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iPad 2 Review

Pros

  • Fast dual-core CPU
  • Lighter and Slimmer than previous iPad
  • iOS best tablet operating system available

Cons

  • Somewhat low screen resolution
  • 3G model is expensive
  • Doesn't serve any specific function

Key Specifications

  • Review Price: £399.00
  • 9.7in 1,024 x 768 pixel display
  • Dual-core CPU
  • 3G version available
  • 1MP Camera

Update: Check out our new iPad 3 review.

Say what you like about the original Apple iPad, you’d have to be deluded not to admit that Apple’s equally lauded and derided tablet has changed a market more dramatically than we’ve seen in a long time. Apple may not be the only company making a good tablet any more, but it was certainly the first and it definitely takes credit for opening up the minds of the general public to the idea that, yes, a tablet just might have a place in their lives.

Think about it, and you realise that’s an incredible feat. The iPad was in many ways a revolution, but it was also incredibly lacking in many ways. It lacked not just a front-facing camera for FaceTime, but any camera at all, couldn’t handle multitasking and for all that its display offered a great portal to the Internet and a plethora of apps, the Apple iPad was actually a somewhat unwieldy device to sit in bed or on the sofa with. And you definitely couldn’t call it cheap.

Despite the shortcomings, the iPad was a runaway success – millions of customers wouldn’t be pleased to have you describe them as wrong. Perhaps fortunately for Apple, it’s taken the competition close to a year to catch up, after a couple of false starts including, most notably, the Samsung Galaxy Tab. Unlike the Tab, in their own ways the BlackBerry PlayBook and Motorola Xoom offer a genuine alternative to the Apple iPad; they have well-designed and well-made chassis, slick operating systems, and are fairly price-competitive.

Apple iPad 2

The problem for these iPad-rivals is that Apple wasn’t sitting idle during the year-long head start it had over the competition. And so while the likes of the Xoom and PlayBook have been designed to best the iPad (and looked set to easily do so had they arrived earlier), now Apple has changed the goalposts again by launching it’s own take on making an iPad-bester: the Apple iPad 2. In a similar vein to the iPhone 3G, it’s not entirely unfair to call the iPad 2 the iPad Apple should have launched in the first place, and it’s hardly a break from the tradition of Apple upgrades; thinner, lighter and more powerful? Check, check and check. Nonetheless, like it or not, right or wrong, the Apple iPad 2 is going to become the de facto standard against which all other tablets launched this year are measured, and it’s to that standard we’ll be holding it – game on, Apple.

The hardware changes are small bit significant. On stage Steve Jobs declared the iPad 2 as ‘an all new design’ but any fool can see that such a claim is taking liberties with the definition of ‘all’ and ‘new’ However, it is fair to say that the changes to the design of the iPad 2 over the iPad make it feel like a more up to date – and better – device. It’s just enough of an improvement that owners of a first generation device will be jealously eyeing up second generation iPads when spotted.

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Front-on the iPad 2 looks almost identical to its predecessor, but close inspection reveals a front-facing VGA camera above the screen. That the iPad 2 features the same 9.7in, 1,024 x 768 pixel panel as the first iPad will be a disappointment to those expecting a Retina Display in the style of the iPhone 4, but not unexpected. While we’re not surprised to see quite such a sharp and high resolution display on the iPad 2, it would’ve been nice if Apple bumped it a little bit – we know of several people that want to wait a further year or so (before buying any form of iPad or tablet) for such a move to hopefully be made on the iPad 3.

Despite not seeing a boost in resolution, the iPad 2’s display is still the best we’ve seen on a tablet with bright and vivid colours, impressive black levels (making videos look that much better), and of course all important superb viewing angles. Other tablets we’ve had brief looks at also have great displays but the iPad 2 is leading the pack so far. The resolution is low enough, though, that text on websites looks pretty pixelated at times, making it harder to read than we’d like – our eyes have been spoiled by too many super-sharp displays on all the great smartphones now available.

