As expected, Apple last week announced the third-generation iPad, with an industrial design that’s nearly identical to the iPad 2’s, but that boasts significant hardware changes. The major differences include a new Retina display, a new rear-facing iSight camera that also supports 1080p HD video recording, voice dictation, a new A5X CPU with quad-core graphics, and an optional 4G LTE configuration. Storage sizes and prices remain unchanged.
Confusingly, Apple calls this new device just “iPad” or “third-generation iPad,” not “iPad 3.” For the moment, to differentiate it from the original iPad and the iPad 2, we’ll be using “iPad 3” as shorthand for the new model.
Apple led with the Retina display, noting that it presented an interesting technical problem for the presentation at the media event at the Yerba Buena Center, because the display’s 2048 by 1536 resolution (at 264 pixels per inch) is greater than that of the on-stage projector. Phil Schiller noted that while the pixel density is lower than that of the iPhone 4S, it qualifies as a Retina display — in which individual pixels are too small to be discerned — when the iPad is held at about 15 inches (38 cm) away from the eye, compared to the 10-inch (25 cm) distance typical for viewing the iPhone. Apple says the Retina display has 40-percent better color saturation than the iPad 2, though it’s hard to know what that means in real-world visual perception.
Although the iPad 3 will thus have four times the number of pixels (doubled in each dimension) as the iPad 2, whose screen was 1024 by 768, apps do not need to be rewritten to take advantage: each single pixel on a previous iPad will be represented by exactly four at the same size on the iPad 3, and text will appear at the native resolution. That said, Apple encouraged developers to code specifically for the Retina display for the most eye-popping results.
Driving the Retina display’s 3.1 million pixels is Apple’s new A5X processor with quad-core graphics. Apple claims that where the A5 was twice as fast as Nvidia’s Tegra 3 system-on-a-chip processor (which is used in competing tablets), the new A5X in the iPad 3 is four times as fast. It’s unclear what that actually means as well, because the highest speeds are apparent for only certain behaviors. But it’s obvious that iPad apps are starting to require more CPU power and memory — iBooks 2 on the original iPad is barely usable with the enhanced iBooks textbooks produced by iBooks Author.
It’s a little harder to be enthused about the iPad 3’s new rear-facing iSight camera, not because of anything wrong with the camera, but because the iPad offers an awkward form factor for taking photos and videos. That said, the new iSight camera has a 5-megapixel backside illuminated sensor, a 5-element lens, and an infrared filter (which are big improvements from the camera included on the iPad 2). Auto-exposure and auto-focus are standard, of course, but there’s also automatic face detection. More interesting is that the iSight camera can also record 1080p HD video. Image stabilization, a capability that depends on the new A5X processor, should make the iPad’s awkward form factor less of a problem for taking high-quality videos.
Dashing the hopes of some pundits, the iPad 3 does not include Siri, perhaps because Apple feels that Siri is most useful while out and about; however, it does include voice dictation, invoked via a new key on the virtual keyboard. Dictation supports U.S., British, and Australian English, along with French, German, and Japanese. We’ll be extremely interested to test the voice dictation, since text input remains one of the iPad’s great weaknesses.
The final major feature of the iPad 3 is an optional configuration that provides 4G LTE wireless connectivity. While the iPad 2 could reach 3.1 Mbps throughput on EV-DO and 7.2 Mbps on HSPA, the iPad 3 crushes that with the raw downstream capability of 21 Mbps HSPA+ and DC-HSDPA at 42 Mbps, and it can achieve 73 Mbps with LTE. (The iPhone 4S supports HSPA+ at up to 14 Mbps.) Of course, those numbers reflect the full pool of bandwidth available to all devices and include network overhead, not what you’ll see in real-world usage, which depends on many variables. But it seems safe to say that accessing the Internet on the iPad 3 will be noticeably faster than on the iPad 2, and in a 4G service area, the iPad 3 will have more consistent access to higher data rates.
In the United States, Apple will produce separate iPad 3 models for the AT&T and Verizon Wireless LTE networks, which are incompatible. However, whichever one you choose will work with 3G networks anywhere in the world, according to Apple. (Apple also has 4G models for three Canadian carriers, but it’s unclear whether these are identical to the AT&T model or something yet again different. LTE is a new beast.)
One more thing — the iPad 3 can act as a personal hotspot if your carrier supports that option. At launch, Verizon has announced that the hotspot feature will require no extra fee, while AT&T will not be offering the feature at all (at least for the time being) for the new iPad.
Despite all these new hardware features, the iPad 3 boasts the same battery life as the iPad 2: 10 hours for most things, 9 hours when using 4G connectivity. That comes thanks to a significantly more powerful battery — a 42.5 watt-hour lithium-polymer unit, up from the iPad 2’s 25 watt-hour rating.
Apple managed to fit all that into a form factor that’s just a hair thicker (9.4 mm, an increase of 0.6 mm from the previous 8.8 mm) and heavier (652/662 grams, versus 601/607 grams for the Wi-Fi and 3G/4G models). Height and width remain the same, so hopefully most cases and stands for the iPad 2 should remain compatible. Strangely, when Jeff Carlson attempted to take comparison photos of the iPad 2 and iPad 3, someone from Apple rushed over and firmly asked him to stop.
Storage amounts and pricing remain the same as well, with 16, 32, and 64 GB models in both Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi + 4G configurations. Prices for the Wi-Fi-only models are $499, $599, and $699, and the Wi-Fi + 4G models add $130 to each of those: $629, $729, and $829. All models are available in either black or white. You can pre-order now. Units from initial orders ship on 16 March 2012 in the United States and other major countries, or on 23 March 2012 for the rest of the world. However, as of this writing, Apple is now quoting “2–3 weeks” before any new orders will ship.
Much as Apple has done recently with older iPhone models when a new one comes out, the 16 GB iPad 2 remains available at a reduced cost, with prices dropping by $100. That brings the iPad 2 to $399 (or $529 for the 3G model), making it more competitive with the $199 Kindle Fire, which has a smaller screen and half the storage.