New iPad 3 Review: A higher-def screen and a slicker look. Does the iPad 3 mark a point at which resistance to Apple's market-leading tablet becomes futile?
Update: The iPad 3 and iPad 4 have now been replaced by the new, slimline iPad Air. Launched alongside the iPad Mini Retina, the new model is 20% thinner and sports Apple's new A7 processor. The 16GB iPad 2 will continue to be sold.
The new iPad 3 is not revolutionary, it's evolutionary, and according to Apple it's even “resolutionary”, whatever that means.
As with the Apple iPhone 4S bump, the hotly anticipated new iPad launch is largely about incremental, hardware upgrades; under-the-bonnet stuff that clearly annoys the hell out of everyone seeking a headline-grabbing design change.
New iPad 3: Build
Launched alongside the new Apple TV, the new iPad 3 looks much the same as the Apple iPad 2. The Home button remains, despite the big tease of the launch invite's imagery, but where successive iThings of the past have been thinner, lighter and the proud owner of new monikers, Apple's latest tablet is thicker (by 0.6mm), heavier (by 50g) and has no identifying numbers or letters to its name.
However, the third-generation iPad is also faster, more powerful, has by far the best screen ever seen on a tablet and will allow developers, including T3, to create apps of greater power than ever by exploiting all of the above. So, should you be shelling out for one?
New iPad / iPad 3 unboxing video: The coolest unboxing ever (review continues after the video)
New iPad 3: Screen
Android aficionados will find 2048x1536 reasons not to buy, but a bitch of a screen ain't one. Some 3.1 million pixels at 264ppi are now crammed into the 9.7-inch display – the leading Android tablets, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and the Asus Transformer Prime, come in at 1280x800.
Put the new iPad 3 side by side with the iPad 2 and the improvement is, quite visibly, clear. On the older iPad, apps in folders are just blobs of pixelated colour; on the new one you can almost make out text.
The Apple Retina Display smooths out edges and renders text pin-sharp so ebooks, websites and documents are so much easier on the eye. There's better contrast, greater definition with still and moving images, and better colour saturation – an improvement of 44 per cent over the iPad 2, Apple reckons.
New iPad / iPad 3 video: Ultimate Retina Display test (review continues after the video)
New iPad 3: 1080p HD
Another Retina reward can be seen with HD video now up to 1080p – yes, Apple is updating its iTunes movie catalogue to full HD – and stills up to 19 megapixels, though you'll have to import the latter as the onboard camera only boasts five. Both look stunning in terms of reproduction clarity, mind.
Developers will also need to optimise their digital nuggets to take advantage of the display hike; until then, you may suffer some slight blur. Needless to say, we're hard at work making T3: iPad Edition Retina-ready.
New iPad 3: Performance
To power this next-gen display the new iPad needs extra processing grunt, and it's provided by an improved dualcore chip, the A5X, with a quadcore GPU. While HD video and menu swiping don't appear any smoother than before – they were already plenty smooth – gaming, as you'd anticipate, really benefits.
Playing the upcoming Infinity Blade: Dungeons, the polygonal-pushing experience is exceptional, with quality not far off what we've seen so far on the Sony PS Vita. There are multiple layers, complex shading, frenetic action and minimal slow down.
Non-optimised games look pretty much identical to those on iPad 2, however. Will developers patch older games to bring them up to Retina standards? We'll see…
Asus and Toshiba may be rubbing their hands in glee, with both having announced “proper” quadcore tabs in recent months. However, with the dedicated chip handling graphically intensive tasks, the dualcore A5X seems more than adequate, keeping the new iPad quick and slick, even when processing the likes of iPhoto and GarageBand.
Can the new iPad / iPad 3 take on the Amazon Kindle Fire? We put the two head-to-head (review continues after the video)
New iPad 3: Camera
A lesser upgrade is the rear-facing iSight cam. Its f/2.4 aperture optics are pinched from the iPhone 4S, but with a five-meg resolution rather than eight. Images are better than the iPad 2's but tablet cams are still hardly the last word in convenience – one-handed tap-to-focus is mission impossible – and results remain a way off dedicated compacts, especially indoors or in overcast conditions.
New iPad / iPad 3 VS iPad 2 video: Should you upgrade? (review continues after the video)
New iPad 3: Video
Photos and 1080p, 30fps video are pretty good, mind. If you've got a steady hand, stills look good on screen or when beamed to the new Apple TV while video stabilisation is effective, although the automatic focus has a tendency to jump into life at inopportune moments.
Arguably the front-facing VGA camera for video chat is more useful, and would have benefitted more from a resolution remix.
New iPad 3: iPhoto
The real upgrade here isn't the hardware, though, it's the iPhoto for iOS app. Rather than adapting the desktop version, it's been developed from the ground up, taking full advantage of the iPad's multi-touch screen. Typically for Apple, the interface is simple and powerful enough to make basic content look professional – slide your finger to adjust skin tones, sky saturation, white balance, etc.
