iPad keeps Apple's lead without extending it

TN News

Email Print

Let's get right to the point: If you don't already have an iPad, chances are you'll be very happy with the third-generation model that goes on sale Friday. If you already have an iPad 2, there's little need to upgrade.

It isn't that the new iPad lacks impressive features --most notably, a vastly better display and an ultra-fast Internet- connection option. It's just that it seems designed to maintain Apple's huge lead in the tablet wars, rather than to extend it.

The closest parallel might be the iPhone 4S, a similarly incremental updating of its predecessor. The 4S, though, had one genuinely breakthrough feature: Siri, the voice-based personal assistant. For all its improvements, there's no comparable innovation in this year's iPad.

The new tablet, which Apple is just calling "the iPad," is in many ways indistinguishable from its predecessor, the iPad 2. The pricing is unchanged, ranging from $499 to $829, depending on storage capacity and network options. It's a wee bit thicker -- two-hundredths of an inch -- and less than two ounces heavier. Otherwise, it's the same height and width, with the same-sized 9.7-inch screen.

Sweet pixels

But oh, what a screen. For this new edition, Apple has replaced the previous, perfectly nice one with the same so-called Retina Display it introduced on the iPhone 4. The new screen provides 2048 x 1536 resolution, which is to say four times the number of pixels of the old one, and more even than a high-definition TV set.

While the Retina Display on the iPhone wasn't an earth- shaking advance, the impact is far more evident on the iPad's greater real estate. Even the text in an e-book is crisper, high-def is sharper and photos are crystal clear.

The visual improvements extend to newly enhanced graphics processing as well as graphics as well as a better photographic experience. Apple junked the iPad 2's primitive rear-facing camera in favor of a new one with a five-megapixel sensor, plus optics and features borrowed from the iPhone 4S that include image stabilization and the ability to shoot full hi-def video. And it's introducing a $4.99 iPad version of its popular iPhoto Mac app that, combined with the stunning screen, makes editing and sharing photos a pleasure.

Charged up

In a week of using the new model, I found battery life to be quite comparable to the iPad 2. That doesn't sound like big news -- but it is. That's because the new edition introduces support for the power-hungry 4G data networks known as LTE that are being rolled out in the US by Verizon Wireless and AT&T.

Especially in these early days, when the networks aren't crowded, LTE can deliver thunderous performance. On my test model, which runs on the AT&T network, I've clocked speeds over 40 megabits per second, which is faster than most home cable- modem connections.

Apple says the iPad provides up to 10 hours of use over Wi- Fi, and nine hours on a cellular network. Based on my tests, that may actually be a little conservative. After near-constant LTE use, including Web surfing and an hour or two of streamed video, I still had power to spare at the end of the day.

With battery life no longer a concern, the principal issues around LTE involve price and coverage. An LTE-equipped iPad costs $130 more than the Wi-Fi-only one, and data plans, which vary by carrier, range from $15 to $50 a month. (No long-term contract is needed.) Moreover, LTE is so fast you may find yourself consuming more data than you're used to.

Verizon or AT&T?

You'll also have to choose whether you want a Verizon or AT&T model, since their LTE networks aren't compatible. Verizon has broader coverage and lets you share the connection with other devices. But AT&T's $30-a-month plan allows you more data than Verizon's, and its fallback network when LTE is unavailable is faster.

The new iPad's 2012 enhancements -- not to mention its wide lead over all rivals in terms of the number and quality of available apps -- keep Apple easily ahead of all other tablet- makers. In fact, with the iPad 2 alive and cutting its starting price by $100, to $399, Apple has instantly made it the second- best tablet you can buy.

When the company launched the iPad 2 a year ago, it was remarkable how few changes were needed to keep it the No. 1 tablet. Since then, devices running Google's Android operating system have flooded the market, while Microsoft is poised to introduce a new generation of competitors running the next version of Windows. Yet once again, Apple has -- with a minimum of effort -- lapped the field.

Rich Jaroslovsky
Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

More Education/Youth News