Apple iPad 4 (late 2012) review

5 out of 5
£399

For

Retina display, A6X processor, Lightning connector, battery life, better Wi-Fi, 4G EE support

Against

Heavy, big, mobile data support is £100 premium

The new iPad is dead; long live the new, new iPad (4th Generation). We know that time seems to fly by, but don't panic, it doesn't move that fast, Apple, six months after launching the new iPad, aka the Apple iPad 3, has released an updated version ahead of its yearly update schedule. So should you be panicking about upgrading?

Design, basics, and Lightning

It's the same as the iPad 3. Well virtually the same. That means you get a tablet with a 9.7-inch touchscreen display in a metal case that measures 241.2mm x 185.7mm x 9.4mm and weighs in at a rather substantial 652g. 

The iPad 4, like the iPad 3, comes in three storage sizes - 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB - and packs all the usual tech. There are no big changes to the spec sheet, so you'll still get Wi-Fi b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0, a digital compass, accelerometer and built-in speakers.

What is different is Apple's new data socket at the base of the iPad. It is the new Lightning connector, introduced on the iPhone 5, also found on the iPad mini, and which replaces the 30-pin dock connector Apple has used for the past decade.

While it shouldn't affect iPad users as much as iPhone users making the switch (docks, speakers, accessories) it is something to bear in mind if you have a keyboard dock you use and love, or have enjoyed using the same connector as your iPhone 4S, because unless you buy an adapter you won't be able to do that any more.

Outside, and that's really the only physical change to the device. If you've already got a Smart Cover it will still work; if you've already got a case, it will still fit. Apple hasn't changed the buttons just to mess you around.

Screen

That's the same too. It's still a Retina display, as introduced on the iPad 3, and it's still just as impressive with the screen oozing crispness.

It's one of the best tablet displays available, with the iPad 4's 2048 x 1536 resolution (264 pixels per inch or ppi) only now starting to see competition from the likes of the Nexus 10, which sports a 2560 x 1600 (300ppi) display screen.

In real terms, this is double the resolution of last year's iPad 2. Take a close look, and you won't be able to make out the individual pixels - there are 3.1 million crammed in to less than 10-inches - so it certainly earns the name "retina" display. The crispness is noticeable too, whatever you're doing. Games, movies, surfing the internet - it all looks stunning. 

Even so, with the Nexus 10 offering a higher resolution, it looks like Apple is going to see some increasingly stiff competition in this area. Great news for consumers though, who's eyes have never been treated better.

Inside the iPad 4

It's here that most of the changes to the new iPad have happened. On the outside, the Lightning connector means there are some behind-the-scenes tweaks inside too. While Apple had the hood up, it clearly decided to update a few other things. 

So, in this late-2012 machine there's a new processor, new 4G and Wi-Fi controllers, and some improvements and enhancements to the camera.

Faster than the iPhone 5

The iPad 4 features the new Apple A6X processor. It's one better than the iPhone 5, which uses the A6 processor, and two times better than the iPad 3 from March, which used the A5X processor.

It's worth pointing out that if you're looking at the iPad mini, it uses the much slower A5 processor -something to bear in mind if you're going to be doing a lot of very intense stuff on your iPad. 

READ: Apple iPad (3rd generation) review

In practice, there doesn't seem to be much tangible benefit over the iPad 3. But, as with all "computers" processor improvements need developers to make use of them before they really show their benefits. 

The iPad 4 is, of course, faster, but not to the point that you are going to really notice the difference day to day if you've been using the iPad 3 for the last six months.  

We noticed that games loaded faster, but there's honestly not a huge amount in it. For very resource-heavy titles, you'll see more of a benefit, but don't expect to see those Angry Birds getting angry any quicker. Although the two seconds you'll save booting Zombieland is well worth the upgrade! 

Like the screen then, there's nothing in the under-the-hood power that will inspire iPad 3 owners to chuck their current device away, and plonk down another £400 to get this newer device. 

