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Apple iPad 2 review:

Apple iPad 2

To our eyes, AT&T's plans seem more consumer-friendly and its GSM technology more flexible for travelers. That said, the plans from both carriers seem reasonable, and data quality and coverage should be your first concern. Before making the plunge, do some research to see which carrier provides better coverage for your area, as well as places you frequently travel.

Another advantage of iPad 2 models enabled with 3G is the added capability of assisted GPS (A-GPS), allowing users to accurately pinpoint their locations on a map and take advantage of navigation and location-aware apps. The Wi-Fi-only models of the iPad can use rudimentary Wi-Fi hot-spot triangulation techniques to guess locations, but are much less accurate and consistent.

If you have no plans to regularly use the iPad outside of your home, you'd do just as well to save some money and stick with a Wi-Fi model.

iPad 2 as e-reader
When Apple pitched the original iPad and then-new iBooks app as the be-all and end-all e-book reader, we were skeptical. Apple had only a handful of publishers, and the device was as thick as two Kindles put together.

A year later, the iPad has legitimately seized the attention of the publishing industry. Apple claims to have passed its 100 millionth iBook download. Meanwhile, competitors such as Barnes & Noble,, and Kobo have jumped on board with apps for the iPad. Mainstream magazines, including The New Yorker, Wired, and Vanity Fair, all have iPad-specific editions. Even specialty publications, such as comic books, test prep, and sheet music, have found their way onto the iPad. As far as content goes, the iPad has you covered.

In terms of hardware, the iPad is still a little beefy at 1.3 pounds, compared with the Kindle 3's 0.55 pound. And in spite of the iPad's otherwise excellent IPS LED-backlit display, there's no beating e-ink displays when it comes to outdoor readability. Also, a product like the Kindle DX promises up to four days of reading without a recharge, whereas the iPad will only get you 10 hours.

In spite of all these criticisms, the iPad has already proven itself a success as an e-reader. There are certainly cheaper options out there, but none with the breadth of features offered by the iPad. Plus, with the iPad 2's dramatically thinner design, Apple is in much better shape than it was last year.

What the iPad still isn't
We have plenty of kind things to say about the iPad, but there is a limit to its "magic." Tablets, in general, sit between the practicality of laptops and the convenience of smartphones, but stop short of actually replacing either device.

The iPad 2 is not a laptop replacement. After spending a year with the original iPad, we've come to appreciate laptops more than ever. In most cases, laptops and Netbooks offer a more natural typing experience, and there's still nothing like a tried-and-true mouse or touch pad when it comes to editing and navigating documents and spreadsheets. Also, if you're really a stickler for the full Adobe Flash-enabled Web experience, traditional laptop and desktop computers are still your best bet, offering more flexibility and compatibility with the Web's many formats (especially when it comes to video content and games).

The iPad 2 isn't a smartphone replacement, either. To point out the obvious, the iPad simply doesn't fit in your pocket. Today's smartphones do more than connect us to the world; they're extensions of us. If it doesn't fit in your pocket, it's not going to stay with you all day, and it will never be as personal.

It's also worth mentioning that the iPad is not a 4G device, meaning that it doesn't take advantage of the latest generation of high-speed cellular data networks. Several manufacturers, including Motorola, Samsung, LG, and RIM, are promising 4G-network-compatible tablets in 2011. Will 4G be the feature that gives iPad alternatives the edge they need to oust Apple as the top tablet maker? Honestly, we don't know yet, but it seems to be the bet the competition is making.

Apple's aces
The App Store built into every iOS device is Apple's secret weapon. Any tablet can offer a fun experience right out of the box, but it takes a steady stream of interesting, affordable apps and games to keep people glued over the long haul.

When Apple debuted the iPad in 2010, it also gave developers the tools and guidelines needed to create a new breed of tablet-optimized apps. Since then, more than 65,000 apps have been made just for the iPad. By contrast, competitors such as Google, RIM, and HP are just now starting to create catalogs of tablet-optimized apps, and the chances of them catching up are slim.

The quality and selection of apps made for the iPad represent a kind of fountain of youth for the device, imbuing it with new uses and capabilities whenever you tire of the old ones. It also helps that Apple's App Store, iTunes Store, iBooks Store, and iTunes software all run off a common user ID, making account setup and purchases just about as effortless as it gets.

The main menu app for Apple's iTunes store is also one of these "sleeping giant" features we take for granted. Here you have one-touch access to what is now the No. 1 music retailer in the world. The world. On top of music selections, you also get movie and TV downloads as well as rentals priced as low as 99 cents. Podcasts, university lectures, music videos--it's all there, and no other competitor has it, or anything close.

To be fair, when it comes to core features such as e-mail, Web browsing, media playback, maps, and contacts, many of Apple's competitors (most notably Google and the Android Honeycomb tablets) are quickly matching the iPad. If third-party apps, games, and media downloads aren't your thing, there are many competent tablets on the market worth considering, and more are on the horizon. On the other hand, if apps and media aren't your thing, you may want to consider skipping a tablet altogether.

