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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


Camera, FaceTime and Photo Booth

The good news is that iPad 2 incorporates both front and rear facing cameras, a feature omission of the original iPad that many predicted would prevent it from becoming popular. While that didn't turn out to be the case, the iPad 2's dual cameras now add it to the list of devices supporting FaceTime video calling, which Apple introduced as a feature of iPhone 4, then brought to the fourth generation iPod touch, and most recently made possible from Macs as well.

It also enables iPad 2 to run a variety of photography and imaging apps available for iPhone and iPod touch users, including Apple's fun (and included) Photo Booth, which works similar to the Mac version but allows users to manipulate many of its filters and effects with a hands on, touch interface.

Identical to iPhone 4, iPad 2 adds a simple Camera app for snapping photos or video using either the front or rear facing cameras. Unlike iPhone 4, however, iPad 2 uses significantly simpler cameras that deliver a usable if grainy video image for FaceTime, but don't offer much in terms of taking pictures. Apple designates the front facing camera as "VGA" and rear facing as "720p," because citing their megapixel specifications would make them sound rather archaic as cameras (they're 0.3 and 0.7 megapixels, respectively).

Because they're aimed at video rather than taking pictures, the two cameras sound a bit more reasonable when described by their pixel resolution, 640x480 VGA (the same as the FaceTime/iSight camera in MacBooks) and 960x720 for the rear, which is between Apple's iFrame format (960x640) and HDTV 720p (1280x720). They're serviceable for taking novelty Photo Booth pics or basic video, but it would be nice to have cameras on par with iPhone 4. However, that product is considerably more expensive than the iPad and benefits from carrier subsidies; iPad 2's cameras are one of few areas where it is evident that Apple was working to contain costs on the device to hold to its $499 entry point.

One resourceful broadcaster with Southeast Texas' channel KBTV, Mike McNeill, decided to use the new iPad 2's camera to film a remote spot for the evening news, demonstrating that its limited cameras are at least serviceable for YouTube, video blogging, and perhaps the occasional news broadcast.



Camera adapter, video output and mirroring

Apple continues to offer its $29 iPad Camera Connection Kit, which provides two adapters: one for SD Cards and a second supplying a USB port intended for use with a digital camera or iPhone. When plugged in, either opens up Photos and presents a selection of available photos on the SD Card or camera that can be imported to the iPad's photo library with EXIF metadata intact. The connector formerly supported USB keyboards and some other devices, but a change in iOS 4.3 limits the Dock connector's supplied voltage so that it no longer works with other devices.

iPad 2 also continues to work with the $49 Apple Composite and Component AV Cable kits as well as the $29 VGA Adapter, all of which support video output from select apps (Photo slideshows, YouTube and iTunes video, Keynote presentations, web videos and other apps specifically designed for iOS video output). It also works with the new $39 Digital AV Adapter, which outputs HDMI video from the same types of apps. These adapters also all work with iPhone 4, the forth generation iPod touch and the original iPad.

iOS video output


New in iPad 2 is support for video mirroring, which works with both the VGA and Digital AV (HDMI) adapters. After plugging in either, you can attach to a VGA or HDMI display and view anything that appears on the iPad 2 screen on the display. Change the orientation and the display flips on the display as well. In the default mode of my HDTV, HDMI output displayed the iPad 2's screen floating in the middle of the screen with more than an inch of black bars on the top and bottom; it does not fill the screen as most computers would.

iPad 2 HDMI out


Switching the set's aspect ratio to "wide," it is easy to eliminate the black margins on the top and bottom, increasing the size of the mirrored iPad 2 display, but stretching it so that squares appear slightly rectangular. In video mirroring mode, the HDMI cable delivers a 1080p signal, which provides the highest resolution possible for displaying what's on your iPad 2. Even if you have a 720p-only HDTV, it should have no problem scaling the image down to work on your set.

iPad 2 HDMI out

iPad 2 HDMI out


When using the older VGA connector, despite using a nominally lower screen resolution identified as 1380x768, the iPad 2's mirrored screen display looked better and didn't require entering a special video aspect mode; it draws the iPad's screen as large as possible with no top or bottom margins by default. Overall, VGA output appears smoother and more pleasing (like a computer monitor), while the HDMI output from the same device to the same set seemed slightly brighter, harsher and more pixelated (like a computer connected to a TV).

iPad 2 VGA out

iPad 2 VGA out


Both work without any special configuration; plug the cable in and it immediately begins mirroring what's on the iPad 2 screen, with no delay or screen refresh limitation. Both the VGA and HDMI adapters work when connected to the rear port of the iPad Dock for free-standing operation.

Unlike the VGA connector, the new Digital AV / HDMI option allows for also attaching a Dock connector USB cable to the the adapter to supply power to the iPad while it plays out video, although this is not required for it to work. The HDMI adapter also supplies audio to the external display, something the VGA adapter can not do (requiring a separate audio cable to the display).

iPad 2 video output cables


The black frame around the screen in mirroring mode is not ideal for plasma HDTVs (where it may cause burn in), but mirroring is a very welcome feature addition that seemed conspicuously missing on previous iOS devices. It promises to make iPad 2 even more useful in classrooms, office meetings, and in other settings where you might want to show off what you're doing using a large display. This summer, iPhone 5 is likely to inherit the same mirroring feature.

