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Apple iPad March 2012 review: Apple iPad March 2012

Apple iPad March 2012

Donald Bell

Donald Bell

Senior Editor / How To

Donald Bell has spent more than five years as a CNET senior editor, reviewing everything from MP3 players to the first three generations of the Apple iPad. He currently devotes his time to producing How To content for CNET, as well as weekly episodes of CNET's Top 5 video series.

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14 min read

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.


Apple iPad March 2012

The Good

Apple's <b>new iPad</b> 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.

Update October 23, 2012: The third-generation iPad reviewed here has been replaced by a fourth-generation iPad that adds a faster A6X processor and a Lightning connector.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.

iPad Global Speed Test
Watch this: iPad Global Speed Test

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.

Even your old games will look and perform better on the new iPad. It's not like the old days when games designed for the original iPhone had to be stretched and deformed to fill the iPad's screen. Games that look great on the iPad 2, such as Cut the Rope, Infinity Blade, and Fruit Ninja, look as though they've had a haze cleared from the screen. I'm sure there's some resolution scaling involved, but there were no visible artifacts that we could pick out. Everything just looks smooth and crisp.

And for titles that have been optimized for the new iPad's screen and graphics processor, plan your sick day now. Games like Sky Gamblers: Air Supremacy and Mass Effect 3 Infiltrator look as though they were beamed over from your Xbox 360.

Game on for Apple's newest iPad
Watch this: Game on for Apple's newest iPad

You still lack the physical controls of a traditional console, though, and for serious gamers, there's still a case to be made for portable gaming systems like the PS Vita and Nintendo 3DS.

Gamers should also be aware that as the iPad's games increase in sophistication and resolution, and so might their file size. Epic's Infinity Blade 2 is 791MB, and two of Gameloft's Modern Combat titles break the gigabyte barrier. A 16GB iPad doesn't hold what it used to.

App sizes pre- and post-Retina update

App Previous size New size
StockTouch 2.7MB 3.8MB
New York Times for iPad 4.2MB 4.9MB
Tweetbot 9.1MB 25MB
Calcbot 10.8MB 21.3MB
iStopMotion for iPad 13.9MB 32.2MB
Diamond Dash 14.4MB 23.4MB
Day One 15.5MB 15.9MB
SketchBook Pro for iPad 15.5MB 34.6MB
Labyrinth 2 HD 15.8MB 45.3MB
Amazon Kindle 16.6MB 18.3MB
Joining Hands 16.6MB 26.4MB
Evernote 16.7MB 19MB
Foosball HD 18.5MB 25.2MB
IncrediBooth 20MB 37.5MB
Star Walk for iPad 122MB 153MB
Solar Walk 180MB 303MB
Martha Stewart Cookies 339MB 705MB

Don't be fooled by the new iPad's spec sheet. The bumps in processing power and RAM are balanced out by the demands of the Retina Display and processing the types of high-resolution content you'll be feeding it. The experience of poking around the music player or composing an e-mail are seemingly no swifter than on the iPad 2.

Fortunately, we never found the iPad 2 lacking in system performance power. There were things it simply couldn't do, such as play 1080p video files, but it seldom sputtered or hung while browsing the Web or loading apps.

Speed tests: New iPad vs. iPad 2
Watch this: Speed tests: New iPad vs. iPad 2

Tested spec Apple iPad (2012) Apple iPad 2 Asus Transformer Prime Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1
Maximum brightness (Super IPS) 455 cd/m2 432 cd/m2 358 cd/m2 (570 cd/m2) 336 cd/m2
Default brightness 160 cd/m2 176 cd/m2 183 cd/m2 336 cd/m2
Maximum black level (Super IPS) 0.49 cd/m2 0.46 cd/m2 0.27 cd/m2 (0.45 cd/m2) 0.30 cd/m2
Default black level 0.17 cd/m2 0.19 cd/m2 0.15 cd/m2 0.30 cd/m2
Default contrast ratio 941:1 926:1 1,220:1 1,120:1
Maximum contrast ratio (Super IPS) 928:1 939:1 1,325:1 (1,266:1) 1,120:1

The new iPad's maximum brightness is slightly higher than the iPad 2's, but it can't match the Android 4.0-based Asus Transformer Prime in Super IPS mode. The Prime's Super IPS mode's high brightness is useful when using the tablet in direct sunlight. At the other end of the spectrum, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1's PLS-based display delivers a lower maximum black level.

