We’ve seen this movie before: a frenzied buildup punctuated by constant speculation. And then Apple actually announces the object behind all the fuss — in this particular sequel the latest iPad, which goes on sale Friday.
Then the mood shifts. People bummed out by the features that Apple did not put into its freshly baked tablet computer weigh in. No extra storage or expansion options, no smaller-screen model to compete against the likes of Amazon’s Kindle Fire. Still no Adobe Flash, and no camera flash, either. Not even Siri, the chatty personal assistant who, depending on where you are coming from, either charms owners of the iPhone 4S or bugs them.
No big deal.
Apple may have left a few things out. But Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster estimates Apple will sell up to 60 million iPads this year. And that’s on top of the 55 million collectively Apple has sold since the original iPad was introduced in 2010, spawning imitators and redefining an entire category of computing.
And nearly everyone who lands the brand new iPad on Day 1 — or more likely sometime afterward, since preorders are sold out — will be delighted.
Apple’s latest tablet strongly resembles the iPad 2. At 0.37-inches and 1.4-pounds, it’s ever-so- slightly thicker and heavier (though Apple says most cases and accessories should fit). But the new iPad snatches the crown from its predecessor as the finest tablet you can buy. Period. Similar scenes played out last year with the iPad 2.
So it goes with the tablet born in 2012, which Apple for reasons not altogether clear did not name iPad 3 but simply the new iPad. On the surface, the leap from the second-generation iPad to the third-generation would appear to be relatively modest. But all Apple did was again distance itself from the competition:
•An overview. The display is spectacular. Apple also improved the camera, added dictation and, on some models, the ability to tap into the speediest available cellular networks. Apple did all this without sacrificing much battery life or jacking up prices. The iPad 2 stays in the lineup and is cheaper.
An iPad 2 with 16 gigabytes of storage now fetches $399, $100 less than a week ago. An iPad 2 with 3G wireless capabilities from AT&T Wireless and Verizon Wireless goes for $529, plus a data plan if you choose to add one.
Meanwhile, new models with just Wi-Fi cost $499 for 16GB, $599 for 32GB and $699 for 64GB. Same capacity models with Wi-Fi and 4G wireless capabilities command $629, $729 and $829.
•Fast wireless. The new iPads are the first iPads that access the 4G or 4th generation data networks being deployed nationally (but not everywhere) by AT&T and Verizon Wireless, each with variations on how wireless is delivered.
The test machine, a Verizon model that taps into the company’s 4G LTE network, was really zippy in a week of testing in San Francisco and Austin. Downloading apps was quick, including previously purchased apps that had to be accessed through Apple’s iCloud service. Web pages loaded much faster than on an older iPad running 3G.
The new iPad can work as a personal hotspot that lets you share your speedy wireless connection with up to five other devices, though for now only Verizon has turned on the feature.
Verizon’s monthly data plans begin at $20 for 1 GB, go to $30 for 2 GB and climb to $80 for 10 GB. AT&T offers a 250 MB plan for $14.99; 3 GB for $30; and 5 GB for $50. Keep in mind that with 4G you might well consume more data.
To some degree, Apple is playing catch-up, because many of the tablets built around Google’s Android mobile operating system have had 4G for some time.
Where Apple continues to claim a huge advantage over Android and other tablet rivals is in the apps ecosystem. The iPad runs almost all of the 585,000-plus apps sold or available free in the App Store, and more than 200,000 apps now are designed specifically for the iPad. Android still has comparatively few tablet-specific apps.
•A screen to die for. The display becomes your window into all those apps. And the brilliant screen on the new iPad is the thing that will have you salivating.
You’re probably thinking the displays on the first iPad and the iPad 2 were pretty sweet, and you’d be right. Watching movies, reading books, surfing the Web, playing games and admiring photos on the older tablets is not an unpleasant experience.
But then you have a look at what Apple calls the “retina display” on the new iPad, technology first applied to recent iPhones, and you’re blown away.