It’s around the back that the changes to the physical form of the iPad 2 make themselves known. For a start, the aluminium now curves around to meet the bezel, losing the flat ridge of the iPad’s edge. The overall thickness has also dropped to a mere 8.8mm thick – down from the 13mm of the iPad. Pedants might like to know that the width and height are down from 243mm and 190mm to 240mm and 186mm respectively, as a result of a slight reduction of the amount of aluminium at the edges of the iPad 2, but these differences are much less noticeable – the black bezel and display are still the same size.

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The curved edges also mean that the dock connector doesn’t feel quite as secure on the iPad 2 as on the iPad, and that the volume rocker and lock (or mute) switch is hidden from view when holding the iPad 2 face-on. There’s also a large-ish speaker at the rear of the iPad 2, but frankly there might as well not be; the audio is okay for watching the odd YouTube video, but not much more – it is at least a small improvement over the original. More practically, the back of the iPad 2 is completely flat so, unlike the first iPad, when placed on a desk it won’t rock about – this makes typing on the screen much easier. The rear holds another camera, this time with a 720p resolution.

Not visible, but perhaps the most important ‘upgrade’ to the iPad 2 is the loss of 80g of weight on the W-Fi model, and an even more noticeable 130g on the 3G model. It may not sound like much, but the weight saving of around 15 per cent really does make a difference in long-term use of the iPad 2. Even just moving it about or leaning it up against a leg when sitting down is easier, but it’s one-handed operation that really benefits – we found our wrists aching a lot less frequently with the iPad 2 than our first generation iPad. That said, it’s still a rather large and heavy device that isn’t exactly what we’d call comfortable to hold with one hand. What’s more, compared to a laptop, where the screen is held at a comfortable angle ‘hands-free’, it can sometimes be a bit of a pain to use when you just want to sit back and watch a video or read an article.

The internal hardware of the iPad 2 is likely to have a more lasting impact than the changes to the chassis. Like its recent rivals, the iPad 2 features a dual-core processor, in this case codenamed the A5 and running at 1GHz – this is backed by 512MB of RAM, the same as the iPhone 4.

Despite having less RAM than many of its rivals – most of which boast at tidy gigabyte of memory – the iPad 2 never feels slow – Apple claims that the iPad 2 is “up to 2x faster” than the previous model. Although we can’t say we noticed many apps running twice as fast, everything from Safari to GarageBand definitely ran faster on the newer model. This proves more of an advantage in the home than out and about; bearing in mind how many apps are effectively just pretty, stand-alone web pages, over 3G the connection tends to be the limiting factor in how fast apps run.

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The graphics in the iPad 2 are also much improved over the previous model. The “9x faster” than the iPad claim may seem bold but it seems to hold water, with the PowerVR SGX 543MP2 chip embedded in the A5 making mincemeat of any game or app currently available. Epic Games’ Infinity Blade is far and away the best-looking game on any currently available tablet, and on the iPad 2 it has a massive boost in fidelity over the iPad, offering much improved rendering fidelity in addition to a higher framerate. We’ve seen less good-looking PS3 and Xbox 360 games.

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That said, its prowess only matches that of most of the other dual-core tablets that will soon be available (Motorola Xoom, BlackBerry PlayBook, Optimus Pad, HP TouchPad, Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1) so it’s not a technical tour do force. However, the sheer ubiquity of the iOS platform means that iPhones and iPads to tend to lead the way when it comes to the latest games so if that’s your priority you may be better of sticking with Apple. The wide range of possible hardware configurations for Android really hurts it here – the Apple iOS ecosystem has its faults, but fragmentation isn’t one of them.

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Apple has managed to gain these performance improvements, and pack this faster iPad 2 into a smaller space, without impacting on battery life. The original iPad impressed on this front, and the iPad 2 runs with that. It’s perfectly possible to get a few days of casual use without having to charge the system, and over 10 hours of continuous use – an improvement over the iPad, which was already the class leader, and more than we’re expecting to see from the best of the new comers (though obviously we’ll have to confirm this when they do finally arrive).

