The iPad 2 Arrives

Review: The iPad 2

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Now, at last, there’s an iPad that can use Verizon’s cellular data network without needing to tote around some other piece of tech. This means that iPad 2 owners can choose between AT&T’s (generally faster) 3G network and Verizon’s (generally more reliable) 3G network. That’s the good news. The bad news is, iPad 2 buyers will need to decide up front which network they want to use—there are separate models for each network, so once you’ve bought a Verizon iPad 2, there’s no way to switch it to use AT&T’s network (or vice versa).

The iPad 2’s connection to AT&T’s network has been upgraded from the original iPad models. Like the iPhone 4, the iPad 2 supports AT&T’s HSUPA/HSDPA system, which will result in faster 3G transfer in areas where that protocol is available. I managed a 2.2-mbps upload rate and a 1.1-mbps download rate from my house, comparable to the speeds I saw from the iPhone 4 on AT&T’s network. (Apple didn’t provide us with a Verizon-compatible version of the iPad 2 for review, but its transfer rates will likely be similar to those on the Verizon-compatible iPhone 4—generally slower than AT&T’s.)

If you live in a place where both carriers offer good coverage, then deciding which model to buy will prove to be an interesting challenge. The data plans offered by the two companies differ, though they’re generally competitive with one another. If you don’t use much data, AT&T has an advantage with its $15-a-month plan for 250MB of data. If you use more than 3GB per month, Verizon becomes the better deal. In between, it’s a toss-up. (AT&T also offers a post-paid plan that can be added to your phone bill and offers better overage rates.)

If you travel internationally, the AT&T iPad is a better deal, since it uses the GSM standard that’s more widely in use internationally. And since the iPad is an unlocked cellular device, you can buy a foreign micro-SIM card and save a bunch on data rates by not paying AT&T’s expensive roaming charges.

Then there’s the question of whether you need to buy an iPad 2 with 3G at all. Many smartphones—including the iPhone 4—have a Wi-Fi-based hotspot feature that lets them share their Internet connections with other devices. Verizon and AT&T charge $20 a month for the feature, which comes with 2GB of data. (AT&T’s plan requires a user to also be on the $25 a month Data Pro plan.) Two gigabytes for $20 is a pretty good deal when compared to the iPad 3G plans (other than AT&T’s ultracheap 250MB plan). So if you, your iPad, and your iPhone (or other smartphone with a personal-hotspot feature) are seldom parted, you might be better off saving the $130 and buying a Wi-Fi-only model.

There are a lot of variables here, clearly. But once you’ve chosen your iPad 2, you’re locked in, so it’s wise to consider your options before you buy. The good news is, if you spend $130 for a 3G model, there’s no contract to sign and you’re not required to buy a data plan—so the extra cost of the 3G-equipped iPad might not be too much to spend if you aren’t sure and want to keep your options open. You’ll still have to pick between Verizon and AT&T, however.

One final wrinkle to the 3G buying decision: Only 3G iPad models come with GPS capabilities. There’s a good reason for this—iOS devices use something called assisted GPS to dramatically decrease the amount of time it takes for the devices to determine their location. (Despite the name, this is not some sort of phony GPS—the assisted just means that the devices look for nearby cellular towers to get a general fix on their location, which prevents a minutes-long GPS scan that would be required on a GPS device without the cellular assist.) In any event, if you dream of using your iPad as a jumbo GPS navigation console, you’ll absolutely need a 3G model.

Smart accessories abound

With the release of the iPad 2, Apple is also releasing several accessories related to the iPad 2.

The iPad 2 with a leather Smart Cover.

Most notable is the Smart Cover, available in either leather ($69) or polyurethane ($39). A Smart Cover magnetically adheres to the side of the iPad 2 and protects the front, locking and unlocking the iPad when you open and close the cover. It’s pretty nifty, and it sets the bar pretty high for all future iPad 2 accessories. To read a whole lot more about it, be sure to read my iPad 2 Smart Cover review.

But there are other accessories: the $39 Apple Digital AV adapter finally lets capable iOS devices display HD video on HDTVs, and even lets the iPad 2 mirror its own screen on an external display. (Read on for details, or see our full review.)