Examine the new screen side-by-side with one of its near-10-inch predecessors, and you’ll swear you just had Lasik surgery. Text on Web pages or in books is so crisp and sharp that you don’t want to go back to reading on an older iPad. Movies and photographs reveal rich detail.
Apple explains that with a resolution of 2048x 1536, and 3.1 million pixels (four times the number on the iPad 2) the screen on the new iPad is sharper than your high-definition television. The company’s marketers are using the word “resolutionary.”
Apple helps drive the spectacular display with a new version of one of its chips, the A5X, with quad-core graphics. Even Apple goes all geeky on you every now and then.
•Photos and video. Last time around, Apple added those two cameras to the iPad 2; this time Apple souped-up the optics.
There’s an autofocus, 5-megapixel iSight camera, which unlike the camera on the iPad 2 can capture high-definition video up to the 1080p standard. (Movies also play back in full high-def.) The camera has face detection, a sensor that performs well in low light, a fixed f/4 aperture and other optical enhancements.
Taking a lot of pictures or videos with the iPad is a matter of preference. It’s not exactly a point-and-shoot replacement and is a little awkward for shooting. Held a certain way, you can sometimes inadvertently cover the lens when pressing the onscreen shutter button. The alternative is to take pictures by pressing a volume button on the side.
But the still images and video shot are generally pleasing, despite the absence of a flash. You can do minor edits inside the built-in Photo app and easily tweet images you’ve shot from within the app. Apple is also pushing a custom $4.99 iPad version of the iPhoto software that is familiar to Mac owners
If you shoot video and are prone to shake, you’ll appreciate the built-in video-stabilization feature that helps steady your footage. And even if you don’t plan on shooting much, many apps take advantage of the cameras on the iPad.
•Dictation. Apple may have kept Siri off the iPad’s roster for now, but it did add a dictation feature that lets you use your voice to create notes, e-mails or to write something in Apple’s optional Pages word-processing app, or for that matter any Apple or third-party app in which you summon the virtual keyboard.
You tap a microphone icon and start speaking, then tap again when you’re done. The iPad almost always spits out results right away, but doesn’t always hear correctly. For example, the word “maybe” was heard as “baby.”
But more often than not the accuracy was decent enough that it wouldn’t take long to manually fix errors. Even the commas were typically put in the right places.
•The battery. Apple claims up to 10 hours for the Wi-Fi-only models, same as before, and nine hours for 4G and about an hour less for Wi-Fi + 4G.
The iPad got through an entire day of being worked hard with no battery problem. Inside the device is a larger capacity (and physically larger) sealed battery than the one in the iPad 2.
The third-generation iPad may not be the game-changer that Apple’s original tablet was, but you know how this movie is going to end. Apple is going to rake it in on the heels of its latest matinee idol.
Should you buy the new iPad?
If you purchased the original iPad all of two years ago and have money to spare, I’d say go for it. Though a tad bigger than the iPad 2, the new iPad is smaller and lighter than the original iPad. You’ll appreciate the increased speed, the lovely screen and the presence of cameras.
If you have an iPad 2, it’s a little harder to justify springing for the latest model now, much as you might want to. Yes, the new screen is spectacular, and 4G and the improved cameras are welcome upgrades. But you would have purchased that iPad 2 much more recently and it may be difficult to plunk down extra cash this soon, unless you have a family member who can inherit your current model.
If you’re a tablet newbie, there’s no better choice on the market than an iPad, provided — and this is a pretty big if — price isn’t an issue and you don’t want a tablet that would fit in your pocket, such as the $199 Amazon Kindle Fire.
The bottom line
$499 on up.
•Pro. Stunning screen, 4G speeds (on certain models), decent dictation and improved camera optics. Strong battery. Apps galore.
•Con. Shooting with camera can be awkward. No Adobe Flash. No camera flash. No expanded storage.