As important as the iPad 2's hardware is, it's the software which has always been the show stealer on iOS devices, and this is as true of the iPad 2 as it was of the iPhone. Thanks to its having been open to developers for over three years now, Apple's App Store has an order of magnitude more apps available than any rival platform. And even if you accept that the vast majority of these are overpriced, pointless, badly made, or all of the above, there's still much more wheat in Apple's App Store as there is chaff compared to its biggest rival, the Android Marketplace.
Setting the benchmark are Apple's latest iPad-oriented version of iMovie and a new launch alongside the debut of the iPad 2, GarageBand. The former has been around on the iPhone for a while now, where we've found it a decent alternative to transferring video to our desktop machines for YouTube-destined clips, of the type you're likely to be using your mobile phone to record. For the iPad 2 (and iPad) Apple has gone overboard in implementing multi-touch interaction alongside surprisingly powerful processing abilities.
At the most basic level are a number of pre-set 'do-it-for-me' templates that let you roughly drag around different clips to merge them into what could just about be called, by amateur Internet video standards, a professional output. Dig deeper though and you'll discover the ability to pinch sections of the video or audio timeline to get finer control, letting you tweak transitions to your own taste, and splice in voice-overs or sound effects (be they your own or one of Apple's supplied ones). The iPad 2 handles 720p video without breaking a sweat, and as well as saving files to its own storage for transfer to a computer, it's also possible to output directly to a selection of Internet video services, including YouTube and Facebook.
GarageBand is a bit more of a niche affair, but it's no less impressive to play with than iMovie. The core functionality is effectively a cut down version of GarageBand on Mac OS, letting you manage up to eight tracks simultaneously. Like the PC version of GarageBand, you can plug a guitar into the iPad version and use it as an amplifier, giving you a plethora of effects to chose from, and of course letting you record what you play through it.
Verging from useful towards cool are what GarageBand calls Smart Instruments. No doubt to the chagrin of 'real' musicians these let anyone have a go at playing and recording music, without having to have a clue what you're actually doing. With a guitar, for example, you simply turn on the 'auto' mode, switch from notes to cord, and jab away at the screen while the 'smart' instrument jams away using the chords you told it to, but adding in some spice to make it sound passably like something a half-decent player might jam out.
Let's be perfectly clear though, Smart Instruments may be fun to play with, and with not much effort you can even template out a song or two, but using them isn’t going to turn you into a musical impresario, and you're not going to become the next Thom Yorke sitting in your bedroom jabbing an iPad 2 in the face. Then again, a lack of outstanding musical talent doesn’t seem to have gotten in the way of Justin Bieber, Jenifer Lopez, Jessie J, Nicole Scherzinger or the Black Eyed Peas…
However, impressive though some of the apps maybe - and the tablet optimised versions of the email client, contacts list, eBook reader and the like are nice to use - the starkly simplistic interface is getting a little tired. After all, the iPad/2 has a big screen to play with and having just a huge expanse of icons greeting you on the home page does feel like a less than optimal use of this space. We appreciate there's a certain charm to this basic layout, and that the similarity to the iPhone has its charm, but the likes of WebOS and Android have shown that there is room for improvement.
One example is the web browser where, rather than having tabs along the top of the screen for all the different pages you have open (liked you'd have on a desktop browser), you have to click on the tabs icon, then prod a thumbnail. It may look and sound nicer but in practical terms... well, tabs were invented for a reason and that reason hasn't changed - they're convenient. And that's aside from the limit of having only nine open at any one time - open a link from another app and the first page just vanishes. Of course the continued lack of Adobe Flash support in the web browser is another bone of contention.
The argument stands that you don't need flash with all the amazing apps that the iPad 2 offers, and to a degree this holds up. The slew of great magazine and newspaper apps that are now available do provide an arguably nicer way to read the same content you might get online. And apps for iPlayer and Sky News do mean you can watch most key online video. However, not all these apps are actually an improved way of browsing this content - The Times is rather clunky while the iPlayer feels rather limited - and moreover the two aren't mutually exclusive: why can't we have both good apps and watch online videos or view other flash content?