CNET's ongoing iPad 2 review

CNET Senior Editor Donald Bell live-blogs his full review of the Apple iPad 2, evaluating its design, features, and performance, and comparing it with other tablets.

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.
Donald Bell
13 min read
The Apple iPad 2
The Apple iPad 2 James Martin/CNET

On the day the Apple iPad 2 goes on sale, CNET Senior Editor Donald Bell will be live-blogging his full review. Follow along for his complete analysis of the design, features, and performance. Updates will be added throughout the day.

The competition must really hate Apple. The Apple iPad wasn't just a successful tablet computer in 2010--it was the tablet computer. In one fell swoop, Apple created the new tablet market and sold tens of millions of iPads in spite of a global economic downturn and considerable skepticism.

The same, only better
With the iPad's second go-around, Apple sticks to its successful formula. The iPad 2 is thinner, faster, and includes two cameras. Otherwise, the iPad stays the same: size, price, capacity, and features all carry over.

Oh, except for color. Apple now offers both white and black versions of the iPad 2 in every price and configuration. The base model starts at $499, giving you 16GB of storage and a Wi-Fi connection to the Internet. If you want more storage for all your apps, photos, music, and videos, you can jump up to the 32GB ($599) or 64GB ($699) models.

The freedom to surf the Web over a 3G cellular connection costs an extra $130 over any of the three capacities mentioned above, plus monthly carrier fees. Unlike for the original iPad, you now have a choice of two carriers (Verizon and AT&T). Choose carefully, though, since the Verizon version of the iPad can't be made to work on AT&T, and vice versa.

The hardware
The iPad 2 is thin--so thin, in fact, that it feels like a different device. Measuring just 0.34 inch, it's thinner than the iPhone 4 and a third thinner than the original iPad.

Despite the thinner design, its construction quality is no less rugged than the original's. The back of the iPad is still made from a durable, single slab of aluminum machined to fit the iPad's internal components like a glove. The face of the iPad is covered in the same scratch-resistant glass, with a home button at the bottom of the screen and a new front-facing camera at the top.

Otherwise, the iPad 2 sticks to familiar iPad routines. The iPad's sleep/wake buttons and headphone jack are right up top, just as on the original, as are the volume rocker and mute/rotation lock switch on the right edge. On the bottom you'll find the iPad's universal dock connection and the internal speaker. The speaker's perforated grille now wraps around the back, giving it more surface area and noticeably better sound quality.

For the iPad 2, Apple has avoided compatibility shenanigans. With the exception of any original iPad cases, the device works with first-gen accessories (docks, adapters, speakers, video cables, chargers), though first-gen docks don't fit like a glove. An updated standard dock for the iPad 2 is available. For keyboard support, Apple now recommends its Bluetooth wireless keyboard.

The iPad 2 accessory that's really getting all the attention is Apple's new Smart Cover. An answer to all the bulky, overdone third-party cases made for the first iPad, Apple's unique hinged cover comes in two types--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. Magnets within the cover are also used to detect when the cover is open or shut, which allows the iPad 2 to automatically wake or sleep. It works, but you also have the option in Settings to bypass the automatic wake feature and use the button manually.

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

Apple iPad 2 and Smart Cover (photos)

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(Update, 1:50 p.m. PT) Features: New stuff
The iPad 2 isn't a radical departure from the original, but it does have a few new tricks up its sleeve.

The banner feature for the iPad 2 is the addition of two cameras, both able to record video or snap photos. The camera on the back is located in the upper-right corner where it isn't likely to be covered by your hand (in portrait orientation, at least). It looks just like the chrome-ringed lens on the iPhone 4 and is similarly blessed with 720p video capture. There's no camera flash, however, and the camera sensor is a far cry from the one used on the iPhone 4. Just like the fourth-generation iPod Touch, the iPad 2 takes what are essentially video stills.

Even if Apple had gone the route of using a Zeiss lens and a 10-megapixel sensor, the iPad 2 just isn't a replacement for a camera or smartphone. Having tested camera quality on tablets over the past year, we can't stress enough how silly you feel shooting videos or photos with a tablet in public. It's like taking a picture with a cutting board. Your grandfather's camera was less conspicuous. You get looks, and they're not the envious kind.

Really, the cameras are there as a way to support Apple's FaceTime video chat application, which is now available for Mac, iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad 2. If you've been waiting for the Jetsons' video phone, FaceTime on the iPad gets you pretty close. Unlike smaller devices, the iPad's 9.7-inch screen can present faces at life size. We've seen this before with desktop- and laptop-based video calling, but it can be uncanny to actually hold someone's life-size face in your hands. FaceTime still remains a Wi-Fi-only feature, however, so in-car iPad video calls are an elusive capability (probably to humanity's advantage).

Other iPad 2 apps designed by Apple include GarageBand and iMovie, which must be purchased separately for $4.99 each. The iPad is the last of Apple's iOS devices to be blessed with iMovie (and the camera required for it), but is the first to receive GarageBand. We have separate write-ups of both GarageBand for iPad and iMovie for iPad available for more depth.

Under the hood, the iPad 2 has plenty to brag about. The new spec uses a dual-core A5 processor that promises to be twice as fast with nine times the graphics performance.

