REVIEW: Apple iPad 2 – Resetting the bar for tablets

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The iPad 2 is the second coming of the iOS-powered device that jump-started the current trend of all trends in tech – the tablet computer. Armed with a next-generation dual-core Apple A5 processor that sports two processor cores running at 1GHz each and both rear- and front-facing cameras, the new iPad 2 is slimmer, faster, and more capable than the outgoing model. To be sure, the first iPad set the bar for tablet devices of any sort – it flaunted its aluminum unibody chassis around the world, as millions upon millions of eager fans lined up for a chance to play with apps designed specifically for the larger tablet form factor. So, it’s clear that the iPad 2 is an improvement on the iPad 1, but does it have what it takes to reign as the new undisputed king of tablet devices?

Read on.

Apple iPad 2

Starting at $499.99 for WiFi-only 16GB version, $629.99 from AT&T or Verizon for WiFi+3G 16GB model (with 2-year contract).

Specifications (Specs)

  • 9.7-inch HD (1024×768) capacitive multitouch display
  • 1 GHz Apple A5 dual-core processor
  • 512MB of RAM
  • 16GB – 64GB of internal storage (depending on trim level)
  • Rear-facing camera
  • 720p HD video capture at 30fps
  • Front-facing camera for FaceTime video calls
  • HDMI-output with mirror mode (with optional accessory)
  • 3G data connection (on 3G capable versions)
  • WiFi (B/G/N)
  • GPS (with compass)
  • Gyroscope and accelerometer
  • Ambient light sensor
  • 3.5mm headphone jack
  • Bluetooth
  • iOS 4.3 (at launch)

The Good

  • Blazing fast Apple A5 dual-core processor
  • Double the RAM means more multi-tasking goodness
  • Class-leading scrolling smoothness and animated transitions
  • Lighter than its predecessor
  • Thinner than the original iPad
  • Sexy curves and aluminum unibody chassis
  • Fully stocked App Store with iPad-optimized apps
  • High-end fit/finish and material quality
  • Front-facing and rear-facing cameras
  • Built-in microphone for video chatting
  • HDMI-out with mirror mode for playing games, and web surfing on a TV

The Bad

  • Low-quality rear- and front-facing cameras are only good in a pinch
  • Curved edges make power and volume buttons awkward to press
  • No microSD card slot
  • No removable battery
  • Non-standard charging plug

Hardware

To many, the iPhone 4 could be considered the sexiest little gem in Apple’s formidable product lineup. It boasted some of the most innovative industrial design elements. No other device could match the clean lines and pencil-thin (literally) waistline of the iPhone 4. As far as mobile devices were concerned, the latest Apple phone’s 512MB of RAM and 1GHz Apple A4 processor packed the biggest punch. The iPad 2 changes all that.

Armed with the Apple A5 dual-core processor clocked at 1GHz and 512MB of RAM, the iPad 2 sits comfortably at the top of its class. It basically doubles up on the two pieces of hardware that make the most difference in performance – processing cores and RAM. It brings two cameras to the table as well – where there were previously none, now there are two – the 3-megapixel rear-facing camera and the 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera. And, to top it all off, the new Apple tablet is slimmer than even the iPhone and thankfully sheds some of the weight from its predecessor. And, to top it all off, the iPad 2 manages to sip battery power so sparingly that it claims “legendary” battery life that’s on par with the iPad 1.

The biggest visual change you’ll likely notice is the new color choice. The iPad 2 can be configured with either black display bezel (which looks identical to the bezel on the original Apple tablet) or a white display bezel. The white version, in our opinion, is where it’s at. The second most-obvious update to the iPad is the slimmer, curvier profile. Gone are the sharp, angular edges of the first iPad, replaced by a new aluminum chassis that curves organically and cuts down on weight. The curvier design and lighter weight also give the tablet a more comfortable in-hand feel – it strikes a critical balance between premium materials (which tend to weigh more) and ergonomics. Finally, a subtle change that might make a huge difference to some people (like us), the iPad 2’s display glass is borderless and goes from edge to edge.

The curved edges do pose a bit of a problem, though. The iPad 2’s power button is in roughly the same position as on the iPad 1, but the curved edges require that it sits on a bit of a sloped surface. So, instead of pressing directly down on the power button, you now have to press down and towards you (as if you’re trying to push the button right through to the front of the screen). It also means the speaker grill faces away from the display, instead of being aimed towards the bottom of the device. The dock connector/USB port is also a victim of the curved edges – the dock connector no longer plugs in to sit flush with the body, but rather sticks out of the port somewhat awkwardly. These are niggling details, though, but worth a mention.

If you get the 3G-enabled version, you’ll find a thin strip of black plastic sitting along the top edge of the device. This is where the various radios live. Radio waves tend to have a hard time travel through aluminum, so the black plastic is a necessity if you want to connect to AT&T or Verizon’s 3G network. If you opt for the WiFi-only version, you’ll be happy to know that the entire backside of the device is one continuous piece of aluminum.

