-gen iPad is its new dictation feature that, if enabled, lets you dictate into any text field by tapping the microphone key on the onscreen keyboard. iOS has supported basic voice commands on the iPhone for managing iTunes playback and the phone dialer, but that's it. Android has had dictation for a couple years now -- also available through a microphone button on its onscreen keyboard (clearly where Apple got the idea).

Unfortunately for me, the iPad's dictation accuracy is not very good. But that's my fault, not the iPad's: I'm not the ideal person to test dictation, as I'm a sloppy speaker, eliding words and varying my intonation and speaking rate. Dictation usually doesn't work well for me on any device. Still, in my tests, the iPhone 4S's Siri handled my sloppy speech better than the third-gen iPad did. Various Android devices also did better than the new iPad for my speech, though not better than Siri.

I also tried the free Dragon Dictate app on the new iPad to see if it did better with my sloppy speech. Nope. It did different, not worse or better, mangling my words in different ways than the iPad, but mangling about the same percentage. Ironically, the iPad's accuracy was a bit better when I used a Bluetooth headset, whereas Dragon's accuracy plummeted. Dragon Dictate requires that you dictate into it, then copy your text to where you want to use it. Though it's less convenient than the iPad dictation, it's free, so you might as well have it at the ready.

But as I said, my speech is dictation-unfriendly, so I had several friends who have much better diction run through the same tests. In those cases, the iPad's dictation was very good, misinterpreting few words. Technical terms were often mangled, but so were some common words like "nuts," where people's slight accents resulted in everything from "not" to "that." It did better than Dragon Dictate and as well as Siri and Android. If you speak clearly and don't like to type, the dictation feature is a compelling reason to get the new iPad.

Do note that this is network-based voice recognition; what you say is sent to a server for translation and the text sent back. If you're on a plane or otherwise don't have Internet connectivity, dictation is unavailable -- iOS even removes the microphone button from the onscreen keyboard. (Dragon also requires an Internet connection to function.)

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