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Apple iPad March 2012 review: Apple iPad March 2012

The Good Apple's new iPad includes a stunning new screen, matched by a quad-core graphic processor and the world's largest app and media store to feed it content. There's a proper 5-megapixel rear camera now, with 1080p recording quality. Optional 4G data from AT&T and Verizon afford an uncompromising mobile experience.

The Bad The new iPad is slightly heavier than last year's model; apps and movies optimized for the screen might take up more space; and ports for HDMI, USB, and SD require adapters.

The Bottom Line With a host of improvements--faster graphics, 4G wireless options, a better camera, and a gorgeous high-res screen--the latest iPad cements its position at the head of the tablet pack.

8.7 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 8
  • Performance 9

Editors' note: This review was updated March 18, 2012, with CNET Labs battery test results. Also, we made correction to the new iPad's screen brightness.

Update October 23, 2012: The third-generation iPad reviewed here has been replaced by a fourth-generation iPad that adds a faster A6X processor and a Lightning connector. Apple now also offers a smaller 7.9-inch iPad Mini with prices starting at $329.

Apple's new iPad is a mix of the familiar and the futuristic. Its design remains practically unchanged from last year's iPad 2. Its internal components and wireless capabilities have only received a predictable bump. You'd think Apple fell asleep at the wheel with this one--until that moment when you turn on the screen.

When I tell you that Apple has doubled the iPad's screen resolution to an unprecedented 2,048x1,536 pixels, your eyes should water a little. No other screen in your home can compete with this resolution--not your laptop, not your desktop computer, not even your 1080p TV. For a device that fits in your lap and costs as little as $499, a screen like this is an impressive feat.

Speaking of pricing, the going rate for an iPad hasn't changed since the tablet's introduction in 2010. The $499 entry-level price buys you 16GB of built-in storage; spending $599 buys you twice the room (32GB); and $699 will bring you up to 64GB. All three models can access the Internet over Wi-Fi and are available in either black or white. If you want the added ability to access the Internet over a 4G or 3G cellular network (Verizon or AT&T), tack on an extra $130.

For the iPad uninitiated looking to save a little money, Apple is keeping around the 2011 iPad 2 (16GB), priced at $399 or $529 for a model with 3G (AT&T or Verizon). It's a good price, especially considering that the iPad 2 is still leagues better than many of the tablets we've seen this year. But if you want the bragging rights and a renewed lease on the cutting edge of tablet technology, the new iPad is the way to go.

Looking at the new iPad, you'd think someone was playing a trick on you. It looks almost exactly like last year's model. The tablet's glass and aluminum construction is still 9.5 inches tall and 7.31 inches wide. Thickness is now up slightly at 0.37 inch, weighing in at a beefier 1.44 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.

iPad iPad 2 iPad (third generation)
Screen 1,024x768 pixels 1,024x768 pixels 2,048x1,536 pixels
Thickness 0.5 0.34 0.37
Weight 1.5 pounds 1.33 pounds 1.44 pounds
Processor A4 1GHz A5 1GHz (dual-core) A5X (dual-core, w/ quad-core graphics)
Front camera N/A VGA VGA
Rear camera n/a 0.7 megapixel/720p 5 megapixels/1080p
Stabilization N/A No Yes
Face detection N/A No Yes
FaceTime No Yes Yes
Siri No No Dictation only
Gestures* Yes Yes Yes
Cellular 3G (AT&T) 3G (Verizon, AT&T) 4G (Verizon, AT&T)
Video out Limited HD mirroring HD mirroring
Bluetooth 2.1+EDR 2.1+EDR 4.0

*Multifinger gesture support, such as four-finger swipe to toggle apps, or five-finger pinch to close apps.

Apple's retreat from being one of the thinnest, lightest tablets on the market may leave some room for competitors. Already, we're seeing tablets like the Toshiba Excite X10 LE, which are thinner than the iPad 2 and just as light. Apple is betting that a best-in-class screen will trump any concerns over the slight uptick in weight and thickness. And if they're wrong, well, the iPad 2 is still around for those who can't bear the extra 51 grams.

But the surefire way to tell a new iPad apart from an iPad 2 (aside from counting pixels or breaking out the scale) is to flip them over. No, this isn't a tablet gender test; what you're looking for here is the rear camera in the top-left corner. On the new model, the camera is slightly larger, accounting for the improved optics and camera sensor, similar to what's used in the iPhone 4S (though not identical).

