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Tuesday, March 20, 2012, 03:45 pm PT (06:45 pm ET)

In-depth review: Apple's third generation iPad and iOS 5.1


Dictation, hold the Siri

Another exclusive advantage that Android and Windows Phone 7 offered throughout all of last year was cloud-based voice dictation. On iOS, you had to use an app. That was a significant disadvantage to using dictation for systemwide text input.

On iPhone 4S, Apple went beyond dictation to deliver Siri, a personal assistant voice service that in addition to voice dictation offered intelligent answers and access to calendar events and contacts, parsing the meaning of phrases you speak.

The new iPad doesn't include Siri. Instead, it includes system wide voice dictation similar to what is available on Android and WP7, with a popup mic icon in the keyboard that listens for about a paragraph of text at a time when you click it. Note that Dictation, like Siri, requires a network connection to work. If you're in Airplane Mode or don't have WiFi or a mobile signal, the mic button simply doesn't appear in the virtual keyboard.



Dictation on the new iPad supports the same languages Siri does: English, German, French and Japanese. When you activate the keyboard for those languages, the mic is available on the keyboard and translates what you speak into the selected keyboard's language. If you select an unsupported language keyboard, you won't see the mic icon.

When Siri gets support for additional languages later this year, including Chinese, Korean, Italian and Spanish as Apple has announced, Dictation will most likely add support for those same languages, too.

Apple still hasn't brought Siri to other iPhone models, nor to the Mac. This may be to limit the volume of requests Apple's Siri servers have to handle, ensuring that it can deliver adequate service to iPhone 4S users.

Without knowing Apple's future roadmap for Siri and voice dictation, I can point out that the new iPad's dictation service is useful enough for me to have dictated the entire review using the new iPad's Dictation service. It works exceptionally well.

I would love to have this on my MacBook Air. I would pay for it. It's that good. While I've attempted to use voice dictation programs in the past, even with training they didn't work well enough for me to actually want to use them. The iPad's new Dictation feature clearly uses context to decipher what you mean, meaning that it works best to recite an entire paragraph of what you'd like to have it type on your behalf.

As an entrenched member of the old PC generation, I have to admit that I have preferred using a conventional Mac to my iPad whenever I'm entering or working with a lot of data. But the new Dictation service is making the new iPad significantly more useful for my needs, despite my crotchety attachment to the old-world keyboard. It might usher me into the Post-PC generation yet.

Where's Siri?

Dictation and 4G were two features that made me dangerously close to contemplating the purchase of an Android or WP7 smartphone. I imagine I'm not the only person very attracted to these very useful features. But given how little traction other platforms got from their year-long exclusive delivery of these features, it again makes me wonder what's going to stop anyone from migrating to iOS devices this year, or next year, given the end of that exclusivity window.

Does the iPad also need the rest of Siri? That's harder to answer. Dictation is very useful, and it would be great if Apple added dictation to other iPhones, the iPod touch, and to OS X.

Intelligent assistance from Siri, for asking questions, consulting your calendar, and automating other tasks that today's Siri doesn't, such as launching apps or obtaining specialized results from third-party services, are all things that would be useful to do everywhere.

However they're most useful from a smartphone, and that's the value Apple's catalyzing upon in its exclusive deployment of Siri on the latest iPhone. Time will tell how Apple expands Siri and/or Dictation across its iOS devices and OS X.

New in iOS 5.1

Apart from the new Dictation, iOS 5.1 delivers a variety of new and enhanced software features for the new iPad that are also available for free to previous iPad models and other iOS devices.

Key among these features is iCloud, which is more complete and useful thanks to the fleshing out of iTunes Match and iTunes in the Cloud (both recently expanded to include movies), App Store and iBookstore purchase downloads, the newly manageable Photo Stream, and improved support for Reminders, Notes, iMessages, backup, restore and initial "PC Free" configuration.

The latest iOS also gives the new iPad more versatilely in everything from playing videos to playing video games with AirPlay and AirPlay Mirroring, and enhances the experience of Game Center.



AirPlay and AirPlay Mirroring

It's almost hard to imagine that just a year ago Apple released iPad 2 with Digital AV Adapters for HDMI and VGA output (depicted below). Over the last year, the company made those $29-39 dongles virtually obsolete with its new AirPlay wireless video distribution technology.

iPad 2 video output cables


AirPlay is available around every corner. Virtually anywhere that you can play music, video or photo slideshows (apart from certain TV or movie apps that don't permit broadcasting to your HDTV for licensing reasons), there's that familiar AirPlay button that lets you direct playback to your HDTV via Apple TV.

From the lock screen, for example, as soon as your iPad senses the presence of an Apple TV (or other AirPlay-enabled playback device) on the local network, it gives you the option to send the audio or video of whatever content you've been playing (below, with the AirPlay button selected, offering a choice of outputs).

iPad lock screen


AirPlay buttons are also available automatically in most apps, including Photos and YouTube (below top), which makes it easy to sit on the couch and navigate through content you can wireless send to your HDTV. Here's the new "Prometheus" trailer (below bottom).

AirPlay

AirPlay


To perform AirPlay Mirroring, you have to know where Apple buried the setting, which happens to be in the Home double-click menu after you swipe the playback widget controls in from the left.



Once activated, everything you do on the screen is put on your selected HDTV, and you get a blue title bar across the top of your iPad indicating that AirPlay Mirroring is on (below top). If your set displays the iPad's screen with too much of a blank margin around it, you can adjust the TV aspect ratio to provide a closer fit (below bottom).




You can even enjoy most games and apps on your HDTV via AirPlay Mirroring without requiring any special support from the developer (below is "Batman Arkham City Lockdown"). In some cases, apps can take specialized support of AirPlay to provide a control panel display on the iPad and an action view on the HDTV set, providing a unique gaming experience that threatens to eat into conventional game consoles.



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