Apple's new iPad: Hands-on

Apple announces the new iPad at an event in San Francisco, and CNET gets some hands-on time with the third-generation device.

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Editors' note:CNET's full, rated review of the third-generation Apple iPad is now available.

The iPad's new screen is a stunner. That's really all you need to know about the new iPad (yes, that's the name). That, and a reminder that pricing still starts at $499 for a 16GB Wi-Fi model, with 4G starting at $629.

Forget all of the minor tweaks and incremental updates Apple has made to its third-generation tablet. The faster processor, the upgrade to 4G data, the improved camera--it's all housekeeping. It's the stuff it had to do. It's the stuff any manufacturer could have done.

Now, increasing the iPad's screen resolution to 2,048x1,536 pixels that exceeds any current tablet or laptop--that's a move only Apple has the scale and industry muscle to pull off. At this point, if Apple decides that the next iPad will be made from unicorn tears, I wouldn't bet against it.

But in this pre-unicorn era, we're stuck with the new iPad and a design that is virtually indistinguishable from 2011's iPad 2. The tablet's glass and aluminum construction is still 9.5 inches tall and 7.31 inches wide. Thickness is now 0.37 inch, weighing in at 1.5 pounds. You get the same home button on the bottom of the screen, and a volume rocker on the right side along with the mute switch/rotation lock. Up top you have the sleep/wake button and headphone output, and the bottom edge retains the 30-pin port.

Apple knocked the camera quality up to 5-megapixel with 1080p video recording and backside illumination. The front-facing camera remains the same.

The screen
Remember the first time you saw an HD television? You were probably excited about the future but also a little sad that your current TV's days were numbered. For tablet fans, a glance at the iPad's new screen may offer this same emotional cocktail of envy and loss.

But what did you expect? You take a product that is 90 percent screen and a company hangs its reputation on making the prettiest products around, and you're bound to arrive at this: the point when Apple ruins other screens for you.

And let's be clear, here. Not only does the new iPad's QXGA screen wreck your expectations for tablet screens, but your laptop or desktop computer screen will also look shabby by comparison. If you think I'm making too much of it, you can see for yourself soon enough. But as you find yourself wandering the Apple Store aisles wringing your hands together, whispering, "My precious," don't say I didn't warn you.

Now, this isn't the first time Apple has played the resolution card with its product announcements. With the advent of the iPhone 4, Apple introduced its Retina Display, boasting a 960x640-pixel resolution that was remarkable at the time. But for all its beauty, the experience of looking at a 3.5-inch screen compared with the new iPad's 9.7-inch screen is like comparing a keyhole with a window.

Apple's third-generation iPad
iPhoto comes to Apple's third-generation iPad. Josh Lowensohn/CNET

As such, they lend themselves to different content. A Facebook update is no more convenient on an iPad 3 than on any smartphone, but the Maps app on the iPad confers a feeling of omnipotence no other mobile device can match. Games, movies, photos, and magazines all take on a realism that seems almost absurd on a handheld device. It's only a matter of time before someone gets motion sickness from this thing.

What else is new?
OK, enough of my love poem for the iPad's new screen. Apple made a few other notable (if predictable) improvements to the iPad.

The iPad's processor has been upgraded to an A5X. While the CPU remains dual-core, the graphics processor has been beefed up to quad-core. This seems to be a necessary measure for juggling four times the pixels of the previous model.

I never thought the idea of Siri on the iPad was as natural a fit as it is for the iPhone. Luckily, Apple feels the same way. While Siri won't be coming to the iPad, voice dictation will. That said, voice dictation on a tablet still strikes me as weird. I'm assuming you won't jog with your iPad and want to transcribe your every brilliant utterance, the way you would with an iPhone. Also, if someone asks you where to find great Thai food nearby, your phone is likely to be your first point of reference. Still, voice dictation is a welcome addition, and I suspect it will come in handy for dictating e-mails and bypassing the touch-screen keyboard when searching for information online.

I still contend that it's a bit silly waving a tablet around to capture photos and video, but I understand the counterpoint and I'll admit that the iPad's screen makes a better display than any camera or smartphone.

Checking out CNET's site on the new iPad.
Checking out CNET's site on the new iPad. Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Bluetooth 4.0 is another feature that has trickled over from the iPhone 4S. With it comes the promise of one-touch pairing, and huge improvements in battery efficiency.

And finally, for all of you jet-setting, mobile-data-devouring types, you can now buy an iPad that supports 4G LTE data, on either Verizon or AT&T. Prices for 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB come in at $629, $729, and $829, respectively.

These iPads still support 3G data, including support for HSPA, HSPA+, and DC-HSDPA networks. As always, Apple has made it so that data plans for either carrier do not require a contract and can be canceled or reactivated on a month-by-month basis, without penalty. At launch, data plans for the new iPad range from monthly allotments of 256MB, up to 5GB, with pricing ranging from $14.99 to $50, varying slightly between the two carriers.

Perhaps the most shocking part of the iPad's 4G upgrade is Apple's battery life claims. In spite of 4G data's reputation as a notorious battery-suck, Apple rates the Apple iPad + 4G at 9 hours of continuous use with 4G enabled--shaving just one hour from the 10 hour battery life you'll enjoy with 4G turned off.

What's missing?
As far as disappointments go, Apple could have been more aggressive with its processor performance, or perhaps brought the iPad's cameras up to iPhone 4S specs. Perhaps it could have gone thinner or done more to extend its lead in battery life, which Apple claims is still 10 hours, or 9 hours on 4G.

Heck, let's also throw in the age-old complaints about Apple's reluctance to include microSD memory expansion, a dedicated port for video output, or a truly universal charging connection. Oh yeah, and Adobe Flash support while you're at it.

Personally, there's really nothing I can point to and say, "Apple has clearly doomed itself." The company took its already excellent product and updated it with a gorgeous screen.

I suppose the only missed opportunity I can point to is the lack of a Kindle-priced competitor. The rumor mill suggests that Apple may release a smaller tablet later this year , but until then, it seems that Apple's only answer to the budget tablet craze is its $199 Apple iPod Touch.

Buy it or skip it?
If you have an original iPad, by all means upgrade to the iPad 3. The used market for first-generation iPads is still alive and well and will hopefully afford you at least $100 toward the new iPad that is nearly half the thickness and four times the pixels as the original iPad.

Pricing for the third-gen iPad
You can buy the third-gen iPad with or without 4G LTE, in three storage capacities. Apple

For iPad 2 owners, the question is a little fuzzier. Since the design is virtually unchanged, the question really comes down to how much you'll appreciate the new screen. If you get a big kick out of showing the latest tech toy, the new iPad and its industry-first QXGA touch screen should be a crowd-pleaser. If your job involves sales or presentations, the new iPad's dramatic screen upgrade may also makes sense (as might that 4G connectivity).

The final little push I'll give it is the same push I'd give to someone considering a better TV or even a new kitchen table: if it's something you'll be looking at every day, then spend the money for something that's going to put a smile on your face. I feel corny saying it, but as a chronic cheapskate, it's something I have to tell myself often.

Still, cheapskate that I am, if a tablet isn't already a staple of your daily routine, waiting can't hurt you. If you're new to tablets, consider dipping your toe in the water with a $199 Kindle Fire or Nook Tablet.

Final thoughts
I have to admire Apple's gamesmanship. It was the first to make a tablet people cared about. Then, just when the competition started to feel confident, Apple sliced the iPad to an impossibly thin design. For its third act, Apple has pushed tablet screen expectations to a ludicrous new height.

The competition will inevitably catch up, just as surely as Apple will raise the stakes all over again.

 

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