The moment you turn the new iPad on, everything changes, as it provides a visual experience on a whole other level to any other current tablet thanks to its astonishing 9.7in screen. If you were impressed by the 1,024 x 768 display in the iPad 2, prepare to be blown away by the 2,048 x 1,536 pixels Apple has managed to cram into the iPad 3. Incidentally that’s more pixels than in most TVs and high-end monitors, and only a professional 30in or 27in panel like the one used in the Samsung S27A850D can exceed it.
iPad 2 on left, new iPad on right
As a result, everything on the new iPad looks razor sharp. At normal viewing distances you won’t even be able to distinguish individual pixels, which is why Apple is justified in calling it a Retina Display even if its 264ppi doesn’t quite match the iPhone 4S’ 326ppi; in practical use it won’t matter as it’s still more than good enough.
With this move, Apple has put its latest tablet well ahead of the Android pack, of which even the most premium announced models, like the Transformer Pad Infinity, still ‘only’ come with 1,920 x 1,200 screens. Meanwhile the current Transformer Prime, with its 1,280 x 800 resolution, has a pixel density of merely 149ppi.
Regardless, the new iPad’s new screen will be a Godsend for those who like to read or game on their tablet, as even zoomed text is lovely and smooth while compatible games burst with detail. Especially photographers and artists will find much to love: even the smallest minutiae are visible, and you may notice blemishes in the original image you could never distinguish before. As the screen uses an IPS rather than TN panel, viewing angles are also as good as it gets, meaning you can look at the tablet from the side without contrast or colour shift.
Apple has improved colour saturation over previous iPads too, leaving colours bright and punchy without oversaturation, as can be the case on some AMOLED screens. Luckily, backlighting is beautifully even too and bleed virtually non-existent. Contrast is also good - though as it’s only marginally better than the iPad 2’s, the Transformer Prime’s IPS Plus panel still noticeably comes out on top. Still, we’d rather take those extra pixels and more accurate colours any day, and we have no hesitation in calling the iPad 3’s Retina Display the best tablet screen out there, followed by the Prime’s IPS Plus.
So are there any downsides to the new iPad screen, aside from requiring more power to run? Not really. Its squarer aspect ratio than the vast majority of competing tablets could be an issue if you use your slate to watch a lot of video though. For while the picture the display produces is undoubtedly superb, you do end up with rather huge black bars on the top and bottom. Again, this is an area where the 16:10 (the same aspect ratio as 1,920 x 1,200 monitors) Prime takes the lead. On the other hand, we prefer a squarer screen for reading and browsing, so it’s horses for courses.
While we’re moaning, it’s also a huge pity that Apple still doesn’t offer an optional pressure-sensitive stylus, like the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet or Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 do. This would be a great feature for designers and artists, or even those who like handwritten notes, and would complement the Retina Display very nicely.
On the audio side of things, meanwhile, the iPad 3 is still one of the best-sounding tablets around. Its mono speaker manages admirable volume with quite a bit of detail and punch for a tablet. However, due to the lack of bass and occasional distortion, you may still want to hook up a decent set of headphones.
One thing in dire need of improvement with the iPad 2 were its cameras, and Apple has obliged with the new iPad – to an extent. The front one is, at best, only a very minor improvement over the poor model on the previous Apple tablet. Thankfully, the rear one has received a major update. It’s now a 5 megapixel, backside-illuminated affair with a five element f/2.4 lens and autofocus, and it can shoot stabilized 1080p video at 30fps.
The iPad 3’s rear shooter is now also called iSight, because Apple loves to give even its completely unoriginal ‘technologies’ catchy names. Creative naming aside, it produces pictures on a level with the original iPhone 4, which is certainly no bad thing. Video is even better, no doubt helped along by the powerful processing the new iPad can provide courtesy of its A5X SoC.
Our only real complaint with the rear camera is the lack of an LED flash. We also would have liked to see more of an update on the front model – after all, that’s the one you use for video calling. If cameras are important to you, again the Asus Transformer Prime is a better bet.
There’s no need to worry that apps and games will require too much power to run at the new iPad’s ludicrously high 2,048 x 1,536 resolution, as the new A5X SoC copes admirably. The processor part is still dual-core, where many were hoping it would offer four. However, iOS and the apps designed for Apple’s tablet probably wouldn’t take advantage of the extra cores to any great extent anyway.
So how does Apple’s chip compare on the processor front? Well, the A5X is essentially an upgraded A5, but the main boost has been to the graphics/GPU part. The CPU is still actually two Cortex A9 cores running at 1GHz. As you might expect, Nvidia’s Tegra 3 (as used in the Transformer Prime) with its four Cortex A9 cores running at up to 1.66GHz, happily stomps all over Apple’s chip when it comes to data processing like number crunching.
When it comes to graphics, on the other hand, things swing dramatically in Apple’s favour. While the A5X with its PowerVR GPU is putting a meagre four cores against the 12 found in Tegra 3’s GPU, it’s important to remember that the dual graphics cores on the iPad 2’s A5 SoC were already a match for Nvidia’s latest in many ways, and the new iPad has no trouble driving content at its new screen resolution. Games like Infinity Blade: Dungeons prove the new iPad’s graphical prowess in a stunning way – but we’ll tell you all about that later on.
The A5X is backed by 1GB of RAM, double that of the iPad 2 and in line with most premium Android tablets. However, it is worth keeping in mind that Android tablets with double that again (2GB) are only just around the corner. Still, considering iOS’ efficiency, this should be plenty for the current generation.
As listed at the beginning of the review, permanent storage can be anywhere between 16 to 64GB, depending on how much you’re willing to spend. Do keep in mind that unlike almost every Android tablet, memory is not expandable, so you’re stuck with what you buy. In other words, think about the video, music and photos you’ll want to carry around, and then add a few gigabytes for apps and games. We reckon 32GB to be the sweet spot for the average consumer.
Like its screen, wireless is another area where the iPad 3 currently outshines all competitors. Wi-Fi N is of course standard, but Bluetooth is version 4.0 where most competing tablets use 3.0 - though this won’t make much difference for the end user. What may potentially matter is that the more expensive versions of the new iPad also offer 4G, where other tabs give you 3G - if they have the option for mobile broadband at all.
Mind you, good luck finding a 4G network in the UK, but at worst you can see it as future proofing, and if you do happen to live in a country where it’s widely available the benefits can be significant, with far faster internet speeds of up to 73Mbps. The new iPad uses the same microSIM as the previous models, so you can just transfer over if you’re lucky enough to already own one.