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By Peter Ha
It was the gadget release everyone saw coming. But for Steve Jobs, the iPad 2 is just the tip of a spear in a mobile-computing revolution. The question is: Does it stand out among a rapidly growing crowd of competitors?
Last Wednesday, Apple CEO Steve Jobs returned to the same stage in San Francisco where he had announced the first “magical” iPad and unveiled the iPad 2. Gaunt but energetic, he told the crowd, “We’ve been working on this product for a while and I just didn’t want to miss today.” The message was clear: Jobs, who recently took a medical leave to “focus on his health,” believed the device to be breathtakingly special.
Also in this keynote, Jobs declared 2011 to be “the year of the iPad 2” and, almost in the same breath, took not so subtle digs at “copycat” tablets he plainly sees as inferior. Virtually every CE manufacturer is slated to release a tablet in the coming months (some, like Motorola, already have), a full year after Apple’s initial effort.
But is the iPad 2 a revolution in tablet computing? Or more of an evolutionary step, compared with its competition?
It’s a little bit of both, actually. And I can testify to that, since I’ve been testing a CDMA (Verizon) model for the last week. It feels different. And different is good.
The first thing you notice is the overall size of the new slab of glass and metal. Apple managed to shave off 4.6 millimeters and 0.2 pounds, making the iPad 2 33 percent thinner and roughly 15 percent lighter than its predecessor.
Where the original had an aluminum bezel to which your digits clung, the iPad 2’s 9.7-inch LED-backlit glass screen spills over the edge, so the tips of your thumbs touch more glass than aluminum. This change alone makes the experience of holding the iPad more enjoyable. The tapered edges are more ergonomic and allow your hands to wrap around the backside for a more comfortable fit.
The drop in weight — subtle as it seems — makes a world of difference anytime you have an extended period when you need to hold the device without resting it on your knee or some other surface.
A point of contention about the original iPad was its relatively weak external speaker. In hopes of addressing this problem for the iPad 2, Apple engineers placed the speaker on the back side of the device. Placing both versions of the iPad on a flat surface, I measured their respective sound performance using the Decibel Ultra app and streaming the same track through MOG. To my surprise each device averaged 105 decibels with a peak output of 112, yet for some reason the iPad 2’s speaker inexplicably sounded louder, crisper and cleaner.
While the iPad’s outward appearance has certainly changed, the most significant updates were made under the hood. Apple’s new 1 GHz A5 dual-core processor chip is wicked fast. Switching between apps is effortless, and apps that once moved at the speed of sloth are now Millennium Falcon fast. I launched the new graphic-hogging game Infinity Blade on each iPad simultaneously. The results? The iPad 2 sprinted to the main screen roughly 12 seconds quicker than the iPad 1.
Yes, yes, the iPad 2 has two cameras. So how are they?
There’s a bit of speculation that the rear-facing camera might be the exact same version found on the latest iPod Touch. We won’t know for sure until the iPad 2 is torn apart by geeks at websites like iFixit, but from what I’ve experienced, don’t expect to be replacing your iPhone 4, point-and-shoot or DSLR. Images are noisy, with poor performance in low-light situations. And really, how often are you going to snap photos in public with a 10-inch tablet? It might be good for shooting the random picture of your kitten when it falls asleep on your chest, but as a practical camera it’s awkward and ungainly.
Having a 9.7-inch viewfinder is any photographer’s dream, but for it to really be useful, Apple needs to revamp the UI to accommodate the larger screen, so that the shutter button isn’t always at the bottom in the middle of the screen. I suspect (and hope) Apple will do this for the next major iOS update and for the next iPad.
Interestingly enough, the ~0.7-megapixel rear camera performs admirably under less-than-adequate lighting conditions. The less light there is hitting the sensor, the better the photos turn out. Under normal lighting conditions, photos can be grainy — don’t expect to be winning the Pulitzer with any images you capture with this thing.
Speaking of image capture, the iPad 2 also records HD (720p) video. Quality-wise, it’s on par with a Flip Mino HD cam. Not award-winning per se, but good enough in a pinch. Of course, the inclusion of both front and rear cameras is meant for use with Photo Booth or FaceTime. Video performance with both programs is passable, with little in the way of hiccups or jarring.
Despite a slimmer body and a processor that performs like it’s been shooting steroids, Apple claims the iPad 2 maintains a 10-hour battery life — just like the iPad 1. Initial tests showed that the iPad 2 can go the 10-hour distance under normal operating conditions — I played Tiny Wings and watched both “Inception” (in SD) and “Wall-E” (in HD) on the flight back to NYC from San Francisco without the battery conking out. But we’re not about testing things under “normal operating conditions” at The Daily. Once we’ve had more than a week of hands-on time with the device, we’ll get back to you with how it performs under a multitude of abnormal circumstances.
Video Mirroring might be the most exciting feature for me. You’ll need to shell out a few extra clams for the Digital AV adapter with HDMI, but it’s well worth it. The pleasure of streaming Mad Skills MX or a YouTube clip from iPad 2 to HDTV is addictive.
Garage Band and iMovie are fantastic additions to the App Store, but we’ll have a review of those this weekend. And Smart Covers? Magnetic genius. But I tend to be a bit overzealous about keeping my gadgets in pristine condition, so obsessive-compulsives like me might opt for a more airtight case down the line.
I stand by my argument that the iPad will only be as good as the apps that are developed for it. There are now over 70,000 iPad apps in the App Store, but we’re just now getting a glimpse of what developers and the iPad are capable of doing. This second iteration of the iPad, with its cameras and speedier internal specs, should spur developers to think of some very innovative apps. It’s fully capable of handling the heavy lifting that comes with processor- and graphics-intensive applications.
Other manufacturers are already a year behind, and Apple just dealt another blow to the industry with the iPad 2. It’s fast, light and a heck of a lot of fun to have around. Even folks from HP and Google are astonished by it. It’s just that good.
But should you, reader of The Daily, upgrade?
That all depends on what you’re doing with your iPad now. Cameras and speed aside, the iPad 2 isn’t drastically different than what you have in your hands. It’s just a much sleeker and sexier version of it.
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