Funny what a difference a year makes. Before the launch of the first iPad, last spring, many questioned the very reason for its existence. People who already owned laptops, netbooks and smartphones wondered what void a tablet, however elegant, could possibly fill.
The masses discovered all sorts of answers: They could use the iPad to tell bedtime stories, watch movies, find recipes, browse cyberspace, play games and, yes, read publications such as USA TODAY. And the iPad morphed into arguably the most disruptive tech force out there, judging by sales north of 15 million and the parade of competitors vying for a piece of tablet mania.
As Apple unleashes the latest object of desire, a slimmed-down iPad 2, it makes what was already a splendid slab even better, even if the overall upgrade is relatively modest. Apple didn't boost the screen resolution or bump up the storage. There's no iPad that can take advantage of nascent high-speed 4G cellular networks. The external speaker is mono. No SD card slot or USB, either.
But these are nitpicks, and Apple has kept prices in check, crucial in the battle against viable, as well as expensive, alternatives such as the Motorola Xoom tablet, which runs Google's rival Android Honeycomb operating system.
As before, a Wi-Fi-only iPad 2 costs $499, $599 or $699, for units with 16, 32 or 64 gigabytes, respectively. Models with Wi-Fi and 3G cellular (through AT&T or Verizon Wireless) go for $629, $729 and $829, also equal to the original. I've been testing the Verizon version of the 64 GB Wi-Fi/3G model for about a week. The tablets go on sale Friday.
The headline additions to iPad 2 are front- and rear-facing cameras, the absence of which was my biggest disappointment with version one. Now you can plunge into FaceTime, Apple's nifty video chat program previously available only on the iPhone 4, iPod Touch and some Macintosh computers. With a brand new Apple A5 dual-core processor, the iPad 2 is snappier, too, though it's not as if the first-generation model was a laggard. Apple claims the graphics in the new machine have nine times the horsepower of the original. That's difficult to measure, but Epic Citadel, a stunning, graphics-rich game, played smoothly in my tests.
Here's a closer look:
Design: IPad 2 comes in white as well as black. It is about a third thinner than its predecessor, but it feels solid and is easy to grip. At 1.3 pounds for the Wi-Fi-only model, the iPad 2 is up to 15% lighter. Every itty bit helps, especially if you're reading in bed.
The 9.7-inch LED backlit screen on the new iPad, same size as the old model, hits the sweet spot for FaceTime, browsing and numerous applications. It's a very nice screen for movies and most apps, and it matches the resolution of the first iPad. Quibblers will note that Xoom has a sharper resolution and that text on the iPad isn't as crisp as on an Apple iPhone 4 with its superb so-called Retina display. True enough. Seems a Retina display on the iPad's larger screen would have been too expensive.
Apps: Apple continues to lead in the third-party apps sweepstakes by a wide margin. It has more than 350,000 apps, of which about 65,000 are optimized for the iPad. Meanwhile, Apple drummed up new iPad versions for two of its popular Mac programs: GarageBand, the virtual recording studio you can use with real or software musical instruments, and iMovie, for editing high-definition videos. At $4.99 a pop, the apps are a bargain for would-be rock stars and would-be Spielbergs.
Camera: You won't confuse the cameras on the iPad 2 for a top-notch Canon or Nikon. Indoor pictures I snapped in low light were grainy. There is no flash. Still, the VGA-quality front-facing camera or the HD (up to 720p) rear camera are just fine for FaceTime -- you can tap a screen button to change views. You can hold video chats with other iPad 2 owners or those with an iPhone 4, iPod Touch or Mac.
You can also exploit the Photo Booth app, a Mac program new to the iPad. You can snap pictures through a prism of eight special effects, including an X-ray, thermal camera and kaleidoscope, and use multitouch gestures to further funky-up quirky images.
Battery: Apple claims about 10 hours of battery life on the iPad 2, same as the original despite the thinner design. The claim fell a little short in my rather vigorous test. I cranked up brightness to the max and continuously streamed movies over Wi-Fi via the Netflix app. I got about 8 1/2 hours, which suggests you'll do better under "normal" conditions.
Surfing: Speeds through the Safari browser are bolstered in part by iOS 4.3, the new version of Apple's mobile operating system software. To no one's surprise, Apple hasn't relented on refusing to support Adobe Flash. Alas, you'll still encounter websites that won't play nice on the iPad. I'd have also liked to see tabbed browsing, as on the Motorola Xoom browser, though it's not especially difficult to keep multiple Web pages in Safari open and switch among them.
As part of iOS 4.3, I wirelessly streamed songs, music videos, TV shows and movies from my iTunes library on a Mac to the iPad over Wi-Fi, a feature that also works with iTunes on a PC.
Enhancements to a feature called AirPlay let you stream additional multimedia content from the iPad to a current-generation Apple TV. Streamed movies via AirPlay on the iPad 2 were slow to start and occasionally froze. It could be a network hiccup; I experienced similar issues streaming over the original iPad.
Accessorizing: The thinness of the design makes it difficult to add a slew of ports and connectors, so there's no HDMI port, as on the Xoom. (Of course, there's Apple's proprietary 30-pin dock connector.) Apple sells a $39 accessory that lets you plug the iPad into an HDTV with an HDMI cable. You can then "mirror" whatever is on the iPad display on the larger TV screen. Though I wish I had a longer HDMI cable -- you supply your own -- I used the iPad 2 to browse, read e-mail, play EA's Need for Speed Hot Pursuit and watch the movie 127 Hours on an HDTV. Everything rendered properly on the TV screen.
The new design means not all the accessories for the first iPad will work, including an iPad keyboard dock and various cases. Apple has come up with a really cool Smart Cover that attaches magnetically. You can fold the cover to prop up the iPad while viewing movies or slide shows. It can automatically put the iPad 2 to sleep when covered and wake it when opened. Smart Covers come in various colors and cost $39 to $69.
The iPad 2 doesn't deliver everything on your tablet wish list. But when it comes to the ever-evolving state of the art, iPad 2 is second to none.
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