First Look: Apple iPad 2 review

The Apple iPad 2 is but a few hours old and we were at the London launch of the new tablet to poke, prod, stroke and caress it for a couple of hours. Steve Jobs certainly seemed excited by the new iPad “1.3 pounds!” he exclaimed repeatedly. Unfortunately that’s the weight, not the price. But is Apple’s new tablet a little too lightweight? We figured it was only fair to bring you all our thoughts.

There’s certainly something incremental about the iPad 2, so much so that we’ve started calling it the iPad S. We saw a run of “S” models launched at Mobile World Congress (HTC, we’re talking about you) and the iPad 2 does have something of that ring about it. Why? We’re not entirely sure - after all, it offers new hardware design and new internals, so it must be the user interface.

Apple introduced the new iPad by recounting some statistics, updating us on just how well the original model had done. Let’s not underestimate that - between April and December 2010, Apple sold 15 million iPads. The iPad invented the tablet category, tapping into the success of the iPhone and the existing App Store. There are already 65,000 apps optimised for the iPad’s high resolution display. These numbers might seem irrelevant, but this is the world to which the iPad 2 is born.

Jobs didn’t hold back on knocking the rivals either - Motorola, Samsung, BlackBerry, HP - Android in general, all got a smack down. Is this a sign that Apple is confident, or that it feels the need to put in the punches before these rivals come to market? With the new iPad landing on 11 March, or 25 March depending on where you live, some of those rivals will still be applying the finishing touches.

These factors hinge on a significant point about the iPad 2: the user interface is essentially the same as before. An incremental update to iOS 4.3 has been in the works for some time, and it doesn’t have the new and edgy feel that you get from Android’s Honeycomb. Arguably it may be more stable, it may even be more complete and possibly more user friendly, but it is quintessentially the same as before.

That’s not a killer point though, because the iPad is simple to use, it’s friendly, approachable and easy enough for everyone to pick up and play with and that’s a big factor in its success. We’ve been a little downbeat so far, because we wanted to see a run of changes to the UI to really wow us.

What continues to wow us is the design and the build. The quality of the iPad, as before, is exceptional. The aluminium body feels fantastic in the hand. It is slimmer and lighter, weighing in at 601g, although that’s still a little weighty. Jobs continued to stress that the weight saving will make a difference, and we would have to agree. The iPad is heavy. The iPad 2 is still heavy, but it isn't as heavy and therefore the need to perform a resting act on your legs not so great. The dimensions break down as 241.2 x 185.7 x 8.8mm. The final figure, 8.8mm, is seriously slender, it’s nearly as thin as the Samsung Galaxy S II.

Holding it in the hand it does feel every inch the premium device. The 9.7-inch LED-backlit IPS display is the same as before, giving you a resolution of 1024 x 768 pixels. Some expected it to go to a higher resolution, but we’re not sure that’s totally necessary. It still looks fantastic.

There are two models of the iPad, the Wi-Fi and the 3G versions. You can tell the difference between the two easily as the 3G version has a plastic bar across the top for the antennae - we’ve pictured both in the gallery that accompanies this piece. From the front, the new iPad closely resembles the old model, although now you'll be able to get it in white as well - but it has slimmed down in a fashion close to the changes we saw to the iPod touch last September. The metal edge melts away on a reverse slope on the back, so the buttons are more discrete. There is less “edge” around the iPad overall.

Internally you now have a new dual core processor - Apple’s own A5 processor makes an appearance and we’ll bet our cotton socks this finds its way into iPhone 5 later this year. A new processor means the iPad should handle applications better, be faster, but critically Apple has said that the emphasis here is on graphics.

Even just scrolling through the interface you can tell that the processor makes everything faster and the apps that we did try ran quickly too. Apple demo guys told us that speed boost translates to everything and that means gaming, browsing, and all the rest. Of course faster graphics means Nvidia’s Tegra 2 and possibly Tegra 3 are firmly in the iPad 2's sights. It will be interesting to see how the new tablet fairs when the iPad 2 lands on our test bench.

