Whereas the iPhone has long had competition from Android devices, pretenders to Apple's tablet crown have taken their time in surfacing. At last, however, compelling alternatives are creeping onto the scene, with devices such as the Google Nexus 7 offering a bargain-basement price, and the Nexus 10 looking like it could offer a high-resolution, Android-powered alternative to the iPad.
The tablet scene is certainly hotting up, but Apple is keeping its high-brow tablet at the forefront with a fourth-generation device that brings a powerful new processor, front-facing camera improvements and the new Lightning connector port. They're minor tweaks, but for now at least, these upgrades are enough to make this latest iPad the best iPad, and the most luxurious tablet money can buy.
The iPad with retina display, as Apple is calling this version, is available to order direct from Apple now, starting at £399. The 4G version will follow in late November.
Should I buy the new iPad?
If you already own an iPad, you shouldn't feel at pains to upgrade, especially if you bought the third-generation model that was released earlier this year. Practically speaking, there's not a lot the new iPad does that its predecessors can't. Apps, games and Web browsing work well across all three generations, and that's primarily what you'll be using this gadget for.
If you're yet to investigate the world of tablets, it's a different matter. The last few years have proved tablet tech is here to stay, and Apple's latest iPad is the best tablet available to buy today. It's likely to remain so for some time. The wealth of apps, slick design and the fact that it's cheaper than many of its rivals are all good reasons to buy, but it is more expensive than some of the competition. If you're on a budget, consider the £159 Google Nexus 7 a worthy (if smaller) alternative.
The biggest change in the fourth-generation iPad is a new processor -- the A6X chip. This is a dual-core ARM-based chip that boasts quad-core graphics. The 'new iPad' released earlier this year was no slouch, so how does this latest version compare?
CNET's testing found that games running on this iPad felt faster, with the sometimes-choppy N.O.V.A. 3 proving silky smooth. Other games felt just as slick and fast-loading when tested.
This iPad booted up from being turned off in 16 seconds, nearly twice as fast as the third-generation iPad's time of 27 seconds. The difference in tasks such as video encoding was no more than a few seconds between the two models, and both run iOS 6 without any hiccups.
In number-crunching terms, the fourth-generation iPad scored above 1,700 in the Geekbench performance-testing app, beating the third-generation model, which managed around the 1,600 mark. This latest iPad is significantly more powerful than the iPad mini, which scored just 752 in the same test, although the mini doesn't feel that slow when you're using it.
There are currently no apps that have been tweaked to take full advantage of the fourth-generation iPad's improved speed, which makes testing performance challenging.
What CNET's testing suggests so far, however, is that this iPad is noticeably faster than its predecessor, even if the older iPad is still one of the fastest gadgets around. That extra dollop of speed could give this latest iPad more longevity, especially in a few years when software becomes more demanding.
Lightning port and charging
Just like the iPhone 5 and new iPod models, the latest iPad sports Apple's new Lightning connector. This is smaller than the previous 30-pin model, and can be stuck inside the iPad either way up, which cuts down on faffing.
This new socket does mean the iPad isn't compatible with earlier chargers, docks or other accessories. If you've owned a few Apple gadgets before, your house is probably littered with these cables, speakers and suchlike, so to see them rendered useless is dismaying. You can buy a pricey adaptor, but this may not support all the iPad's functions.
One bit of good news however is that based on CNET's tests, the new model charges faster than the notoriously slow-to-charge third-generation iPad. It's not a massive improvement, but it's better.
The screen on show here is exactly the same as that of the third-generation iPad -- nothing has changed here. The retina panel makes a modest first impression. I was hoping for a mind-blowing experience -- I remember being seriously impressed the first time I clapped eyes on the iPhone 4's pixel-packing display. The new iPad doesn't impress in the same way however, at least at first. While it’s unlikely to drop your jaw, this is undoubtedly still a fantastic screen.
Boasting a mammoth 2,048x1,536-pixel resolution, detail on icons and text is incredibly clear, and you may well spend your first few minutes of ownership peering gormlessly at the pre-installed app icons, all of which look gorgeous. Expect photos and HD movies to look a dream.
Examining the new iPad alongside the iPad 2, there is a visible difference in the quality of the display. But that's not to belittle that older iPad's screen, which is still great. The new tablet looks better, but not to the degree that the iPad 2 looks ugly and dated by comparison.
Colours are bright and natural, and the viewing angle is impressive, making it easy to crowd several people around a single tablet without anyone missing out on visual detail. The display's close proximity to the top of the screen is another plus, and lends the tablet a luxurious look.