The addition of cameras may be one of the most requested features of the iPad 2, but to use them makes one realise both that they’re far from essential for general use but moreover they were something of an afterthought for Apple’s development team. The front-facing camera is less disappointing than that on the rear, but both are nothing like as good as the competition.

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After wandering out into the TR grounds to snap a few test shots we were shocked by just how poor the resulting images looked. Even the original iPhone camera did a better job, and unlike that device, which somehow made the bad pictures look pretty good on its display, the iPad 2’s larger screen doesn’t do a thing to hide how awful its photos are – we can’t remember the last time we saw such washed-out photos.

ipad2-front-camera

Video quality is equally poor, with none of the quality you’d expect from what is labelled as an HD camera. There may well be the requisite number of vertical lines of pixels in the iPad 2’s sensor, but the resulting recordings are not what we’ve come to expect from 720p.

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The front-facing camera is even worse, although for use with FaceTime or the admittedly very fun Photo Booth application it serves its purpose. In fact, the effects in Photo Booth do a good job both of hiding the low quality of the camera, and of showcasing the power of the iPad 2’s A5 processor; throwing nice processed video feeds up on the screen at once is no mean feat.

ipad2-image-compare

Another complaint Apple has taken a half-step to addressing is the lack of an HDMI output for the iPad. Apple being Apple, the iPad 2 doesn’t have an HDMI port itself, but rather one is available via an adaptor, priced at £35 (many other rivals have this built in and we suspect and hope those that don’t will bundle an adapter to trump the iPad 2 here) . For the iPad 2 this provides both direct output to a display and the ability to mirror the display on the iPad 2. The adaptor also works with the first iPad, the iPhone 4 and the latest iPod touch, but only for video-output – mirroring is the sole preserve of the iPad 2.

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The iPad 2’s limited video codec support, and the price of the adaptor, means that purchasing one in order to use the iPad 2 as a media player for your TV isn’t a particularly wise investment. That said, once you do have all the requisite bits and bobs, video playback is very enjoyable.

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.

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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.

ipad2-typing

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.

ipad2-imovie

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.

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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…

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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.

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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?

If iMovie and GarageBand aren’t far enough in the ‘cool but not especially useful’ category for you (in that they actually could be useful) then the iPad 2’s Smart Covers should be. In principle they sound like a good idea, but in reality they’re not quite the magical revolution we were led to believe they should be.

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We’ll start with the good. The magnetic attachment is very clever, and it does make attaching a Smart Cover very easy – certainly a less frustrating process than fitting the original iPad into its official case. We like the way the case folds back to prop up the iPad at an angle, making it easier to type on when sat on a desk or table. We also like the magnetic sensor that turns the screen on and off automatically as you put the case on and take it off.

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The bad, however, kills almost all of these positives. For a start the microfiber interior lining which is supposed to keep the iPad 2’s display clean does nothing of the sort, unless you actively use it to wipe the screen – the same function a sleeve performs perfectly well. We’re also not especially convinced that the benefits of saving a few mm of protective padding by only covering the screen of the iPad 2 are worth the risk of scratching the back. Furthermore, fold the cover round to the back and it hangs loose, and we even found that holding it in one hand could cause the magnetic hinge to come off. Most critically, though, the Smart covers are simply too expensive – were one supplied with each iPad 2 we’d be nonplussed, verging on pleased by them, but at £35 and £69 for the polyurethane and leather varieties respectively, we can’t extend our recommendation.

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For all that they leave a lacklustre impression, the iPad 2’s Smart Covers don’t damped our impression of the device itself. The slight price reduction of the 16GB model is a definite slap in the face to the competition, and one that won’t hurt Apple in the slightest – iPad owners are practically throwing money at Apple in return for apps. The 3G model remains a less easily justified extravagance, given the limited amount of time most iPad owners will be using one away from a source of Wi-Fi (for all its merits the iPad remains more a lounging device than a travel companion) – but of course we’d rather the option be there than not.

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