This year, it’s all about the screen. The third-generation iPad has lots of other improvements but it’s the brilliance of the display which leaps out at you as soon as you wake the screen.
Apple has come in for some criticism that the new iPad doesn't offer as many new features as some had hoped. But, with the new screen and improved GPU the battery has also had to be improved and its capacity increased – it's nearly twice as capacious as the one in the iPad 2. With all that, it's not a huge surprise that there aren't a raft of new features.
As you may know, it has four times as many pixels as last year’s iPad 2, which wasn’t exactly a slouch in the display department. The 3.1 million pixels give a resolution of 264 pixels per inch, which is enough to make picking out the individual dots completely impossible.
As a result, text which had previously seemed perfectly readable is suddenly sharper, with a crispness that rivals print. No more jagged edges on curved lines, no matter how much you squint. It’s hard to convey what a major, but also subtle, change this is. Stare at it in the right light and it looks like it could be a printed photograph, not an electronic display.
Suddenly, even if you absolutely prefer reading books to ebooks – and who wouldn’t? – the new iPad becomes a much more tempting prospect. Of course, it is still a backlit screen rather than restful-on-the-eyes paper, but this is the first iPad to be a better e-reader than the Kindle in terms of sharpness. Though in bright sunlight Amazon’s e-ink screen still wins out.
The new screen also has greater colour saturation – an increase of 44 per cent, according to Apple – which lifts the vividness of the screen. And it does this without becoming over-saturated or garish.
This is a great technical achievement: to squeeze in this many pixels could easily have resulted in image noise, crosstalk or any number of visual artefacts, but Apple has pulled it off. Not once have we seen the display look blurry or anything less than stable and pin-sharp. According to Apple, that’s because the pixels have been distanced from the signal which tells them when to turn on and off or how brightly to burn. However it’s been achieved, it works flawlessly.
Of course, it’s down to the A5X chip, as well. This is an improvement to last year’s A5 CPU, found in the iPad 2 and iPhone 4S. It’s worth noting that the CPU itself remains the same, but the graphics capabilities have been specifically changed, upgrading the graphics processor to quad-core.
There’s more to say about the 2012 iPad than just the new display, but in passing, let’s note that this is an expensive component. It’s hard to believe that rival tablet-makers will be able to match, let alone undercut, Apple’s prices.
Developers are gearing-up for high resolution
Enhanced graphics in iPad games will arrive quickly as app developers update their programs to match the high-resolution screen, though until then, they’re upscaled nicely.
Some apps are already being retina-ed, such as Pocket-lint favourite Tweetbot. Comparing the new iPad to the iPad 2 shows the new version is discreetly different. The text is universally sharper and tidier, and profile photos look punchier – though obviously the quality of those images is variable.
The camera on the new iPad is a big improvement over last year’s iPad 2, where the resolution of the video-optimised camera was less than 1 megapixel. Although the new model is 5MP, not the 8MP you’ll find on the iPhone 4S, it’s pretty good. Not least because of the lens structure, the f/2.4 aperture and the backside illuminated sensor - it sounds vulgar, but it just means the camera’s wiring isn’t in the way of the sensor.
No tablet is going to become your camera of choice because it’s just not compact enough to be handled easily, but the results here were impressive. Happily, the newly released iPhoto shines on this display, so you can look at the shots you’ve just taken in all their glory. This app is a powerful and effective photo editor that is a joy to use.
Dictation is here, but no Siri
There’s no Siri on the new iPad – which is a shame – though arguably the best part of it is here: dictation. With Siri, if you’re dictating a text message and Siri mishears a word, you have to start dictating again from the beginning. With dictation, things are much better. As with the iPhone 4S, if you have an internet connection, every keyboard that appears has a microphone key. Touch it to launch dictation and the software will listen and transcribe, including punctuation marks.
If you have an iPad 2, you can use Dragon Dictation or Vlingo, excellent apps which transcribe very well, but don’t make it easy for you to attach the transcribed text to an email, say. Apple's dictation lets you talk straight into an email.
4G, just not in the UK
Dictation is just one application that needs a decent data speed to work well. The new iPad has the capability to handle up to 42Mbps - though the masts that offer these speeds are far from ubiquitous. And though the box says “Wi-Fi and 4G”, you’ll get 4G LTE speeds only in the US, not the UK, even when 4G LTE arrives.
Not perfect, but not far off
The iPad still isn’t perfect. If we really can’t have 4G, at least an indication when you’re connected to the fastest speeds (HSPA+ etc) instead of plain 3G would be good. After all, the iPad is set up to say when you're on plain old GPRS or EDGE.
It would also be good if there were better connectivity: not more slots, but a more effective USB adaptor so it’s easier to take photos off the tablet when there’s no data connection, for instance. And we'd like it if, among all the localisation that is embedded, a UK iPad knew we spell “Favourites” with a u in it.
It's also worth remembering that new, high-resolution apps will take up more space on your iPad. Apple still hasn't moved beyond the 64GB maximum storage capacity yet, and we really think this new iPad could use a storage boost. Especially if you factor in new, 1080p videos coming to iTunes.
Look, you either want an iPad or you don’t. There’s no pressure to buy one. But the Retina Display makes this so far and away the best release yet, this is a great time to climb on board the iPad train. It certainly gets more right than wrong.
The dedicated apps now number 200,000, way higher than rivals. The hardware remains gloriously well designed and works with great efficiency. And an iPad is a gadget which quickly becomes essential, even though it stays luxurious.
Seriously, what are you waiting for?
The new iPad goes on sale at Apple's retail stores and the Apple Online Store on Friday 16 March at 8am.