Just as most of its competitors are rolling out their first multitouch tablets to compete with its game-changing iPad, Apple on Friday will start selling a second-generation model, the iPad 2.
The new iPad 2 is about a third thinner and over 10% lighter, yet speedier and more powerful than the original version, which sold a whopping 15 million units in its first nine months and, for many users, challenged their laptops as a digital tool. And it costs the same as the original.
I’ve been testing an iPad 2 for about a week and I like it a lot. While it’s evolutionary rather than revolutionary like the first model, the changes Apple has made are generally pleasing and positive, and the device worked very well for me.
Its improvements, including front and rear cameras, outweigh the few drawbacks and feature omissions I found. For most average, nontechie users, I would recommend it over the handful of tablet competitors I’ve tested so far, especially given that the entry price remains attractive.
Dozens of tablet competitors are coming this year and I haven’t had a chance to test them. But the iPad 2, in my view, offers an excellent balance of size, functionality and price, and keeps Apple ahead in the tablet race, at least for now.
However, unless you are desperate for the cameras or feel you are laboring under the greater bulk of the original model, I don’t advise that iPad owners race to get the new version.
The first iPad, which can be upgraded to Apple’s latest iOS operating system, is selling for $399 while supplies last.
Airy, but Potent
Apple’s design wizards have made the new iPad feel much airier. Placed on a table between the original model and the new Motorola Xoom, it makes the others look bloated. Its top surface doesn’t even reach the side buttons on the original model. It has much more sharply tapered edges, and a new, optional, white color adds to the sense of lightness. While the 1.33-pound weight isn’t that much less than the original’s, I found the difference noticeable when carrying the device.
Despite being slimmed down, the new iPad 2 still has the same vivid, large 9.7-inch screen, and claims the same lengthy 10-hour battery as the original. Like its current and planned competitors, it now sports a dual-core processor (a chip with two brains) and graphics that Apple says are up to nine times as fast.
But, despite gaining a faster processor, and the front and rear cameras, it still carries the same base price of $499, which competitors have so far found hard to match. Like the first model, it can range up to $829, depending on configuration.
Another crucial strength: The iPad 2 can run about 350,000 third-party apps, including 65,000 that have been optimized for the tablet’s large screen, rather than for the iPhone’s smaller display. Those numbers far exceed what is available for Google’s fast-growing Android platform—Apple’s main mobile competitor—that, according to Google, has 150,000 third-party apps, including fewer than 100 optimized so far for its brand-new tablet version.
I didn’t find the speed difference on iPad 2 to be dramatic, but it was noticeable. Apps launched and ran a bit quicker and the whole device felt very snappy.
It never crashed in my tests, unlike every Android tablet I’ve tested.
Like the original iPad, the new model can be purchased with just Wi-Fi connectivity or with added cellular-data connectivity, which doesn’t require a contract. But the iPad 2 offers a choice between AT&T and Verizon, for those who want cellular. My test unit used Verizon and got decent data speeds. Verizon’s fees start at $20 a month for 1 gigabyte of data. AT&T’s start at $15 a month for 250 megabytes of data.
The iPad 2’s cameras offer decent quality video, good enough for making calls, but disappointing still photos.
The iPad 2 does have some drawbacks. Its cameras take mediocre still photos and Apple won’t even reveal their megapixel ratings. The company says they were designed for video, not still photography. They did capture decent video in my tests, including high-definition video from the rear camera and video good enough from the front camera for satisfying video calling. But, for a company known for quality, which bundles a new still-photo app with the device, the cameras are disappointing.
Also, the battery life, while very good, isn’t as strong as I found it to be on the first iPad. In my tough battery test, where I played full-length movies until the battery died, with the screen brightness at about 75% and both Wi-Fi and cellular radios running, the iPad 2 just barely exceeded Apple’s claimed battery life, dying after 10 hours and nine minutes. That’s 2.5 hours better than the Xoom did on the same test, but more than an hour less than I got from the original iPad, which clocked in at 11 hours, 28 minutes.
On the other hand, in mixed and non-constant use, with the screen set to turn off when idle for a few minutes, the iPad 2’s battery life was impressive. It easily went 48 hours between charges, even while downloading hundreds of emails and dozens of apps, songs, and books. During this period, I played a few light games, viewed photos, briefly streamed some video clips, read newspaper and magazine articles, consumed several chapters of books, frequently checked Twitter and Facebook, surfed the Web, and made a few video calls.
Another drawback I encountered was that the new, more tapered design makes it harder to plug cables and accessories—including the charging cable—into the main port on the bottom of the device, because it is now angled.
Despite being slimmer and lighter, the iPad 2 still has roughly the same length and width as the original, so it can’t compete with the Amazon Kindle, or the smaller seven-inch tablets, if you’re trying to juggle it while standing in a crowded subway.
Finally, there are two big omissions, one old and one new. The old one is that, like Apple’s prior phones and tablets, the shiny new iPad 2 still won’t play Adobe’s Flash video in its built-in Web browser. This is a deliberate decision by Apple, and puts its devices at a disadvantage for some users when compared with Android tablets, which can play Flash, or say they will soon, albeit not always well.
The other omission has to do with cellular data. The iPad 2 can’t use, or be upgraded to use, the new, faster 4G cellular-data networks being rolled out.
Apple says this is because the chips needed to do this are too immature, draining battery life. But the Xoom promises to be upgradeable to 4G later this year, though I have no idea how that upgrade might affect its battery life or monthly fees.
Hardware matters, but software matters more and has been a key strength for Apple products. The iPad 2 doesn’t come with software radically different from the original model. But the latest version of its operating system speeds up the Safari browser, expands the capabilities of its wireless AirPlay system for beaming media to a TV using the $99 Apple TV, and lets you stream music and video from iTunes on a computer in your home. This all worked as advertised.
Apple also has two new $5 content-creation apps for the iPad 2: tablet versions of its Macintosh programs—iMovie and GarageBand. I used iMovie on the iPad 2 to create my own edited video, with titles, soundtrack and special effects. All of the apps I tried that worked on the original iPad worked on the iPad 2, only faster in some cases.
Apple has a new $39 adapter that connects an iPad 2 (or iPad or iPhone 4) to an HDTV and mirrors what is on the device screen on the TV screen. It worked fine for me.
The company also has a very cool-looking, very slim cover for the iPad 2 that costs $39 in plastic and $69 in leather, and comes in a variety of colors. It attaches magnetically and turns the screen off and on when you close or open the cover. It also folds into a stand for the iPad and has a lining to keep the glass clean. Unfortunately, I found the cover’s magnetic latch came open in my briefcase, turning the screen on and wasting the battery. Also, the light gray color I had picked up smudges.
The Bottom Line
As new contenders move into the field, Apple isn’t likely to keep its 90% share of the booming tablet market. But the iPad 2 moves the goal posts, by being slimmer and lighter, boosting speed and power, and holding its price advantages, available apps and battery life. As of now, I can comfortably recommend it as the best tablet for average consumers.