When you switch to video output (using an app such as Photos or Keynote, or by playing a video from the browser or iPod app), the display does fill the screen (just as with the previous iPad and other iOS devices supporting video output), using a 720p signal with the HDMI adapter or similar quality signal using the VGA adapter. Presumably, if you want to take full advantage of your 60 inch or larger 1080p HDTV, you won't be driving it with your tablet, and you will also not be opting to fill your iPad 2 with much larger 1080p videos just for that purpose.

iOS 4.3: AirPlay, Home Sharing, AirPrint

If you primarily want to present movies on your iPad to your HDTV, you might be better served using the $99 Apple TV, which connects to your TV via HDMI and can accept streaming AirPlay video or audio from any of Apple's mobile devices running iOS 4.3 on the same WiFi network. In addition to iTunes, AirPlay now supports streaming H.264 videos embedded in web pages and videos and photo slide shows from your Photos library.

Nearly the opposite of AirPlay, iOS 4.3's new Home Sharing feature lets you stream content from your computer's iTunes library for playback on your iPad (or other iOS device). Simply enter your iTunes account information in Settings/iPod, and shared libraries pop up within the iPad's iPod app (below)

Home Sharing


iPad also works with AirPrint, something that still supports only a small number of printers directly. Support for printing to shared printers hosted by Macs or Windows PCs (a feature that would extend AirPrint to virtually all printers) was completed by Apple in developer builds of its software, but never released.

The reason is rumored to be related to a patent infringement claim on the underlying technology. This seems strange coming from the company that agreed to license Amazon's silly One Click online purchase patent, but Apple still isn't supporting AirPrint to shared printers in Mac OS X Lion, so unfortunately it may not be released anytime in the near future.

AirPrint


Docks, keyboards and Smart Covers

iPad 2 does work with the existing iPad Dock and now supplies a new custom-fit $29 iPad 2 Dock, but does not support the existing $69 iPad Keyboard Dock, an odd product that seemed to be designed as a placeholder as Apple finished iOS support for Bluetooth keyboards. iPad 2 does work with standard Bluetooth keyboards however, which offer more flexibility than the pricy Dock/keyboard hybrid option Apple offered last year.

The other accessory Apple pairs with iPad 2 is the new Smart Cover, a magnetically attached, flexible panel that safeguards the front face from scratches and peels back to serve as a sturdy fulcrum for holding the device in an upright or comfortable position for keyboard typing. The cover can even automatically sleep and wake your iPad 2, a setting you can disable in preferences (below).

Smart Cover settings


The Wrap Up

Last year, the AppleInsider review wrap-up of the original iPad stated, "the verdict on the iPad: you probably don't need it (considering that the category was just invented out of thin air), but you may want one enough that its fairly moderate price may not prove to be an obstacle."

It turned out a lot of people wanted the iPad. As the review noted, it's fun to use, it's a captivating games machine, and it's a great movie and TV player. It's also been enthusiastically adopted by businesses, both as a consumer facing kiosk device and as a productivity tool for everyone from mobile users who don't need a full blown laptop to do their job to executives and government workers who need information at their fingertips during meetings.

Apple created iPad nearly as a blank slate for running apps; there's little in terms of hardware interface controls (mostly just the single Home button), leaving its relatively large screen open and available for whatever developers can imagine.

Apple itself launched iPad with three major productivity apps: Keynote, Pages and Numbers. This year, it added two more major apps: iMovie and GarageBand, both of which demonstrate how developers can take existing apps and make them simpler without shedding utility and power. iPad is all about the apps, and there's now more than 65,000 created expressly for the iPad.

iPad 2 simply makes running all those apps nicer: its lighter, thinner and more comfortable to hold. It's faster and packs the power to render more detailed gaming graphics. It now supports apps that make use of a camera. If you already have an iPad, this might be enough to make you want to upgrade, perhaps handing your existing model down to your spouse, kids or whoever else has been clamoring to borrow your iPad over the past year. There's also a resale market for last year's iPad.

If you're new to iPad, the improvements over last year's model might make you want to take the plunge. As long as you align your expectations for iPad 2 with the purpose it was created, you should be happy with your purchase. Don't expect it to completely replace your notebook or desktop computer, but do expect it to become your favorite way to browse content, play games, create hands-on documents (and even music and movies).

Most reviewers of Apple's new iPad 2 agree that it is currently the only credible tablet product on the market. That's not surprising given that Apple essentially invented the category last year by ignoring the PC-centric mentality that had plagued previous attempts to deliver a computer in a tablet form factor. Of course iPad isn't for everyone, as some people won't like the design decisions Apple made, making alternative mobile devices more attractive to them.

That may include competing tablets, such as HP's webOS-based device, RIM's upcoming PlayBook, or a variety of different models running Google's more complex Android 3.0 Honeycomb. More likely, it will mean getting a more general purpose device, such as a full sized notebook or thin mobile device like Apple's MacBook Air, which is somewhat like the iPad paired with a keyboard and the full power and desktop environment of Mac OS X.

If you are in the market for iPad 2, there are two remaining problems: the first is selecting the model you want from the 18 different combinations of colors (black or white), wireless options (WiFi only, AT&T 3G or Verizon 3G) and capacities (16, 32 or 64GB), and the second is finding that exact model in stock at your favorite retailer.

Rating

4 Stars


Pros:
Strong, clean, attractive design now thinner and lighter
Natural touch interface is simple and elegant to use
More than 65,000 iPad apps and games now available
Makes a great mobile tool that works with your computer
Fast 802.11n wireless networking, 3G data options, exceptional battery life
Reasonably priced hardware and 3G service with no contracts
Supports FaceTime video conferencing

Cons:
A few minor bugs in iOS 4.3 need to get addressed
iOS' simplified interface means a variety of desktop features are not available
Cameras are largely limited to webcam uses, not good for taking photos