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Saturday, March 19, 2011, 11:00 am PT (02:00 pm ET)

In-depth Review: Apple's iPad 2 running iOS 4.3

Apple's new iPad 2 is currently so popular that it's difficult to buy. Along with its impressive hardware however, there are a few weak spots and a couple rough edges in its current software release.

iPad evolution

In 2002, Apple followed up on the original iPod by offering a second generation with a touch control rather than a mechanical scroll wheel, support for Windows, and twice the storage capacity. In 2005, the company's second generation iPod mini delivered an improved battery and new colors. In 2006, the second generation iPod shuffle got smaller and doubled in capacity. In 2008, the second generation of iPhone got a cheaper case, a lower price, 3G and GPS features.

All of those original products were hits, and all of their second generations were incremental advances that helped them to grow in popularity. This year, iPad 2 builds upon Apple's most successful new product launch ever with a dramatically new light and thin exterior, a major jump in speed (incorporating the latest generation of mobile baseband and Application Processor chips with twice the RAM and up to eight times the computing power), and major new feature additions that include Verizon 3G support, dual cameras and suite of apps that support them (ranging from FaceTime to PhotoBooth, and the separately available iMovie), a new gyroscope like iPhone 4, slick new Smart Cover options, and finally the ability to output both HDMI video from apps as well as a video mirroring mode, which projects anything you have on the screen to an HDTV, in either landscape or portrait orientations. All of this was done at the same price points as last year's model.

The new iPad 2 is significantly lighter (1.33lbs, 600g vs 1.5lbs 680g) than its predecessor, a difference that is obvious when you handle it. While the first iPad felt surprisingly heavy for its size, the new model seems much more comfortable to hold, particularly when lying down being lazy with it. The size has also been pared down slightly in each dimension, but particularly in thickness (9.5×7.31×.346 in or 240×186×8.8 mm vs 9.56×7.47×.528 in or 243×190×13.4 mm). It's remarkably thin, and given its size, it's hard to believe how rigid and substantial it feels.

Apple's complete revamping of the iPad in less than a year has no precedent, even in the fast moving world of consumer electronics where chips regularly gain large leaps in performance and storage capacity every year. Comparing the far more limited jumps of the second generation of the Macintosh (which took two years to materialize), Newton Message Pad (which wasn't significantly improved for four years), Palm Pilot (which didn't get a big upgrade for three years), game consoles (rarely improved within five years of entering the market) and other consumer electronic devices (including Apple's own iPods and iPhone noted above) reinforces this: iPad 2 is a very aggressive leap for a brand new product.

AI iPad First Look


iPad limitations

As popular as original iPad (which I reviewed in depth last year) has proven to be, there are still a few obvious limitations. For starters, it's modeled after the iPod as a peripheral you attach to iTunes.

This is both a blessing and a curse, as it means you can't use iPad as a computer replacement; it's not a netbook in tablet form. To begin using it or to update its software or sync certain types of content, such as photos, you have to plug it in to a full blown computer. On the other hand, this also greatly simplifies content sync and backup, sparing Apple from suffering the same cloud sync data failures that have hit Microsoft, Palm, Google, RIM, Nokia and other vendors who have depended entirely upon a design that saves their mobile users' data in the cloud. If Apple's MobileMe has problems, it doesn't prevent you from using your iPad.

Apple has also maintained a blistering pace of software and operating system development, which has resulted in iOS 4.3 delivering marked improvements in browser performance and lots of bug fixes. However, it has also introduced some new bugs, including a new, annoying inconsistency in the Home button, which doesn't always immediately return the user to the Home screen as it has in the past. The system also seems more likely to stop responding for a few moments, something I've never before witnessed in an iOS device.

Because it runs iOS, iPad can't do a variety of things you can do on a Mac (or Windows PC), such as install your own fonts or other plugins, add Flash support to the web browser, or install apps from any source apart from the official App Store, or save documents to specific file system locations. It's also less flexible with printing or file sharing. However, the flip-side to these kinds of limitations is that iPad is refreshingly simple.

That makes it very easy to support and difficult to mess up (and easy to recover if things do go wrong). It's also very easy to keep up to date with both OS and app updates and security patches. There's also very little threat of malware, and viruses are virtually impossible to encounter, thanks to the sandboxed, signed environment for apps and Apple's curated software store. There are also no issues with extension conflicts or plugin management and no real app compatibility issues.

The post-PC iPad

While certainly a personal computer, iPad is so different from what we expect of a PC that it actually makes sense to call it a "post-PC" device. This is the computer for people who want to use technology, not manage meta-technology. While there are lots of new competitors trying to deliver a tablet that can compete with iPad, they all seem to be trying to do this by being more like PCs, rather than actually following Apple's lead in delivering something that solves new problems and discards old legacy baggage.

As long as you approach iPad as a post-PC device rather than expecting it to be a drop in replacement for a PC (whether a notebook or netbook or Slate PC-like device), few of the iPad's limitations will irk you. The ones that remain will be related to Apple's iOS development (meaning they should be addressed quickly, given the company's record-setting turnaround on both completing and delivering prompt updates) or the company's design decisions.

You can't, for example, opt for a fancy camera on the iPad, because Apple thinks its tablet is best suited for capturing decent quality video rather than snapping the very good photos iPhone 4 can capture. On the other hand, you can use your own camera of choice and upload photos via the iPad Camera Connector adapter. Apple has similarly opted to provide VGA and HDMI output via external connectors rather than sacrificing the iPad's thin design, something you can't bypass after purchase. Fortunately, Apple's design decisions/limitations are smart enough to be hard to argue against, particularly given the iPad's low price compared to all of its would-be competitors.

As with Apple's other products, when you buy an iPad you're partly paying for integration, which means that its various components work well together, but also that you can't pick and choose which details you'd like to be different. Over the last decade, the market in general has voted with its dollars for Apple's integrated approach in post-PC devices like the iPod, iPhone and iPad, with each of those having no single competitor that can attempt to rival its popularity.

Within these kinds of post-PC devices, integration has proven even more important than in the integrated Mac vs open PC market, where Apple has had significant success, but nowhere near the dominant position it has built up among its mobile offerings. Apple seems to be working to keep its iOS devices simple and approachable, with features such as AirPrint and AirPlay, both of which offer very little in terms of complex configuration, but can be powerful solutions as long as you don't stray too far outside of the ecosystem Apple has designed its products to serve.

On page 2 of 3: Hardware: Internals, Performance, WiFi and 3G.