There’s also a new $29 iPad 2 Dock, which I wasn’t able to test. Like the original iPad Dock, it allows you to set your iPad upright in portrait orientation and charge, sync, or even play audio- or video-out. Now the bad news: The iPad 2 and the original iPad’s dock connector are different enough that accessories that tightly fit to the hardware won’t be compatible with the new model, so you probably won’t be able to reuse many of your iPad accessories if you buy an iPad 2. Apple also seems to have discontinued the iPad Keyboard Dock entirely. (No great loss, in my opinion—you’d be better off with a dock or a case and the excellent $69 Apple Wireless Keyboard, a combination that allows you type in either portrait or landscape orientation, rather than the forced portrait orientation of the Keyboard Dock.)

A video breakthrough

The Apple Digital AV Adapter gives the iPad 2 the ability to output HD video and mirror its own screen.
One of the most pleasantly surprising features of the iPad 2 is its improved support for HDTVs and HD video. A combination of iPad 2 hardware upgrades, a new adapter from Apple, and updates to the iOS share the credit, but the end result is great news for both entertainment and education.

On the entertainment side, the new Apple Digital AV Adapter lets the iPad 2 spread its wings. With this adapter, the iPad 2 can output high-definition video at resolutions up to 1080p, as well as Dolby Digital surround sound, all served via a standard HDMI cable that the owner of any HDTV will be familiar with.

I played back several HD video files on several different HDTVs via the iPad 2 and the HDMI adapter, and the video quality was excellent. The inability to output HD video has been a sore spot on the iOS since the release of the original iPad, but now that it’s here, it looks (and sounds) great.

Exclusive to the iPad 2 that will be hailed by educators, presenters, and anyone else who has ever wanted to show off their iPad’s screen to a large crowd: video mirroring. When connected to the HDMI adapter, the iPad 2 will display a duplicate version of the contents of its screen on an external monitor. Want to demo an education app via a projector or HDTV for a classroom full of kids? The iPad 2 makes it possible.

In mirroring mode, the iPad’s interface is crystal clear. It looks great. Because the iPad’s video interface is a 4:3 aspect ratio, you’ll find black bars on the sides of the TV when in mirroring mode. The bars grow even wider if you put the iPad in portrait orientation, but the image of an iPad 2 in portrait mode still looks good—albeit smaller—on an HDTV.

On a few TVs I tried, however, I needed to adjust the video settings in order to display the entire picture. It depends on how your TV set frames HD content; my advice is to fiddle with the video settings until you get a picture that pleases you.

For the record, the iPad 2’s mirroring mode and its video-out mode don’t fight with each other. If an app supports direct video output to an external display, the iPad stops mirroring and switches to that mode. In addition to the Video app, there are lots of other examples: Keynote uses the external display as a presentation screen, for instance.

The software story

iMovie for iPad.
The iPad 2 arrives with a new version of the operating system that powers the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. This version, iOS 4.3, is hardly earth-shattering, but does offers a few nice new features.

Third-party apps can now take advantage of streaming video via AirPlay, the system that lets iOS devices stream audio and video to various devices, most notably the second-generation Apple TV. The Videos and iPod apps can now connect to Macs or PCs running iTunes via the Home Sharing system, meaning—at long last!—you can stream music or videos from any Mac or PC in your house to your iOS device, elsewhere on your local network.

In iOS 4.3, the slide switch on the iPad can be put to use in one of two ways: It can either function as an orientation-lock switch, as it did when the iPad was first released; or it can function as a mute switch for alert sounds, as it did upon the release of iOS 4.2. In iOS 4.3, users can choose either behavior via the Settings app. Now can’t we all just get along?

There are a bunch of other additions to iOS 4.3; stay tuned to for our full report on iOS 4.3, which is forthcoming.

Along with the new version of the operating system, Apple is introducing two apps as a part of the iPad 2 launch. One, iMovie, is an update to the existing version of iMovie that runs on the iPhone 4 and iPod touch. The other, GarageBand, is an all-new app for the iPad. Both apps are excellent, showing off the power of the iPad, the iOS, and, specifically, the iPad 2.