The iPad 2 is an undeniably faster and more responsive machine than its predecessor. With a new dual-core A5 processor under the hood, Apple is claiming to have doubled performance speed overall, and boosted gaming graphics by nine times. The company has also gone and tweaked the code behind the Safari Web browser, improving JavaScript load time.

Taking Apple's spec bravado with a grain of salt, the iPad 2 is still an improvement. The original iPad was already pretty tough to beat in terms of general system responsiveness, such as keyboard latency, scrolling, and zooming. With the iPad 2, the system is a little tighter and response is more immediate, but the real-world benefits come in the form of app load times and when switching between apps using the multitasking bar.

Is the iPad 2 a gamer's dream come true? It's a mixed bag. To Apple's credit, the iPad has more games than any other tablet out there, and many of the titles feature graphic and play quality on par with full-blown gaming consoles. With the new processor, even graphically intensive games like Infinity Blade run with an uncanny fluidity, free from stuttering. But no matter how fast the iPad 2 can render its pixels, it's still limited by the iPad 2's 1,024x768-pixel display resolution. We had hoped for some of the iPhone 4's Retina Display technology in the iPad 2, but it seems Apple might be saving it for next time.

There's more to a screen than pixel density, though. Apple is still using the IPS panel technology from the original iPad, which offers outstanding viewing angles in every direction. Photo and video playback quality are still great. We noticed a slightly warmer color on the iPad 2's display compared with the original, but the contrast and black levels seemed about the same.

We tested the iPad 2's battery life at full screen with a iPad-optimized video. See below for results.

Video battery life (in hours) Maximum brightness (in cd/m2) Default brightness (in cd/m2) Contrast ratio
iPad 2 11.9 432 176 939:1

The number of accessories made for the original iPad is overwhelming. There are cases, stands, speakers, dock adapters, gaming peripherals--even an iPad-compatible grill. With the iPad 2's new thinner design, fitted accessories for the original iPad (such as cases) aren't likely to work. Even Apple's own dock and keyboard dock for the original iPad are an awkward fit for the second-generation models--though they do work.

Fortunately, Apple hasn't done anything to monkey around with the iPad 2's universal dock connection. Generally speaking, if you could plug it into the first iPad, it should work with the new version as well. This goes for charging cables, video adapters, Apple's Camera Connection kit, or any in-car adapter cables.

Apple's new Smart Cover for the iPad 2 comes in five colors of the polyurethane version ($39) and five of the leather ($69).

For the iPad 2, Apple announced two new accessories. There's the magnetic Smart Cover (which we've gone over already) and a new Digital AV Adapter that allows you to connect the iPad to a TV over HDMI. The same AV adapter also works with the iPhone, iPod Touch, and the original iPad, but only on the iPad 2 allows you to output everything from your iPad's screen--the menu, the browser, apps, games, you name it. Priced at only $39, it's a bit of an Apple TV killer, since it will output the entire iOS experience at up to 1080p, including downloaded iTunes videos and even streaming content from apps such as Netflix.

If you'd prefer to beam content wirelessly from your iPad to your TV, the little hockey-puck-size $99 Apple TV is the way to go. Aside from working as a great standalone media streamer for iTunes downloads, Netflix, and others, you can also use it to push media from your iPad to your TV (a feature Apple calls AirPlay). As of iOS 4.3, AirPlay streaming works with music, videos, and photos, as well as selected apps and Web content.

Worth the upgrade?
If you wanted the first iPad but possessed the foresight and restraint to wait until now, congratulations. There's nothing about the iPad 2 that is a step backward from the original. Buy with confidence.

If you're sitting there with a first-generation iPad and wondering whether you should upgrade, the sensible answer is no. That said, we understand that the iPad isn't a device that sells on its sensibleness. It's a fun product, and if fun is your only criterion, then by all means, buy them by the bushel.

Some of the iPad 2's capabilities for some niche audiences may justify trading in the old iPad for its thinner, faster next of kin. If Apple's FaceTime video calling service has become an indispensable feature for your family (via iPhone, iPod Touch, or Mac), it's one feature of the iPad 2 that firmware updates and accessories will just never bring to the original iPad. Some professionals may also find the iPad 2's unique HDMI video output mirroring (adapter required) to be a critical tool for presentations.

For the rest of you original iPad owners, the iPad 2's thinner profile, added cameras, and improved performance probably aren't enough to justify shelling out another $500 to $800. Unless you just have piles of cash lying around, we recommend that most existing iPad owners wait for the iPad 3.

Final thoughts
So, is the iPad 2 the tablet to beat in 2011? No doubt. It has the most apps, the thinnest construction, the longest battery life, a competitive price, and an existing pool of hundreds of thousands of satisfied, iPad-evangelizing customers. Competition from Google, HP, and RIM will keep things interesting this year, but from what we've seen so far, they've got their work cut out for them.

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