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Apple iPad 2 Tablet Review
Date: Mar 21, 2011
Author: Paul Lilly
The magic is back for a second act, baby, and it doesn't play for the Lakers (that's the other Magic). The magic we're talking about plays for team Apple, and while the competition tries to come up with a so-called "iPad killer," Apple may have beat them to the punch. How's that for irony? We're of course referring to the iPad 2, Apple's second tablet in as many years, and the first successor to the slate that started it all. Don't confuse that to mean Apple invented the tablet, which it didn't, but the Cupertino outfit was the first to figure out how to market and sell such a device to the mainstream, almost single-handedly reviving a mobile concept that many didn't think could co-exist with laptops and netbooks.

With the iPad 2, Apple is looking to extend its lead over the competition, which at this point is pretty significant, and make sure it isn't passed up by some spunky newcomer to the tablet space. We've heard promise after promise of upcoming tablets that were supposed to unseat the iPad, and we're finally starting to see some real worthwhile alternatives, such as Motorola's Xoom. After witnessing Android's success in the smartphone sector, and now seeing Google ship Android 3.0 (Honeycomb), Apple surmised it better stay on top of its game if it's to stay on top of the tablet market, and that's really what the iPad 2 is all about. The iPad 2 represents a collection of low to mid-level upgrades, some of which should really have been included on the iPad 1, but hey, they're here now. The question is, will these upgrades be enough to keep Apple in the forefront of the amazing tablet race?

We'll get to that, but first, let's take a quick tour of the device and then we'll dive into performance metrics and user experience.

Apple iPad 2 Specifications

  • Apple iOS 4.3
  • 1GHz Dual-Core A5 Processor
  • PowerVR SGX543MP2 Dual-Core Graphics Chip
  • 512MB of RAM
  • 16GB/32GB/64GB storage
  • Optional 3G Radio (GSM and CDMA)
  • 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi
  • Front and Rear Facing Cameras
  • Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR
  • 9.7-Inch 1024x768 LED Display (IPS)
  • Capacitive Multi-Touch
  • Non-Replaceable 25W-hour Lithium-Polymer Battery
  • Up to 10 (Surfing the Web on Wi-Fi, Watching Video, or Listening to Music)
  • Charging via Power Adapter or USB to Computer System
  • 3.5mm Audio Jack
  • Three-Axis Gyro, Accelerometer, Ambient Light Sensor
  • Access to Apple App Store
  • Digital Compass
  • 9.5 (H) x 7.31 (W) x 0.34 (D) inches
  • 1.33 Pounds

Just about everything you see above is a specification or upgrade you probably read about weeks or months ahead of the iPad 2's official launch. Rumors of the iPad 2 hit the web almost as soon as Apple's first generation tablet landed in stores, part of which can be attributed to Apple's unofficial planned obsolescence model. For example, how could Apple neglect to include a camera on the iPad 1? Some say the answer is so iPad owners would have a reason to upgrade to the iPad 2, and the fact that both front and rear-facing cameras are now included would seem to support that notion.

Cameras aren't the only upgrades. The iPad 2 comes out swinging with a dual-core 1GHz A5 processor, replacing the single-core chip in the iPad 1. There's also 512MB of RAM, up from 256MB, though only half of the 1GB offered with the Xoom. Apple claims the iPad 2 is twice as fast as its predecessor, while offering up to 9x better graphics performance. It's also both slimmer (by 33 percent) and lighter (by up to 15 percent), and according to Apple, none of these upgrades affect battery life. Is this all too good to be true, or is this a case of truly good engineering?
Design & Build Quality
Aside from being thinner and lighter, the build quality of the iPad 2 is the same as before. You still have 9.7 inches of screen real estate covered in scratch resistant glass, an aluminum back casing, and an overall sturdy design that feels more like a professional tool than it a does an entertainment device. True to Apple form, it's also sealed shut to prevent users from mucking around inside, even if it's to swap the battery (which still isn't user replaceable).