The screen is still intensely reflective though. Stare into the new iPad while the screen is switched off and it may as well be a mirror. As such, you may find your fun hampered by overhead lighting while sat indoors. If you take the iPad outside, you'll have to contend with the biggest overhead light of all -- the sun.
For the most part, the screen is bright enough to compensate for these reflections. But if you're watching a moody movie with lots of scenes set in the dark, expect to spend some time looking up your own nose.
Exploring the App Store, there are plenty of tablet-specific apps that have been given a retina makeover. Anything on this screen that's not been tailored for the tablet's high-resolution display sticks out like a sore thumb, but you won't have to contend with much of that.
To sum up, this display is excellent. It hasn't rocked my world, but it has massaged my eyeballs with its clarity and colours. It's not hugely better-looking than older iPads, though if you've spent time with a retina display, expect to find lower-resolution panels suddenly less appealing.
New on board is a front-facing FaceTime HD camera, though in CNET's tests, this didn't feel as dramatic an upgrade as it did on the iPhone 5 or new iPod touch. That's because the iPad's large screen and high resolution means that even a more impressive front-facing snap still looks grainy.
This is still a step-up from Apple's third-generation tablet though, and it does the job when it comes to making video calls.
The 5-megapixel rear camera hasn't changed at all, though it's still a massive step-up on the iPad 2's snapper, as our comparison photos confirm. If you check those pictures out, you'll see that this latest iPad particularly excels at capturing close-up shots and far exceeds its 2011 brother's abilities in low-light conditions. Shots in less-than-bright lighting will still feature lots of noise though.
Pictures are reasonably clear if your subject is perfectly still, but it doesn't take much movement to leave your pictures looking decidedly blurry.
Outside shots are balanced, with our shots of a cloudy London day not too plagued by blown-out whites in the sky. There's not a huge amount of detail captured here -- zooming in a little on pictures I'd taken quickly left them looking unclear, with people's faces in crowd shots resembling blobs.
Video capture isn't terribly smooth, and once you start moving the tablet, the video is liable to succumb to blur. It's also worth mentioning that the tablet itself is quite cumbersome to hold up in a photography-ready position. Doing so in public will also make you look rather ridiculous.
There are benefits to using the iPad camera. The software is ludicrously simple, and once you've taken a picture, there are loads of apps like iPhoto with which to edit them. It's also dead easy to upload pictures to Facebook or Twitter. But those after a decent snap will find the actual image quality sub-par.
To conclude on cameras, this snapper is a massive improvement over the iPad 2 and will nab a decent photo, but isn't on par with the camera on the iPhone 5. It still isn't a suitable replacement for a decent compact digital camera, or a particularly good smart phone camera.
Another thing Apple hasn't tinkered with is the design. The fourth-generation iPad looks and feels just the same as the earlier model, which is a shame as it's still noticeably heavier than the iPad 2 was, and unlike the iPad mini is still tough to hold in one hand.
This device is all-over luxury though, with the curved metal casing feeling pleasant to hold. Build quality is excellent, and while this tablet is unlikely to survive a drop onto a tiled floor, you won't notice the casing creaking at all while you hold it -- it's very well put together indeed.
Buttons and ports remain minimal -- there's the home button beneath the screen and volume keys on the right, along with a switch that either locks screen rotation or mutes the volume, depending on the option you select in the settings menu. On the bottom there's the Lightning port, and at the top you'll find a headphone socket and lock switch. Like older models, this latest iPad comes in both black and white options.
To recap those differences between this iPad and the older iPad 2 -- this tablet isn't as thin, measuring 9.4mm thick compared to the iPad 2, which was 8.8mm deep. It's heavier as well, tipping the scales at 652g for the Wi-Fi only version, compared to the 601g Wi-Fi-only iPad 2. The SIM card-carrying version now weighs 662g.
One of our gripes with the original iPad was that it was too heavy at 680g, which made the slimmed-down, lighter iPad 2 feel like a significant change for the better. I think that while the new iPad is a comfortable weight and still pleasingly thin, it's edged dangerously close towards too-heavy territory, and it's a shame that Apple hasn't fixed that extra weight in this latest refresh.
The iPad is perfectly comfortable to hold with two hands, and I reckon you could easily enjoy a long train journey glued to this device without feeling the dreaded ache creeping into your wrists, but it's too unwieldy to hold in one mitt for long.
If you'd rather own something as thin and portable as possible, then go for the 7.9-inch iPad mini. Alternatively, the iPad 2 is still on sale at a reduced cost.
The latest iPad's focus may be on swanky new components, but it's Apple's iOS 6 software that gives it an advantage over rival devices. Buttery smooth menu navigation and an intuitive interface make gliding through the iPad's software a pleasure, and you'll rarely struggle to find what you're looking for.
