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A No Holds Barred Review of the (3rd Gen) iPad (2012)
Date: Mar 20, 2012
Author: Paul Lilly
Apple called its first iPad tablet "magical," as if owning one would turn flatulence into a flowery fragrance and unlock the mystery of double complete rainbows. Instead it entranced millions of people into buying one, even though it lacked basic amenities like expandable storage, built-in cameras, and Flash support (back when people still cared about Flash). In that way, it truly was magical. A year later, a feeble-looking Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad 2 with a "completely new design" and several upgraded parts, including a dual-core A5 processor and both front- and rear-facing cameras, which were sorely missed on the first iPad. It would turn out to be his swan song. This year it was Tim Cook who took to the stage to introduce the world to Apple's "new iPad" -- not the iPad 2S, iPad 3, or iPad HD, just iPad -- with what Apple is billing as a "resolutionary" upgrade.

Let's talk a moment about Apple's decision to drop the numerical moniker from its third generation iPad, which has caused a bit of angst in the blogosphere and in social media circles. The prevailing wisdom is that it's a pompous move by Apple that will ultimately lead to customer confusion, as if someone's actually going to stroll into Best Buy and pick up a discounted iPad 1 or 2 thinking it's the new iPad. Forgetting for a moment that return policies are the ultimate safety net in these situations, it's just not going to play out that way, just as no reasonably intelligent person buys the wrong Kindle e-book reader, which is still called the Kindle after four generations dating back to the original release in 2007. Stores just aren't set up that way.

As to the actual hardware, one of Apple's big reveals is the Retina display. It was long rumored the new iPad would ship with a higher resolution display, and Apple made it happen by packing 3.1 million pixels into the same 9.7-inch panel, now with a 2048x1536 screen resolution, a big upgrade from the iPad 2's 1024x768 display and even beyond the boundaries of your Full HD 1080p giant screen TV. No small feat, it takes quite a bit of engineering ingenuity to cram four times as many pixels as the iPad 2 into the same screen real estate while ensuring pixel signals don't get crossed, which can lead to distorted colors and fuzzy images. Pushing all those pixels is an Apple A5X SoC, still a dual-core 1GHz chip but now with a quad-core graphics engine that Apple claims is four times faster than NVIDIA's Tegra 3 processor. That's a mighty big claim we'll put to the test, but first, a rundown of the spec sheet.

Apple iPad (third generation) Specifications
Specifications & Features
  • Apple iOS 5.1
  • 1GHz dual-core A5X processor
  • PowerVR SGX543MP4 quad-core graphics
  • 1GB of RAM
  • 16GB/32GB/64GB storage
  • Optional 4G LTE radio
  • 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi
  • Front FaceTime (VGA) and rear (5MP) facing cameras
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • 9.7-Inch 2048x1536 Retina display (IPS)
  • Capacitive Multi-Touch
  • Non-replaceable 42.5W-hour Lithium-Polymer battery
  • Up to 10 hours of surfing the Web on Wi-Fi-, watching video, or listening to music; Up to 9 hours using cellular data network
  • Charging via power adapter or USB to computer system
  • 3.5mm audio jack
  • Gyro, Accelerometer, Ambient Light Sensor
  • Access to Apple App Store
  • Digital Compass
  • 9.5 (H) x 7.31 (W) x 0.37 (D) inches
  • 1.44 pounds (Wi-Fi); 1.46 pounds (Wi-Fi + 4G)

In addition to quad-core graphics, Apple loaded up the new iPad with 1GB of RAM, which is twice as much as the iPad 2 and four times the amount in the original. There's also the option of a 4G Long-Term Evolution (LTE) radio with separate versions for AT&T and Verizon, a much improved 5MP rear-facing camera that's capable of shooting 1080p videos, and a much beefier battery rated at 42.5W-hours compared to 25W-hours, though overall battery life is nearly identical to the iPad 2.

