First Week With the New iPad: It's Hard to Put Down

Photograph by Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Like a few million others, I took delivery of a new iPad from Apple over the weekend. Mine arrived late on Friday afternoon, and there were already enough “first look” videos and quickie reviews, so I chose to forgo those activities and simply live with my iPad for a week. And although I also have several Android tablets in hand, it has been an enjoyable seven days without them.

Before sharing my impressions, let me emphasize that they are just that: my impressions. We all work differently, have varying expectations from our very personal mobile devices, and have unique needs. So although I am mentioning Android tablets, my intent isn’t to start another futile “iPad vs. the others” war. I’m lucky in that I can offer perspective by using an iPad and the others, so take from this what you will and buy what works best for you.

It’s like the old iPad, only better

There is little external difference between the new iPad and prior models; most people would be hard-pressed to tell them apart in a lineup. Sure, the most recent iPad is slightly thicker and heavier, but neither is a detriment to the overall experience. You can still tote the iPad and carry much less weight around when compared with a laptop, for example. I still believe that for me, a larger tablet is less portable than a 7-inch slate. I generally take my Galaxy Tab 7.7 tablet everywhere, while the iPad is mainly used at home.

As an HDTV owner since 2001, I am all about high-resolution displays, and the 2048 x 1536 screen on the new iPad doesn’t disappoint. If I had to pick, I would say it’s the device’s best hardware feature by far. I may place a higher emphasis on displays than most, but my thought is: This is what you look at for every iPad activity, and it’s also your entire interface for interaction with the device.

The screen is awesome, but the Web isn’t ready for it

Text is supremely clear, making Web pages really pop; the browser is fast to render and navigate. I’m also loving the screen for my Kindle books. Low-resolution images on the Web look terrible, however, and this affects some apps, too. I was browsing homes on Zillow last night, and all the pictures of properties looked like a pixelated CompuServe page from the early 1990s. (That means poor if you are too young to know what our old dial-up Web was like.)

That will change over time, but for now, the new Retina display shines a spotlight on these low-quality images. I am also not thrilled by 1080p videos; sure, they look great, but they have black bands above and below the picture. I actually get nearly the same size and perceived quality with a 720p movie on my 7.7-inch tablet and its 1280 x 720 resolution.

Apps that can take advantage of the new iPad are excellent

I have a mix of apps on the iPad, some that are optimized for the Retina display and many that aren’t. The former are fantastic, and the latter aren’t a problem. Real Racing 2, for example, was quickly optimized and you can immediately see the extra detail in the vehicles: improved reflections and shadowing, which make the game more realistic. And the new quad-core GPU in Apple’s A5X chip powers the graphics handily.

Older apps benefit from the chip too and are pixel-doubled to fit the full iPad display. They are not as clear as software built specifically for the Retina display, but they appear at least as good, if not a little better than on older iPads. That’s important, because there are relatively few apps specifically made for the new iPad’s display. Instead of scaling up low-resolution phone apps, which is what Android tablets initially did, Apple is scaling up tablet apps. That means all the controls, text, images, and such fit the screen and are rendered in the proper size. The same apps work across all iPad models as a result.

Finally: a usable camera in a tablet

Most people suggest that using a tablet to take pictures simply isn’t done because it looks silly to hold up a giant viewfinder. There’s merit to the argument, but I would suggest an additional reason: No tablet camera has been good enough to bother using over a smartphone camera. Unless you have an iPhone 4S, the new iPad’s camera is good enough. Why? It’s the same hardware found in the iPhone 4, which is the most used camera on photo-sharing site Flickr. I haven’t taken a bad shot yet with the iPad.

I will take things a step further: By pairing this camera with a super high-resolution display and improved—or in the case of iPhoto, new—imaging software, I think more people will turn to their iPad for stills and 1080p video. Add in the connectivity of Wi-Fi or LTE and the new iPad truly is a portable video studio. Will folks with a DSLR or professional photographers dump their cameras for iPads? Nope, but most people buying an iPad will be more than happy with the camera’s capabilities.

Minor gripes and overblown issues

Since this meme has been hitting the rounds of late, let me assure you: Yes, the iPad can run warm. That’s not surprising, considering it has the Retina display and essentially the same computer chip as last year with added quad-core graphics. Apple didn’t do a major chip redesign on next-generation ARM architecture, so it shouldn’t surprise that the chip can run hotter, especially when gaming in high-def or better. And the new display requires far more power to backlight: 7 watts at full brightness vs. 2.7 watts on the older iPad. More power usage generally means a warmer environment. But while the heat difference is noticeable, I haven’t found it to be an issue.

I would have liked to have seen a higher-resolution front-facing camera in the new iPad, but hey, Apple has to leave something to improve for next time, right? The FaceTime experience is generally no different as a result. Also slightly disappointing to me—although iPad LTE owners are surely happy—is that there is no battery-life improvement on the Wi-Fi model, even though the battery capacity of Apple’s tablet is 70 percent greater. Again, it comes down to the display, which uses up the juice. Still, I can use the iPad all day as a primary device and easily make it through the day on a single charge, so battery life isn’t an issue.

The real difference between the iPad and “the others”

Again, I’m not trying to start a platform fight here, but it’s worth mentioning that you give something up when deciding between buying an iPad or an Android tablet—or a Kindle Fire, for that matter. But you gain something at the same time, and perhaps this will help people decide which tablet is best for them. I am intentionally omitting any jailbreak, rooting, or custom ROM arguments, because if you know about them, you already know which tablet platform is best for you.

With iOS, you give up the ability to have total control over your device. Apple’s iOS software sets the limits of what you can and can’t do. The iTunes App Store is the app gatekeeper: If an app you want isn’t there, you can’t get it. And if you want the ability to use a storage card, you have to buy Apple’s camera kit accessory. In return, you get synergy: well-designed hardware that works extremely well with its specific software and a wide media ecosystem to boot.

On the Android side, you generally have total control to make your device look the way you want and run the apps you want. You can even have intelligent apps control your hardware so that when you leave your home, the Wi-Fi radio is disabled to save juice, for example. Apps come from Google’s store, but a developer could also post their software installation on the Web and you can use it. You also have a vast range of hardware to choose from. The downside is that all of this freedom and choice can be maddening for software developers and for carriers to keep the devices up to date. And you’re also giving up personal information with integrated Google services for its ad business.

Amazon’s Kindle is more like the Apple approach but built on Google’s software. There is a clean, simple interface that focuses on the primary activities Amazon can offer: Web browsing, e-books, music, videos, curated software, and Amazon’s own storefront. You have less control, but for a low starting price, you are giving some of that up for an integrated experience. If you use Amazon’s Silk browser, you’re turning over your surfing habits to Amazon instead of Google.

Is the new iPad “the best” tablet?

Which is best? That’s a personal decision. I have used devices across all platforms, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. For most, however, the iPad is the closest to that, given its leading sales figures. And ultimately, you have to make a decision on which platform you want to use first. Interestingly, I have been running the developer preview of Mac OS X 10.8 for the past two months on my MacBook Air, and because of that, I’m turning more and more toward the iPhone and new iPad.

Integration of notes, reminders and notifications—all features that started on iOS—are now part of the desktop experience. I’m finding that to be a huge benefit as the iOS/OS X environments keep these data points in sync for me, and I think others will feel the same way after Apple releases OS X Mountain Lion this summer. Between that and the impressive new hardware, the company is sure to generate even more record sales for its new iPad, which offers a great tablet experience for the broadest range of activities in exchange for Apple’s constraints.

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