It's not the iPad 3. It's not the iPad HD. It's the "new iPad", a new Apple tablet device that the company are so confident marks a new step forward for the slate form factor as to do away with numeric naming conventions for the product line. As far as Apple is concerned, this is Year Zero for the iPad.
So what's so special about it? Tech Digest were invited down to an exclusive preview event tonight to try out the new tablet. Read on for our full initial thoughts, broken down into sections concerning each new feature.
Many analysts rightly predicted that the new iPad would sport a super-high resolution screen, and as with the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S, Apple have pushed in their Retina Display technology. Still in a 9.7 inch form factor, the Retina Display has a 2048 x 1536 pixel resolution. That adds up to 3.1 million pixels, approximately 1 million more than you'd see on an average 1080p HD TV. It looks as good as that sounds; text from iBooks content is so clear as to render individual pixels indistinguishable, photos edited in the new iPhoto app pop with colour and can be zoomed in for incredible definition. Sat side by side with an iPad 2, there was a significant difference in clarity across both screens.
Pushing that many more pixels requires a hell of a lot of graphical grunt, so there's a new A5X chip onboard the new iPad. Offering quad-core graphics capabilities, Apple stated that the A5X performs 4X better than the NVIDIA Tegra 3 mobile GPU. In some cases during our hands on session this really wowed us; the new Sky Gamblers Air Supremacy flight-sim game from Namco looked incredible, with graphics now truly rivalling the latest generation of console games, with plenty of action onscreen all at once. However, apps didn't load notably faster than on the iPad 2, and there were a few occasions when the new iPad would hang. It's clearly a capable chip however, and gamers have a lot to look forward to here. With Apple claiming the new iPad is good for 10 hours worth of use from a single battery charge, they may lose a lot of hours here.
5MP iSight camera
The introduction of the cameras in the iPad 2 proved to be a bit of a disappointment, but Apple seem to have righted the wrongs with the new iPad. They've introduced the iSight camera onto the rear of the tablet, capable of shooting 5MP stills. It's more or less the same as you'd find in the iPhone 4S, offering a five element lens, a hybrid IR filter, backside illumination, and Apple's own ISP. There's also 1080p recording onboard now too. Both stills and videos looked great on the iPad. Though the low light surroundings where we went hands-on with the new iPad weren't ideal, the resultant images we took were dramatically better than those shot on the iPad 2, and the roll of example images pre-loaded onto the device (which an Apple rep assured us were shot using the camera) looked great. When paired with the iPhoto app the tablet now offers a fairly robust shooting and on-the-go editing combo that will be irresistible to those who want one device to rule them all. Auto-stabilisation in video recording also helped remove shaky-hand camcorder syndrome in our brief test, and gave a feeling similar to when motion technologies are employed in flatscreen HDTVs.
So the new iPad doesn't have Siri, but it does have voice dictation, which is accessed simply by tapping a small microphone icon that now sits on the iPad software keyboard. Speaking into a hands-free mic, we said a few lines into the new dictation assistant, and were pleasantly surprised by the accuracy of the software. In the hustle and bustle of the launch event, it managed a 50-odd word chunk of text with only two errors, which was no mean feat considering the ambient sound and my cockney accent.
4G LTE support
The new iPad offers 4G LTE super-fast mobile broadband support. That's great news for US Apple fans, but not too much of a big deal as of yet for those in the UK, as the technology still hasn't rolled out over here. As a result, we were unable to test the mobile download speeds, but Apple have already confirmed US carriers such as AT&T and Verizon in the US. At least the new iPad is future-proofed for the upgrade once it hits here though, and with new trials rolling out this year, that's something to look forward to.
The only significant new app directly from the Apple stable was the iPhoto app. Completing the iLife trinity on iPad (flanked by Garageband and iMovie) it's a real showcase not only for the Retina Display, but also Apple's keen understanding of touch-based user interfaces. Everything from cropping to colour adjustments, contrast settings to light and saturation enhancements can be carried out simply by tapping and swiping away at the screen. There's even a Journal section, allowing to create a patchwork scrapbook of your favourite photos, which can have intelligent widgets added into them that offer info like calendar dates and even the weather (based on date and location of the image taken) squeezed in. It's a lovely app that scales down the complexity of something like Adobe Photoshop so that even your Nan could produce incredible snaps.
Garageband gets updated too, with the addition of smart orchestral strings (that literally had us smiling like a giddy child) and a new Jam Session feature. Jam Sessions let users connect up to four iPads together over Wi-Fi and record separate instruments in tandem, giving as close to a live recording experience as you're ever likely to get with the tablet based version of Garageband.
iMovie also gets a slight update, adding new cinematic trailer options, and a few tweaks to the UI that make editing clips together a little easier. Considering the 1080p camera onboard, this app is now likely to get a lot more use, and it seemed from our short test easy enough to hobble together a few basic cuts and fades.
Third party apps included an Autodesk touch based illustration app that also really shone on the Retina Display and a new Infinity Blade game called Infinity Blade Dungeons which looked much like a Diablo clone. While these two weren't available to test, we did grab a play of Namco's new flight simulator, Sky Gamblers Air Supremacy. An arcade-y dog fighting game, it looked stunning, with superb lighting effects making the jet you control shimmer. The game hurtled along at an incredible pace, with plenty of onscreen action and 3D jets all flying around at once. Throughout all the in-game chaos, the new iPad barely broke a sweat.
The new iPad is slightly thicker than the iPad 2 at 9.4mm, weighing 0.64kg. It's a negligible difference, and only the weediest arms will notice the extra strain. So close to the iPad 2 is the new iPad in terms of design that even the old Smart Covers work fine with it. Available in black and white, we still think the white chassis has the edge.
If you go through the checklist of things people had hoped to find in the new iPad, Apple have pretty much ticked them all off. Retina Display? Check. Faster processor? Check. Better cameras and image editing options? Check. 4G mobile downloads? Check. It's hard to fault the new iPad in this regard, and those sitting on the fence about grabbing a tablet really don't have any excuses any more. With the new iPad on sale across the globe from March 16th, expect to see many of these tablets out and about in just over a week's time.
It's made all the more desirable thanks to the fact the pricing structure remains unchanged from the launch of the iPad 2. In the UK that leaves the pricing at £399 (16GB), £479 (32GB) and £559 (64GB) for Wi-Fi only, with the 4G + Wi-Fi version landing at £499, £579 and £659 respectively. In the US that's $499 (16GB), $599 (32GB) and $699 (64GB) for the Wi-Fi versions and 4G models at $629, $729 and $829 respectively.
Upgrading from the iPad 2 will be a slightly harder sell, but with all the added new features of the new iPad, it's now starting to look a little long in the tooth, and the first iPad even more so.
The magic isn't as pronounced as when the iPad was first unveiled, but when it comes to tablets Apple are still in a league of their own. We can't wait to get some more time with the new iPad and really put it through its paces. You faithful Tech Digest readers will be the first to know our full overall verdict, so keep checking back for more iPad updates!