Interestingly, the new iPad is slightly thicker than the iPad 2, measuring 0.37 inches (9.4mm) versus 0.34 inches (8.8mm) and weighing 1.44 pounds (652g) for Wi-Fi and 1.46 pounds (662g) for Wi-Fi + 4G, compared to 1.33 pounds (601g) for Wi-Fi and 1.35 pounds (610g) for Wi-Fi + 3G. This is the snowball effect of adding a Retina-class display, which required upgrading the graphics to drive all those additional pixels, which in turn required a bigger and heavier battery to maintain the same uptime as the iPad 2. It's a worthwhile tradeoff for an incredibly sharper screen, but it also means conceding bragging rights to lighter, thinner tablets like the Transformer Prime from Asus, which is 0.32 inches thick (8.3mm) and weighs 1.29 pounds (586g).
Design & Build Quality
A little bit thicker and a tad heavier, the new iPad feels no more or less sturdy than the previous generation iPad tablets. It's been reported the third generation iPad uses a new version of Corning's aluminosilicate Gorilla Glass, and while that hasn't been confirmed, Apple recently let it be known that "Corning employees in Kentucky and New York...create the majority of the glass for the iPhone." It still has the same aluminum backing, black or white bezel, and is incredibly difficult to service at home, earning a miserable 2/10 Reparability Score during iFixIt's teardown analysis.

The bundle is completely unchanged from before. Apple still includes the tablet itself (kind of an essential ingredient to this recipe, don't you think?), AC power adapter, USB sync cable, some paperwork, and a pair of Apple decals (because temporary tattoos would be too tacky, I suppose). I griped about Apple's decision not to include a pair of earphones with the iPad 2 (nor were they included with the original iPad), and I'm once again disappointed (but not surprised) to find there isn't a pair shipping with the new iPad, either. Apple may be trying a little too hard here to convince people the iPad isn't simply a giant iPod touch (which it both is and isn't).

One advantage the iPad has over competing Android tablets is familiarity. The new iPad looks and feels just like an iPad 2 and iPad 1, as well as an iPod touch and iPhone. If you're familiar with how to use one, you know how to use them all, with only minor design discrepancies (size notwithstanding). The home button is still on the bottom, the FaceTime camera is still up top, the speaker is still on the back, the power button is still on top, and the volume rocker and lock switch both still reside on the top-right. There's no learning curve like you might have if you switch from, say, a Motorola Xoom to a Sony Tablet S, both of which run Android but sport drastically different designs.

I picked up the white bezel version this time around, gambling that it wouldn't distract my eyes from the screen and make it appear less bright than it really is, the exact reason TV makers don't use white bezels. I haven't noticed that at all, and after going with a black bezel for the past two generations, I find I actually prefer the clean look of the white model, which will stay clean since Apple uses edge-to-edge glass on the front.

From a physical design standpoint, if you've owned one iPad, you've owned them all. Once again, you won't find a USB port, a microSD card slot, or even a Thunderbolt interface. On that note, choose your storage wisely because there's no seamless way to add more space. Just as before, your options are 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB. Why not up the ante to 128GB or 256GB? I'll give you two reasons. First, limiting the amount of storage to the same as before might be part of Apple's 'Planned Obsolescence' model, a strategy I'm convinced the company knowingly and actively promotes. It's brilliant marketing, really. Leave out or limit certain features that could have easily been implemented and then tout them as great new additions to the next product iteration. Secondly, what better way to create a need for iCloud? Apple gives iOS users 5GB of free iCloud storage; after that, you'll have to pony up $20/year for 10GB, $40/year for 20GB, or $100/year for 50GB (these are storage fees, not data plans). The upside is that for many users, 16GB of internal storage and 5GB of iCloud storage will be more than enough. If you like to carry around a bunch of high definition movies, a near endless amount of MP3s, and albums full of high resolution photos, you should consider purchasing a 32GB or 64GB model instead.

What the new iPad does have are the same pieces as before, which we touched on above. Power button and 3.5mm headphone jack on top, volume rocker and lock switch on the side, and a proprietary dock connector on bottom. There are a number of accessories available to purchase that plug into the dock, such as a digital A/V adapter and camera connection kit, to name just two.

If you choose one of the 4G LTE models, there will be a black band across the top. There are separate versions for AT&T and Verizon, each of which runs $130 more than the equivalent Wi-Fi only model, though data fees vary by carrier:
  • AT&T 250MB: $15/month ($15 per 250MB overage fee); no mobile hotspot
  • AT&T 3GB: $30/month ($10 per 1GB overage fee); no mobile hotspot
  • AT&T 5GB: $50/month ($10 per 1GB overage fee); no mobile hotspot
  • Verizon 1GB: $20/month ($20 per 1GB overage fee); mobile hotspot included
  • Verizon 2GB: $30/month ($10 per 1GB overage fee); mobile hotspot included
  • Verizon 5GB: $50/month ($10 per 1GB overage fee); mobile hotspot included
  • Verizon 10GB: $80/month ($10 per 1GB overage fee); mobile hotspot included
Apple's pretty excited about supporting 4G LTE, a feature that a number of Android smartphones (but not the iPhone) and tablets already support. I see it more as a logical evolution of the iPad than something to jump for joy about, unless you're stoked about paying a monthly data fee. When/if carriers moved to shared data plans, my feelings might change, and so may yours if you're as indifferent as I am about this.

