Editors' note (October 23, 2012): While Apple now sells a fourth-generation iPad with a faster A6X processor and a Lightning connector and a smaller 7.9-inch iPad Mini, the 16GB iPad 2 reviewed here remains on the market ($399 for the Wi-Fi version, $529 for the AT&T 3G or Verizon 3G version).
The competition must really hate Apple. The Apple iPad wasn't just a successful tablet computer in 2010--it was the tablet computer. In one fell swoop, Apple created the new tablet market and sold tens of millions of iPads in spite of a global economic downturn and considerable skepticism.
The same, only better
With the iPad's second go-around, Apple sticks to its successful formula. The iPad 2 is thinner, faster, and includes two cameras, but otherwise, the iPad stays the same: size, price, capacity, and features all carry over.
Oh, except for color. Apple now offers both white and black versions of the iPad 2 in every price and configuration. The base model starts at $499, giving you 16GB of storage and a Wi-Fi connection to the Internet. If you want more storage for all your applications, photos, music, and videos, you can jump up to the 32GB ($599) or 64GB ($699) models.
The freedom to surf the Web over a 3G cellular connection costs an extra $130 for any of the three models mentioned above, plus monthly carrier fees. Unlike with the original iPad, you now have a choice of two carriers (Verizon or AT&T). Choose carefully, though, since the Verizon version of the iPad can't be made to work on AT&T, and vice versa.
The iPad 2 is thin--so thin, in fact, that it feels like a different device. Measuring just 0.34 of an inch, it's thinner than the iPhone 4 and a third thinner than the original iPad.
Despite the thinner design, its construction quality is no less rugged than the original's. The back of the iPad is still made from a durable, single slab of aluminum machined to fit the iPad's internal components like a glove. The face of the iPad is covered in the same scratch-resistant glass, with a home button at the bottom of the screen and a new front-facing camera at the top.
Otherwise, the iPad 2 sticks to familiar iPad routines. The sleep/wake buttons and headphone jack are in the same place as on the original, up top, as are the volume rocker and mute/rotation lock switch on the right edge. On the bottom you'll find the iPad's universal dock connection and the internal speaker. The speaker's perforated grille now wraps around the back, giving it more surface area and noticeably better sound quality.
For the iPad 2, Apple has avoided compatibility shenanigans. With the exception of any original iPad cases, the device works with first-gen accessories (docks, adapters, speakers, video cables, chargers), though first-gen docks don't fit like a glove. An updated standard dock for the iPad 2 is available. For keyboard support, Apple now recommends its Bluetooth wireless keyboard.
The iPad 2 accessory that's really getting all the attention is Apple's new Smart Cover. An answer to all the bulky, overdone, rubber third-party cases made for the first iPad, Apple's unique hinged cover comes in two materials--leather ($59) and polyurethane ($39)--and multiple colors. It attaches magnetically to the left or right edge of the iPad 2 using two aluminum hinges embedded with impressively strong rare-earth magnets. Magnets within the cover are used to detect when the cover is open or shut, allowing the iPad 2 to automatically wake or sleep. It works, but you also have the option in Settings to bypass the automatic wake feature and use the button manually.
As accessories go, the Smart Cover is nifty--not so much for the protection it offers, but for the convenient stand it provides when rolled up. If, on the other hand, you are seriously concerned about protecting your investment, keeping the iPad 2 in a traditional wraparound case is still the best way to go.
Features: New stuff
The iPad 2 isn't a radical departure from the original, but it does have a few new tricks up its sleeve.
The banner feature for the iPad 2 is the addition of two cameras, both able to record video or snap photos. The camera on the back is located in the upper-right corner where it isn't likely to be covered by your hand (in portrait orientation, at least). It looks just like the chrome-ringed lens on the iPhone 4 and is similarly blessed with 720p video capture. There's no camera flash, however, and the camera sensor is a far cry from the one used in the iPhone 4. Just like the fourth-generation iPod Touch, the iPad 2 takes photos that are essentially video stills. A gallery of photos taken with the iPad 2 can be seen.
Even if Apple had gone the route of using a Carl Zeiss lens and a 10-megapixel sensor, the iPad 2 just isn't a replacement for a camera or smartphone. Having tested the camera quality of tablets over the past year, we can't stress enough how silly you feel shooting videos or photos with a tablet in public. It's like taking a picture with a cutting board. Your grandfather's camera was less conspicuous. You get looks, and they're not the envious kind.
Really, the cameras are there as a way to support Apple's FaceTime video chat app, which is now available for Mac, iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad 2. If you've been waiting for the Jetsons' video phone, FaceTime on the iPad gets you pretty close. Unlike smaller devices, the iPad's 9.7-inch screen can present faces at life-size. We've seen this before with desktop- and laptop-based video calling, but it can be uncanny to actually hold an image of someone's life-size face in your hands. FaceTime still remains a Wi-Fi-only feature, however, so in-car iPad video calls are an elusive capability (probably to humanity's advantage).