Another feature sure to burn the competition is full HDMI audiovisual output compatibility. Using a $39 dock cable, the iPad can now mirror its output to a TV over a standard HDMI connection. The supported resolution goes up to 1080p, though video playback and most apps never break out of 720p. Unlike previous video-out solutions for the iPad, this cable no longer limits you to video playback or presentations only. Everything you see on the screen can be mirrored on your TV, including video, photos, games, and the home screen. Competitors such as RIM's PlayBook and the Motorola Xoom have been pointing to HDMI compatibility as a key advantage over the iPad. Now they have one fewer bragging point.

The iPad 2 also adds the same three-axis gyroscope sensor shared by the iPhone 4 and iPod Touch, giving the device a more detailed sense of its orientation in space, similar to the feeling of holding a Nintendo Wii remote. The gyro's appeal is mostly for gaming, allowing for more precise motion control and realistic navigation within virtual environments. In a first-person shooter game like N.O.V.A., for instance, you can tilt the iPad 2's screen up, down, left, or right to explore the game's surroundings, just like a window into the game's universe.

(Update, 2:15 p.m. PT) Features: Oldies but goodies
Cameras and gyros are nice, but let's not forget all the features that made the original iPad unbeatable. If you've ever used an iPhone or iPod Touch, the iPad 2 will feel immediately familiar. Out of the box, you get many of the iPhone's capabilities, including Apple-designed applications (apps) for Web browsing, e-mail, maps, photos, music, video, YouTube, and more. 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 operating system's 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 of 2010.

At launch, the iPad 2 comes with iOS 4.3, bringing a host of important new features and improvements. There are new apps for PhotoBooth (a dedicated portrait-taking app), and FaceTime video chat. The Safari Web browser gets a speed boost under the hood for improved JavaScript rendering. The iPod app now includes a Home Sharing option for streaming media over your home network from local computers. And for those of you who want flexible control over the function of the switch above the iPad's volume buttons, iOS 4.3 hands over the reigns and allows you to designate it as either a rotation lock or a mute button for system alert sounds (such as incoming FaceTime calls).

One sticking point that Apple hasn't addressed from the original iPad is Adobe Flash support for its Safari Web browser. Apple seems dead-set against supporting Adobe's popular tool for presenting video and graphics on the Web, and without it, many corners of the Internet are inaccessible on the iPad or present a Swiss cheese of broken content. For the most part, though, the iPad's Web browsing experience is the best you'll find on a tablet. Navigation is responsive, zooming in and out of text is fluid, and managing multiple open pages is a cinch.

The iPad's device features, such as Bluetooth 2.1 (A2DP, EDR), Wi-Fi 802.11 n, 3G, and 10 hours of battery life, are all here, and in many cases are still the bar by which other tablets are judged.

Wi-Fi versus 3G?
For road warriors or 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 3G cellular data connection.

Aside from a negligible added heft of 0.1 pound and the fact that buyers are paying an extra $130 for the 3G capability (compared with Wi-Fi-only models), there's no downside to owning a 3G-compatible model. Unlike the data plans for most smartphones, the iPad doesn't come with any long-term contractual obligations. If you don't end up using the iPad's 3G capability, you can cancel the data plan at any time.

If you decide to go with the 3G option for the iPad 2, you have your choice of two carriers: AT&T or Verizon. Data plans and fees differ between the two carriers (and are always subject to change), and the 3G cellular technologies under the hood differ as well.

The AT&T iPad model uses a GSM modem and a MicroSIM card slot, allowing you to easily swap in compatible MicroSIM cards from foreign carriers when overseas. Verizon's iPad uses a CDMA 3G modem and lacks the SIM-swapping feature of AT&T's GSM modem, making it a poor choice for international jet-setters.

As far as data plans go, AT&T offers two options: $15 a month for 250MB of data, or $25 a month for 2GB. Each option can be prepaid for a month in advance and AT&T's plans do not include an activation fee.

Verizon's plans are a little steeper, but more generous with data. There's a 1GB plan for $20, 3GB for $35, 5GB for $50, and a whopping 10GB for $80. There's an initial $35 activation fee, however, which you run the chance of paying each time you let your account lapse for longer than three months.

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 the better coverage in your area, as well as in the places you frequently travel.

Another advantage to iPad 2 models enabled with 3G is the added capability of assisted-GPS, allowing you to accurately pinpoint your location 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.

(Update, 3:30 p.m. PT) iPad 2 as e-reader
When Apple pitched the original iPad and then-new iBooks app as the quintessential e-book reader, we were skeptical. Apple had only a handful of publishers, and the device was as thick as two Kindles put together. We were skeptical.

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, Amazon, and Kobo, have all jumped on board with apps for the iPad. Mainstream magazines, including The New Yorker, Wired, Vanity Fair, and others, 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 lbs, compared to the Kindle 3's 0.55 lbs. 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.

Despite the criticism, 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 trackpad 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 for all of 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 larger, 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 their catalogs of tablet-optimized apps, and the chances of them catching up are slim.

For the end-user, 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 set-up and purchases just about as effortless as it can get.

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 #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 its 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 on the horizon. On the other hand, if apps and media aren't your thing, you may want to consider skipping a tablet altogether.

Stay tuned for more to come!