Wi-Fi and 4G

An interesting addition is the move to add dual-band support. This means that the iPad can now make use of 802.11n Wi-Fi at 5GHz. This is some near-impenetrable tech-speak, but in English, the 5GHz Wi-Fi band is much less busy than the 2.4GHz band. That means, in built-up areas, you should see more reliable and faster connections on Wi-Fi. That said, 5GHz signals have much shorter range, and are more affected by walls than their 2.4GHz brothers. Not all routers support 5GHz, but many new ones do, and it's a great way to get a bit more out of your wireless.  

READ: EE 4G UK: Devices, speeds, availability, coverage, prices

As for 4G, the new iPad now supports EE in the UK - the iPad 3 didn't - and that will be appealing to some people. It still won't support O2 and Vodafone 4G when that launches in 2013, but by then, there will more than likely be another, updated iPad on the horizon. As 3/4G adds an extra £100 to the cost of the device, plus a data tariff to back it up, we think it's a bit too costly, and the Wi-Fi-only iPad offers the best value, especially if you tether with your phone. 

Improved camera

We wouldn't recommend you take pictures with the iPad, but that doesn't stop many people doing so - as we've witnessed at the Olympics and London Fashion Week as people hold aloft their massive glowing screens. 

Perhaps realising that people want better quality, the iPad 4 gets a new front-facing camera. The specs are bumped from VGA up to 1.2-megapixels and it's now capable of 720p video recording. That will make FaceTime and Skype calls a little bit clearer, but as we've witnessed, it's also dependent on your internet connection and how well the messenger services are behaving that day.

The 5-megapixel rear camera is identical, but does benefit from better imaging processing afforded to it by the A6X processor, although you still won't get Panorama or HDR modes within the camera app.

Apps and iOS 6

Identical to what we've seen previously. All your iPad apps will still work, all the features are still the same. There is nothing new here to get excited about or appreciate more than before. As introduced with iOS 6, you now get Siri on the iPad 4.

Battery and performance

As we've detailed above the new A6X processor will run everything that little bit faster while improved 4G capabilities for the UK mean that if you sign up to EE and are in coverage you will be able to surf the web faster than before.

Thankfully all that boost hasn't really had an effect on the battery life, although playing more games - they are so very pretty - will mean you'll be charging your iPad more frequently. If you're just on the internet and reading, expect to get a good 10 hours from a single charge. Gamer and movie-watchers should re-align that expectation to around 7 hours.

Negatives

The downsides to the this new iPad are the same we had with the iPad 3. If you are looking at this as a replacement for your Kindle, but with more features, don't. The iPad 4 is too heavy, and you'll have to rest it against something - and that's not good for reading.

We can also say, with certainty, that come March next year, not having 4G capabilities for the Vodafone and O2 networks will vex users on those networks. But then, at Apple's current rate, we'll have the iPad 5 by then anyway - perish the thought.

For people who want 4G, we say either tether your phone, or buy a broadband hotspot, like a MiFi, and forget about paying extra for the data functionality in the iPad itself. 

Verdict

The iPad 4 is a powerfull beast of a tablet that builds on the market-leading iPad 3. If you're looking for the best of the best, this is still it. It's a tablet that delivers a superior experience from not only a hardware perspective but also in terms of apps.

From a pure specs point of view, the Nexus 10 does start to catch it, the gap is narrowing, however it's the massive collection of iOS apps that make the iPad 4 so great.

READ: iPad mini or iPad 4: What's the difference?

If you're smarting over your iPad 3 purchase, don't. While there are improvements, there is nothing here that is revolutionary enough to warrant upgrading. Stick with what you've got. The iPad 3 is still a darn fine tablet.

Those looking to upgrade just need to ask themselves whether the new iPad mini is now the better fit. Either way, Apple more than likely has a tablet you'll love in its growing range.