Apple may have changed the specs, but it didn't change the bundle. The main accessories include an AC power adapter and sync cable, and you also receive a pair of Apple decals begging to be slapped on your roommate's home-brewed Windows PC. Considering the iPad 2's multimedia capabilities, we're again surprised (and disappointed) that Apple doesn't include a pair of earbuds like it does with the iPod touch. Sure the iPod touch is more deserving of earphones, but let's not forget that the iPad is also portable, which means you'll likely end up toting it to public places and on plane rides where others may not be as into Gangstagrass as you are.

The overall design of the iPad 2 is nearly identical to the iPad 1. There's the single home button on the bottom, and a bezel that wraps around the screen allowing you to hold the device without interfering with your view of the screen or multi-touch options.

We have the black bezel version in-house, though Apple also offers the iPad 2 in white trim. If you spring for the white model, it's just the bezel that's a different color; the back cover is still the same aluminum. One potential pitfall of investing in the white model is it could potentially distract your eyes from the screen and make it appear less bright than it really is. This is the reason you don't see TV makers slapping white bezels on their HDTVs, though we don't want to overstate this with the iPad. We have seen the white iPad 2 in person, and while we didn't perform any in depth testing, it wasn't as though the screen appeared dark.

It's also worth mentioning that if you are considering the white version but fear you'll gunk it up all the time with your dirty fingers, it's not going to show your Hot Pocket remnants any more than the black version will. There's a scratch resistant glass panel that covers the entire front, including the bezel, and that's what you'll be dirtying up, not the bezel itself. 

Click images for high res.

Connectivity options is one area Apple intentionally locks down. Still 'missing' from the iPad 2 is a USB port or expandable storage, such as a microSD card slot. The way Apple figures it, if you want more storage, opt for a higher capacity iPad to begin with. That just doesn't add up to us and limits the devices expandability, no matter how you slice it.

You'll find Apple's proprietary port on the bottom, which is the same that's used on the iPad 1, iPod touch, and iPhone. Through this port you can add functionality, like a memory card reader to transfer photos from your digital camera. Apple also now sells a $39 digital AV adapter so you can hook your iPad 2 up to your large screen HDTV via HDMI. Doing so will mirror whatever is on the iPad to your TV in up to 1080p, though movies are limited to 720p. The adapter also pipes digital audio to screens that support it.

On the top of the iPad 2 sits the power switch and 3.5mm headphone jack, and on the upper-right side you'll find the volume control and mute/screen lock key, which you can now toggle between in the settings menu. There's also a single speaker grill on the bottom of the iPad 2, and a rear-facing camera up in the corner.

There's been a lot of ballyhooing over Apple's "Smart Cover" for the iPad 2, which attaches magnetically to the tablet. When closed, the iPad 2 goes into sleep mode automatically to save on battery life, and wakes up when you fold it open. You can also fold it back to serve as a stand, both for typing and watching videos, like in Netflix. It's an ingenious design, albeit incomplete, if you're interested in protecting the entire tablet.

The problem with the Smart Cover is it only shields the front of the iPad 2, not the back. If you've owned a mobile Apple product before, then you know how scuffed up the backplate tends to get. If your primary goal is to actually protect the iPad, you'll want to look into an alternative cover (the official cover for the iPad 1 is not compatible).
Display & Camera
As we mentioned before, the iPad 2 sports the same 9.7-inch LED backlit capacitive multi-touch screen that's found on the iPad 1. This is probably one of the areas that will get upgraded in the iPad 3 or iPad 2S, or whatever Apple dubs its third tablet PC. It's not a Retina display, like the iPhone 4, and Apple opted not to upgrade the screen resolution from 1024x768, though we find it hard to complain about the IPS display, which is again bright and vibrant with excellent viewing angles.

