Monday, May 30, 2011

iPad 2: The iMerlion review

How do you improve on a product that overturned the tablet industry overnight, that dominates the market and that has become the poster boy for the post-PC era? Answer: very carefully.

Apple’s iPad 2, as many people have noted, is an evolutionary improvement rather than a revolutionary one. Apple markets the iPad 2 as “Thinner. Lighter. Faster. FaceTime. Smart Covers. 10-hour battery.” And in short, that is exactly what the iPad 2 delivers.

Speed demon

The iPad 2 uses the 1GHz A5 processor, which is twice the speed of the A4 used in the original iPad. At the same time, the graphics performance on the iPad 2 is supposed to be nine times better as well.

The better graphics performance on the iPad is most noticeable when you are playing games (and by games, we don’t mean The Sims). The superior hardware of the iPad 2 is perhaps best seen in the game Real Racing 2 HD.

Plug in your iPad 2 into your HD TV (using an Apple Digital AV Adapter that you have to buy separately), start up the game and play the game in glorious high definition. The iPad 2 (with gyroscope, another new hardware addition) turns into the controller with map while the high octane racing takes place on the big screen in full 1080p.

Right now, most developers have simply taken their existing games and tweaked it for the iPad 2. As a result, while games like Infinity Blade look better on the iPad 2 over the original iPad, the improvements are somewhat subtle (better lighting, shadows and more details). Over time, developers will start developing games aimed at the iPad 2 so iPad games are only going to get better from here on.

The improved hardware also promises a faster web browsing experience. The good people at AnandTech say that the iPad 2 is 50 percent faster than the original iPad at web browsing. I’m going to have to take their word for it though because my current bottleneck is my wireless network, which becomes even slower once certain people in my family start bit-torrenting.

So your mileage on this score might vary. If you have a fast network, you’ll probably enjoy a faster web browsing experience. But if you’re on the SingTel network, and your bandwidth is being throttled by the evil carrier, then there will be no discernable speed boost.

Say cheese (or not)

The iPad 2 comes with two cameras, a front-facing one and a back-facing one. Before they were added to the iPad, everyone was giving Apple grief about not having these cameras built-in. However, based on photos uploaded to Flickr from iPad 2s (or more precisely, the lack of photos on Flickr from iPad 2s), we can safely say that most people are not using the camera on their iPads to preserve Kodak moments.

This is not because the camera is crappy, though let’s face it, they are not exactly the best cameras money can buy. Because of its size and shape, the iPad is really not designed to be used to capture holiday snapshots. You will look really odd taking holding up an iPad to take photos (though not as odd as holding up a 7” Samsung Galaxy Tab to your ear to make photo calls.)

The cameras though are ideal for FaceTime though, which is what Apple advertises them as. The camera on the back shoots 720p at 30 frames per second while the front facing camera shoots VGA at 30 frames per second. These cameras are designed for video conferencing, whether using FaceTime or some other videoconferencing apps.

And thanks to the iPad 2’s size, it is perfect for videoconferencing. The face of the person you’re talking to fills the screen so it’s almost human scale. If you need a device to do videoconferencing with a distant family member, the iPad 2 is it.

But what happens if you’re not a hardcore gamer and you don’t need to make regular FaceTime calls (ie, if you’re boring like me). Is there really a reason to buy the iPad 2?

A better reading device?

I largely use my iPad for reading. I go to my favourite websites on the iPad and my most used apps on the iPad are Zite and Flipboard. For these apps, a faster processor or a front-facing camera are completely unnecessary.

So while my kids used the iPad 2 to play Modern Combat 2: Black Pegasus HD on it, I used it to read in bed at night.

And I became quite used to having the iPad 2 (with attractive blue Smart Cover) on my chest in the evening. Then one evening, I couldn’t find the iPad 2 (undoubtedly because my kids had taken it) so I fished out my own iPad (with original black Apple cover).

