Thursday, April 7, 2011

Apple iPad 2 soars with new bells & whistles

Man tests iPad 2 at the Apple store on 5th Avenue in Manhattan.

A year ago, Apple released the original iPad, a product that essentially spawned the entire tablet market. Since then, a lengthy list of competitors – think Dell Streak, Motorola Xoom and Blackberry PlayBook – have cropped up.

Such competitors have tried to leapfrog the tablet that started it all by adding features upon features, then highlighting those additions. The iPad lacked an HDMI output, they said, was short on pure horsepower, was missing a camera and didn't have Flash. 

The list went on and on, but now Apple is back with the iPad 2, a second-generation product that seems to specifically address many of those disses. The result is another high-class offering from Apple, even if it isn't nearly as groundbreaking as last year's offering. Let's take a closer look at the iPad 2.

THE FORM

At first glance, the iPad 2 looks a lot like a regular iPad. Its 1,024x768 LED display is completely identical to the original's screen, and every button and hookup – from the standard 30-pin USB-to-iPad connector on the bottom to the volume rocker on the right side to the 3.5 mm headphone jack on the top – is placed right where it was on the first iPad. The display looks as good as it did before, although it's disappointing that Apple didn't upgrade to the Retina display being used in the iPhone 4.

There are subtle differences, though, mostly related to size. Somehow, Apple has removed some of this iPad's girth; it's just 0.34 inches thick – thinner than even the iPhone 4. The bezel has also been trimmed ever so slightly, resulting in a slightly shorter product. On the back you'll get that familiar cold steel iPad feel, although this time it feels slightly smoother and flatter, allowing the iPad 2 to sit comfortably on any surface. There are two cameras – one in front, situated almost invisibly on the top center, and one on the top right-hand side on the back.

Despite all these additions, there is still no microSD or SD card slot, so you're limited to whatever storage you have on your model. And it would surprise you how quickly you can chew up 64 GBs.

The entire package clocks in at a scant 1.35 pounds for the AT&T 3G model (the heaviest one of them all), but it still feels sturdy. If there is a shortcoming to the new arrangement it is that the 30-pin connector no longer slides fully into the back of the iPad; its bottom is somewhat exposed even when fully inserted.

The overall feel of this new iPad is one of sleekness. This is a beautiful gadget to carry around.

THE HARDWARE

The iPad 2 gains a handful of under-the-hood improvements, the most notable of which is the new dual-core processor. It clocks in at 1GHz, putting this tablet on par with the Android-based Motorola Xoom. The new processor is well-equipped to handle just about anything you can throw at it, smoothly running even CPU-intensive apps such as Apple's newGarageBand.

Just keep one thing in mind: With the exception of some oh-so-occasional slowdown on the original iPad, most apps ran fluidly on that one, too. Yes, GarageBand loads a faster on the iPad 2, but in most apps, the CPU upgrade doesn't manifest itself. It's worth noting that GarageBand did crash once on us on the iPad 2, but it also crashed on the original iPad as well.

The upshot of this improved horsepower may be seen later this year, though, as the iPad 2 will be able to handle newer, more powerful apps (we'll run down some of those in a week or so). And, to its credit, the iPad 2 does everything a bit more quickly than its predecessor.

The other big addition – the cameras – answers the original's other major criticism, but the iPad 2's performance here is a mixed bag. The front-facing camera is a VGA unit, and it takes decent – if occasionally grainy pictures – and works well for Facetime. The back-end camera shoots 720p HD video and takes photos, although these are essentially video stills. The videos themselves turn out well, with good overall picture and sound quality, but the colors are incredibly washed out. There's no flash here, either.

The overall quality of the cameras is disappointing, producing shots that can't even match those of a Motorola Droid X cell phone. But it's worth noting that on a tablet of any sort, cameras are often more novelty than anything. It feels both clunky and awkward to shoot video on an iPad 2 – or a Xoom, for that matter – for any sustained period of time, so don't concern yourself too much with this weakness.