The display itself is the same 9.7-inch IPS LCD display that Apple used in the first iPad. It also pushes the same number of pixels, with its 1024×768 resolution. One big change, however, for the screen is that Apple has apparently decided to thin down the display glass (likely to save weight). We’ll have to wait and see how this affects durability of the tablet, because a thinner slab of display glass means the display is more susceptible to breaking and cracking.

Overall, the iPad 2 hardware is an unqualified home run. Apple managed to improve in-hand ergnomics without sacrificing any of the premium look and feel that we’ve come to expect from the Cupertino, CA.-based tech giant. As tablet makers scramble to get their Android OS-powered devices up to par with the iPad 1, Apple has again moved the bar for what a tablet should look and feel like.

Software

iOS 4.3

With its updated iOS software, Apple seems to have pulled some punches. The iPad 2 runs on iOS 4.3 (for the time being), which falls short of the “everything and the kitchen sink” feature-set you’re likely to see in Android 3.0 Honeycomb OS-powered tablets. The Push Notifications system is still aggravatingly intrusive and woefully inflexible. The Mobile Hotspot feature that most Android devices have been playing with since before the iPad was launched is now finally built into iOS 4.3. And, support for Google services is (unsurprisingly) weak. Still, the iPad 2 leverages the power of its dual-core processor and plentiful RAM stores to run iOS even more smoothly than before and even support iMovie and GarageBand.

iMovie

Recording videos is a dead simple task. Making movies using iMovie on the iPad 2 isn’t too much harder than that. Don’t expect to get desktop-grade productions out of your tablet, and it should do you just fine. You can record videos in 720p HD resolution and then import them into iMovie with a few taps of your finger. Then, you get to choose themes, music, and fade in and fade out settings. Double tap on the movie timeline (there’s only one timeline, so you’ll know which one it is) and you get to edit the title applied to your video and choose from four different title styles (none, opening, middle, ending).

That’s really all there is to making a movie with iMovie on the iPad. On the one hand, you really don’t get that many options. For the most part, any movie you make will follow a simple, clear template. On the other hand, if you really only want to create simple movies with just a dash of style and flair, it really doesn’t get any easier than this.

After you’ve put your clips together to your liking, you can export the movie to a number of places: Camera Roll, YouTube, Facebook, Vimeo, CNN iReport, and even send the project to iTunes. Again, you really don’t have too much flexibility in terms of choice, but it’s dead simple to do. And that’s really what iOS and Apple do best – make it as easy and intuitive as possible to get the job done… with a bit a style and flair too.

FaceTime

The cameras in the iPad aren’t the best. But for FaceTime, they’re more than enough. The FaceTime app allows you to hold face-to-face video chats with pretty much any Apple device that has a video camera built into it. It works over WiFi and needs only an email address to initiate a chat. Over a good WiFi connection, video quality is about what you’d get with Skype. Audio is just as good. If you have slow or spotty WiFi service, you might have to deal with some audio and video jitters, but that’s going to happen with any bandwidth-dependent feature.

You can choose to stream video from either the front camera (facing you) or the back camera (facing away from you), so it’s easy to share a life moment with your loved ones. In fact, you’re not just limited to FaceTime chats with other iOS devices, you can chat with Mac laptops and desktops.

A video chat won’t always be the best option, but it’s really nice to have that option when you feel like looking at the person you’re talking to. FaceTime on the iPad 2 might just be one of its biggest selling points.

Safari

The Safari browser in iOS 4.3 is really no different (on the surface). You can browse multiple “tabs” at the same time, but thanks to the extra RAM, you can jump back and forth between more tabs without worrying about having to reload certain tabs. Other under-the-hood tweaks also give the new Safari browser the ability to deal with Javascript more efficiently.

For more on the Safari experience, check out the Safari Browser section below.

Web Browsing and Multimedia

Web Browsing

Thanks to the double-the-cores-double-the-power Apple A5 dual-core processor and some tweaks to the way Safari handles Javascript, the iPad 2 slices through webpages like a hot knife through butter. And, no, to answer your next question, the iPad 2 does not support Adobe Flash technologies, which means embedded videos and websites built with Flash won’t get along too well with your aluminum slab of web surfing goodness. That’s just how Apple rolls, take it or leave it. If you decide to take it, though, you’ll find that webpages load faster, scrolling through a page feels even smoother than before. iOS was already the leader in scrolling smoothness, and iOS 4.3 on the iPad 2 widens that lead a bit.

The relatively underwhelming 256MB of RAM on the original iPad made it difficult to surf a handful of webpages (via multiple browser tabs) at once. When RAM became scarce, iOS would basically “kick” some webpage data out of RAM, so that when you switch to a certain tab, the browser has to reload all the data on that particular page. This can get annoying. But, with twice the RAM, the frustrations we experienced with the old iPad are replaced by a subtle sense of ease (not to mention the confidence that your 1500+ word blog post won’t be kicked out of RAM).

Multimedia

Pictures

The iPad 2 can take pictures. We should note that image quality is not exactly a strength for either of the front- or rear-facing cams. The cameras are good enough to keep your friends and family entertained with pictures, FaceTime video chats, and videos of your newborn, but that’s about it. To be fair, you really are going to look crazy if you go around town using your tablet to take pictures that your dedicated point-and-shoot or smartphone could take. Don’t do it. You can thank us later. Also, tone it down with the baby pics, we’ll thank you later.

