It was criticised at first, many calling it no more than a giant iPod Touch, and that was probably the reason I promised myself I would wait for at least the second rendition of Apple’s tablet before I hopped aboard the bandwagon.
Not because I didn’t like the iPad since of course, it was ‘magical’. But more because it was obvious to me that the tablet industry would take time to truly discover itself, and it’s questionable as to whether the point has yet been reached when people know what tablets are for, exactly. I mean, it’s clear that each manufacturer has it’s own view as to what a tablet should be, with many opting for smaller screens, slide-out physical keyboards or what have you, but one thing is clear: nothing quite came close to the original iPad.
This time, though, the market is well and truly established in that there are some genuine competitors for the iPad. This time last year we were comparing the iPad with the JooJoo and other tablets which in retrospect, were dreadful. With the likes of the new Samsung Galaxy Tabs and the Xoom arriving from hugely reputable manufacturers and bringing with them a whole new, tablet-friendly, Honeycomb version of Google’s Android platform, the competition is stiffer than ever for Apple, and the iPad 2 suddenly not only has big boots to fill left by its predecessor, but has to keep its eye out for the circling vultures, which should it not deliver, will take a great chunk of the market in one fell swoop.
Of course, the one major difference, and indeed selling point, of the Apple iPad, is iOS itself. Now, I’m not going to deliver a full review of iOS, but it’s important to note some fundamental changes to the platform since this time last year, and a few things which might just set it apart from the competition slightly.
The iPad update to iOS 4, remember, brought with it some new functionality such as multitasking and folders, which strove to keep you more productive, and your home screen tidier. Though this has been around a while now, it has been tweaked slightly for the iPad.
Now, I know this is not exactly a stock feature, but it is impressive…If you happen to have XCode running on your Mac, and you enable developer mode on your iPad, you can opt in to use multitasking gestures on your iPad. Four or five fingers either upwards to raise the multitasking bar, down to hide it again, sideways to move between running apps and a pinch to return home, may not be available to all, but it certainly gives us a great indication of what might be arriving come WWDC, if indeed it is then that we welcome iOS 5 to our tablets.
The success of the original iPad is one of the great catalysts for the improvements made over the past twelve months. I say this, because it’s the success which has incentivised developers to get on board and well, develop. The iPad has handled the surge of news reading and newspaper/magazine applications packed to the rafters with high quality photos and videos, animations and audio. These apps have become extremely popular, and as such we’ve seen high profile examples such as The Daily and Project attracting huge interest.
This is just one example itself, though, of how the iPad platform has matured, and just having used it a few days I have organised aspects of my day-to-day life which have been left untended for years, simply because there has never been a device quite so apt, and quite so convenient to keep these things in check.
Of course, with the added cameras on the new hardware (which we will look at later), comes a few new apps, which iPhone users may be familiar with. The first of which, is the stock Camera applications, which just like on the iPhone, or the latest generation iPod Touch, is useful only for taking stills or capturing video.
The camera app itself is great, and offers a quick and easy slider button for switching between both still and video, or front and rear facing. On top of that there is Photo Booth, which Mac users will be more accustomed to seeing on the desktop. It is essentially a novelty application allowing you to add some funky effects to stills you can take from within the app. The app renders nine separate effects simultaneously, including a simple plain snapshot with no added magic.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there is FaceTime, Apple’s effort at video calling. You can use this to call from your iPad to iPhone 4 or Mac users, or obviously those with a new iPad 2. It works identically to the iPhone iteration, and indeed the Mac OS X application, which was recently released from Beta onto the Mac App Store. Of course, this inherent lack of users due to a restriction on devices, leaves it open for Skype to come into play with an iPad app, which is inevitably in the pipeline somewhere.
So that about wraps it up for new software. There isn’t a lot of drastic change, just a few tweaks and new features arriving with the latest update to iOS. Many of these features are available to owners of the original iPad, though the new photography apps can be both functional and fun.