In addition to familiarity, another advantage to leaving the design mostly unchanged is that most of your iPad 2 accessories should work with the new iPad, including Apple's SmartCover. If he were still alive, Steve Jobs would be delighted to know the iPad still sports a 9.7-inch screen, and for consumers, that means not having to wade through different size screen protectors and cases when shopping iPad accessories.
Display & Camera
You've undoubtedly heard Apple throw around the term "Retina display" to describe its iPhone 4/4S and now the new iPad. The term doesn't refer to a specific technology, it's Apple's marketing speak for a display with such a high resolution that the human eye can't make out individual pixels when viewed from a normal distance.

In the new iPad, there are 3.1 million pixels crammed into a 9.7-inch IPS display with a 2048x1536 resolution, the highest of any tablet to date. That works out to 264 pixels per inch, twice that of the iPad 2, resulting in a stunningly gorgeous screen that mostly lives up to the hype. The display on the iPad 2 was very good and the new iPad takes things to a new level. Images appear crisp and vibrant. Plain and simple, everything simply looks better on the new iPad, including text and icons, which are now incredibly sharp and smooth without any noticeable jaggies. Apple hit a home run with this one.

To put the baseball analogy in perspective, I would rate the iPad 2's display at least a ground rule double. The difference in quality isn't going to sock you in the gut when you first turn it on, but once you start looking at high resolution photos and reading text, you quickly discover why Apple calls this a "resolutionary" upgrade.

One of the upgrades I'm most excited about is the 5MP rear-facing camera. The iPad 2 shipped with crappy front- and rear-facing cameras, and only one of them is still junk on the new iPad. On the back is an upgraded 5MP iSight camera with all new optics. Apple describes it like this:
"Megapixels matter. But the quality of a photo is determined by other things, too — like the camera’s optics, image signal processor, and software. The iSight camera uses advanced optics to give you the best picture possible. With an ƒ/2.4 aperture and a five-element lens, it captures light efficiently to produce a sharper overall image. And the hybrid infrared filter — typically reserved for expensive SLR cameras — keeps out harmful IR light for more accurate, uniform colors."

Now let's not get carried away here. The iSight camera isn't anywhere near as capable as an "expensive SLR" camera, nor is it as good as the one found on the iPhone 4S. But I found it capable of taking photos I wouldn't be embarrassed to upload to Facebook or Google+, something I couldn't have said about the iPad 2's camera. In addition to a higher megapixel count and improved optics, the iSight camera on the new IPad supports autofocus, tap to focus, and built-in face detection capable of detecting up to 10 mugs. Let's take a look at some sample shots:

The top left photo shows what the iSight camera can with a brightly lit environment. There's definitely room for improvement, but for an impromptu photo you plan to share on social media sites, the camera is serviceable. On the top right is an indoors photo with average lighting. One thing I found frustrating is the iSight camera's extreme sensitivity to light. Even when sunshine isn't directly beaming through a window, the iSight camera overreacts to the outside light and creates a nasty white effect in response, which you can see in my photo of Lady Morgan. If she were sitting right below the window, the photo would have been completely ruined.

In the bottom two photos you can see how the iSight camera handles closeup shots. These are not zoomed photographs, just up-close-and-personal pictures of flowers and rocks.

