Walt Mossberg

New iPad: A Million More Pixels Than HDTV

Apple’s iPad could be described as a personal display through which you see and manipulate text, graphics, photos and videos often delivered via the Internet. So, how has the company chosen to improve its wildly popular tablet? By making that display dramatically better and making the delivery of content dramatically faster.

There are other changes in the new, third-generation iPad — called simply “iPad,” with no number, which goes on sale on Friday at the same base price as its predecessor, $499. But the key upgrades are to those core features — the 9.7-inch screen and the data speed over cellular networks. These upgrades are massive. Using the new display is like getting a new eyeglasses prescription — you suddenly realize what you thought looked sharp before wasn’t nearly as sharp as it could be.

Boosting those particular features — the screen and the cellular speed — usually has a negative impact on battery life in a digital device. But Apple has managed to crank them up them while maintaining the long battery life between charges that has helped give the iPad such an edge over other tablets.

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Objects, like the trees in this photo of Glacier National Park in Montana that Walt made his screen wallpaper, look sharper on the new iPad.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t other trade-offs. Mostly to make room for a larger battery, the new iPad weighs about 8% more and is about 7% thicker than the prior model. That means the company can’t claim to have the thinnest and lightest tablet, as it boasted last year with the iPad 2. (It’s still thinner and lighter than the original iPad.)

I’ve been testing the new iPad, and despite these trade-offs, its key improvements strengthen its position as the best tablet on the market. Apple hasn’t totally revamped the iPad or added loads of new features. But it has improved it significantly, at the same price.

It has the most spectacular display I have ever seen in a mobile device. The company squeezed four times the pixels into the same physical space as on the iPad 2 and claims the new iPad’s screen has a million more pixels than an HDTV. All I know is that text is much sharper, and photos look richer.

If you already own an iPad 2, and like it, you shouldn’t feel like you have to rush out to buy the new one. However, for those who use their iPads as their main e-readers, and those who use it frequently while away from Wi-Fi coverage, this new model could make a big difference.

The optional, extra-cost, 4G LTE cellular-data capability made it feel like I was always on a fast Wi-Fi connection. I loved the photos and videos I took with the greatly improved rear camera. And the battery life degraded by just 11 minutes, a figure that is still much better than on any tablet I’ve tested.

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Letters that seemed sharp on the iPad 2, far left, suddenly felt fuzzier when compared with the new iPad’s ‘retina’ display, left. (It’s hard to reproduce on a web page.)

Along with the unmatched collection of 200,000 third-party programs designed for its large screen, and the large catalogs of music, books, periodicals and video content available for it, I can recommend the new iPad to consumers as their best choice in a general-purpose tablet.

The exceptions would be people who prefer a smaller size for one-handed use, or those who find the weight a burden. While the weight gain was noticeable, I didn’t find it a problem even for long reading or video-watching sessions. The extra thickness was barely discernible.

For the weight conscious, and for those who can’t swing the $499 entry cost, there is an out. Apple for the first time is making and selling the prior iPad model at a reduced price. The iPad 2 will now be available starting at $399, with just one choice of storage capacity — 16 gigabytes. The new iPad can be bought in 16, 32 or 64 GB capacities, at prices up to $829. The optional cellular capability costs the same as the slower 3G capability, both up front and in monthly fees from Verizon and AT&T.

The Display

It’s not as if people are complaining about the screens on their iPads, a device so attractive and useful that Apple sold about 55 million of them in two years. But this display is a big leap forward.

It’s hard to illustrate on a Web page or in print how brilliant this new display is. You have to see it. Apple calls it a “retina” display because, at normal viewing distance, there are so many pixels per inch, the human eye can’t pick them out individually. This display packs 264 pixels into every inch, twice as many as on iPad 2. Overall, the resolution is 2048 x 1536, versus 1024 x 768 for the iPad 2.

My epiphany came when I placed my iPad 2 next to the new model, with the same text on the screen. Letters and words that had seemed sharp on the older model five minutes earlier suddenly looked fuzzier.

As I tested the new model over five days, I found I was able to use smaller font sizes to read books and email. The same photos I had enjoyed on the older model looked much better on the new one, not only because of the increased resolution, but because Apple claims it increased color saturation by 44%. One thing Apple hasn’t fixed: like all glossy, LCD color displays, this one still does poorly in direct sunlight.

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The new iPad’s 4G LTE cellular speeds are faster than many home Internet connections, as seen in this speed test showing how fast it would take to download data.
The Speed

The new iPad is hardly the first device to use 4G LTE cellular technology, but it marks a huge difference from the iPad 2. On Verizon’s network in Washington and Austin, Texas, I averaged LTE download speeds of over 17 megabits per second, faster than most home wired networks. A colleague using a new iPad on AT&T’s LTE network averaged over 12 mbps. My iPad 2 running Verizon’s 3G network averaged just over 1 mbps. Of course, you can get a Wi-Fi only model, at $130 less. The base $499 model is Wi-Fi only.

There is another dimension to speed: the overall responsiveness of the device. The new iPad is just as buttery smooth to use as the iPad 2. Apple beefed up the processor, especially its graphics capabilities.

The Battery

Apple claims up to 10 hours of battery life between charges, and up to nine hours if you are relying strictly on cellular connectivity. In my standard battery test, where I play videos back to back with both cellular and Wi-Fi on, and the screen at 75% brightness, the new iPad logged 9 hours and 58 minutes, compared with 10 hours and 9 minutes for the iPad 2. Other tablets died hours sooner in the same test. In more normal use, the new iPad lasted more than a full day, though not as long as the iPad 2 did.

The Rear Camera

Like the iPad 2, the third-generation iPad has front and rear cameras. The front camera, meant mainly for video chats, hasn’t changed. But the rear camera, which was awful for photos on the iPad 2, and was estimated at less than a single megapixel of resolution, has greatly improved. It’s now a 5-megapixel shooter with improved optics. I loved the photos and videos it took, indoors and out.

Other features

The new iPad is the first that can be used, like many smartphones, as a personal hot spot — a base station to connect laptops and other devices to the Internet. In my tests, this worked fine.

It also allows you to dictate, rather than type, emails and other text. I found this surprisingly accurate. And Apple now has a brilliant new version of its iPhoto software that has been rewritten for the iPad, reviewed this week by Katie Boehret.

Bottom Line

Since it launched in 2010, the iPad has been the best tablet on the planet. With the new, third-generation model, it still holds that crown.

Write to Walt at mossberg@wsj.com.


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