Apple iPad 2 review

The Apple iPad 2 is finally here. It's a device that has been a year in the making. We've pretty much been picturing what the iPad 2 would and would not include ever since Steve Jobs donned his famous turtleneck to announce the prequel back on 27 January 2010 and we bet plenty of you have too. The outcome is a mixed kettle of fish that, like any envisaged result of rumour and murmur, ticks some of the boxes that we expected, and leaves us wanting when it comes to others. 

What this review will do is consider the differences between the original and the iPad 2, and how these alterations affect the overall impression of the device - whilst at the same time treating the iPad 2 as an entirely new device on the market (which it is) and give it the fair assessment that it deserves. What it won't do is to baby-walk you through all the aspects of the iPad and the iOS ecosystem. There are plenty of reviews, guides and analysis of those aspects on Pocket-lint already, and we feel that now, as we reach Mk.II of Apple's iOS tablet experiment (or revolution depending on how you judge it), that you're au fait with the iPad basics, such as the App Store and all the joy that brings, and the general behaviour of the iOS platform. If Apple had rolled out iOS 5.0, it may have been a different story, but we can only deal with what we've got (for now, at least)... 

So let’s jump straight in with the obvious: it looks a lot more svelte than it's big brother. We don't want to say sexy here, because that is such a cliché, but let's just say that the iPad 2 is a damn fine looking piece of kit. From the front, when taking it out of its box you may not notice the changes straight away (unless you've opted for the white iPad 2 that is). Sure, you'll probably notice the ultra-slim silver trim around the edges - but surely not even the most eagle-eyed user will notice the front-facing camera at first sight. 

No, it's only when you pick up your iPad 2 that you'll really notice the difference: 15 per cent lighter doesn't sound a lot, but those 117 fewer grams (Wi-Fi and 3G version) makes a big difference in the hand. As does the 4.2mm trimmed off the thickness: the iPad 2 is so thin at the edges that it is almost sharp. Not MacBook Air sharp, but sharp none the less. It's a bit deceiving actually - the edges do make the iPad 2 seem skinnier than it actually is, but that's no bad thing we suppose. 

The iPad 2's curved edges make for easier manipulation of the buttons too as you push up against the device rather than sideways on. It’s a little detail it has to be said, but with Apple it is always about the little details. The 30-pin dock connector is still down the bottom as per the Apple norm as is the speaker grill - although this is now curved up around the bottom corner and is much bigger. The result is bigger, clearer sound, and it's also much less of an issue when it comes to accidentally covering it up when playing games.

You've also now got a couple of camera lenses on show, which is obviously a major update to the original. On the front you'll see the 0.3-megapixel video calling camera which is capable of shooting 640 x 480 30fps (the brightness sensor has been bumped up above it), and on the rear you'll see the 0.7-megapixel, 720p video shooting (again, 30fps) camera to which you can apply a 5x digital zoom. The cameras mean the inclusion of a couple of new Apple pre-installed apps, FaceTime and PhotoBooth, both of which will be familiar to Apple-users already. We also found that the front camera works within the (albeit iPhone-stretched) Skype app which gives the iPad 2 a fair head start over Android rivals at the moment. 

Using the rear facing camera in public is something that is certainly going to draw attention and not for the self-conscious. Holding what amounts to an A4 pad in front of your face to take a picture isn’t easy and even then the picture quality you’ll get is sub par at best. Add in the smart cover (an optional £39) and you’ve then got the worry about what happens to that, as you'll inevitably end up holding it while you hold the iPad 2, whilst you also try and take a picture. Although it does fold back on itself. But let’s be fair - is the iPad going to become your camera of choice when on the move? It is unlikely to see the easy snappy action that your mobile phone gets, so perhaps it isn’t a huge practical issue. Photos can be shared and videos thrown into iMovie (an optional £2.99).

Like the iPhone you get touch focus and a digital zoom and there are a number of apps to help you make the most of the camera. Included and entertaining for about 2 minutes is an iPad version of PhotoBooth. It’s really there to show off the power of the new iPad and its dual-core processor, but it will no doubt entertain your kids for longer than it will you. 

But it's inside the device that you'll really notice the improvements. No, we're not advising you to hack open your new toy - just fire up some apps and take a look just how quickly they load. The iPad 2 now rocks a dual-core A5 processor, with double the RAM (now DDR2) at 512MB. These hardware upgrades, along with Imagination Technologies' PowerVR SGX 543MP2 (in theory more than twice the horsepower of the SGX 535 found in Apple's A4 chips) means a 9x increase in graphics performance too.

Just open the BBC News app for example. Side-by-side with the original iPad the app is loaded with the current news stories around 2 seconds faster. But it's when clicking on video content that you'll notice the difference. As the iPad switches into video mode, the news story is up and running in a fraction of the time that it used to take. You'll also notice a massive difference when clicking a link in an email, attaching photos to an email, switching between apps within the multi-task bar, or switching to Street View on Google Maps. Basically, it does everything your iPad 1 does, only much quicker. Heck even swiping around the homepage feels faster.