If you’ve followed the launch of the iPad 2, you’ll know that there has been somewhat of a spec bump. Many onlookers were dismayed at the relatively diminutive increase in the RAM, which made its way from 256MB in the iPad 1, to twice that: 512MB, in the iPad 2. Having used the iPad 2, though, and tested the memory in primarily Safari whilst comparing it to the original iPad, there is a significant improvement that you notice. That’s not to say that the original iPad suffered from any particular memory issues, but just rendering the pages with multiple tabs open signified a satisfactory improvement there.
More importantly though, the iPad 2 comes with the all-new ARM Cortex-A9 system-on-a-chip, branded as Apple’s new A5 chip, which in theory is twice as fast as the A4 found in the original iPad. Pitting the new iPad against it’s predecessor, though, the difference wouldn’t appear that vast. Loading the same apps, from the same state, side-by-side there is only a subtle difference in speed between the pair, though of course, I must reiterate that the original iPad was no slouch, and remains one of the most competitive tablets on the market despite being over a year old now. I guess the difference is most evident when using intensive applications such as iMovie or GarageBand, the new arrivals to the iPad, where the iPad 2 suffers no slow-down, as you would expect. In general you just find the iPad 2 can sustain anything you throw at it, but with Apple making both hardware and software, anything less would be quite honestly criminal.
Probably the most significant improvement internally is with the graphics. Reportedly a full nine-times faster than the iPad 1, the iPad 2 has a lot of capacity for improvement with mobile games. This extra juice won’t be fully stretched to its limits until developers come up with games designed to do so, but for now we have titles such as Infinity Blade, which are impressive to say the least on a tablet.
There’s nothing really to note apart from these improvements regarding the internals, with storage options remaining the same as ever with 16GB, 32GB and 64GB versions of the tablet.
Moving on to the outside of the tablet then, and the crucial aesthetic aspect of the tablet, as is ever the case with Apple, and the first thing that will strike you is how thin the tablet is. Though it has since been trumped by the announcement of the new Galaxy Tab’s, as it stands the iPad is the thinnest tablet on you can buy, and that’s some feat.
What this brings, though, is not just an improvement looks-wise, but a reduction in weight. And that is quite vital as one of the biggest flaws that I can see with the original iPad is the weight, and how restrictive it is. At times I found it quite straining to use the tablet, whilst it’s by no means a heavyweight, as unlike a laptop or netbook, it has to be held constantly without a stand. This, though, has no bearing on its usefulness as an ebook reader, as it remains far too heavy to hold for a prolonged period.
The changes come as a result of a full redesign by Apple, though it doesn’t look that drastic on the face of it, but what I did notice is the removed edge to the device. The back of the tablet has become more curvaceous than the original, and as a result you no longer have the aluminium border surrounding the front of the device. This is a subtle adaptation, but it just goes another step to perfection as far as aesthetics go.
If you’ve looked into buying an iPad 2, seen the keynote, or read Zath recently, you’ll also have noticed that, unlike the original iPad, number 2 comes with either a black or white bezel. My preference, the black, is of course the same as the original iPad, but the white is perhaps a kick in the teeth for anyone who’s been holding out for a white iPhone 4, and further begs the question: ‘where the hell is it?.’ Each to their own, though, as far as colour is concerned, and I’m not going to start being definitive with which is better, it’s most certainly a personal preference, I just always find a white bezel a little too distracting on the eyes.
This section could quite easily have found its way under the hardware section prior to this, though I think with this being a great selling point of the new iPad over the original, it warrants it’s own little note here near the bottom.
I have to say at this point, that I don’t agree with rear-facing cameras on tablets. It’s unlikely that anyone will ever be caught willingly snapping away in public with a camera the size of his or her head. It’s a simply ridiculous notion. The only reason I can fathom that justifies the inclusion of the rear-facing camera is FaceTime, and the ability to show the recipient of the call something you are looking at.
Apple clearly agrees to some extent, as it can’t be said that the camera has been paid particular attention when it comes to quality. Roughly a 1-megapixel snapper is facing out the rear, and that is as bad as it sounds, despite the truth that megapixel count doesn’t quite account for everything a camera has to offer. Even on the 9.7” display on the iPad, the image is grainy, and just not album-worthy in any sense. It might be useful for a quick TwitPic or YFrog, but nothing for iPhoto thank you very much.