FaceTime photos still look grainy and mostly horrible, the result of Apple deciding not to upgrade the front-facing camera. A sexy mug like that deserves a higher quality camera, am I right ladies? Ladies? Hellooooo!? Screw it, on to the benchmarks.
Performance: CPU and Web Browsing
Test Methodology:
In all of our test vehicles for the following benchmarks, we ran each tablet at its performance optimized settings where available, with the exception of the Eee Pad Transformer Prime, which was tested at Normal and Balanced power profile settings. Normal mode on the Prime offers the full performance of its NVIDIA Tegra 3 processor, whereas Balanced mode compromises performance a bit to conserve power, capping the CPU at 1.2GHz max frequency. Beyond that, each tablet was also connected to a wall power source to ensure full performance. Here's a quick spec rundown for each tablet tested.
  • Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime - NVIDIA Tegra 3 1.3GHz Quad-Core
  • Asus Eee Pad Transformer - NVIDIA Tegra 2 1GHz Dual-Core
  • Apple iPad 2 - Apple A5 Dual-Core
  • Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet - NVIDIA Tegra 2 1GHz Dual-Core
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 - NVIDIA Tegra 2 1GHz Dual-Core
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 7 Plus - 1.2GHz Samsung Exynos Dual Core
  • Sony Tablet S - NVIDIA Tegra 2 1GHz Dual-Core
  • Apple iPad (third generation) - Apple A5X Dual-Core
Let's get this benchmarking party started, shall we?

CPU Performance Testing
iOS CPU Testing

Linpack is a benchmark that's becoming a bit long in the tooth at this point, but since we ran it on previous generation iOS devices, I wanted to see how the new iPad would compare. As it turns out, very well. I don't put a whole lot of stock into Linpack, especially since the new iPad is still rocking the same 1GHz dual-core CPU as the iPad 2 yet more than doubles it's score, but for those of you who are curious, there you go.

Web Browser Performance Testing
  iOS and Android Browser Testing

Things shake out a little differently in BrowserMark. The new iPad runs neck and neck with the iPad 2. This suggests BrowserMark isn't influenced by additional memory, as the new iPad sports 1GB of RAM and the iPad 2 totes around 512MB. Both tablets are shoved out of the way by high performance Android slates.

Once again, Apple's upgrade to quad-core graphics isn't yet paying dividends (it will in a moment), though the new iPad does manage to outpace the iPad 2 by a solid 142 points in SunSpider, a JavaScript heavy benchmark. My hunch is that the additional RAM is giving the new iPad a slight performance boost.

Subjective Performance:
One thing that can't be measured quantitatively is pinch-to-zoom performance. It may sound like an insignificant thing, but one of the primary uses of a tablet is surfing the Web. Apple's iPads have always felt responsive and snappy, and the new iPad is just as slick, if not more so. Pinch-to-zoom performance is super fast without any lag, scrolling and Web browsing are silky smooth, and navigating iOS is as responsive as ever. The UI experience, at least in terms of speed, is what competing tablet makers should shoot for.
Performance: Graphics and Battery Life
GLBenchmark is new to our 3D performance benchmark set. The test suite is an OpenGL ES 2.0 benchmark with a number of performance metrics incorporated in it. We specifically use the Fill Texture Fetch suite to measure raw texture fill rate of a graphics core and the Egypt Off Screen test to measure 3D performance in frames per second. The Off Screen test renders workloads at 1280x720 for all devices, but off-screen, so Vsync and screen refresh are not limiting performance.

Graphics Testing
OpenGL 3D Rendering Performance

And boom goes the dynamite. Apple's A5X processor and 1GB of RAM didn't yield much improvement in the way of Web browsing, but gaming is another story entirely. Armed with a quad-core graphics engine that Apple claims is four times faster than NVIDIA's Tegra 3 processor, the new iPad got right down to business. It performed nearly twice as well as the iPad two in GLBenchmark's Fill test and was more than four times faster than the Tegra 3-equipped Eee Pad Transformer Prime from Asus. Perhaps this is the benchmark Tim Cook was talking about when he claimed a four-fold increase in performance compared to Tegra 3 but it's just one data point.

Graphics Testing
3D Graphics Testing

It's weird seeing Apple slap around the competition, especially NVIDIA, a company entirely focused on graphics, yet the new iPad bends Tegra 3 over its knee and spanks it, albeit the performance disparity with the Eee Pad Transformer Prime is closer to two and a half rather than the advertised four times performance boost. Still, it's a convincing victory.

A Few Words on Battery Life:
Apple had to cram a beefy 42.5W-hour battery into the new iPad in order to maintain the same 9-hour (4G) and 10-hour (Wi-Fi) battery life that the iPad 2 enjoys, and after spending a few days testing the heck out it, I didn't notice any difference in uptime between the two tablets. Battery life is, once again, nothing short of superb for a 9.7-inch tablet, though it comes at the expense of a slight weight and size increase.