Double-tapping the home button to bring up the apps you've already got running quickly becomes second nature, and multi-touch gestures are in place too. Pinching the screen with four or five fingers to return to the homescreen and swiping left or right with four fingers to switch between running apps are perhaps the most useful digit-induced shortcuts.
The iOS 6 software does have its pitfalls. The 'Settings' menu is still a confusing maze of options, making it time-consuming and frustrating to perform a simple task like adjusting brightness or turning Wi-Fi on or off. Options for customisation are also extremely low. Don't expect the dynamic home screen widgets you'd find on Android devices, and in terms of the tablet's display aesthetics, things like icons and fonts can't be changed.
In spite of Apple's restrictive approach, iOS is still arguably the best operating system for tablets right now, because it has an absolutely vast catalogue of downloadable apps. The iPad's popularity has caused newspapers, broadcasters and games publishers to flock to the platform, so you can expect a near-endless supply of games, digital magazines, music and video applications, as well as all the multimedia offerings through Apple's own iTunes app. GarageBand and iMovie, the music and movie editing tools made by Apple, are especially noteworthy.
Most apps are reasonably priced (expect to pay a few pounds at most), many are free, and because Apple enforces a strict approval process, the apps to be found on the App Store are generally polished and of a high quality. The retina display may be the shining face of Apple's new toy, but the App Store is its lifeblood.
A word of caution though. iOS 6 is lumbered with a rubbish Maps app, which isn't as good as the Google-powered option Apple recently ditched. You do get Apple's robotic assistant Siri -- recently revamped to include local information in the UK -- though this is another Apple app that needs more polish before you'll really enjoy using it.
There are other, voice-controlled elements present in the iPad, including voice dictation. Triggered by a tiny microphone icon that sits in the iPad's on-screen keyboard, tapping this button lets you speak your mind at your tablet. Tap it when you're done yapping, and the iPad will do its best to transcribe your mutterings.
This feature works reasonably well, but speak more than a sentence and it's likely you'll need to do a spot of editing before your text, email or memo is ready. Crucially, it's not that much quicker than typing.
I tested a few different regional accents, and found results to be similarly hit-and-miss across the board.
4G in the UK
The third-generation iPad released earlier this year offered 4G, but not in a capacity that would ever work in the UK, thanks to different nations operating on different spectrum bands. This latest retina-powered iPad will get 4G in the UK, but only on EE's network, which uses the 1,800MHz spectrum band.
To reiterate, if you buy an iPad now, it won't work with the 4G offered by other UK operators in the future, like O2 and Vodafone. These networks may offer a specially tweaked version of the iPad when they get their 4G services up and running, but that's very much up in the air right now.
EE has unveiled its pricing for 4G contracts, none of which are cheap. SIM-only deals kick off on 9 November at a wince-inducing £21 per month. It's possible EE will reveal special tariffs for the iPad and iPad mini, but unless you're made of money you'd be better off getting a data-only 3G contract from an operator like Three, which offers all-you-can-eat data at a reasonable cost.
The tablet still has some speedy connectivity tech including HSPA+ and DC-HSDPA that work in the UK, so as long as you've got decent network coverage, you should find mobile Internet is reasonably rapid.
If you buy an iPad in the UK, you will be able to take it to the US or Canada and use the 4G networks over there, though you will need to buy a SIM card for one of those local networks. Elsewhere the iPad now sports dual-band Wi-Fi antennas, so you may get a better connection at home.
Apple makes the same battery life claim for this latest iPad as it did for the earlier model -- 10 hours of video playback. CNET's testing so far suggests that battery life is the same as it is for the third-generation model.
Left alone overnight, that earlier tablet dropped a mere 3 per cent battery charge, though once you start downloading tonnes of apps and running gruelling gaming apps, the available charge will quickly start to melt away.
The iPad is one of the very few gadgets out there to offer battery life I'd actually call impressive. Those of you looking to use the iPad primarily as an ebook reader, take note -- the Kindle's battery life is fantastic.
Apple's latest iPad is the best iPad yet, even if its no longer the smallest, or the cheapest. As such, this model now becomes the height of tablet luxury, and the one to investigate if you care about having the best screen, and the best compatibility with cutting-edge apps.
The iPad 2 still looks good when compared with the new model. It's not quite as fast or handsome, but it can now be bought from Apple for a modest £329, so it's well worth considering if you're looking to save cash.
Editor's note: Our colleague Scott Stein reviewed the iPad with retina display for CNET.com, and the star rating above is the one he gave it, based on his experience and testing. We'll be reviewing the tablet with more UK perspective very soon, and may change the score based on what we find.