Another tech that is new is a gyroscope as found in the iPhone 4 and most notably there are now two cameras in a move that we all expected.

The addition of the cameras mean you’ll not only be able to capture 720p HD video from the rear camera, but also VGA (640 x 480) from the front. In reality these stats don’t really push the boundaries, but do they need to? This is a tablet and we’ve yet to see many people taking pictures of video with tablets out in public. From what we saw of the camera in the demonstration area at the launch, it doesn’t cope too well with low light, looking decidedly noisy on the screen.

The front facing camera, of course, is there to support FaceTime, which now runs across the whole Mac family. You’ll be able to video call using FaceTime anywhere in the Apple family, so iPhone to iPad to MacBook Pro, etc. That’s great, but we’d still rather use Skype if only they could launch an iPad friendly version, if only that could get itself offering video calling as widely.

We also had a play with PhotoBooth, and this seemed something that the Apple agents were keen to demo. Yep, you can mess around with pictures of your face.

Moving briskly on, Apple has now brought two new native apps to the iPad: iMovie and GarageBand. We’ve seen demos of both apps, but so far it’s difficult to tell whether these are worth the $4.99 asking price. iMovie certainly looks like fun, but we’ve always seen the iPad as a way of consuming content rather than creating it - and we've heard that there will be limitations here - like the inability to start work on the app and transfer it to the desktop or the difficulty of bringing content into the device (you'll have to use iTunes). We’ll have a play with this when it lands on the iPad to see exactly what you can and can’t do.

Outside the presentation video we only caught brief glimpses of GarageBand. It looks like fun, but we’ll reserve judgement until we’ve seen it properly. We suspect that if you want GarageBand and to make music, you probably already play with it on your Mac computer.

When it comes to video playback, the spec sheet tells us that it only supports 720p playback. As this fits the screen resolution, this isn’t a problem for us. However, with a new digital AV adapter meaning you can hook your iPad up to HDMI, we’re wondering exactly what 1080p content you’ll be outputting. The adapter supports 1080p mirroring, so we’re guessing it will offer up glorious visuals from your other content (like photos) but not necessarily your video. Again, this is something we’ll have to examine in detail when we get the new iPad and adapter in for review. 

Finally we have to mention the Smart Cover. This is one accessory that Steve Jobs seemed enamoured with, spending more time detailing how it worked than actually launching the iPad 2 itself.

The idea is that rather than having a bulky case, the new Smart Cover uses magnets to attach and align with the new iPad down the left hand side (no good for lefties then). It works remarkably well, just offering the attachments to the left-hand side of the iPad will see it jump into place. Closing the cover over the front of the iPad will send it to sleep and it wakes up as you peel it back - a trick we saw on BlackBerrys with its “holster” case a few years back.

It’s a neat bit of work, but it doesn’t really protect much of your iPad? Well it certainly won't protect the back of your iPad and we can't help feeling that it's going to come off the second you put it in your bag. . Not to worry, we’re sure new covers will be ten a penny before long, especially ones that aren't $40.

Verdict

So that’s the new iPad. We love the design and we appreciate the spec bump that will make it competitive on paper, but we don’t think these will be the key to the iPad’s success, not today at least. No, we still think that the eco-system the iPad 2 lands in is more important. You have it all on tap - music, movies, books and the widest array of high quality apps, including games. It is a closed system, but it’s still in the lead. If we’re a little disappointed in the lack of change in the UI (yes notifications we are looking at you), we’re still convinced by the package overall.

Is it worth running out to replace your current iPad, that’s still relatively young? Not really. The change isn’t as significant as it was from iPhone 3GS to iPhone 4 with a strikingly different design and screen. But we know that people will run out and get the iPad 2 and those that have been holding off can now see exactly what is on offer. It may well be the case that 6-months down the line that dual core processor really gets to flex its muscles - much depends on how the app developers respond.

With prices expected to be the same as the previous models, and the premium Android tablets coming in at premium prices, the iPad 2 still looks like a pretty good deal.