iPad (fall 2012) review: The best 10-inch tablet gets a little better

The thicker bezel of the iPad is necessary at this size and weight; it helps keep a grip on the otherwise ultra-sleek body. The single home button still feels a little vestigial, but it's not going anywhere anytime soon. Volume rocker buttons on the side and a silence/orientation lock switch remain. Speakers, headphone jack: they're all the same.

This is the first iPad that hasn't changed its look at all since the last iteration. The third-gen iPad is awfully close to the iPad 2, but thicker. That makes three straight similar-looking iPad models. Much like the iPhone, the iPad in its larger 9.7-inch version has settled into a form, for now. It seems due for a redesign next year, based on Apple's evolutionary history of iOS devices. But it isn't essential that it gets one.

A6X: What's the difference?
So, let's get down to that new A6X processor. Just like the last iPad's A5X, the A6X is a dual-core ARM-based processor with quad-core graphics. Those extra graphics are what distinguish it from the A6 processor on the iPhone 5. The same was true for the A5X on the early 2012 iPad versus the iPhone 4S.

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It's hard to test any apps that truly take advantage of the A6X, because at the time of this review, no apps were available that claimed to be fourth-gen iPad-enhanced. Theoretically, games should run faster and smoother on the Retina Display. Indeed, the ones I tested did. N.O.V.A. 3, a first-person shooter from Gameloft that's often prone to choppiness in heavy action, was silky smooth. Other games seemed equally fast-loading and zippy.

In some instances, you can see the difference clearly. The third-gen iPad booted up from a turned-off state in 27 seconds; the fourth-gen iPad boots in 16 seconds. I downloaded apps and tried launching a variety of apps, as well as encoding videos shot with the front and rear cameras. In those instances, the difference was generally no more than a few seconds. The iPad feels very fast, and without a hiccup on iOS 6, but then again, the third-gen iPad felt that way, too. With the same amount of RAM as before (1GB), the number of apps you can keep quick-swapping between using the iOS version of multitasking remains largely the same. Using Geekbench 2, a popular benchmarking app, the fourth-gen iPad scored a 1,761 (higher is better). The third-gen iPad scored around 750, more in keeping with the iPad Mini and iPad 2, while the iPhone 5 scored 1,461. On the SunSpider JavaScript 0.9.1 benchmark test, the fourth-gen iPad blazed at 875 milliseconds over an average of three runs (lower is better), while the iPad Mini performed the same test at 1,503ms. The iPhone 5, with its A6 processor, performed the SunSpider test at 1,073ms. Benchmark apps aren't always an indicator of true performance, but the fourth-gen iPad, by any measure I could find, is the fastest iOS device around.

Other tablets may be going quad-core for the most part, but the A6X does its part to provide what feels like very fast performance, and easily enough power to do anything you'd dream of doing on iOS.

Camera: FaceTime HD
The new front-facing FaceTime HD camera doesn't feel as dramatic as it did on the iPhone 5 or fifth-gen iPod Touch. For one, the iPad's screen is a lot larger; also, that high-res Retina Display can display a lot more pixels, so the average image just comes off as grainier. It's still better than before, and it makes a difference on FaceTime calls, but the rear camera remains the same as before: 5 megapixels, no changes. It's suitable in a pinch, but as a whole the iPad's camera doesn't match the stellar quality of the iPhone 5's. This should encourage you to never be that person taking photos in public with an iPad.

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Wi-Fi and LTE: A little better
It's worth noting that the built-in Wi-Fi antennas on the fourth-gen iPad are now dual-band (2.4GHz and 5GHz 802.11a/b/g/n), which should offer better connections and speeds over the average home network. Apple made the move to dual-band on the iPhone 5 and iPad Mini, too.

The LTE versions of the iPad are available in three versions: AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint. They still cost $130 more than the Wi-Fi-only options. The LTE connection has improved to offer greater compatibility with global cellular networks. That's good news for travelers and buyers of the LTE iPad in markets other than the U.S. and Canada. My review unit was Wi-Fi only, so I didn't have a chance to test how LTE worked.

What's in the box: Lightning, 12W adapter
Just like before, the iPad includes just the device plus a sync/charge cable and AC adapter. Those two have been tweaked in the fourth-gen model: USB-to-Lightning replaces the older 30-pin cable, and the AC brick is 12W, as opposed to 10W. No earbuds or EarPods are included.

The Lightning connector, new to this larger iPad, is Apple's new syncing, charging, and connection port. It debuted on the iPhone 5 in September and has since been seen on the iPod Nano, fifth-gen iPod Touch, the iPad Mini, and this iPad. The Lightning connector has essentially the same functionality as the older 30-pin, but requires new cables or a separate adapter for older accessories (which may not work with all functions). That could be annoying if you have an iPad dock, but many accessories have been increasingly using AirPlay for wireless video and audio streaming. I prefer that option, especially with a larger device like the iPad.

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The 12W adapter offers up slightly faster charging. The third-gen iPad was notoriously slow to charge, and so far I've seen the new iPad make greater progress over an hour's top-off plug-in. It's not superfast, but it's better.

Battery life
Apple makes the same battery-life claims on the fourth-gen iPad as on the third-gen: 10 hours of video playback. Then again, the third-gen iPad supposedly had the same battery life as the iPad 2, but actually lasted a little less over the course of an average day.

The latest iPad's battery life, based on our formal tests, is even higher than we expected: it lasted through 13.1 hours of continuous video playback, compared with 11.4 hours on the third-gen iPad. An extra hour and 42 minutes of battery life to go with a significantly faster processor and graphics makes for an awfully nice one-two punch. The fourth-gen iPad lasted a good solid day, and then some, through continuous video-playing, game-playing, Web-browsing use. Incidentally, it also outperformed the iPad Mini's battery life by a full hour.

Conclusion
The new fourth-generation iPad is the best iPad. It's the fastest iPad. But it's no longer the smallest iPad, or the most affordable. That changes the perception of Apple's larger tablet seemingly overnight: this is now the professional-level performance device, the laptop alternative.

Who are we kidding? It's still pretty portable, and at $499, it's decently affordable. For those who care about the best screen, excellent battery life, impressive performance and the greatest compatibility with cutting-edge apps, look no further. Others may choose the iPad Mini for its compactness. In the long run, the iPad Mini may be the most successful iPad. Today, I still think that award belongs to the larger, classic version, but by a narrow margin -- and mainly because of that Retina Display.

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  • Wireless Connectivity IEEE 802.11n
  • Type Apple iOS
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  • Weight 1.44 lbs
  • Storage 16 GB
About The Author

Scott Stein is a senior editor covering iOS and laptop reviews, mobile computing, video games, and tech culture. He has previously written for both mainstream and technology enthusiast publications including Wired, Esquire.com, Men's Journal, and Maxim, and regularly appears on TV and radio talking tech trends.