Let’s get right to the point: If you don’t already have an iPad, chances are you’ll be very happy with the third-generation model that goes on sale Friday. If you already have an iPad 2, there’s little need to upgrade.
It isn’t that the new iPad lacks impressive features --most notably, a vastly better display and an ultra-fast Internet-connection option. It’s just that it seems designed to maintain Apple’s huge lead in the tablet wars, rather than to extend it.
The closest parallel might be the iPhone 4S, a similarly incremental updating of its predecessor. The 4S, though, had one genuinely breakthrough feature: Siri, the voice-based personal assistant. For all its improvements, there’s no comparable innovation in this year’s iPad.
The new tablet, which Apple is just calling “the iPad,” is in many ways indistinguishable from its predecessor, the iPad 2. The pricing is unchanged, ranging from $499 to $829, depending on storage capacity and network options. It’s a wee bit thicker -- two-hundredths of an inch -- and less than two ounces heavier. Otherwise, it’s the same height and width, with the same-sized 9.7-inch screen.
But oh, what a screen. For this new edition, Apple has replaced the previous, perfectly nice one with the same so-called Retina Display it introduced on the iPhone 4. The new screen provides 2048 x 1536 resolution, which is to say four times the number of pixels of the old one, and more even than a high-definition TV set.
While the Retina Display on the iPhone wasn’t an earth-shaking advance, the impact is far more evident on the iPad’s greater real estate. Even the text in an e-book is crisper, high-def video is sharper and photos are crystal clear.
The visual improvements extend to newly enhanced graphics processing as well as a better photographic experience. Apple junked the iPad 2’s primitive rear-facing camera in favor of a new one with a five-megapixel sensor, plus optics and features borrowed from the iPhone 4S that include image stabilization and the ability to shoot full high-def video. And it’s introducing a $4.99 iPad version of its popular iPhoto Mac app that, combined with the stunning screen, makes editing and sharing photos a pleasure.
In a week of using the new model, I found battery life to be quite comparable to the iPad 2. That doesn’t sound like big news -- but it is. That’s because the new edition introduces support for the power-hungry 4G data networks known as LTE that are being rolled out in the U.S. by Verizon Wireless and AT&T.
Especially in these early days, when the networks aren’t crowded, LTE can deliver thunderous performance. On my test model, which runs on the AT&T network, I’ve clocked speeds over 40 megabits per second, which is faster than most home cable-modem connections.
Apple says the iPad provides up to 10 hours of use over Wi-Fi, and nine hours on a cellular network. Based on my tests, that may actually be a little conservative. After near-constant LTE use, including Web surfing and an hour or two of streamed video, I still had power to spare at the end of the day.
With battery life no longer a concern, the principal issues around LTE involve price and coverage. An LTE-equipped iPad costs $130 more than the Wi-Fi-only one, and data plans, which vary by carrier, range from $15 to $50 a month. (No long-term contract is needed.) Moreover, LTE is so fast you may find yourself consuming more data than you’re used to.
Verizon or AT&T?
You’ll also have to choose whether you want a Verizon or AT&T model, since their LTE networks aren’t compatible. Verizon has broader coverage and lets you share the connection with other devices. But AT&T’s $30-a-month plan allows you more data than Verizon’s, and its fallback network when LTE is unavailable is faster.
The new iPad’s 2012 enhancements -- not to mention its wide lead over all rivals in terms of the number and quality of available apps -- keep Apple easily ahead of all other tablet-makers. In fact, by keeping the iPad 2 alive and cutting its starting price by $100, to $399, Apple has instantly made it the second-best tablet you can buy.
When the company launched the iPad 2 a year ago, it was remarkable how few changes were needed to keep it the No. 1 tablet. Since then, devices running Google’s Android operating system have flooded the market, while Microsoft is poised to introduce a new generation of competitors running the next version of Windows. Yet once again, Apple has -- with a minimum of effort -- lapped the field.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)