The front facing one is of similar quality, but it is understandable. A front facing camera proves far more justifiable for a tablet, particularly with Apple pushing FaceTime across all of its platforms. It provides ample quality to transmit a decent video call, but again, there’s no reason why you would want to take any serious shots with it. Though having said that, it’s clearly not the point of a front-facing camera.
To look at physically, the cameras are pretty discrete, with the front facing one flush in the top of the bezel and a tiny spec on an otherwise unblemished frame. The rear facing camera is slightly bigger and the black is a stark contrast to the aluminium casing, though it’s not at all unsightly.
Once again, a separate section worthy of being separate. Battery life is quite probably the most vital aspect of a mobile platform of any sorts. After all, there’s not a lot of point being thin and light if you have to lug a power cable around with you. It’d be like going on a diet, but wearing lead shoes. It’s safe to say, though, that the iPad 2 provides a great battery life. Much like OS X on a Mac, the software is designed to be integrated and optimised in this respect with the hardware.
During normal usage, you end up with over 10 hours of life, and those of you on the ball will note that that’s more than the advertised amount. Of course, heavy usage will reduce that amount as it will with anything, but in general use it’s ample amount to be used a whole day or even two without having to put it down for charging. Providing you don’t sit tapping away continually all day, you’ll be safe in the knowledge that you won’t need to plug it in for enough time to watch a movie, listen to an album or two, do the usual rounds on the web and whatever it is you want to do on your iPad.
The Smart Cover was a big push of Apple’s on both announcement and launch of the iPad 2, with it becoming one of the great distinguishing features of nearly all promotional shots of the iPad.
The Smart Cover, like the iPad, comes in various forms, either leather or polyurethane. The latter being £35, and the more premium offering in leather demanding a hefty £59.
The premise behind the Smart Cover is simple, a series of magnetic panels that fold back on itself into various forms in order to craft a stand in either orientation of a flush cover to protect your screen. Unfortunately, in my experience, the height of the smart cover as a stand is not enough to provide ample resistance against touching the device. Particularly in portrait mode, it’s nowhere near balanced perfectly, and considering it is a touchscreen device first and foremost, not being able to touch it is a little bit of a sour note on the whole magnetic, magical experience.
Having said that, the smartcover is perfect for using in an almost flat stance for typing, or watching a movie on in a more vertical stance in landscape orientation. It obviously performs the usual functions of a screen cover, in keeping it clean and protected from scratches when not in use.
It won’t really do for me, though, as I’m more concerned with the rear of my iPad which has been subject to a few scratches already, even after only a couple of weeks of lying around. I can’t say that the price tag, particularly of the leather cover, is particularly justified, though unlocking the screen when lifted and vice versa is something quite simple, yet remarkable, I’ll hand it that, but then surely it’s just a matter of time before you start to see third party cases also using this system.
Again, it’s up to you which colour you choose, I can’t determine any way which one you will prefer in the end, though predictably, and thankfully given the extra outlay you’ll have to make, the leather cover does feel a little bit more premium than the alternative.
Reading this iPad 2 review, you may have thought to yourself that I’m merely picking up on all the positives, neglecting any real issues with the device. You would be half right. Yes I’ve been waxing lyrical about the iPad 2, but bar a few irrelevancies with the camera and inevitabilities such as the weight, it’s a near-perfect tablet compared to the current market.
At this point, you may be sensing some bias. But my message is this: if you’re going to criticise the iPad because it was made by Apple, or because it runs iOS, then you’re not seriously considering the iPad 2 as a viable expense. When you consider how the hardware performs with the implemented software, I would wager that no Android tablet can top the iPad, though it’ll be interesting to see how the likes of the Xoom and new Galaxy Tab’s fare in terms of raw speed and graphical prowess.
Whether you’re a fan of the closed ecosystem of devices that Apple offers or not, it’s hard to deny that the iPad 2 is the platform most adept at showing off iOS, and with news that the iPhone 5 is facing delays until the autumn, it’s a fair bet that it will remain the case for many months to come. The iPad 2 is a glorious example of hardware and software married in harmony and I simply can’t put it down.