Apple’s 3rd generation iPad goes on sale tomorrow (8am March 16) in Australia, and with hundreds of people expected to line up for their shot at owning the new device, the big question is whether or not you should go and get one? Fortunately, EFTM has been testing the new iPad since its launch last week to tell you what’s great (and what’s not) about the new iPad.

It may come as a surprise, but the first thing you notice when you pick up the new iPad is the extra weight. The additional 49 grams (or 51 grams in the Wi-Fi only model) over the iPad 2 is quite evident when you hold it. It’s not going to break your arm – 50 grams is only 50 grams, after all. But it’s important to note that a regular user of an iPad 2 will notice the extra heft of the new device.

What you won’t notice while holding the new iPad is its additional thickness. Even when sitting it side by side with the iPad 2, it’s very hard to see the extra 0.6mm.

Outside of weight and thickness, there are only two ways to tell the difference between the models. The first is the actual model number printed in fine print on the back, while the second (and more obvious to most people) is the rear camera. The small lens is about 1mm larger in diameter on the new model which is understandable given the boost in resolution in the newer generation.

To give you a quick first impression of the external differences here’s a very short video look:

Given that for all intents and purposes the new iPad and the iPad 2 look and feel almost identical, it’s important to emphasise the key features inside the latest tablet actually make a huge difference to the product.

The new iPad - 6 key features


Screen

From the second you open the smart cover or press that home button, you immediately see the key selling point of the new iPad come to life. The screen is a portrait of vibrancy, with its high resolution display blowing the iPad 2 out of the water when sitting them side by side.

The 2048 x 1536 resolution screen makes everything clearer. The edges on fonts, buttons, arrows or anything else that appears on the screen simply looks better. It’s smooth as though you’re looking at a glossy print out instead of viewing a set of dots on a screen.

But while the geeks will celebrate the extra pixel density, the non-geeks among us may not see the extra resolution as important. Even after a week, my wife was convinced the iPad 2 had the better screen. Perhaps in time, as apps are upgraded to support the iPad’s retina display, her opinion will change – at the moment few apps outside of Apple’s own software take advantage of the extra resolution and while other apps don’t look bad, they aren’t making the most of what the new iPad’s screen has to offer.

 

Graphics

Apple has packed a quad-core graphics processor into the new iPad, which will go a long way in enhancing almost all graphic capabilities of the device. Given the tablet’s high resolution screen, that’s a sensible option, although at this early stage there isn’t much that takes advantage of the extra processing power.

Sky Gamblers Air Supremacy was demonstrated at the San Francisco launch and it was easily the most impressive gaming environment seen on a tablet to date. The graphics were stunning, with seamlessly rendered detail (like the heat trail from a fighter jet) effortlessly appearing on screen.

If you don’t use your tablet for gaming, you probably won’t notice this additional power. But for app developers, it opens up whole new possibilities to create truly exciting and beautiful software for the iOS platform.

 

Camera

The camera in the iPad 2 was one of its biggest selling points, turning the iPad into a potential video conferencing machine. But let’s face it – the camera’s quality was crap. Even in the best possible light and the best possible settings, the photos were washed out and grainy. And no matter amount of marketing is ever going to make holding a tablet up at a sporting event or scenic location a good thing.

That said, Apple has done a great job improving the new iPad’s camera. The 5-megapixel “iSight” snapper uses the same technology in the iPhone 4S’ camera to bring you great quality photos (for a tablet). You can now get much better close-up photography and better colour depth with this new camera so even though you’ll probably never use it for shooting landscapes or portraits, it’s still a welcome addition, especially for video-conferencing and augmented reality applications.

When you compare photographs from the new iPad and iPad 2, the improvement is evident.

iPad and iPad 2 camera comparison

 

iPad 2 and iPad camera comparison - full size highlight of detail

1080p Video

When announcing the new iPad Apple put a lot of emphasis on its decision to upgrade video recording from 720p to 1080p. Given the improved screen resolution, and the 1080p upgrade to the Apple TV, it’s entirely logical that all current and future Apple devices will be able to create and view content in the 1080p format.

Although the iPad uses the same “always on” image stabilisation technology found in the iPhone 4S, there is something to be said for the additional human stabilisation that comes from holding a larger device. The only real issue with the video recording functionality is the fact you look a bit silly holding an iPad up to film something.

