Apple iPad 2 Tablet: Review

You can quibble about the camera or the lack of a “retina” display, but the iPad 2 is a useful tool

Anyone who’s ever been in a bar band will confirm that it’s usually better to be the second act, unless the opener turns out to be wildly popular with the first arrivals in the audience. That seems to hold true with mobile devices as well: if the early adopters create the right buzz, the second iteration doesn’t have to be a dramatic improvement to go over big. The difficult part is avoiding the “sophomore slump.”

Although the iPad 2 isn’t as big an improvement over the original Apple tablet as some observers had hoped it would be, the company has managed the difficult feat of balancing expectations and economics. The new model includes front- and rear-facing cameras, and a new dual-core processor, while being is lighter and thinner than the original.

Any colour as long as it’s black or white

It’s available in any color you want, as long as it’s black or white. The iPad 2 is available in six versions, with prices ranging from £399 for the 16GB Wi-Fi model to £659 for the 64GGB Wi-Fi + 3G model.

I spent the better part of a recent week with a 64GB unit with Wi-Fi and AT&T 3G service. The unit shipped to me with iOS 4.3 installed, and when Apple released iOS 4.3.1 a few days before writing this, I began using that version. I found no discernable difference between the two on the iPad 2, although an older iPad that had balked at 3G connections following its upgrade to iOS 4.3 behaved better once the 4.3.1 update was installed.

Will the magnets wipe bank cards?

This year’s iPad is all about the accessories. The slimmer body of the iPad 2 makes many of last year’s geegaws such as docks and sleeves obsolete. I’m going to hive off most of my thoughts in that area into a blog post, but I wonder when customers will begin accusing the 31 magnets in the iPad 2 and its Smart Cover of wiping bank cards, transit cards and other media that use magnetic strips.

For me, the most exciting iPad 2 accessory turned out to be the Apple Digital AV Adapter, which allows iPads and the iPhone 4 to output 720p and better digital video to television sets equipped with an HDMI interface. Until now, output from the iPad has been an analog affair, but this new adapter can make presentations look crisper than ever before.

Light enough to make a difference

The new iPad is lighter than the original by a few ounces; it’s noticeable when you compare the two, but with the help of a few colleagues, I conducted some extremely informal tests to decide if it’s enough to really make a difference. Although everyone in my statistically insignificant sample could tell that the iPad 2 was indeed less heavy than the first iPad, whether it was enough to be noticed by users who carry it everywhere proved an almost perfectly split decision.

The front-facing camera in the iPad 2 works at VGA resolution and is barely adequate for videoconferencing. Images are grainy when the subjects are still, and when they are moving, the blur can be downright disorienting. The camera sits a little too high for anyone using the iPad 2 in portrait orientation to hold the tablet naturally and appear on camera at the same time. Rotating the iPad into landscape mode makes one look as if one is constantly looking off-camera, in what some would call a “Michele Bachmann effect.” The rear camera is better suited for high-quality stills and video but falls a few megapixels short of the comparable camera in last year’s iPhone 4.

Is this MicroSIM deliberately awkward?

Upon reflection, the most serious flaw I can find in the iPad 2 is in the design of the SIM card tray: As in the original iPad, the SIM card (actually a 3FF-format MicroSIM) is inserted into the tray from the “front” side of the device. The problem asserts itself when one wishes to remove or replace the SIM card; in order to do so, the SIM extraction tool must be inserted at an angle that can only be achieved by orienting the iPad 2 face down. If the SIM card tray is removed without first returning the iPad to a face-up position, the card will simply fall out onto the workbench, floor or an intermediate surface.

Anyone who has a reason to remove or replace the SIM card will wonder why the engineers responsible for the card tray couldn’t have simply redesigned it to cradle the card in the same orientation that one would use for removing the tray. But Apple has a track record of making its products deliberately difficult to service, and this hang-up is only likely to affect those users who purchase a used device, or overseas customers who regularly take their iPads across national borders but don’t want to pay data roaming fees. For most American users, this won’t be a problem at all. The burden of this blunder will fall more on the people who service these devices, who are in many cases employees of Apple, AT&T or their affiliates.

Let’s see what developers can do

Otherwise, the iPad 2 is an improvement over its predecessor in many respects. The big question in my mind is whether developers will be able to take full advantage of the dual-core processor environment upon the expected release of iOS 5 later this year. If so, the new CPU and the apparent doubling of the device’s working RAM to 512MB should open up significant new possibilities and provide users with a more stable platform than the original iPad, so I’m stoked to see what Apple’s newest tablet will lead to. As a business tool, the device itself remains somewhat of a gadget. What remains to be seen is what developers are able to do with the platform. That, my friends, is what  computing is all about.