Battery life still seems as good as ever, we've been taking our iPad out and about all weekend - using the Orange 3G connection to download apps and browse, as well as using both cameras and we've still got plenty of juice in the tank. Apple is stating “the same amazing 10-hour battery life” and we're not going to argue with that. We've certainly not noticed a difference from the original.

And, despite the lack of a higher resolution display (it's the same 1024 x 768 display as the original), games look superb and play without any stutter at all. We gave Neon Battle HD a testing and, despite it being an awful game, it performed much smoother than on an iPad 1. Real Racing 2 HD, which has been “iPad 2 optimised” was noticeably different as well - the edges of vehicles were much less jagged and light effects were a lot more natural. Real Racing 2 HD also has the added bonus of, with the optional HDMI connector, outputting the game to your TV in glorious 1080p, leaving the screen for maps and the like. It’s stunning.

So far so good then. But there does of course have to be a few bad points from somewhere, and with the iPad 2 (or at least with the three new iPads we've got our hands on - 64GB Wi-Fi and 3G version from Orange, Vodafone and Apple) there seems to be a bit of a problem with backlight bleeding. The problem isn't noticeable on the usual homescreen, or on most apps, or browsing. It's only when looking at a dark image, or watching a movie with night scenes that it becomes apparent. The backlights are clearly visible around the edges, creating a yellowish tint, which ruins the overall feel of the scene or image. 

A quick look on Google highlights that we're not the only people suffering this issue - and a call to the Apple Store indicates that it's quite widespread. The Apple rep did say, to be fair, that they would exchange any faulty product but stated that it was a known issue and it may happen again on a replacement device. Our advice would be to wait around a few weeks for a new batch (even if the problem is only sporadic) - although, looking at the iPad 2 sales news, you've probably got no choice but to wait anyway.

Now, in the introduction we did state that we'd treat the iPad 2 as a new device, judging it on its own merits. But it's just so damn hard to not be a bit annoyed at Apple. And not because it is holding stuff back for the next version (as it always does with all of its devices) such as NFC, or direct HDMI out, but because it missed the obvious inclusion that would have led to the iPad 2 putting the original into the shade, and create an instant wow-factor. We know that an iPhone 4 higher-resolution “Retina display” would probably be too costly in terms of manufacturing to include on a 9.7-inch screen. But would it have caused too many heart-attacks in the Cupertino boardroom to include a higher resolution display? 

The Motorola Xoom is going to come packing a 1280 x 800 display, as is the skinnier-than-thou Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 - the two devices that will probably be the iPad 2's main competitors when it comes to tablet supremacy for 2011. It may well be that Apple has missed a trick in not altering the iPad 2's display from the 1024 x 768, 132ppi, LED-backlit IPS LCD as was used in the original. It's certainly a shame to have the power of the dual-core A5 chip, with its 9x faster graphics, and not have a sparkly new display to show its capabilities off.

In a survey of the 632 people who queued up at the Regent Street store for the launch of the iPad 2, 33 per cent said they wanted it for games - they won’t be disappointed. We're sure that game developers will make good use of the newly introduced three-axis gyroscope giving you a total of six-axis when you combine the accelerometer - but it's the speed that makes the iPad 2 another heavyweight Apple product that will sell by the millions.

Whether that speed alone is enough to convince the nay-sayers, who are slightly underwhelmed by the iPad 2's release (could iPad 1.5 have been a better moniker?), or even prove to be enough to fight off the Android threat from the likes of Motorola, HTC and Samsung, remains to be seen. There are elements of the iPad 2 that will frustrate, its reliance on the PC is certainly one and the way it handles notifications is another.

Verdict

Those grumbles shouldn't take away from the fact that the iPad 2 is a great device. A superb tablet that builds on the strengths of the original and packs a heftier punch with a much slimmer waistline. The iPad 2 is the Manny Pacquiao of the tablet game, and the original is the Ricky Hatton. Sure, your iPad 1 looks great on it's own, talks the talk and never really lets you down. But when you put it in the ring, up against the new champion, it looks well out of its depth. 

Our suggestion to iPad 1 owners who cannot afford to, or don't yet want to upgrade from their 2010 machine, would be this: do not play with an iPad 2. Leave it well alone. Because if you even spend 5 minutes with it, you'll realise what an old slugger your tablet is. In much the same way that the iPhone 4 blasted the 3GS out of the water (and the 3GS the 3G), it is only really when compared directly that you notice that your older iDevice isn't as quick as you once thought it was. Don’t go near it and you’ll never notice the difference. 

And that's the real strength of the iPad 2 - it's just so bloomin' fast. As for the claim that this is best tablet current on the market we would have to agree. The Xoom (out in the US but not in the UK) does challenge somewhat with its Google Honeycomb OS, but can’t match the simplicity or stability of the iPad 2, or the strength of its app ecosystem.

Yes, the cameras could have been better on the iPad 2, the screen could have had a higher resolution and we’re desperate to see iOS5 enhancements, but overall, we love the iPad 2. We love it like we loved the original. We just don't love it quite as much as we'd expected that we would.