Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Two Weeks with the New iPad

March 7

Like so many others, I fired up the live blogs at 10 AM local time and waited to see what the then-rumoured iPad 3 would entail. A retina display looked like it was certain, but would it make its way into the $499 model, or would they have to increase prices? Would it have LTE networking, or would Apple save that for the iPhone for marketing purposes? What would happen to the iPad 2? Would it be called iPad HD?

Two hours later, we all knew. Not just us geeks, but seemingly everyone. I walked down the street to grab a coffee between the event and the preorder, and overheard a number of conversations concerning it. What was once a toy for those with $500 to drop has realized itself as a mainstream, common product. And now we knew that this everyday, everyman product would have more pixels than most desktop displays at the exact same starting price. It wouldn’t even carry a suffixed number.

Sorry for breaking your website @pschiller. 1:03 PM, 7 March 2012

After apple.com stopped being broken and started being a website again, I placed my preorder. Black, 16 GB, WiFi-only. Same as always.

March 16

UPS arrived a little under two hours after they guaranteed, and I noted this with my usual subtlety and class:

Toot toot, the turdmobile is here. 1:52 PM, 16 Mar 2012

Unboxed, I fired it up.

The display is the first thing that will grab you. It has to be the first thing that amazes, because it’s the essence of the product. Virtually all functionality exists within those 9.7 diagonal inches, and the new iPad improves every aspect of that. It’s not just the best display in its class, but the best consumer display at any price in any product. It’s brighter and more saturated than the display of the iPad 2, and the difference is immediately noticeable. Whites are white, except for those iPads that were apparently balanced incorrectly. The ubiquitous blue gradient signifying selections within a menu now looks regal, making its counterpart on the iPad 2 look like a bleached pair of jeans in comparison. It’s stunning.

Unfortunately, many of my oft-used apps were not updated within the week-and-a-half post-announcement. Marco Arment worked nonstop to push a major Instapaper update out, but it wasn’t available until the evening. The developers of Twitterrific, Flipboard, and PlainText all issued updates as soon as they could. But while non-retina apps look like crap on the iPhone, the difference is less noticeable on the iPad. That said, nothing compares to a fully-optimised application.

If you own an iPad 2, the next thing you’ll notice is the weight difference. It’s heavier and, while obvious, it is not a burden. It’s still light enough to hold with a single hand, but it would be nice if it went on a diet. Of course, Apple would rather they reduced weight with each generation of any of their portable products. But I would prefer to keep the battery life the same and increase its weight than preserve the weight of the iPad 2 and lose even an an hour of power. That’s exactly what they’ve done. Despite my heavy usage during the first weekend, battery life was never a concern. The combination of a bright display and a seemingly limitless power reserve is pure bliss. It’s the best user experience on any tablet.

There are some who will continue to question Apple’s use of similar designs for different products. This occurred after the iPhone 4S was announced, and has been repeated with the launch of the new iPad. It’s a stupid talking point, really. It advocates for a change in design for the sake of change, and not necessarily for any particular benefit. But there are a number of advantages to keeping a virtually identical design. My Nedrelow Sleeve fits perfectly, as does the Smart Cover, both of which I purchased for my iPad 2.

March 29

There are other little things that become apparent through two weeks of use. The system font has changed from Helvetica to Neue Helvetica. While it’s a barely-noticeable change, a switch back to using regular Helvetica in Pages, for instance, looks clunky and inelegant.

The new iPad also includes a 1 GB RAM package, double the 512 MB package in the iPad 2. It’s a welcome bump, and I’ve seen fewer low memory errors for all applications. Safari used to run into a RAM roadblock with only a few tabs open, but it’s now much more usable for daily browsing.

The dictation feature is nice, but is something I do not regularly use. As I have previously stated, I find the use of voice controls to be awkward and jarring. It’s technically wonderful, but I do not use it frequently. In fact, I’m dictating this right now, but I find it a hollow experience in my living room.

I do have three complaints about this iPad. The first concerns its weight, but as I’ve stated, I believe it was a wise compromise. My second irritation is the lack of screen lamination, which I assumed would be part-and-parcel of what Apple calls a “retina” display. Clearly and disappointingly, this is not the case. I already have a small piece of dust in the gap between the glass and the panel, but my iPhone is dust-free and will remain that way.

My final complaint concerns the camera system. They have improved the camera on the rear, and that’s a welcome upgrade. Apparently, it uses the same sensor as the iPhone 4 which produces some interesting grain and tonal qualities. It’s a decent camera. But Apple didn’t change the front-facing camera, and on a bigger-than-HD display it shows. The iPad is my favourite device with which to videoconference but it has the single worst camera to do so.

Heat problems? Not that I’ve noticed. I am sure it is warmer than my iPad 2, but not dramatically so. It isn’t uncomfortable in any way. To paraphrase Jack Nicholson’s character in the otherwise-mediocre As Good As It Gets, Consumer Reports is like a product review magazine if you take away reason and accountability.

I am not one to suggest that my ideals are those which everybody should agree upon. However, I cannot see a reason to purchase any competing tablet right now. The new iPad is a nearly-perfect product. Apple has managed to put a faster processor, a bigger battery, and a display that was unfathomable just a couple of years ago in a $500 package you can buy today.

But there’s even better news if you’re just dipping your toes in the tablet water, because the iPad 2 is now $400. That’s an insanely good starting price. Yes, it’s still double the price of Amazon’s Kindle, but there are lots of ways to waste $200. But for another $200, you can have last year’s best tablet, and this year’s second-best.

For another hundred, though, you can have the best display ever fitted to a consumer product. That’s a hell of a start to Apple’s year.