The next logical step for Apple is to go with a quad-core CPU while perhaps not upgrading the GPU at all next year with all the headroom it provides. Between now and then, Apple will have to figure out a way to further optimize the hardware and software to keep battery life the same without resorting to an even bigger battery.
Performance Summary & Conclusion
Performance Summary: This may come as a blow to Android fanatics, but Apple's new iPad is the all-around fastest tablet on the market right now. Much of the credit goes to the upgraded PowerVR graphics engine with four GPU cores that Apple claims are the bees-knees. Put to the test, the new iPad ran circles around NVIDIA's Tegra 3 platform in 3D intensive tasks. It didn't consistently provide four times the performance as Apple's Tim Cook so gleefully pointed out during the iPad launch event, but it was never a close race either. What's more, it looked better courtesy of the vibrant Retina display. For competing tablets, it's like losing a foot race to a trash talking Anne Hathaway on your home turf. All you can do is scratch your head and wonder, 'What the hell just happened?'

By the numbers, the new iPad couldn't distance itself from other tablets in Web browsing benchmarks, usually scoring in the middle of the pack. But if you're pulling for Android, it's a moral victory at best. The browsing experience doesn't get much better than on the iPad, which has excellent pinch-to-zoom performance, crystal clear text, and silky smooth scrolling. It's markedly better than Sony's Tablet S or Amazon's Kindle Fire, though the Achilles' heel remains Flash support (Android's trump card), at least until it disappears from the Web.

When the iPad 2 came out, I felt strongly it was the best tablet on the market. There hadn't been an iPad killer, and really there weren't many high-end contenders at the time. To an extent, the same is true today. With the improvements Apple made to the new iPad, I'm comfortable calling it the best tablet experience money can buy, though Apple left plenty of room for argument (including here at HotHardware), especially as time goes on and more Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) tablets roll out.

Here's my issue with Apple. For all the talk of proprietary software, locked down hardware, and in some cases, price gouging (Apple Tax, if you will, which I don't feel applies to the new iPad), my biggest frustration is the company's planned obsolescence model. This doesn't get talked about a whole lot in the media, partly because Apple products are typically very good at what they do (as we've shown in this review) and you learn to live with their shortcomings. You know, like the lack of expandable storage, Flash support, and USB connectivity. The new iPad's FaceTime camera is sub par because Apple will sell millions of devices anyway, and it will probably be upgraded on the next model. The 5MP rear-facing camera is decent, not great, and the A5X processor is still a dual-core 1GHz chip at a time when quad-core processing is vogue. I'd bet my neighbor's yapping dog that next year's iPad sports a quad-core chip and higher quality FaceTime camera, and perhaps Siri, another feature that could have and should have been included here, but isn't. Why? Because Apple's going to sell millions of iPads regardless. It's slightly arrogant and brilliant at the same time.

My frustrations aside, the new iPad is a great upgrade if you're coming from a first generation iPad, an older Android tablet, or are a first time tablet buyer. For those of you who already own an iPad 2, continue enjoying one of the best tablets on the market. For everyone else, Apple's third generation iPad ups the ante with twice as much RAM as before, 4G LTE connectivity, a serviceable rear-facing camera, voice dictation (not Siri), and hands down the best mobile display on the market. Pictures and games look stunning, colors are vibrant, and text is as sharp as I've ever seen. It didn't knock my socks off at first, but the more I use it, the more I'm noticing subtle differences a 2048x1536 resolution provides.

Apple also deserves kudos for maintaining the same battery life and keeping the price the same. With a starting price of $499, the iPad is still in line with higher end tablets, at least for now. It could be a different story entirely if Android tablet makers come out with lower priced competitors, but so far they've been content to battle Apple at the same or similar price points.

The new iPad isn't quite the generational leap the iPad 2 was over the original, but it remains the all-around tablet to beat.

  • Stunningly gorgeous 2048x1536 Retina display
  • Quad-core graphics engine is really flipping fast
  • iOS is as slick as it ever was
  • Twice the amount of RAM (1GB) as before
  • Now supports 4G LTE (optional)
  • Much improved iSight camera (5MP)
  • Still no microSD card slot, HDMI output, or USB ports
  • FaceTime camera stinks
  • Slightly thicker and heavier (nitpicking here)

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