Rating:

  out of  for upgraders
 out of  for new users

So this one is easy. Apple's iPad 2 is exactly what you think it is: Very much a minor, evolutionary update over its predecessor.

And then it's not so easy. Apple's iPad 2 is also best-in-class for this new emerging market category of slate computing devices, so if you haven't yet pulled the trigger, and want (and can afford) such a thing, this is absolutely the best choice. It's not even close.

There is, of course, a longer version of this review. Let's start with what may seem like an odd comparison.

And that is, Apple's iPad 2 is like the second "Matrix" movie: It's clear that its creators blew all their good ideas on the first one, and equally clear that the third iteration will try to make up for the mistakes we see here. But like that second, somewhat disappointing Matrix movie, it doesn't really matter: This stuff is so popular right now that we'll gladly accept anything the Wachowski brothers--excuse me, Apple--shovels at us. And we'll do so with a smile on our faces and our wallet in our hands.

Surely there is a middle ground between "tired, evolutionary retread of the previous version" and Apple's claim that the iPad 2 is "an all-new design." And there is, since neither comment is accurate. Yes, the iPad is an evolution, not a revolution, but let's be honest with ourselves and simply admit that that's what virtually all of Apple's product updates are, by design and by necessity. The iPad was innovative and successful. Why would the iPad 2 be dramatically different?

To those who claim that "thinner, lighter, and faster" make the iPad 2 a big deal, however, I say, "so what?" These are, by now, the minimums we'd expect of an updated Apple product, aren't they? It retains the original iPad's excellent, excellent battery life of 10 hours, check. Again, this is the minimum.

And regarding those differences, they're not noticeable at all in one case--Lighter? Hardly--and only somewhat noticeable in the other--the thinness, which does less for the iPad 2's superior "hand feel" than does the smoother, tapered edges. What hasn't really been discussed about the iPad is that it's a bit smaller overall than the first iPad, with just barely thinner fascia plastics. And in the white version that I purchased, at least, sitting there on the table, it certainly looks smaller.

Of course, Apple is all about appearances, so that also makes sense. And to be fair, Apple routinely exceeds the minimum in its updates, though not by much. So what we have in the iPad 2 is a combination of the expected (dual FaceTime cameras, for example), the unexpected (the mostly excellent smart covers, which to be fair are not "part" of iPad 2 but rather an added-cost extra), and then the disappointments (those cameras are crazy low-quality).

Let's get the disappointments out of the way first. This will be easy since there are only a few, and almost all of them regard the device's reflective screen, which carries over unchanged from version 1.

With the original iPad, I criticized Apple for going with a large, highly glossy, non-widescreen display. With the iPad 2, Apple now includes an identically large, highly glossy, non-widescreen display. And this is too bad. I would have been OK with all of it had the company simply offered--even at added cost--a non-glossy option. In fact, I would have gladly paid for this option.

It's not there. So the previous screen, which you could literally shave off of like a mirror on a daytime flight and in other typical usage scenarios, is still present on the iPad 2. This is a glaring error, and one that costs this device a perfect score. There is absolutely no way I can rate this thing five stars with this terrible screen. So that's one strike down.

As I've noted in broken record format, the iPad 2, even more so than its predecessor, is simply too complex to buy because of the crazy number of product versions. Some have poo-poo'd this (gotta love those partisan Apple goobs) but the issue was nicely encapsulated by the confusion of the people who stood in line at the Apple Store in Dedham on launch day, with furious debates over which of the 18 different product versions--and yes, there are 18 of them--they wanted, and in which order of preference, given that certain models were selling out quickly.

18 you ask? Really?

Yes, really. Thanks to high sales and no viable competition, Apple has done something in this iPad revision that it was never able to do with any iPod or iPhone upgrade: It didn't lower prices or raise the storage allotments. So there are still 16, 32, and 64 GB variants of the iPad. But now there are black and white versions of each, for 6 models. There are AT&T versions of each, in both black and white, for another 6 versions, or a total of 12 models. And then there are Verizon versions of each, also in black and white, or another 6 versions, for a total of 18 different iPads from which to choose.

And of course both AT&T and Verizon have completely different pricing plans for on-the-fly 3G data. And different wireless performance and availability depending on where you are at the time.

And you better believe that any Apple Store you're going to visit for the foreseeable future is only going to have a small supply of only some of those versions, so pick carefully and pray to Cupertino they have the exact one you want.

For a company that prides itself on simplicity, and has often boasted more specifically about the simplicity of its product lineup, this is a very strange situation. I'm amused to watch as so many Apple lovers simply give the company a pass on this.

OK, that's the truly disappointing stuff. A few mildly disappointing points:

Cameras. Yes, the cameras are crap, but Apple's cameras always start off like that and improve over time. They do it on purpose, so they can claim with iPad 3 that they're now using the same camera as the iPhone 5, or whatever, and the crowd will go wild.

Form factor. Despite small reductions in size and weight and thinness, the iPad 2 is ultimately as hard to use with one hand as its predecessor, so it's most comfortable in use when sitting--where you can prop it up on something--or with both hands. Its clear Apple did everything it could in this area, so I'm willing to chalk this fact up to the limits of the screen size. Until the iPad 7 is just a sheet of glass, there's not much else one can do. And let's face it, the competition in this size category, such as it is, is much heavier and thicker.

The new tapered design--which is almost identical to that of the current iPod touch, making the "iPad is just a bigger iPod touch" argument all the more valid--also makes it harder to plug in the charge/sync cable, just as it does with the iPod touch.

Performance. As always, Apple makes big claims about performance with its iPad 2. I've seen apps launch a bit quicker and... well, that's it. Based on anecdotal information, Apple's claims about the processor being "up to" twice as fast seems farfetched. But I think the iPad's graphical prowess will be proven by a coming generation of games and other software. Suffice to say, this is evolutionary stuff but appreciated.