What we will complain about are the built-in cameras. With FaceTime being as popular as it is, the smart money was on Apple including a front-facing camera with FaceTime support, and it did. The big question was, 'Will Apple include a rear-facing camera, too?' Apple did, and it can shoot video in 720p and snap photos, but if you have even a passing interest in photography, the image quality is pretty disappointing. Let's have a look.

Click for high res.

To have any chance at taking a picture you wouldn't be embarrassed to post online, you'll need excellent lighting. The photo in the top left was taken during a sunny day and is about as good as it's going to get. On the top right is a snapshot we took using indoor lighting. There's a considerable amount of noise, as if we took it with a webcam from yesteryear, and there's no LED flash to lend a helping hand. Finally, the bottom pic is a slow action shot. There's no image stabilization that we know if, so if your object is moving, your picture will come out rather blurry.

Results from Apple's Photo Booth App - Don't be alarmed, you're not losing it.

We're not stoked about the camera, but it's much more forgiving when you play around with the included Photo Booth app. This novelty software includes eight funky camera effects, including Kaleidoscope, Light Tunnel (shown on the right), Mirror (shown on the left), Stretch, Squeeze, Thermal Camera, Twirl, and X-Ray. The app works with both the rear- and front-facing camera. It's good for a laugh for about 15 minutes, or when showing off your iPad 2 to a friend or family member.

Image Credit: Apple

You can shoot up to 720p video with the rear-facing camera, although Apple doesn't include editing software with the iPad 2. The popular option for piecing together videos is iMovie, a $4.99 app from Apple's App Store.  It's easy enough to use if you plan on taking video clips with your tablet, though advanced videographers will want to stick with using their Mac or PC.
Performance Benchmarks
Apple had plenty to say about the performance improvements you can expect from the iPad 2, and while we have some subjective impressions to share, we wanted to provide some hard numbers first. Towards that end, we ran the iPad 2 through a handful of benchmarks and compared it both with an iPad 1 and an iPod touch.

Benchmarking The iPad 2 - Web, CPU, and Graphics
1GHz Dual-Core ARM-based A5 Processor

With a faster processor and more RAM, it should come as no surprise that the iPad 2 outran the tables in our benchmarks, and we're particularly impressed with its showing in Linpack and SunSpider.  SunSpider is a JavaScript execution benchmark and since many web pages make heavy use of  Java and JavaScript, this test is a relatively solid indication of web page loading performance.  Since it's a cross-platform benchmark, we were also able to compare it to one of the more respectable tablet processors on the market, NVIDIA's Tegra 2, which powers the Dell Streak 7 (and the Motorola Xoom).  In terms of JavaScript performance at least, it appears the A5 coupled with IOS has an edge versus competitive tablet CPUs on the market.  Beyond that, on average, for general compute throughput, the iPad 2 looks some 2 - 4X faster than Apple's first generation tablet (though results in Linpack are off the charts obviously).

Graphics Testing, More To Come:
Less thrilling, obviously, is the slightest of victories in the 3DBench run, in which the iPad 2 edged the iPad 1 by the slimmest of margins.  However, these results smell very much like there is a vsync limitation involved here, capping the iPads around the 60fps mark.  On a side note, we've reached out to the developers of GLBenchmark and hope to update this article with additional graphics performance metrics, soon.

Even without the benchmarks, there's no question the iPad 2 is a faster device than its predecessor. It doesn't blow the original iPad out of the water like Apple's performance claims might suggest, but one of the first things we noticed is how much more responsive the iPad 2 is. This was especially evident in web browsing. We found most websites were quicker to load, and we suspect the additional RAM allows the iPad 2 to cache larger chunks of a website, which greatly reduces how often you'll run into gray areas when scrolling down. Even pinch-to-zoom feels faster, though it's definitely not slow on the iPad 1.

As for gaming and apps, load times are reduced on the iPad 2, sometimes significantly. Once in a game, however, we didn't notice a ton of improvement, and sometimes none at all. For example, we fired up Angry Birds and still noticed the occasional lag, however brief. This is something we expect to improve over time as developers make better use of the iPad 2's resources, and we wouldn't be surprised to see a good number of apps designed solely for the iPad 2.

