Whereas the iPhone has healthy competition from Android devices, pretenders to Apple's tablet crown have been few and far between. So it's no surprise the company's latest iPad -- simply called 'the new iPad' rather than 'iPad 3' -- has hardly evolved at all.
It's kept the same winning design and boasts steady improvements such as a higher resolution screen, improved camera and a faster processor. But are these changes enough to keep Apple on top? And at £399 for the cheapest model, is it worth upgrading if you already own an iPad?
Should I buy the new iPad?
If you already own an iPad, either first or second generation, then I don't think you need to upgrade. While the features Apple's brought to bear on this latest iteration are all appreciated, 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. Unless there's a hole in your heart that can only be occupied by the very latest thing, I think your existing 'pad will tide you over for another year.
If you're yet to investigate the world of tablets, it's a different matter. The last few years have proved that tablet tech is here to stay, and I firmly believe 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.
Without a doubt, the new iPad's headline feature, the retina display, 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 make that kind of impression. 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 the previous 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 already a decent number of apps that have been given a retina makeover. It's a good thing too because anything on this screen that's not been tailored for the tablet's high-resolution display sticks out like a sore thumb.
Blurry, unattractive apps and icons were an issue when the iPhone 4 was released, with the device's hi-res screen making apps built for previous iPhones look extremely ugly. That's no longer an issue, but expect a transitional phase in which you'll occasionally be confronted with unsightly, blocky apps.
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.
The iPad 2's camera was rubbish, and while it served for taking quick, disposable snaps and concocting moving music videos, a lack of detail in images meant it was unsuitable for capturing half-decent photos. The new iPad sports a beefed-up 5-megapixel snapper that packs fancy-sounding tech like back-side illumination and a 5-element lens. But could the new iPad replace your digital camera?
This snapper is a massive improvement on the iPad 2's effort, as our comparison photos confirm. If you check those pictures out, you'll see that the new iPad particularly excels at capturing close-up shots and far exceeds its predecessor'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. The new iPad isn't a suitable replacement for a decent compact digital camera, or a particularly good smart phone camera.
There's a new processor lurking inside this brand new tablet, dubbed the A5X chip, providing a step-up in power from the A5 chip powering the last iPad.
It's worth mentioning that there's nothing wrong with the iPad 2 in terms of speed. One year on, it's still a very capable device, and feels every bit as slick to use as the new model. The power boost present in the new iPad is necessary though, because powering the high-resolution screen is a demanding process.
In everyday terms, you're unlikely to notice much difference in speed between the new iPad and the iPad 2 -- moving through the interface feels just as swift, and apps spring open with little loading time.
There also seems to be little improvement here in terms of graphical clout. The new iPad ran the GLBenchmark 2.1.2 Egypt Standard test at 59 frames per second, compared to 58fps when we ran the same test on our iPad 2.
The 'Offscreen' test, which is part of the same suite, showed more improvement -- 140fps for the new iPad versus 89fps on the iPad 2. The GLBenchmark 2.1 Pro test running on high showed remarkably little difference between the two tablets though, with the new slate running the test at 59fps, and the original iPad mustering 58fps.
Our scores using the Geekbench app were also similar -- 760 for the new iPad compared with 756 for the new iPad. Interestingly, this test revealed that the new iPad offers 988MB of RAM and is clocked at 1GHz.
The benchmark tests show that in practical terms, you're unlikely to see a great deal more grunt with the new iPad. The A5X chip may make your tablet more useful for longer as new and exciting apps are created, but for now, the practical performance benefits of the new processor appear to be slight. The speed boost moving from the iPhone 4 to the 4S was much more striking.
This iPad looks essentially the same as its predecessor, but that's no bad thing. This device is all-over luxury, with the curved metal casing feeling pleasant in the hand. 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 a slot for the charger, and at the top you'll find a headphone port and lock switch. Like the iPad 2, the new iPad comes in both black and white options.
There are some differences between the new iPad and the 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 tablet 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.
It's 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 probably slightly too unwieldy to hold in one mitt for long.
The extra bulk will be a consequence of the components that Apple's chosen to occupy this tablet's innards. The camera, processor and screen all offer better performance, but the slight extra bulk is the price you pay. If you'd rather own something as thin and portable as possible, then the iPad 2 is still on sale at a reduced cost.
The new iPad's focus may be on swanky new components, but it's Apple's iOS software that has made its tablets so successful. 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 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 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.
Dedicated Apple followers will spot something missing from the new iPad, and that's Siri, the smug voice-controlled robot butler that lives on the iPhone 4S. Why is Siri absent from this tablet? Well, it's likely that it's because many people will be opting for the cheapest version, which is Wi-Fi only. As Siri relies on an Internet connection, that would mean that for many folks, it would only work while you were at home or in a Wi-Fi hotspot, which wouldn't be ideal.
The omission isn't heartbreaking though, because Siri is pretty useless here in the UK. Apple still doesn't have a deal in place with a company that provides local info on businesses and locations, so it can't tell you, for instance, where your nearest hairdresser is, or how to get to the big Tesco near your house.
There are elements of Siri to be found in the new iPad though, as it offers 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 -- as well as the same tech on the iPhone 4S. 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, but not in the UK
The Wi-Fi + 4G option for this iPad offers LTE connectivity for those using the version that takes a SIM card, but that's not something that'll work in the UK, as our fragile networks don't support 4G yet. Even when they do, this particular model won't work on the spectrum bands we'll be using.
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. 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.
Apple's estimate for the new iPad's battery life is 10 hours, though in practise it's extremely hard to gauge what kind of survivability tablets will offer unless you have a very clear idea of what you're going to be doing with them. Left alone overnight, our model dropped a mere 3 per cent battery charge, which is promising.
Once we started downloading tonnes of apps and running gruelling graphics tests, however, the available charge started melting away. That's to be expected though, and it's not what I'd call typical usage by any stretch. I'll be updating this article if I notice any battery quirks, but my impression so far is that the new iPad will likely be as capable away from the mains as its predecessors.
The iPad is one of the very few gadgets out there to offer battery life I'd actually call impressive, so this is a good thing. Those of you looking to use the iPad primarily as an ebook reader, take note -- the Kindle's battery life is fantastic.
For another year, Apple's tablet is the best around, and if you've refrained from getting involved in the world of tablets then this is the perfect time to jump in.
My impression is that the new screen, camera and processor are all improvements, but they’re modest improvements, and the iPad has become a little bulkier -- likely as a consequence of all that new hardware.
But components are not at the heart of the iPad's appeal. Rather, it's the excellent software and competition-beating app selection that's worth splashing out on. And that's not going away any time soon.
Most striking, perhaps, is how compelling the iPad 2 still looks when compared with the new model. It's not quite as good-looking, 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.