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New iPad: Simply Better, But Not Must-Have

If you can help it (and many of you can't), don't even look at the new one--just save $100 and get the iPad 2. You won't even know you're missing out.

During your last visit to the eye doctor, you stared at the eye chart thinking everything was just fine. Your sight hadn't deteriorated, and all of the letters were legible and clear. And then came those dreaded words from the doctor: Is it better here (pause), or here (pause)? That's when you realized there was actually something better, more clear, more vibrant. You could have gone another year the way things were, not knowing, and all would be well. But now you knew, and there was no turning back.

And that's how it is with the new iPad, Apple's third generation tablet, with the retina display, the quad-core graphics processor, the HSPA+ communication speed, the better camera, and the ever-so-slightly larger and heavier profile. But rest assured, you won't need to increase the Creatine intake to carry it. (See our iPad Teardown for more details.)

This iPad is simply better. No more, no less. No need for a parade or a media event or camping out in line or hitting the browser refresh until it's officially ready for pre-order. If you can help it (and many of you say you can't, or your end-users can't), don't even look at the new one, just save $100 and get the iPad 2. You won't even know you're missing out. If you have an iPad 2, stick with it. If you just have to have the latest, then by all means ... but a word of warning: You'll start to wonder why your MacBook Pro doesn't have a Retina display.

For the past few days, I've been comparing the iPad 2 and the new iPad side-by-side. I've browsed the Web, used email, exercised most every iPad app I have, and downloaded as many as I could reasonably use, especially those that have been tuned up for the new display. (I'll list those apps at the bottom; you've probably used many of them, but I found a few I hadn't tried, and some which Apple specifically recommended. Most I'll mention throughout.)

The most noticeable differences came in the demonstrably crisper display, on everything from The New York Times Newsstand app, to websites in general, and a host of other apps. Much of the vividness was in the text, and it was noticeable from the start. I had a more difficult time immediately seeing much difference in the quality of images, even on updated apps. On the Web, text looked great even upon zooming, but naturally the images became blurry quickly. Apple's own site, which has been enhanced for the new iPad, was one exception: Both images and text look great, even when zoomed. (Wired's WebMonkey has a good explanation of how Apple is doing this, including that Apple's techniques are likely to decrease site performance.)

The new iPad features 3.1 million pixels in its 2048-by-1536 resolution screen, which Apple claims has 44% greater color saturation--a 4x improvement over the iPad 2 (that lousy piece of garbage). Apple explains that it has been able to do this by separating the pixels and their signals onto two different planes, so there's no interference (or crosstalk) from adding more pixels. DisplaySearch Blog provides a good explanation and graphic on how Apple accomplishes this.

Apple recommended both The Daily--a news site in its Newsstand--and the ABC Player (a video content service), and once again, the text was immediately better on the new iPad; if I really looked hard, the images were also higher quality. I might be just kidding myself, but the cookies on the "Martha Stewart Cookies" app looked slightly more edible on the new iPad (the Rum-Raisin Shortbread ones ... let's just say I'll be far more impressed when Apple can emit odors from these tablets). At times I felt I was just looking for the image to be better; and at other times they actually were.

The new iPad image Martha Stewar

On truly graphical apps, like the magnificently fun Barefoot Atlas, the text was true and clear, but the images seemed about the same--like the playful animations, including one of 19th century lost explorer Dr. David Livingstone meeting up with journalist Henry Stanley in Zambia (this is the origin of the oft-quoted "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" we're told).

The new iPad image barefoot atlas

The planets in Solar Walk--a nearly 3-D planetary exploration experience--were definitely an improvement on the new iPad. The edges of the planets were less pixelated. I didn't see any noticeable difference in graphically rich game apps, like Flight Control Rocket, or Infinity Blade 2. OK, so upon really really staring at the Flight Control Rocket hostess, her colors are a bit more vibrant and sharp on the new iPad ... but now we're really picking at nits (or is it bits?) here.

The new iPad image rocket

StockTouch, Evernote's Skitch for the iPad ... all of these apps worked well on both tablets, without an obvious difference in image quality, but with a noticeable difference in text.

StockTouch provides a variety of interesting views of real-time market data--by industry sector, by market cap, by trade volume, and you can drill into the data, all the way down to a stock, tracking its progress for a day, a week, a month, a year, even five years, and the app even provides a feed of the latest news regarding that particular company. Even though StockTouch has been upgraded for the new iPad, outside of crisper text, it's difficult to see the benefits.

The new iPad image stocktouch

Skitch lets you annotate images with arrows and circles and text--it's a good way to mark up anything from a screen shot to a PowerPoint document to a photo. Again, the text and the icons are improved, but the functionality was pretty much the same (in the App Store it says, like so many others do: "Graphics and interface optimized for the iPad's new Retina display"). Really the changes are cosmetic. (And that's not a bad thing.)