While the new iPad's screen is gorgeous, it still can't technically match the luminance extremes of these two popular Android tablets. But thanks to the visual impact of the new iPad's high-resolution display, it's an easy detail to look past. If you do crank up the iPad's brightness, be prepared to take a hit on battery life.

With the new iPad, 1080p video files will play just fine, and are ironically upscaled to the screen's native resolution. These video files take a huge bite out of the iPad's capacity, though, with a movie like "Hugo" coming in at 3.99GB. If you're going to store a lot of HD media, spring for the extra capacity.

The same caveat goes for the iPad's new rear camera, which offers a dramatically improved 5-megapixel still camera and 1080p video-recording quality. A test photo and sample video can be seen below. In both cases (but especially for video) these high-quality files will eat up space over time, so don't skimp on capacity if you plan on using the camera often.

(Credit: CNET Asia)
Here's a test shot taken with the iPad's rear camera.

New iPad's camera loves to film buses
Watch this: New iPad's camera loves to shoot buses

The 4G data speeds on the Verizon model of the new iPad were as swift as we'd expect. As someone who's more accustomed to using the iPad at home or work, I have to admit that it was pretty liberating to have Wi-Fi-like speeds while out and about. Even more liberating was the fact that the iPad's data plans require no contracts and can be canceled or reactivated any time.

It's also worth noting that use of 4G and/or graphically intensive games does tend to make the back of the new iPad fairly warm. After stress testing the new iPad exhaustively while measuring its temperature, we can confidently say that the slight uptick in heat compared to the iPad 2 is not a safety concern. On a cold day, maybe the extra warmth could actually come in handy.

iPad (AT&T 4G LTE) Motorola Droid XyBoard 10.1 (Verizon 4G LTE) HTC Jetstream (AT&T LTE)
Angry Birds Rio download (in seconds) 14 17 40
CNET.com load (in seconds) 5 6 17
Giantbomb.com load (in seconds) 7 10 18

Apple's rated battery for the new iPad remains at a 10-hour mark that still befuddles the competition. With 4G active, this number slips down to a still admirable 9 hours.

Here are the official CNET Labs-tested battery life results. Check here on specific information on testing the new iPad's battery and here for battery life results for all tablets.

iPad (2012) iPad 2 Asus Transformer Prime Transformer Prime w/keyboard dock
Movie battery life (in hours) 12.8 14.2 9.6 15.3

Fortunately, Apple hasn't done anything to monkey around with the iPad's universal dock connection. Generally speaking, if you could plug it into the first two iPads, it should work with the new one as well. This goes for charging cables, video adapters (such as Apple's HDMI-compatible Digital AV Adapter), Apple's Camera Connection kit, or any in-car adapter cables. Apple has released an updated version of its HDMI Digital AV Adapter that is optimized for the new iPad, but the older adapter will still work.

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).

For the minimalists, Apple's Smart Cover remains the go-to solution for protecting your iPad's screen. It uses a unique hinged cover that 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.

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 in a traditional wraparound case is still the best way to go.

Who should buy it?
If you've waited this long to buy your first iPad, congratulations! Buy with confidence that this is the best iPad yet. That said, the price of a new iPad has you cringing, there are a number of more affordable iPad alternatives out there.

For existing iPad owners, I would liken this to the time you upgraded your TV to a high-definition model. All things being equal, if this is something you're going to look at every day, you may as well invest in the remarkably better screen.

Will the iPad's screen be matched or bested by a better or cheaper product in the near future? Possibly. But even if an Android tablet manufacturer throws one out there, the general dearth of tablet-optimized Android apps to run on it will take some time to overcome.

For a more in-depth take on this question, see "Here's who should buy the new iPad."

Final thoughts
When the original iPad bounded out of the starting gate, it took a huge lead before its competitors figured out what was going on. With the iPad 2, Apple lapped the competition once more by setting design expectations that were nearly impossible to match. The third iPad employs a similar tactic, dramatically raising our collective expectations of tablet screen quality. Placed next to the competition, the superior product is literally plain to see.

Senior Editor Eric Franklin contributed to this review.


Apple iPad March 2012

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 9
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