Dig deeper and you'll find more heavyweight options, with two fingers bringing up a focus-checking magnifying loupe, for example. When viewing photos taken on a top-notch camera, the results can be quite astounding.
New iPad 3: 4G
One of the most exciting additions to the new iPad is 4G. Except, er, there is no 4G in the UK, so it's actually 3.5G here. Or, erm, at least it is in some parts of the UK.
One thing's for sure: in its current state, the third-gen iPad won't work on true UK 4G networks when they arrive this year or next as the mobile frequencies supported by the iPad and the spectrums about to be auctioned by the government don't match.
What the new iPad can take advantage of right now is HSPA+, which isn't 4G but has a theoretical top download speed of 21Mbps.
In practice, we achieved around 4-6Mbps and 1-2Mbps upload on the 3 network. Browsing, downloading and streaming all seemed brisker than on iPad 2. It's possible we'll see a greater speed hike when 42Mbps dual-channel HSPA (DC-HSPA) hits the UK this summer.
A welcome addition is the iPhone-esque Personal Hotspot feature, although this will have to be activated by your provider. Bluetooth has also been upgraded to the low-power-consuming 4.0 standard, as used in the Nike FuelBand.
Connecting the iPad to other Bluetooth devices is still rather hit and miss, it must be said, Wi-Fi is, as you'd want it to be, still N standard and, as you might not want it to be, but there it is, single-band.
New iPad 3: Battery
With all its muscle enhancements, you'd expect compromised battery life. Now, Apple claims the same figures as iPad 2, with ten hours of Wi-Fi web surfing, nine hours on a mobile network and ten hours of video or music. Although longevity is pretty good given the power and resolution boost you're getting, we found some differences compared to the previous 'Pad.
In testing we noticed a quickening in battery drain with the new iPad when browsing, viewing and creating content when compared to iPad 2. Watching a two-hour HD movie on both devices reduced 10 per cent more of the third-gen's battery, while overnight energy seepage clocked in at six per cent, compared to zero from iPad 2.
General, non-intensive use reduced the battery by about 10 per cent per hour, which is bang on Apple's claimed drainage. Our major gripe, though, is that the new iPad still takes an excessive amount of time to reach full charge.
It's at least six hours using a mains charger and near double that via USB from a computer. Yes, the battery lasts a decent whack but if you're used to the speedy re-juicing of most mobile devices, this will irritate. It did us, anyway.
New iPad 3: Dictation
Voice dictation is now supported wherever you see the virtual keyboard – tap the mic button, say your piece, tap it again and it'll jot down your babble. It's not Siri, so you can't command it, or ask questions about the weather, or Thailand, but recognition is fairly accurate, though you will have to perform some manual editing, especially with longer messages.
Short replies or single sentences are generally free of error. We didn't have any Geordies, Scousers or Glaswegians in our test labs but it coped with T3's Rhi Morgan's lilting Welsh tones perfectly well.
Find out how well the dictation is in our New iPad / iPad 3 Chinese whispers game (review continues after the video)
New iPad 3: Verdict
The new iPad 3 is an improved version of the best tablet on the market, which makes the new iPad our number 1 slate by default. We'll see more true quadcore tablets from Apple's rivals before 2013, and they might boast some snazzier features too, but what they won't have is the might of the App Store behind them.
For us, that remains the prime reason why iPads sell loads and others don't. It's Apple's trump card, its tech golden ticket, and Google and Microsoft will have to nail their digital lockers before seriously challenging. iPad 2 accessories are also forward-compatible, including Smart Covers, camera kit, AV adaptors and docks.
One paradoxical twist is that too much content could be a problem here. Retina-optimised apps, 1080p video and hi-res photos come in seriously hefty file sizes - Nicolas Winding Refn' HD Drive movie comes in at more than 3Gb, for example.
As a result, the 16GB version (£399) sounds like a non-starter if you're any kind of power user, meaning Apple will probably sell a lot more of the 64GB model (£559) – how upsetting for it. Yet even that could get eaten up fast, mind.
So, should you upgrade from iPad 2? Only if you want a clearer picture and slightly faster web browsing. Otherwise wait for the next iteration, which should also be compatible with UK 4G.
iPad 4 before Christmas, anyone?
The new iPad goes on sale at Apple's retail stores and the Apple Online Store (www.apple.com/uk) on Friday March 16 at 8am.
New iPad 3 price: 16Gb Wi-Fi - £399, 32Gb Wi-Fi - £479, 64Gb Wi-Fi - £559. 16Gb Wi-Fi + 4G - £499, 32Gb Wi-Fi + 4G - £579, 64Gb Wi-Fi + 4G - £659