It’s interesting that for the original iPad launch, Apple showcased three $10 iWork apps: Keynote, Numbers, and Pages. It sent a message that the iPad could be used for productivity, not just for consumption. And in the intervening 11 months, we’ve seen all sorts of interesting productivity applications released for the iPad. (Along with lots of games.) The iPad app ecosystem launched strong and has continued to grow, making it one of the iPad’s biggest advantages over competing tablets.

This time out, Apple has launched its new iPad with a pair of $5 creativity apps. What’s the message? In the case of iMovie, it’s clearly tied to the existence of the iPad’s cameras. Now you can shoot video with the iPad (ideally the HD-capable rear-facing one) and then edit it right within iMovie. Apple’s also enabled a video workflow that starts with video shot on an iPhone 4, and then ends up being transferred to an iPad 2 for editing. For more of my impressions after spending a few days with iMovie, check out my hands-on with iMovie for iPad.

GarageBand for iPad is an almost breathtaking achievement. At times it feels more responsive than GarageBand running on the late-model iMac on my desk at work. Strumming its “smart guitars” made me almost feel musical, and I was able to create a (terrible) cover version of Fountains of Wayne’s “Hey Julie” in about 30 minutes, complete with vocals, guitar, bass, drums, and organ. My nine-year-old daughter was entranced with the app as well.

GarageBand for iPad isn’t as full-featured as the Mac version, but neither does it feel like a toy version. It’s a real app with a lot of real power, and I’d imagine that it will become madly popular in schools and garages everywhere. For more information, check out my first look at GarageBand for iPad.

Both apps do suffer from one of the great failings of the iOS: difficulty in getting files in and out and moving them around. To move an iMovie project from the iPhone to the iPad, for example, you’ve got to (1) export the file on the iPhone, (2) connect it to a Mac, (3) go to iTunes, (4) click the Apps tab, (5) scroll down, (6) click on iMovie, (7) click on your project, (8) click Save to put it on your hard drive; and then you have to (9) detach your iPhone, (10) attach your iPad, (11) click on it in iTunes, (12) click on the Apps tab, (13) scroll down, (14) click on iMovie, and then (15) drag your project back into iTunes.

Apple, there’s got to be a better way. Maybe in iOS 5?

Should you upgrade?

Let’s say you are one of those 15 million people who bought an iPad last year. Now there’s a new iPad. Should you dump your old one and get a new one?

Though the iPad 2 is an improvement on the original iPad in numerous ways, it’s still an evolutionary product, not a revolutionary one. If you’re happy with your current iPad, there’s no reason to dump it just because there’s a shinier, newer one. (This is not to say that millions of people won’t do just that. I mean: shiny!) If you’ve invested in iPad accessories such as a dock or case, keep in mind that you probably won’t be able to use them with the new iPad.

Of course, if there’s someone in your family who has been clamoring for an iPad, now might be the time to buy an iPad 2 and hand down the old model to them—or, if you’re really nice, give them the new iPad while you soldier on with the classic model.

If you’ve become a major user of FaceTime or other video-chat apps on your iPhone or iPod touch, upgrading to an iPad 2 makes more sense, thanks to the integrated cameras. People who want to bestow an iPad on an older friend or relative who is a bit reluctant to use technology can now add video chat to the mix of features that make the iPad a compelling device for the older set.

Anyone who gives demonstrations of iPad apps—in seminars, classrooms, or boardrooms—will want to get an iPad 2 immediately just for the video-mirroring feature. If you’re an iPad-toting presenter, it’ll be worth the investment.

Finally, if you live somewhere with great Verizon reception and you’re stuck with an AT&T iPad, trading up the Verizon model is worth considering … but you might want to also consider adding a tethering plan to a Verizon smartphone and deactivating your existing iPad’s monthly service.

Macworld’s buying advice


The iPad was a huge hit, vastly surpassing anyone’s expectations for it. (In my review last year, I set a ceiling for success at 10 million, meaning my most optimistic estimate was still five million iPads short.)

At a Glance
  • Apple iPad 2 Tablet Computer

  • Apple iPad 2 with Wi-Fi + 3G 16GB

  • Apple iPad 2 Tablet Computer

  • Apple iPad 2 Tablet Computer

  • Apple iPad 2 with Wi-Fi 64GB

  • Apple iPad 2 Tablet Computer

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