So, what's good about the iPad 2? First, and most obviously, it gets crazy good battery life just like its predecessor. The performance is excellent, just like that of its predecessor. The ecosystem that surrounds the iPad 2 has only gotten stronger in the past year, and with over 65,000 native apps to choose from, and the best collection of media around, the iPad 2 is the obvious choice on this basis alone. These are important distinctions that should guide any buying decision.

The new version of iOS that drives the iPad, 4.3, is excellent, with new capabilities that are much appreciated. The AirPlay feature that debuted last fall was incomplete, but now it's the full meal deal and you can remotely play content, on the iPad, that is contained on other iTunes-based PCs in your house. (Unsophisticatedly, iTunes must be running on those PCs for this to work, a long-time complaint.)

You may notice that none of these positives are specific to the iPad 2. And that's true enough, given the evolutionary nature of this device, which isn't a huge leap over its predecessor. Yes, you can make Facetime video chats, but the quality is terrible (and that's over Wi-Fi). Yes, it's lighter and thinner, but not much, and it's not really noticeable in day-to-day use. And yes, it’s a better performer, but the apps and games that will take advantage of that are mostly in the future.

Accessories

A couple of accessories bear some mention. Apple famously talked up its new smart covers at length during the iPad 2 launch event, but in use these covers are a bit less impressive. The covers pretty much work as advertised, protecting the screen (but not the scratchtastic back) of the iPad 2 in an elegant way involving tiny magnets, a perforated design, and, I think, some black magic. But the covers' hold on the iPad is tenuous at best, and it doesn't work in either direction. That means that if you flip the cover to the back to watch a movie, the physical volume buttons will be on the bottom and, worse, you're covering up the external speaker. Furthermore, while the curling cover makes for good demo, I've had little success getting the thing to curl up properly on the first try, and a few days later I'm still struggling with it.

These sound like quibbles, and maybe they are. The smart covers are attractive (if expensive at $40 to $80 each) and necessary, and you should factor in the cost of one to any iPad 2 purchase. Buying an iPad 2 without any protection is unthinkable as, with all Apple devices, this thing collects smudges and scratches.

 

I also tested the new and innocuously named Digital AV Adapter, which provides HDMI-out capabilities to the iPad 2 (and to the first iPad, the iPod touch, and the iPhone 4), a feature I requested in How Apple Can Fix the iPad in 2011. Thanks for listening, Apple. This adapter exceeds my wishes, in that I was only looking for a way to blast video from the iPad to an HDTV in a way that offered consistent performance and quality. The adapter does this, of course. But it's also blasts anything it's displaying to the HDTV, including the iOS user interface, apps, whatever. And in this way, it offers functionality no other iOS-based display adapter has ever offered, pointing the way to a future, I think, where iPad (and iPhone and iPod touch) users will be able to interact with apps (and perhaps with dual-mode apps that also run on Apple TV) in unique and exciting ways.

Even today, I could see playing certain high-end iPad 2 games over the HDTV via this connection, interacting via the iPad touch screen but watching the HDTV.  It doesn't always work well. In Angry Birds, for example, correct onscreen finger placement is crucial. But some shooters, like Dead Space 2, might be playable in this way.  (It doesn't help that the iPad 2's 4:3 screen is boxed in on a typical widescreen HDTV display either, of course.)

I can imagine iPad 2 games and apps displaying different things to the iPad 2 and HDTV screens, too.

Final thoughts

To misquote Steve Jobs, the iPad 2 is a tweaked design with largely marginal improvements, not an all-new design. And that's fine, because that's all Apple needed to do to stay ahead in this market. As with the iPod and the iPhone before it, the iPad was already the more innovative and forward-leaning product to begin with. So evolution is all that was needed, and all that was provided. That's not a criticism. It's a statement of fact.

The iPad 2 is somewhat faster than its predecessor in day-to-day use, and I suspect it will be much faster from a graphics perspective, something we'll know for sure as more and more iPad 2-only games and apps appear. Apple's performance claims, as always, are likely baloney, but no matter. The iPad 2 is faster than the first iPad.

Those waiting for dual cameras get them in the iPad 2, but they're of poor quality. Don't expect to take still photos, in particular. You'll be disappointed.

The iPad 2 screen is still super-reflective, and as I've noted before, in certain lighting conditions you could actually use it as a mirror while shaving. But the screen is also bright and vibrant and in other lighting conditions offers a great video playback experience.

The iPad 2 offers superior battery life--roughly 10 hours--and this is the one bit that was absolutely magical about the first device as well. There are few PCs or competing devices that can approach this endurance, especially at these price points. And for those that can--some netbooks--the performance just isn't there.

The iPad 2 costs as much as its predecessor. Which is to say, it offers aggressive pricing for Apple, but is an expensive device, compared to mainstream PCs. So your choice boils down to somewhat expensive but high quality (iPad 2) or inexpensive with marginal or OK quality (low-end PC, netbook). Hey, it's your choice, and one's needs will of course vary.

Put simply, the iPad 2 is not a very good upgrade for existing users given the expense and lack of meaningful differentiators. But taken as a standalone, new product, the iPad 2 is the superior choice for this emerging category of slate computing devices. There is nothing like it in the market, and it may be several months before we see any challengers that can approach the iPad 2 from a hardware perspective. But I'd remind you that even then, those competitors will never be able to approach the iPad's rich ecosystem. And for this reason, I expect iPad 2 to reign over this market for all of 2011. There's just nothing on the horizon that will be able to compete.

Highly recommended to new buyers. Not recommended for upgraders.