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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


Missing features, general oddities

While getting iPhone 4's enhanced iSight camera, the new iPad still lacks an iPhone 4 style LED flash. IOS 5 can use this flash to present a visible alert, a handy accessibility feature, but not on iPad.

Outside of the conspicuously missing flash, Apple is still maintaining a large lead in delivering accessibility features for people with mobility, hearing, vision and cognitive disabilities. But given the utility of the flash, both for taking pictures and videos and serving as a visual indicator, it's kind of a bummer the latest iPad doesn't provide one.

Another photo feature oddly missing from the new iPad is instant access to the camera from the lock screen. iPhones running iOS 5 now offer quick access to capturing a photo or video. The iPad lock screen does not. Instead, it provides easy access to Photos, and a double tap on the iPad Home button only brings up widget icons for controlling audio and video playback, including AirPlay support (below).

iPad lock screen


This seems like an odd omission, even if users are less likely to need to grab photos from their iPad rather than look at their existing photos. It's hard to understand why this feature was left off the new iPad, apart from "cluttering" that rather bare lock screen.

The new iPad is also missing the iPhone 4 and 4S "HDR" camera option for merging three exposures to create a still photo with a much greater dynamic range than the camera can physically capture in a single shot (as was noted in the camera section).

There are also some oddities about how certain elements are presented in the user interface. In addition to AirPlay Mirroring being effectively hidden behind two or three obscure gestures, Apple also presents iTunes in the Cloud differently on iPad compared to iTunes (below, Music, TV and Movies are listed behind a popup menu, rather than being visible on screen). While easier to discover than AirPlay Mirroring, the overall interface of the iTunes app is oddly different enough from the desktop version of iTunes to lead to confusion.



It appears Apple is still working out how to harmonize desktop "one stop shop" of iTunes with its iOS apps (iTunes for media, App Store for apps, and separate Videos, Music and iBooks apps for managing playback). Perhaps things will get sorted out and more consistent in iOS 6, the same way iOS 5 and OS X Mountain Lion are harmonizing their iCloud-related apps including Messages, Contacts, Calendar, Notes and Reminders.

Weight and thickness

Apart from these rather minor quibbles, it's getting increasingly difficult to find things to complain about Apple's latest iPad. The new model is a little bit heavier (just under 10% heavier) than the previous iPad 2, thanks to the additional battery required to keep its 4G LTE and A5X processor working for up to 10 hours.

The new iPad has a 42.5 watt-hour battery compared with the 25 watt-hour battery of iPad 2. It's also 0.6 mm thicker, but that's about the same as 6 human hairs, so while you might notice the additional tenth of a pound (50 grams) in weight, you will likely need a pair of precision calipers to notice the difference in thickness.

If you prefer a lighter device, and don't need the faster mobile networking or the higher density Retina Display, you can save one hundred dollars by buying an iPad 2. A number of people of made similar decisions to buy an iPhone 3GS or iPhone 4 rather than the latest and most expensive iPhone 4S. However the iPhone 4S is still Apple's most popular iPhone, and the new iPad with its beautiful screen and faster data options is clearly going to be Apple's most popular tablet.

Fatter content

Another impact of the Retina Display is that apps that take full advantage of it weigh in a bit larger. Photos and videos taken by the higher quality iSight camera are also a big bigger. Additionally, HD videos from iTunes can now support full 1080p resolution on the new iPad, adding a third source of space-taking content.

With fatter apps, photos and video, you might find that the entry level 16GB model might not be enough to hold all the content you want to schlep around. On the other hand, iCloud now makes it easier to selectively manage which apps, photos and movies you want to keep on your iPad, giving you the option to download just the content you need at any particular time.

The wrap-up

The latest iPad offers a significant bump in features and capabilities over last year's iPad 2, although the majority of its software features (apart from Dictation) are available as a free iOS 5.1 update to existing owners.

iPad 2 owners might want to upgrade for the Retina Display screen, a better camera and new 4G LTE mobility features, but it's also easy to be happy with the existing iPad 2 and a free software update.

The case to upgrade gets a bit stronger if you own the original iPad, which lacked any camera and had a bit more thickness and heft, and didn't work with the Smart Cover.

The new iPad largely enhances the allure of iPad to new users, who might find themselves ready to join the Post-PC transition given the new model's enhanced feature mix.

Once you decide to buy the new iPad, you get a choice of black or white, a choice of three capacities (16, 32 or 64GB), and a choice between the base WiFi model or two flavors of 3G/4G mobility: one supporting AT&T's 4G LTE network and 3G service, and the other supporting Verizon's 4G LTE network and its 3G EvDo service. Both models support access to global UMTS 3G networks via a SIM card.

Consider the increasing demands for storage made by Retina Display apps, 1080p video, and the new iPad's 5 megapixel photos; 16 GB might not be enough for your needs anymore.

When choosing between Verizon and AT&T, note that Verizon is currently the only carrier to support Personal Hotspot mobile sharing, and does so at no additional cost.

Rating

4 Stars


Pros:
Beautiful Retina Display screen looks amazing
Faster quad core graphics; 1080p movies, video and AirPlay Mirroring support
Strong, clean, attractive design; works with existing Smart Cover and accessories
Fast 802.11n wireless networking, 4G LTE data options, exceptional battery life
New iCloud, iOS 5.1 features make new iPad easy to use without a PC
Improved hardware and 4G options same price as iPad 2 was, added Personal Hotspot
FaceTime video conferencing & much improved iSight camera for video, photos
Low cost new iPhoto, iMovie and iWork apps make iPad a strong productivity tool
Most popular tablet platform with the largest third party selection of apps by far

Cons:
iOS' simplified interface means a variety of desktop features are not available
No LED flash or HDR camera options, missing quick lock screen camera access