New features
Beyond the vastly improved screen there are a number of other upgrades worth mentioning. The iPad's processor has been upgraded to what Apple is calling an A5X. Like the A5 processor used in the iPad 2, this CPU remains dual-core. The "X" is there to signify that 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, but regardless, games and graphics perform fluidly.

Against everyone's expectations, Apple did not include its Siri digital assistant on the new iPad--at least, not entirely. Siri's voice-to-text dictation capability has migrated to the iPad, but that's it. If you want to find nearby sushi restaurants, you're going to have to search for the answer online, like a neanderthal.

Still, the addition of voice dictation is a welcome feature, and it can be handy for composing quick e-mails and bypassing the touch-screen keyboard when searching for information online. Its accuracy leaves a little to be desired, though. Just like autocorrected typing, the iPad's dictation isn't infallible.

Last but not least, there's the iPad's updated rear camera, which the company calls its iSight camera. It is a huge improvement over the iPad 2's 0.7-megapixel shooter; this updated shooter is now 5 megapixels. If you've spent any time over on Apple's iPad page, you've probably seen the exploded view of Apple's five-element lens system, which was adopted from the iPhone. However you want to explain it, the photo quality is exceptional for a tablet, and we have the photos to prove it.

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, smartphone, or photo frame.

Features we take for granted
Let's not forget all the features that made the first two iPads unbeatable. If you've ever used an iPhone or iPod Touch, the new iPad 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.

At launch, the new iPad comes with iOS 5.1 (see our full rundown). Recently added features such as iMessage, Newsstand, Notifications, and Twitter integration are all included, along with support for Apple's free iCloud online backup service.

One sticking point in the original iPad that Apple hasn't addressed in the new iPad 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, some corners of the Web are still inaccessible on the iPad.

To Apple's credit, even the maker of Flash (Adobe) has conceded that HTML5 is a better solution for presenting content on mobile devices going forward. As such, the Web is steadily bending toward greater compatibility with the iPad, and the issue of Flash compatibility seems less contentious than it once was.

In terms of browser features, the iPad's Safari browser matches what you'll find from the best competing tablets. With Google's recent improvements to Android's Chrome Web browser in Android 4.0, Apple now has some tough competition.

But in terms of the subjective Web-browsing experience, Apple's Retina Display gives the new iPad a decisive victory. Because text is rendered with such razor-sharp clarity, everything from Facebook to The New York Times take on a printlike quality that is easier on the eyes than what any laptop or tablet offers.

To 4G or not to 4G?
For 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 4G cellular data connection, priced at a $130 premium over models that only offer Wi-Fi.

The jury seems split on whether the added cost of a cellular data capability is money well spent, or an unnecessary expense. Ultimately, if you can afford it, do it. Aside from the 10 grams it adds to the iPad's overall weight, there are no drawbacks to owning an iPad 4G model other than the data plan it requires. Yet, unlike so many 4G tablets on the market, Apple's requires no contracts; the data plans you purchase month to month can be ratcheted up and down as you please.

Another advantage of iPad with 4G 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.

The 4G version of the iPad also includes a 4G hot-spot capability, allowing other Wi-Fi devices (laptops, tablets, portable media players) to take advantage of the cellular data. At launch, only Verizon's iPad 4G supported this hot-spot feature, but AT&T may eventually offer the service, as well. Our tested download and upload speeds using the iPad as a 4G hot spot found a slight, but negligible drop in data performance.

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. But if you do take the plunge, the 4G download performance on either network should knock your socks off, provided that you live in an area that supports it. For more, see our separate CNET How To on choosing the right carrier for the iPad, as well as a side-by-side comparison of each carrier's 4G LTE service.

iPad as e-reader
As far as e-book content goes, the iPad has you covered. Every major e-book retailer (and quite a few specialized stores) offer an iPad app, including Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Kobo, Google Books, Stanza, and Apple's own iBooks.

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.

But when you compare the experience of reading on the iPad with its paper-based ancestor or dedicated e-ink readers, the iPad still falls short. It's beefy at 1.44 pounds (a Kindle Touch weighs under half a pound), and in spite of the Retina Display's exquisitely rendered text, glare is still an issue--especially outdoors. Also, a product like the Nook Simple Touch promises up to two months 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 and e-book shopping options offered by the iPad.

iPad for gaming
If you don't have a game installed on your iPad, I feel sorry for you. Whether it's a simple round of Scrabble or an intense romp through Grand Theft Auto 3, the iPad's combination of Retina Display and quad-core graphics processor add up to a dramatic improvement for gaming.

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