From personal experience though, when you’re at home with the kids the ability to reach for any device – tablet included – and film a fun moment or cute little face in 1080p is brilliant. It’s not going to replace a dedicated camera (or even a smartphone), and the bulk of iPad owners probably won’t even use it. But knowing that it’s there is convenient, if nothing else.

 

Dictation

The most important thing to know about the new dictation function on the iPad is that Australian English (read: our accent) is supported. Given how long Australia waited for Australian accent support with the Xbox Kinect, this is a great thing.

That said, even though Aussie accents are supported, the service can still be a bit hit and miss. To be fair, that’s common across all voice recognition services, not just Apple, but given that it’s one of the key features of the device, we hoped for a bit more accuracy.

Sure, it works. But in order for that to happen, you need to speak in a certain way. That means talking slower and with a lot more effort in diction than you would talking casually or even describing a set of tasks or instructions to a freind. If the convenience of not having to type is enough for you to speak in an abnormal way to your iPad, you’ll probably find that this feature is amazing. But the science fiction future of talking naturally to your tablet and having it understand you perfectly are still years away.

 

“4G”

With all the hype about 4G functionality in the United States, it’s surprising that Apple hasn’t done more to explain support for the super-fast networks (or lack thereof) in Australia. However a good look at the specifications shows that the 4G wireless chip in the device doesn’t use the same wireless band as is currently in use by Telstra. As Telstra is the only carrier currently operating a 4G network in Australia, that rules out 4G connectivity for the new iPad.

Considering the new iPad is listed on the Australian Apple store as “WiFi + 4G”, this is going to be a horribly confusing situation for consumers. The 4G will work if you travel to the USA (and insert a US SIM card), but international network support shouldn’t be enough for Apple to ignore the network situation in Australia.

Don’t let this convince you that there is no benefit in the wireless technology packed into the new iPad though. Apple has included support for Dual-Channel HSPA+ networks, offering theoretical maximum download speeds of 42Mbps. The catch is that only Telstra has a DC-HSPA network – unfortunately neither Optus or Vodafone offer the faster speed networks. This means you will get almost twice the speed from your new iPad on Telstra than you would on a different network, or the older iPad 2 on Telstra.

 

Price

At the launch in San Francisco the crowd cheered as the $US499 price was announced, meaning the price of the device was the same as the iPad 2 had launched at a year ago. Given the new technologies inside, that’s an impressive price point to start from.

After a short wait the Australian pricing was also revealed, and the news was even better. Apple has reduced the entry price of the latest iPad by $40 from $579 to $539. At the top of the range the 64GB WiFi + 4G has come down from $999 to $899.

Add the fact that the iPad 2 will remain on sale alongside its younger sibling for a cracking $429 – $150 less than the very same device just a week ago – and it’s obvious that Apple is undercutting the competition on price while delivering superior performance as well.

 

So… should you get one?

The million dollar question, naturally, is whether the new iPad is worth buying. And it’s a tough one to answer.

Assuming you can afford it in the first place, it comes down to this:

If you have an iPad 1, the new iPad will blow your mind. Go and line up already!

If you have an iPad 2, you need to decide on whether there’s enough benefit for you to have that stunning new screen and improved camera. If the response isn’t an immediate yes, you should probably hold off and wait for the iPad 4.

If you don’t yet have a tablet and want one, you’re going to be hard pressed to find anything better than this in this price bracket.

The iPad 2 is a fantastic entry level tablet. If money is tight, the iPad 2 is not a bad place to start if you need a tablet in your life. If money isn’t an issue, comparing the new iPad with the previous model side-by-side in store is a great way to help your decision along.

Despite some big advances in Android tablets over the past six months, the simple truth is that rival manufacturers have been competing of specifications rather than price. Now that Apple is selling iPads from just $429, it’s going to be telling to see if the Android companies change their pricing strategies.

If you can find another tablet with high performance specs and good build quality for around $299, that could be a good non-Apple option. The sad truth is that’s about as likely as pigs taking flight though, so for now and the foreseeable future, the iPad is not only the best device in terms of quality of production and specifications, but also price.

 

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