Apple also upgraded the iPad's processor, notably adding quad-core graphics processing to the mix, and claiming faster performance than NVIDIA's Quad-Core Tegra 3. For me, some things simply loaded more quickly. Solar Walk, for instance, loaded several seconds faster on the new iPad, as did StockTouch. But even in Solar Walk, which is graphically deep, with many amazing effects, the planets spun equally, and with similar controls, using either iPad.

Players moved a little quicker from one challenge to the next in Infinity Blade 2 on the new iPad, but I couldn't see any major difference in the actual speed of the duels, nor in the animation and textures on screen. The same was true of Flight Control Rocket. In other words, whatever speed gains the quad core graphics processor provides, the games don't take advantage in a noticeable way, yet. I'll drop the usual caveats that your experiences may differ, and I'm definitely not even close to the casual game player (but my eyes do work).

One of my favorite apps is Autodesk's SketchBook, and the new iPad really shines within this digital art program. When I was really zoomed in, I could make very minor additions to my attempt at art using any of the tools. On the iPad 2, I lost some of this control, and my actions were much less forgiving. (The image below was created by a high school art student in about 15 minutes on my new iPad, with no instruction on how to use the app.)

The new iPad image sketch

The camera is so much better on the new iPad that I can hardly believe anyone could have used the one on the iPad 2. Not only does this camera shoot still photos and video at higher resolution, it has a backside illumination sensor for capturing pictures in high or low light, autofocus, tap to focus and tap to set exposure, along with the built-in face detection. In my own experimentation (again, side by side), it handled light really well, creating good, usable pictures where the iPad 2 could not. The same was true with video--just far more usable, better lit, better colors, better focus. And there's room for improvement, given that there are better sensors coming out on phones almost weekly now.

The new iPad image living room 1 and 2

Yet it amazes me how many people I see holding up iPads to take photos and video. Other than fooling around with the camera, or for tests like these, I feel pretty silly holding it up like it's one of those old-fashioned photograph machines, half expecting a poof of black smoke to arise upon capturing my quarry. And I can't, for the life of me, understand why Apple kept the front-facing camera to its pathetic VGA-ness. I can see using Fuze Meeting or WebEx for live business videoconferencing much more than using the iPad as a camera. And I can definitely see using Apple's Facetime and Microsoft's Skype video chat, so the ability to send high quality video into a group video system is becoming more important, and Apple still has a chance to push a quality experience here.

Even if you're convinced that you just simply deserve to have better with the newest of iPads, even at $100 more, because ... I don't know, maybe it's your first iPad, or maybe you skipped the iPad 2, or maybe you're just that person who has to have the newest cool gadget ... pause at this: the new iPad's better graphics means bigger files, and bigger files means more storage, either on the device or in the cloud, or both; and it also means that data (like from photos and videos) size will increase, and bandwidth usage will increase.

Photos I took using the iPad 2's default camera settings were about 250 KB; the exact same files on the new iPad were 1.2 MB and higher. Not a big surprise, given the new iPad has a 5 MP camera, where the iPad 2 had a pathetic 0.7 MP, but this new consumption device sure does consume.

One thing I was pleased with was the new iPad's battery life. For a great deal of an entire day I performed mirrored tasks, as best possible, on both tablets and found the quality of battery life nearly identical, which is to say very good. Given that the iPad 2 is a year old, it started to drain a little quicker, but both tablets easily last all day with frequent use.

I'm not sure I completely trust the new iPad's dictation capability, but in my limited use it worked well. This will require more testing, however. It's a feature, not really a reason to buy the product.

Indeed, in an age where every tablet nuance and enhancement gets unveiled on a stage, it's becoming necessary to separate the hype from reality. The new iPad is very real, and it's very good, and it's even a much better iPad. But it's not as if my fingers are bathing in buttery luxury, or my thoughts are being organized for me, or cookie recipe odors are wafting, and children everywhere are suddenly cleaning their rooms.

Get it if you must, but what's the rush?

Here are some of the applications mentioned in this column and worth checking out:

Visible Market's StockTouch

Autodesk's SketchBook Pro

Evernote's Skitch for iPad

Vito Technology's SolarWalk

Chair Entertainment Group's InfinityBlade 2

Touch Press' Barefoot Atlas

Namco Networks America Games' Sky Gamblers: Air Supremacy

Electronic Arts' Flight Control Rocket

Callaway Digital Arts' Martha Stewart Cookies

Also, Apple recommends "Great Apps For The New iPad."

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