One of the great things about Apple's wide range of portable products is their variety of features and functionality. And as we have come to expect updated, enhanced offerings from the folks in Cupertino each year, sometimes it's as simple as subsequently picking and choosing, introducing the innovations from one device into another.
Such is largely the scenario with the redesigned Apple iPad 2. Following up an absolutely insane launch of the first generation iPad in 2010, with long lines, sellouts and extended backorders, Apple has introduced a new and improved lineup. The iPad 2 is available in the same three capacities as last year (16, 32 and 64 gigabytes of embedded flash memory) and in both basic Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi + 3G models. But this year the compatible carrier choices have broadened to either AT&T or new partner Verizon Wireless. In typical fashion, the new generation maintains the pricepoints across the line ($499, $599 and $699 respectively), with a flat $130 increment on all of the 3G versions.
Apple is calling this an "all-new design," but at first glance you might think it was an identical twin. It's now about a third of an inch thick, down from a half, and a barely-noticeable smidge shorter and narrower, so it should work just fine with last year's iPad sleeves and bags and such, although protective skins and other form-fitting accessories won't quite work. It's also slightly lighter in weight, about one-and-a-third pounds, reduced from one-and-a-half. So it's certainly refined, but also readily recognizable, although the white model might take a moment to get used to. (Apparently there's a whole cult of Apple-philes who prize white gear, including the newly available white iPhone 4.)
It also feels very much the same in the hands, although Apple has also brought us an aptly-named new twist with their Smart Covers. These colorful lids, in either polyurethane or high-quality leather, attach to the elusive edge of the device with slim magnets. The process is actually foolproof, as the Smart Cover not only clings securely but it automatically lines up exactly where it should.
These covers keep the screen clean and safe and--here's where they earn their name--flipping up the lid also immediately wakes up a sleeping iPad 2, without the need for us to even "slide to unlock" as we would normally. This optional segmented top also folds back into a quick, makeshift stand, and adds welcome texture to the back panel.
'Phoning It In
Last year I made the comparison between the revolutionary tablet and another ubiquitous Apple portable, saying that the iPad looked like an overgrown iPod touch. In 2011, does the new and improved (really, that's not just a cliché) iPad more closely resemble a jumbo iPhone? I pose that question primarily in response to the addition of not one but two built-in cameras.
The back camera offers HD video recording at 720p, up to 30 frames per second, with 960x720/72dpi still photos too. There's a 5X optical zoom, but this is only enabled on the back-camera stills. The front/user-facing camera can record 640x480 VGA-quality video/stills. We can adjust the exposure with a tap, and photos/video can be geo-tagged via Wi-Fi, particularly handy while traveling.
In bright lighting conditions, since the iPad 2 packs neither a light nor a flash (both of which my iPhone 4 offers), the 720p video captures can look pleasingly crisp and undeniably high-def. We can even zoom in on the image during playback with the reverse-pinch gesture.
Of course, the front camera is essential for FaceTime two-way video calling. This has been one of Apple's "It" features since it was first introduced last spring on the iPhone 4, and is now also on iPod touch and Macbooks, so it is certainly appropriate for their newest tablet. Less sexy but arguably more fun is the Photo Booth app which comes pre-installed, enabling us to take new photos via either of the cameras with one of eight funky effects applied live.
Did Somebody Say "Video"?
To free the videos stored within the gigabytes of embedded memory, Apple has also begun marketing a wonderfully useful little white dongle, the Digital AV Adapter. It's plug-and-play simple, connecting at the 30-pin port along the bottom edge of the iPad 2, thereby adding a standard HDMI port as well as a 30-pin connector pass-through port, to enable charging while connected to the TV. In addition to support for up to 1080p video (app dependent, of course), the dongle provides pass-through of an encoded Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack (if provided) for decoding via a connected receiver.
To put the video-out to the test, I grabbed the showoff title Transformers in HD format from the iTunes Store. I was able to download the four-and-a-half-gigabyte .m4v file directly to the device over Wi-Fi in just under an hour, thanks in part to my recently upgraded broadband service. My Samsung PN50C8000 plasma confirmed the incoming signal as 1920x1080p at 60Hz quality, although I would put the image somewhere in that vast range above DVD but below Blu-ray, visibly compressed of course with noise and blockiness but still serving up ample detail.
Beyond the straightforward outputting of prerecorded video content, the Video Mirroring function can put whatever is on the iPad 2 screen--games, apps, all of it--onto an HDMI-equipped TV or projector, with the tablet itself serving as a controller of sorts. In this case, you will notice that the iPad screen takes up the center of a widescreen monitor with black bars on all sides. The iPad screen is, after all, not widescreen so filling a widescreen TV would with the iPad 2's image would mean zooming and cropping or stretching the image to fit, neither of which is ideal. This does not apply for select games and video output, however, which stream video at up to 1080p in full 16:9 widescreen as advertised.