Other iPad 2 apps designed by Apple include GarageBand and iMovie, which must be purchased separately for $4.99 each. The iPad is the last of Apple's iOS devices to be blessed with iMovie (and the camera required for it), but is the first to receive GarageBand. We have separate write-ups of GarageBand for iPad and available for more depth.
Under the hood, the iPad 2 has plenty to brag about. The new spec uses a dual-core A5 processor that promises to be twice as fast with nine times the graphics performance. If gaming graphic quality is an important consideration for you, you can jump ahead to the Performance section of this review.
Another feature sure to burn the competition is full HDMI AV output compatibility. Using a $39 dock cable, the iPad can now mirror its output to a TV over a standard HDMI connection. The supported resolution goes up to 1080p, though video playback and most apps never break out of 720p. Unlike previous video-out solutions for the iPad, this cable no longer limits users to simply video playback or presentations. Everything you see on the screen is mirrored on your TV, including video, photos, games, and the home screen. Competitors such as RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook and the Motorola Xoom have been waving HDMI compatibility as a key advantage over the iPad. Now they have one fewer bragging point.
The iPad 2 also adds the same three-axis gyroscope sensor shared by the iPhone 4 and iPod Touch, giving the device a more detailed sense of its orientation in space, similar to the feeling of holding a Nintendo Wii remote. The gyro's appeal is mostly for gaming, allowing for more precise motion control and realistic navigation within virtual environments. In a first-person shooter game like N.O.V.A., for instance, you can tilt the iPad 2's screen up, down, left, or right to explore the game's surroundings, just like a window into the game's universe.
Features: Oldies but goodies
Cameras and gyros are nice, but let's not forget all the features that made the original iPad unbeatable. If you've ever used an iPhone or iPod Touch, the iPad 2 will feel immediately familiar. Out of the box, you get many of the iPhone's capabilities, including Apple-designed apps for Web browsing, e-mail, maps, photos, music, video, and YouTube. More apps can be installed using the built-in App Store software or by connecting the iPad to iTunes via your computer using the included cable. If you already own apps purchased for an iPhone or iPod Touch, you can transfer these apps to the iPad, as well.
The original iPad made its debut with iOS 3.2. That OS' limitations seem prehistoric today. You couldn't bounce between applications with multitasking. You couldn't organize applications into folders. And support for document printing and AirPlay streaming of music, videos, and photos didn't arrive until November 2010.
One sticking point in the original iPad that Apple hasn't addressed in the iPad 2 is Adobe Flash support for Apple's Safari Web browser. Apple seems dead set against supporting Adobe's popular tool for presenting video and graphics on the Web, and without it, many corners of the Web are inaccessible on the iPad or present a Swiss cheese of broken content. For the most part, though, the iPad's Web-browsing experience is the best you'll find on a tablet. Navigation is responsive, zooming in and out of text is fluid, and managing multiple open pages is a cinch.
The iPad's device features, such as Bluetooth 2.1 (A2DP, EDR), Wi-Fi 802.11 n, 3G, and 10 hours of battery life, are all here, and in many cases are still the bar by which other tablets are judged.
Wi-Fi versus 3G
For road warriors or those who just get a little itchy at the idea of not being connected to the Internet, Apple offers a version of the iPad with an integrated 3G cellular data connection.
Aside from a negligible added heft of 0.1 pound and the fact that buyers are paying an extra $130 for the 3G capability (compared with Wi-Fi-only models), there's no downside to owning a 3G-compatible model. Unlike the data plans for most smartphones, the iPad doesn't come with any long-term contractual obligations. If you don't end up using the iPad's 3G capability, you can cancel the data plan at any time.
If you decide to go with the 3G option for the iPad 2, you have your choice of two carriers: AT&T or Verizon. Data plans and fees differ between the two carriers (and are always subject to change), and the 3G cellular technology under the hood differs as well.
The AT&T iPad model uses a GSM modem and a micro-SIM card slot, allowing you to easily swap in compatible micro-SIM cards from foreign carriers when overseas. Verizon's iPad uses a CDMA 3G modem and lacks the SIM-swapping feature of AT&T's GSM modem, making it a poor choice for international jet-setters.
As far as data plans go, AT&T offers two options: $15 a month for 250MB of data, or $25 a month for 2GB. Each option can be prepaid for a month, and AT&T's plans do not include an activation fee.
Verizon's plans are a little steeper, but more generous with data. There's a 1GB plan for $20, 3GB for $35, 5GB for $50, and a whopping 10GB for $80. There's an initial $35 activation fee, however, which you run the chance of paying each time you let your account lapse for over three months.