What took me by surprise was just how much heavier the original iPad is compared to the iPad 2. I was quite unprepared for the additional weight when I picked it up.

The iPad 2 is about 33 percent thinner and just over 10 percent lighter than the original iPad. It does not sound much lighter but you can actually tell the difference, especially once you get used to the lighter version.

Smart Covers for dumb people

Part of what makes the iPad 2 so light are the new Smart Covers (which you have to buy separately). The new magnetic covers cover the screen only and are light and easy to remove and put on. That means that when you carry your iPad around with the cover on, it’s not a lot of additional weight. And when you’re reading in bed (and you’re not worried about scratching the face of the iPad 2), you can simply rip out the cover and enjoy a thinner, lighter device.

They say that that putting it on is foolproof. Being a fool, I’ve also been able to put the cover on wrong on a few occasions, usually when I’m demo-ing the easy-to-use, foolproof Smart Cover.

Because it uses magnets, all you have to do is line-up the edge of the Smart Cover to left edge of the iPad 2 and the cover will snap itself onto the iPad. Very cool, most of the time. However, there are, as mentioned, occasions when the two are slightly out of alignment but it’s no big deal to take them apart and put them back again.

The Smart Cover only covers the face of the iPad so if it drops on the ground face first, it will provide basic protection. However, it is not a rugged case so don’t drop it from too great a height. And it does not protect the back at all. If you would rather have a case that protects the back as well as the front, there are numerous cases on the market that will do that.

To buy or not to buy

So, in the final analysis, who should buy the iPad 2? If you don’t have an iPad already, then the answer is obvious, get the iPad 2. It is thinner, lighter and has better hardware. When buying hardware, I always buy the best hardware I can afford so that I can stretch out its use. I would use that same principle for the iPad 2.

Do you need the 64GB version? Probably not unless you use your iPad to store a lot of video. In terms of need, the 32GB version is neither too small or too big. On the other hand, for just a little bit more, you get twice the storage so if you don’t mind spending an extra S$130, get the 64GB.

I would also recommend getting the 3G version over the Wi-Fi only version. You will get much more use out of your iPad if it has permanent Internet access. If you have a smartphone that you can use as a Wi-Fi hotspot, you can get by with the Wi-Fi only version but note that using your iPhone as a wireless hotspot means you’ll run down the battery on your phone quickly.

If you already have an iPad, then the question is whether to upgrade. It depends on the kind of iPad user you are. If you’re a serious gamer, it’s a no brainer -- sell your old iPad and buy the new one. Likewise, if you plan to use FaceTime a lot, get the iPad 2. You can’t use FaceTime on the original iPad. And as a gaming device, there will be more and more games that will take advantage of the iPad 2 in future.

However, if you only using your iPad for reading or watching videos, you might not need to upgrade just yet. Yes, the new iPad 2 is thinner and lighter, but the old iPad wasn’t exactly a brick.

There is one group of people who would benefit from a secondhand original iPad. These are parents who are thinking of getting an iPad as an educational device for their kids (or, let’s be honest here, an electronic babysitter that makes them feel good). There are certainly plenty of educational apps available for the iPad; there are reading apps, math apps and apps to improve drawing and for learning a language. For simple apps like this, an original iPad is going to be more than adequate. When your 5-year-old starts complaining about the graphics on Infinity Blade, then you can start thinking about upgrading.

Apple's iPad 2 (in white and black) is available, occasionally, at authorised Apple resellers in Singapore (snap them up while you can because stocks are limited). It is also available on the online Singapore Apple Store (ships in one to two weeks, so a better bet if you are in no hurry). If you don't mind being locked in into a contract, you can buy an iPad 2 for a lower upfront amount from M1, SingTel and StarHub. 

Apple's recommended retail price for the Wi-Fi + 3G model:

16GB = S$848
32GB = S$978
64GB = S$1,108

Apple's recommended retail price for the Wi-Fi model:

16GB = S$668
32GB = S$798
64GB = S$928

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