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Review: Apple’s Third-Generation iPad

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Apple's third-generation iPad

Apple’s third generation iPad, as Apple products these days are wont to do, arrived on the market with a bang. It received almost universally positive reviews when it was unveiled in early March, and then arrived in stores March 16, breaking single-day sales records.

Named not with a number but rather simply “The New iPad,” the third-generation device sports enough improvements that it can easily be declared the best tablet now available on the market. If you’re still on the first edition, are using an inferior Android tablet or have never had a tablet before, this is the one you want to buy. But is the new device enough of an improvement to necessitate an upgrade for iPad 2 owners? Not necessarily.

(Note: This review is based on a 16GB, 4G LTE-capable iPad, borrowed for an afternoon from a family member of the author.)

The form factor is essentially the same- the new tablet is slightly thicker and heavier than the iPad 2, but not to a significant degree. The screen remains 9.7 inches and the bezel is the same size; battery life remains at about 10 hours.

The headline improvements on the new iPad are three: it is the first iPad to offer Apple’s Retina Display; its camera is significantly improved, featuring 1080p video recording capability for the first time; and the device offers 4G LTE-capable editions from AT&T and Verizon.

Of those improvements, the speed is the most notable. It’s just plain really, really fast, and will likely make a significant different to those who like to stream or download large files on trains or other places without dependable Wi-Fi. The camera is also much better. Cumbersome as it can be to record using such a large device- and no, holding the iPad up over your head, Lloyd Dobler-style, to record at a concert is still not recommended. But the camera is certainly an improvement, especially if you have a new baby at home like I do.

But the headline improvement of the new iPad, the one most emphasized by Apple at the launch, was the screen. And ironically, it’s the one of the three that is least impressive.

The Retina Display on the new iPad’s screen is an improvement, no question. But it’s not a huge improvement. The screen is slightly better, but not to a mind-blowing degree.

I grabbed an iPad 2 and did a side-by-side comparison for several tasks- watching video, using apps, and just plain using the home screen- and the different wasn’t even readily apparent. At times, the iPad 2 screen even looked better. The difference is likely only apparent, for video, when watching in 1080p, but not all or even most video online is in that resolution.

Screenwise, the improvement from the second iPad to the third has a lot more in common with the iPhone 4 to 4S, as opposed to the 3GS to the 4, even though that was the iPhone that introduced Retina Display.

So therefore, it becomes a question of whether the improvement is good enough to justify upgrading, especially if you already shelled out $500 (or more) a year ago for the iPad 2. Perhaps the biggest game-changer of all from Apple has nothing to do with the new device: It’s that the price of the iPad 2 dropped by $100, in a move that could kill off the iPad’s competition once and for all.

Other improvements include the simultaneous arrival of the iOS 5.1 software, the inclusion of the new Apple A5X processor, and improved versions of numerous apps, including Apple’s in-house iMovie, iPhoto and GarageBand applications.

The new iPad sells for $499, $599 and $699 for 16, 32 and 64GB Wi-Fi-only versions, and $629, $729 and $829 for LTE. All versions are available in both black and white, with the LTE versions available from both AT&T and Verizon Wireless.

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