A Few Words on Battery Life:
So it's faster and more responsive, but how's the battery life? In a word, excellent. As a general purpose tablet for surfing the web, social networking, exchanging emails, and even a little bit of casual gaming, we were able to use the iPad 2 for close to a week (off and on) before needing a recharge. Of course, your mileage will vary depending on how often you use it, and as developers start cranking out more demanding games, you'll likely find yourself charging the iPad 2 more often.
Performance Summary and Conclusion
iPad 2 Performance Summary:  ARMed with a custom dual-core 1GHz processor, PowerVR GPU, and 512MB of RAM, Apple's second generation tablet has the horsepower to outrun would-be iPad killers. This is especially true for the tasks you'll end up doing most on the iPad 2, such as browsing the Web and firing up apps, both of which are noticeably faster than on the iPad 1. Glare is still a problem if you intend to use the iPad 2 in direct sunlight, and the hardware is ahead of the software at this point, but we expect only one of those to remain a nuisance 3-6 months from now as developers hit a stride coding apps for the new hardware.

We have to admit that it's been a bit of a letdown in the tablet market, which we figured would be a lot more competitive at this point than it is. But here we are looking at Apple's second generation iPad when most other manufacturers have yet to release their first. Whether by sheer luck or thoughtful planning (or a little bit of both), Apple's well timed release of the iPad 2 again sets the bar, and it's up to everyone else to try and leap over it. Those hoping to usurp the iPad and steal away a significant portion of market-share have their work cut out for them.

The iPad 2 is slimmer than an iPhone 4 and up to 15 percent lighter than the iPad 1. It's not on the same level as Amazon's third generation Kindle ebook reader, and most people aren't going to feel comfortable holding the iPad 2 with one hand for very long like you can with a Kindle, but if you're using two hands or resting it on your body as you lay back in your recliner, you'll have no trouble using the iPad 2 for hours on end, should you find something to occupy your time for that long.

Where things get tricky is if you already own an iPad 1. Should you dropkick your slate on Ebay/Craigslist and place an order for an iPad 2? Only if you'll lose sleep at night from not having the latest and greatest. Otherwise the more sensible thing to do is hang onto your iPad until the next generation tablet comes out, or a compelling alternative pries you way from iOS. FaceTime is fun, but don't let the built-in cameras sway you to upgrade, because quite frankly, their image quality isn't very good at all. And while the iPad 2 is lighter, we didn't notice a significant difference. If you remove those two features from the equation, it comes down to performance. The iPad 2's performance is impressive but there aren't enough apps optimized specifically for the new architecture (yet) to justify taking the hit on your iPad 1 investment.

Things change if you're in the market for a first-time tablet or upgrading from a sub-par, first-generation slate that was slow from day 1. Apple somehow managed to upgrade the iPad without upgrading the price, which means the cost of entry is still $499 (16GB Wi-Fi model). Seemingly overnight, it feels like the world's gone topsy-turvy and now it's Apple undercutting the competition at the register. Apple did drop the price of the iPad 1 by $100, which is something to consider, but unless you just can't swing an extra Benjamin, we feel it's definitely worth springing for the iPad 2. You'll be getting a faster, lighter, and more functional tablet for the same price that iPad 1 owners bought their slate for prior to the price cut. Looking at it from that perspective, you're paying the same for better hardware rather than forking over $100 more.

Until other manufacturers step into the ring and show us what they've got (we're looking at you Hewlett-Packard and Research In Motion), we have to declare Apple's iPad 2 the current champ.

  • Dual-core processor results in snappier performance
  • Twice as much RAM as the iPad 1
  • More comfortable to hold
  • Color options (black and white)
  • Price
  • Built-in cameras sub-par
  • Still no USB port, microSD card slot, or Flash support
  • Needs to be even lighter for one-handed use

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