The iPad 2 also includes an ambient light sensor and accelerometer (obligatory additions in tablets these days), and there's now an additional three-axis gyroscope. This is more forward-thinking than anything, having minimal influence in your daily use but offering more opportunities for future apps.

As with the original iPad, both WiFi and 3G models are available. This year's 3G has two providers – AT&T and Verizon – and you need to choose wisely, because you cannot switch back and forth. AT&T's service is slightly more spotty, but unlike Verizon, you don't need to pay an activation fee; you simply pay month-to-month. Keep in mind that the iPad 2 lacks 4G support, limiting its internet horsepower.

SOFTWARE AND ACCESSORIES

Apple continues its all-out war on Flash, refusing to add support on the iPad yet again, but surprisingly, it does little to diminish your browsing experience. Maybe this is because many major sites are embracing HTML5 to some extent, or maybe it's because more sites are actually creating iPad-specific web pages, but Safari feels slick and fast on the iPad 2, almost rivaling a laptop browsing experience.

Apple makes another major addition – and refutes yet another criticism of its original model – by adding full video mirroring this time around. It's unfortunate that you can't do this right out of the box and must instead purchase a $39.99 proprietary connector and an HDMI cable.

The adaptor works slickly. You can easily view your entire iPad display – everything from web pages to emails to games and movies – on your big screen TV, and it even passes through Dolby Surround Sound information to your television.

The connector also works with the original iPad, but it only permits you to watch games and movies. Connect an iPad 2, however, and you're granted unlimited mirroring power.

Despite near-perfect implementation, the uses of this new mirroring are actually rather limited. Trying to play a game on the big screen is amusing, but in most games, you'll quickly revert to staring at your iPad screen. There's a tactile disconnect between playing on one screen and blindly touching another.

But for showing pictures, watching movies, and simply just displaying web pages for a room full of people, the adaptor works flawlessly; it's greatest fault is that it wasn't included in the box.

The other key accessory to the iPad 2 is Apple's new Smart Cover, a slick (yes, we use that word a lot when referencing the iPad 2, don't we?) magnetic cover that covers the front of the iPad 2. It connects easily, and flips into four small sections to form a stand for you iPad 2. The inside is made of microfibers that promise to clean your iPad screen, although this won't stop it from collecting smudges and fingerprints.

The Smart Cover does a fantastic job of protecting the front of your iPad 2, but don't for a moment see this as full protection for your iPad 2. You'll still want to guard the back from scratches, and if you use the Smart Cover, you'll want a cushiony case. Speck's Pixelsleeve ($29.95) does the trick, although it's a bit roomy, and any original iPad case will also work. Another option: the $40 Invisible Shield, a clear plastic covering that protects the back of the iPad 2 without altering its overall look.

THE VERDICT

In an ever-crowded world of tablets that's about to grow even more competitive with the upcoming release of the BlackBerry Playbook, Apple's iPad 2 brings a slick design and just enough hardware to stay ahead of the pack. But the gap between the iPad 2 and its competitors is closing.

On some fronts, this second edition really steps to the plate. The design and weight are unparalleled, and the overall tablet experience is a dream on the iPad 2. The video mirroring, while overhyped, is also good, and a few technical touches prepare the machine for the future.

On other fronts, though, Apple seems content to include the bare minimum. The cameras are less-than-stellar, Flash remains absent, and, perhaps most egregiously, 4G support is nonexistent.

Overall, the iPad 2 isn't a giant leap forward, although it is a sleek and sexy update. If you owned the original iPad, don't get taken in by the video mirroring or the cameras, and go ahead and wait for the next iteration. Then again, Apple does choose to maintain the original iPad's price points, perhaps a sign that the company realizes this is more minor update than earth-shattering change.

If you don't own an iPad, this gadget may push you over the edge. The competition is slowly closing, but, at least for now, the iPad 2 is the definitive tablet experience.

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