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Apple iPad March 2012 review: Apple iPad March 2012

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.

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.

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.

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 load (in seconds) 5 6 17 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.

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