Incredibly sharp, realistic display super-enhances movies, gaming, web and photos, gorgeous hardware and software design, 200,000 iPad-optimised apps, upgraded camera
Comparatively little on-board storage, especially for a HD-media-oriented device, front-facing camera still only VGA quality
It's not that Apple iProducts aren't good enough – it's that they're not 'better' enough. The new Apple iPad (or iPad 3, or whatever you want to call it) packs a shimmering new high definition display, a couple extra graphics cores for its processor and an updated five-megapixel camera. But it looks exactly like the last iPad – so do existing iPad and iPad 2 owners have enough reason to upgrade? And can the new iPad survive against competition from the Asus Transformer Prime?
On paper, the new iPad upgrades seem puny, but start using it, and it becomes apparent how these incremental improvements have ripple effects. And yes, it is all about that Retina display.
Starting with the screen, it's sheer candy for the eyes. At a staggering 2048x1536 resolution, it squeezes in 3.1 million pixels in its 9.7-inch screen for a 264 ppi density, making for a higher-definition display than any other tablet, any other computer screen, and most HDTVs while we're at it.
Clocking the same screen size of iPads past, it's noticeably sharper and clearer, but you don't get its full impact just turning on the new iPad – its true glory is in the impeccable display of high-resolution photos, HD games and Bluray video.
The other hardware upgrades are the quad-core graphics chipset beefing up the same dual-core A5 processor we saw in the iPad 2, and the five-megapixel rear camera, forced to sit opposite the grimly grainy VGA front-facer.
The memory used for multitasking has been bumped up from 512MB to 1GB. There's a 4G receiver that allows the iPad to access the fastest internet available – but only in the US. Even when the UK gets our 4G upgrade, it'll be on different frequencies, so if you're buying the new iPad for its speedy internet, don't.
Despite its sexy new screen tech and larger processor, the new iPad maintains its ice-cool, slimline profile. It's minutely thicker (0.6mm) and heavier (51g) than its predecessor, but this won't be noticeable unless you've got one in each hand (you muppet).
The aluminium back and glass-fronted display look exactly like the iPad 2, with the same inch-thick bezel in black or white. Because its 9.7-inch screen has a 4:3 sides ratio, it's less unwieldy one-handed than a longer tablet such as the 10.1-inch Asus Transformer Prime.
The touch-screen is as responsive as ever, with quick, smooth swipes, taps and multi-touch gestures. If you use the Smart Cover to fold back as a stand, you'll find the virtual keyboard practically as good as its regular counterpart for typing long messages. The clarity and brightness of the screen does help its visibility in direct sunlight, though there's still a substantial amount of reflection.
You'll interface with the new iPad via iOS 5.1, an incremental upgrade on the excellent 5.0 version that introduced multitasking gestures a la OS X Lion on Apple computers.
Dragging a finger down from the top of the screen brings up a notifications menu where you'll see alerts of messages, social posts, game events and any other app you've OK'd for push notifications. Dragging up four fingers from the base of the screen opens the multitasking bar, which houses all open programs. The system doesn't actually run all of them at the same time but instead uses a last-used algorithm to hold some programs open, and shut others down.When you're in a program, you can use that four-fingered swipe to move from open program to open program, or pinch all fingers together to go to homescreen. It's slick, fast, and lots of fun to play with.Like all iThings before it, the new iPad uses a simple icon interface with a customisable shortcut bar that can hold up to six apps to display in any home screen. Unlike Android tablets, there are no widgets to display live-updating information or to break up the elegant monotony of app after app after app, but this seemingly bland interface is the front end of iCloud, an all-in ecosystem that comprises any other iOS devices you own as well as OS X computers.Launched with the iPhone 4S, iCloud is a huge selling point of iProducts in general, tying together your iPhone, iPad and OS X computer with a single Apple ID. iCloud stores your settings, apps and data online so that you not only access these files from any other device with that Apple ID, but also easily restores these settings from backup - for example, if you've just got a new iPad. iCloud also allows remote lock and wipe, should your iPad get lost or stolen, and you can also track it.
Surprisingly, Siri, the voice activated app for question-answering and phone operating is missing from the new iPad, but there is a full-bodied dictation feature that can be activated by tapping a small mic on the keyboard anywhere there is a text field. Accuracy was about 80% when different accents are involved – which is actually quite impressive, but doesn't outdo good old fashioned typing.
The Safari browser we've seen on Apples past is still great on iPad, with tabs, pinch to zoom features and lots of webpage options: bookmark it, save it to read later, add it to homescreen, email the link, print it or tweet it. It's worth re-mentioning Apple's Twitter integration – you're barely prompted to download the app itself, but if you use Twitter, it's deeply woven into every app so that any link or image you want to share can easily be posted.