As for the camera software, it’s simple and straightforward. Just like you’d expect on an iPhone – but even more so. You don’t get an HDR option. You don’t get any zoom options. But, you can easily toggle between photo and video mode with a tap of a finger. Same goes for switching between the rear camera and the front camera.

Any pictures you take are automatically saved to the gallery, from which you can share your photo moments via email, use them as contact photos, use them as wallpapers, print them, or copy them. Video recordings can be emailed or uploaded directly to YouTube, or just copied.

And, just so you know, you can now play with Photobooth on the iPad 2. It’s a lot of fun. Don’t get too crazy with this one, kids.

Video

As with photos, the cameras on the iPad 2 aren’t really meant for much more than just casually sharing life moments with those close to you. That and for FaceTime video chats. Sure, you can record video using either the front or rear cameras, but don’t expect it to look anything like what an iPhone 4 can produce. It’s just not possible. Instead, think “iPhone 3GS” video quality. It’s not bad, but it’s not what you’d want to use as the only record of your baby’s first steps, or whatever life event you consider to be really important.

Videos can be uploaded directly to YouTube, and you can even take your videos and create impressive movies right on your iPad 2, using the new iMovie app that’s available in the App Store.

Battery Life

As with the original Apple tablet, battery life is suspiciously impressive. Despite its higher-performance dual-core processor, double the RAM of the original iPad, and the thinner and lighter form-factor, the iPad 2 manages to just keep on going and going and going on a single charge. If you’re worried about taking your iPad 2 with you on a long weekend vacation without access to a convenient power source, you’ll be happy to hear that this tablet can go for days on a single charge. We haven’t yet come across any other tablet with battery life as good as the iPad. The Motorola XOOM is good, so it the Samsung Galaxy Tab. But, the iPad and the iPad 2 are just better for battery life.

iPad 2 – The New Tablet Gold Standard?

So, is the iPad 2 the new end-all, be-all of tablet devices today? Simply put, yes. The vast majority of tablet users are using their larger-screened device to quickly and conveniently handle simple tasks. And, therein lies the iPad 2’s strength. With the intuitive (if lacking in flexibility) iOS 4.3 on board, there’s really no tablet on market that can deliver a better web browsing, casual video-watching, or email experience than this latest Apple tablet.

Add in the new iPad’s thinner and sexier (we didn’t think it was possible) aluminum unibody chassis and the FaceTime-capable front- and rear-facing cameras, and you’ve got a recipe for greatness. It’s easier to hold in the hand. It’s more powerful and more capable of running multiple apps (or surfing multiple webpages at the same time). And, with iMovie, FaceTime, and GarageBand apps, it’s a great way to turn your casual photos and videos into great works of art.

The original version had set the bar for tablets last year, and this newer version resets that bar on a higher rung. Android will eventually catch up on the hardware and software side of things, but for now, Apple still reigns king in the tablet world. We have no problem believing that most of the tablet market will go to Apple’s iPad 2 this year.

  • Anonymous

    I agree, but you’d better batten down those hatches, ‘cos, them there haters are a comin’!

  • Arturo

    No lie I’d like to have this, but I would much rather have the Motorola xoom, cause’ I prefer android, iPad 2 is still cool though

  • Anonymous

    Correction. There is no contract for the 3G versions.

  • http://viettelonline.com/ VuLN

    I am really glad I read this article! With this it has really helped me with my decision.

  • http://www.techespot.com/2011/03/best-ipad-2-apps.html Best iPad 2 Apps

    Nice review. It told me what I wanted to know.
    While I can certainly understand why people like the iPad so much, I find it interesting that they don’t mind having no flash, and especially no USB, and they’re not at least a little resentful that Apple insult their intelligence by holding back – in both pad and phone – basic features like a camera that every other similar device has, and then when they finally include it, it is, deliberately it seems, of sufficiently poor quality as to tempt them to upgrade again (and again and again). For these reasons, and for Apple’s dictatorial lock-in methods, I’ll be sticking to my Archos and Cowon toys, for a while at least..

  • http://www.ipad-2-review.com iPad 2 Review

    Hey this is a very good and thorough review.

    Actually the only thing that brings the iPad 2 down is only the cameras and no flash. Other than that, I think it’s still the best tablet around so far.

  • Ryan

     Can’t believe you don’t put “The bad, NO FREAKIN FLASH”.  And why do people keep saying it can multi-task when it can’t.  It does “App Switching”.  Whole reason I haven’t bought an Ipad or Ipad2, in fact I just picked up a Playbook and love it to death.  Apple is falling behind imo.

    • Anonymous

      It is debatable that they are falling behind on specs, but they certainly don’t care. They have a great advertising team and that is what brings customers to buy their iPad rather than Android tablets.

  • r kennedy

     Correction;  iPad 2 camera is 0.7 mega-pixels, not 3.  The iPad’s specs are genuinely second rate in the rapidly changing tablet market.

  • balasubas2012

    thats a great deal for cheap price

  • maritza

    how do you restore icloud?

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