Review: Fourth-generation iPad is faster, stronger, better

At a Glance
  • Apple iPad with Retina display, Wi-Fi (fourth generation)

    Macworld Rating

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I did test the iPad with a couple of adapters, specifically the Lighting to 30-pin connector, which lets you use older accessories, and the USB version of the new Lightning Camera Connector kit. Both worked as expected. With the 30-pin adapter I was able to play music to a speaker dock, as well as charge and sync with my iMac. The USB Camera Connector kit allowed me to import photos from a digital camera and my iPhone 5. (I even built a horrifying Frankencable by connecting the USB Camera Connector kit to a 30-pin-to-USB to a 30-pin-to-Lightning adapter, though all it would let me do was import photos from the iPhone to the iPad. I'm just glad it didn't set either of my devices on fire.)

The biggest upside of the fourth-generation iPad having a Lightning connector is that the most modern version of each of Apple's mobile devices now sport the new standard. This is a big incentive for accessory makers to start building in compatibility for the Lightning connector, and should help remove any worry that customers are buying into an unproven technology. Apple's now put all its eggs in a Lightning-connector basket (which, coincidentally, is also bi-directional).

Camera not so obscura

Pretty pictures: The fourth-generation iPad (middle) is clearly an improvement over the third-generation iPad (top), but still lacks some of the sharpness of the iPhone 5 (bottom). (Click to enlarge.)

Both of the iPad's cameras get updates in the fourth-generation model. The rear-facing camera uses the same 5MP iSight model that you'll find on the iPad mini and the iPod touch. It's not quite as good as the 8MP model you'll find on the iPhone 5, but it does feature most of the same features, including autofocus, tap-to-focus, face detection, and more. However, there's no LED flash, as on the iPhone, and you won't get HDR photos or iOS 6's fancy new Panorama mode. It will, like previous models, shoot 1080p video.

For stills, the iPad's rear-facing camera is serviceable, though the 10-inch tablet isn't the most convenient form factor for snapping photos. For app purposes, it's fine—I used it to deposit a check to my bank without any problem.

I snapped a test shot to compare the fourth-generation iPad's rear-facing camera with the third-generation iPad and the iPhone 5. While the iPhone 5 still has highest resolution and the best quality (fine background details are less blurry), the fourth-generation iPad easily topped the third-generation model, providing a much crisper image. That's due in part to the better camera itself, but also to the fact that the fourth-generation iPad includes a new generation of image signal processor, which improves image stabilization.

Not to be outdone, the fourth-generation iPad's front-facing camera got an update as well. Like the rest of Apple's FaceTime-capable devices, the fourth-generation iPad now sports a 720p camera for video conferencing.

I didn't think I'd be that impressed by the upgrade to that camera, but if you use FaceTime with any regularity, the difference is night and day. I had my colleague Lex Friedman snap pictures comparing a FaceTime chat on the third-generation iPad's standard definition camera and the fourth-generation's HD camera. The HD camera on the new iPad features far better skin tones and a much sharper, clearer picture overall.

FaceTime face-off: The third-generation iPad (left) had a standard definition FaceTime camera that the fourth-generation model's FaceTime HD camera (right) puts to shame. (Click to enlarge.)

Who's it for?

Let's get this out of the way: If you've never owned an iPad, and you want the real estate that a 9.7-inch screen affords, there's no reason not to pick up the fourth-generation model. It's got all of the benefits of the third-generation iPad, and it's a smoking powerhouse to boot.

So, what if you're upgrading from a previous version of the iPad? For owners of the original iPad or the iPad 2, I think the fourth-generation iPad offers a pretty compelling package. Not only do you get a quite substantial performance increase (and, in the case of the original iPad, the ability to run iOS 6), but you also pick up a Retina display, improvements to Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, and—optionally—LTE. That's an improvement across-the-board.

Of course, if the 9.7-inch screen size of the fourth-generation iPad is a turn-off, the iPad mini is a solid upgrade from either of the first two iPad models as well. While I think size is the primary reason to choose the 7.9-inch mini over the 9.7-inch fourth-generation (or vice versa), the major differentiation right now is that the fourth-generation has a Retina display. When it comes to text, especially, that's a meaningful differentiation between the two.

In horsepower, the fourth-generation is significantly higher powered than the mini, but in the same way that folks—myself included—have chosen a less powerful MacBook Air over the heavier MacBook Pro, I don't think that's necessarily going to be the major distinction for many.

Finally, what about the third-generation iPad users among us? As an owner of a third-generation iPad, I can't honestly see much of a reason to upgrade. The performance improvements are nice, no question, but I didn't run into any apps that were overtaxing the third-generation model and really required the fourth-generation iPad. If developers start building apps—and especially games—that take advantage of all the power the fourth-generation iPad has to offer, that equation might change. But right now, there's no rush unless you need to have the latest and greatest, or you want to move your household over to Lightning-only.

Bottom line

Given that the fourth-generation model surfaced just six months after the third-generation, it makes sense that this iteration is a more modest improvement on its predecessor.

Yes, the fourth-generation iPad may have been overshadowed by the announcement of its svelte new sibling, but that's no reason to look down your nose at the more zaftig model. It may look more or less identical to the third-generation model, but make no mistake, it's the most powerful iPad yet, and a harbinger of things to come. Simply put, the fourth-generation iPad is a case of Apple putting its best iPad forward.

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At a Glance
  • Macworld Rating

    Pros

    • Incredibly fast performance
    • Lightning connector improves over dock-connector
    • Better camera performance overall

    Cons

    • Slightly decreased battery life
    • Lightning accessories still in short supply
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