As for Flash video or lack thereof, this long-running issue is finally dead in the water, as the masses of people accessing mobile internet on an iOS device has encouraged the rise of standard alternative HTML5. Even Adobe has launched a platform for Flash developers to convert their bits into HTML5, which means there is unlikely to be much video online that you won't be able to access on your iPad.
Email is similarly comprehensive, with a two-column view affording desktop-like comfort. You can add several webmail accounts and sync their calendars too.
It's in certain apps, though, that you begin the feel the awesome power of the new iPad's Retina display. Open up the gallery and pictures look absolutely incredible. The higher the resolution of the original picture, the more you'll see the effect. Pictures we took on a 14-megapixel point-and-shoot had pin-sharp clarity and true colours, and we could zoom way in without seeing individual pixels. You can see how this could have real application in any design studio, whether as a reference monitor or as a client display.
The iPhoto app that launched with the new iPad is an incredible tool to have on tablet as well - for a £2.99 version of a full-blown computer counterpart, you can edit photos for colour, exposure and sharpness, as well add auto effects like frames or filters. Using a finger, you can saturate or desaturate particular areas or colour, run a digit over a line to sharpen or soften it, and operate sliders to adjust light and colour balances.
Though a little basic for professional work, it's an ideal tool for slightly more sophisticated personal touch-ups, and a fun, uniquely tactile way to work with photo editing. Via iPhoto, pictures can be beamed to any other iOS devices within range.
Apple's other two home-user production apps, iMovie and GarageBand, also got levelled up to work with the new iPad's high-res display. Like iPhoto, they are perfectly pitched for amateur creations to get that extra polish without needing to sweat over a professional program.
But say you're not interested in any of these. Will you still ‘get' the new display? Yes, if you watch HD video on your tablet. The iPad 2's 1024x768 screen was perfectly adequate but couldn't show off the true extent of high definition video. On a Retina display, such content had similar quality to an HDTV.
Kindle users will also appreciate the new density of the virtually printed word in the Kindle app, definitely at least as good as real life. As for other apps, there are 200,000-and-counting optimised iPad apps on the App Store, most of which will be updated in the coming weeks and months to display in full HD glory on the Retina display.
Finally, the five-megapixel camera and its HD video capabilities. The rear camera takes much better photos than the almost-ridiculous 0.7-megapixel job in the iPad 2, and you can also shoot HD video of decent clarity and colour.
Unfortunately, the front-facing camera is still a fairly low rent VGA, so those FaceTime or Skype calls will need to be in a pretty well-lit room to deliver a bettery-than-grainy resolution. Considering you're more likely to use a tablet for video calling than taking photos, it seems like the wrong lens was upgraded.
Apple is no stranger to hardware glitches, what with the iPhone 4's ‘you're holding it wrong' antenna malfunction, and all iPhones in general notoriously patchy at actually being phones. In the new iPad, it's the battery – some users have already reported severe temperatures reached when running high-load programs, while the screen uses so much energy that the iPad can't even charge when it's being used. In our tests, we didn't find the iPad to overheat, but the new and larger charger did, particularly when the iPad was plugged in and running a game or movie. The battery also certainly drains faster than the one in its predecesors.
Then there's the issue of storage, and if you want more, the iPad doesn't seem so competitively priced anymore. The Wi-Fi only 16GB model is £399 – but if you're planning to watch or edit all that glorious HD content, you're going to have to do some militant managing to ensure 16GB can actually fit it all. In comparison, a 32GB Wi-Fi Transformer Prime is £499, and it bundles a keyboard. It's also expandable by another 32GB in microSD card for around £60; to get the same bump on an iPad, you'll have to shell out £100. iCloud storage also costs more than comparable alternatives such as Dropbox.
There's something intimate about using an iPad, and the real-life quality of that retina display enhances it even further. "Well, it's got a new screen" isn't a ringing endorsement of what makes the new iPad great – but actually, that's exactly why you want this tablet. Gaming, movies, web, graphics, and basically everything you would want to do on a tablet burst with colour, clarity and intensity – and when you accomplish that with a new screen, maybe you don't need a faster processor, a better front camera, a whole new interface to do what those other OSes do.
Undeniably, this new iPad hasn't revolutionised anything – but it is also the third-gen version of a device that defined its own market, from the content developed for it to the capabilities that other manufacturers end up aping. It's the most tactile, immediate experience you'll get on any device - still.