Connecting wirelessly to the current-model Apple TV via AirPlay, and then on to the TV via HDMI, the reported video specs dropped to 1280x720p at 60Hz. But in this wireless mode, with the Digital AV Adapter removed, I was now able to multitask on the iPad 2, checking Gmail and more while the Autobots were defending the Earth on my 50-inch battlefield. Interestingly, the info pop-up on my Samsung plasma noted the same incoming video resolution (again, 1920x1080p over HDMI and 1280x720p over AirPlay through the Apple TV) whether I am watching SD or Apple's "HD" content, so the iPad 2 is clearly doing some internal upconversion over its HDMI output.
Under the Hood
Video processing is generally considered "heavy lifting" for a CPU, and thankfully the iPad 2 is packing a custom-designed one-gigaherz dual-core Apple A5 system-on-a-chip processor, a significant improvement over last year's single-core approach. In short, this thing flies, working as fast as I can (and in some cases faster), with boot-up (which I do wish was quicker) and streaming video buffering causing the only notable delays. At one point I actually said "Whoa..." aloud in deference to the speed with which my email was loaded, update and dispatched. Solid state memory helps in tis respect as well. The dual-core A5 also works hand-in-hand with iPad 2's enhanced graphics processing, to make all video-based apps run quicker and smoother, with no freezes or stutters in my time with it.
Apple is also boasting about their ten-hour battery life, the same as last year, but keep in mind that the more powerful processor and the thinner form factor pose some new handicaps, so status quo is something of a triumph here. They credit the efficiency to their "tight integration" of the hardware and the iOS 4.3 software. Our unit arrived with version 4.3.1 and I immediately grabbed the 4.3.2 update, with its latest round of bug fixes. The new iPad still won't take a charge when patched into the computer via USB, although neither does the battery deplete when connected thusly. We need to tank up via the included AC adapter instead, although this does take the better part of a day when we're running on fumes.
Freedom (for a Small Fee in Some Cases)
Not until we hit the road with the iPad 2 could we fully gauge its true might. With a long family trip in our future, I loaded up 60 full-length kids TV episodes via iTunes, a handful of them in HD, and these didn't even take up one-third of the official, advertised 64GB capacity of our review sample (which in truth is a usable 58.68GB). Next came OtterBox's Utility Series "Latch," a really cool six-way harness with its own little sack of straps and other versatile accessories that allows us to use the iPad/iPad 2 in exciting new ways. With the Latch I was able to quickly secure the iPad 2 to the back of the driver's-side headrest, angled for both of my youngsters to enjoy.
But they weren't the only ones: Our minivan came with an overpriced, dealer-added DVD player with a low-res seven-inch screen that I was never crazy about. The headphone jacks don't work so my wife and I seemed forever relegated to front-seat whispers while Barbie and her ilk belt out saccharine showtunes over multiple speakers. Now, with the addition of a simple headphone splitter, my kids could plug into the iPad 2 and tune out, with only the occasional chuckle from behind to break the blessed silence. What's more, with less than ten seconds of tutorial from Dad, they mastered iPad touchscreen operation without a question or complaint. Well, there was something about a rattlesnake bite at one point, but that wasn't iPad-related.
There's other stuff to watch, too. ABC remains the only one of the major networks (including Fox) to offer a dedicated application for iPad that allows us to view entire episodes of popular shows for free. Hulu Plus (TV) and Netflix (movies and TV) paid subscriptions are also supported, and with the right Wi-Fi connection I found the streaming performance to be nigh-perfect. Alas, Adobe Flash, still the standard for web video, remains unsupported by Apple, leaving us perpetually disappointed whenever sites offer Flash video clips. At least we still have the YouTube button waiting there on the Home screen.
The DISH Network app, meanwhile, not only allowed me to retrieve the upcoming programming guide and schedule new recordings remotely, but with the addition of the Sling Adapter to select DISH DVRs such as the ViP722 I can now view my recorded shows and live television on the iPad 2, anywhere I have internet access. My initial reaction was "giddy," to say the least.
In some ways, this new edition of the iPad is a subtle refinement, in other ways a drastic expansion of its functionality and its very intent, allowing us to create and communicate with technology which simply was not available in the initial effort. And so with a healthy dash of innovations big and small, without any compromise, the iPad 2 is a sequel worth waiting in line for.
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What in the Box?
Manufacturer's Contact InformationApple1 Infinite LoopCupertino, CA 95014
On the web: www.apple.com
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