The iPad 2

I’ve been coming up empty trying to think of a hook for this review of the iPad 2 — an angle, a narrative structure, a theme to put it in perspective and make it more than a list of benchmarks and disparate observations. Then I realized I already wrote it, a year ago, in this back-page column for Macworld:

This is how the designers and engineers at Apple roll: They roll.

They take something small, simple, and painstakingly well considered. They ruthlessly cut features to derive the absolute minimum core product they can start with. They polish those features to a shiny intensity. At an anticipated media event, Apple reveals this core product as its Next Big Thing, and explains — no, wait, it simply shows — how painstakingly thoughtful and well designed this core product is. The company releases the product for sale.

Then everyone goes back to Cupertino and rolls. As in, they start with a few tightly packed snowballs and then roll them in more snow to pick up mass until they’ve got a snowman. That’s how Apple builds its platforms. It’s a slow and steady process of continuous iterative improvement — so slow, in fact, that the process is easy to overlook if you’re observing it in real time. Only in hindsight is it obvious just how remarkable Apple’s platform development process is.

Put another way: Every once in a while, Apple releases something brand-new. The original iPod. The 2007 iPhone. Last year’s iPad. These original releases tend to be minimal technically, but radical conceptually. Then, generally on an annual schedule, Apple improves them iteratively and steadily over time.

This is exactly what they’ve done with the iPad 2. It is a refinement of the original iPad — an impressive one, in several ways, considering that it arrives just 11 months after the original. But it is in no way a radical or significant departure from last year’s model. The fact is, Apple got it right with the iPad 1 in almost every way, and the iPad 2 reflects that. If you didn’t like the original iPad, you’re not going to like the iPad 2. If you liked the original iPad, you’re going to like the iPad 2 even better.

But how much better? The big question, particularly for the Daring Fireball demographic: If you already own an iPad, should you get an iPad 2? My best answer: If you buy a new iPhone or iPod Touch every year, then, yes, you should replace your old iPad with the iPad 2. It’s thinner, a comparative joy to hold in hand, noticeably faster, gets the exact same battery life, and has more RAM (spoiler: 512 MB). If you don’t buy a new iPhone every year — if you have the good sense to hold onto them for more than a year before upgrading to a new model — then you’ll likely want to wait for a new iPad, too.

Most of the 15 million original iPads sold to date do not need to be replaced by iPad 2s. That’s not a problem for Apple, nor a failure for the iPad 2. A $500-800 device should have a useful life that is longer than a year. The same is true for all Apple’s products: iPods, iPads, iPhones, and, of course, Macs. Anyone who argues that the iPad 2 falls short because it doesn’t offer enough to get current iPad owners to upgrade is missing the point. Apple’s target is not the 15-20 or so million people who’ve already bought a tablet. They’re looking at the hundreds of millions of people who haven’t yet, but will soon. The year-over-year delta between Apple products is almost always noticeable but seldom dramatic.

Outside

Physically, the iPad 2 does feel a bit lighter than the old iPad, but it’s the thinness that’s striking. Compared to the new iPad 2, my original iPad doesn’t feel heavy, but it does feel fat. Almost swollen. The rounded edges on the iPad 2 make it significantly more comfortable to hold in one hand.

When you’re looking at the face of the iPad 2, there’s only a hairline of aluminum visible around the black or white bezel, and none of the buttons along the sides — wake/sleep, mute toggle, volume — are visible. The bezel itself is a tad narrower, on the left and right (holding it in portrait mode). The effect of these changes is to further emphasize the screen itself — as though you’re holding not a tablet with a touchscreen, but rather merely holding a touchscreen itself.

My review unit from Apple is a 64 GB black model with 3G. Thus, my time with the white models was limited to the hands-on area after the introduction event last week. The white bezel looks good, aesthetically — very similar to the infamous white iPhone 4s that I played with after last year’s WWDC keynote. But, I found the white bezel distracting. With the black, the frame disappears from mind when you’re using the iPad. With the white, it always seemed like I was looking at a white frame around the screen. There’s a reason why movies are letterboxed with black bars, not white ones, and why most TVs are framed by black.

The display itself, to my eyes, seemed unchanged from the original iPad. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that it is the identical component. As I mentioned before, the surrounding bezel is slightly smaller on the iPad 2, and there is less aluminum around the edge, so the overall device is about 0.2 inches narrower and a hair shorter. But the display itself is exactly the same size, and my eyes detect nothing different about it. It is not laminated to the glass like the iPhone 4 Retina Display.

In short: the iPad 2 is a little lighter, remarkably thinner, and feels much more comfortable to hold. For all practical concerns, the display is identical to last year’s iPad.

Inside

Apple says the iPad 2 is up to twice as fast, CPU-wise, and offers “up to nine times the graphics performance”. The big CPU news is that the iPad 2’s A5 system-on-a-chip contains a dual-core processor; all previous iOS devices used single core CPUs.

I ran benchmarks, but I don’t know how telling the results are. One good benchmark is SunSpider, a JavaScript benchmark from the WebKit team. For one thing, SunSpider shows just how much faster JavaScript is in iOS 4.3 than 4.2, thanks to the inclusion of the newer Nitro engine.

SunSpider 0.9.1 Benchmark (Smaller Is Better)

Device (OS) Time
iPad 1 (4.2) 8103 ms
iPad 1 (4.3) 3340 ms
iPad 2 (4.3) 2161 ms

For comparison, the Motorola Xoom seems to achieve ever-so-slightly faster results on the same benchmark: about 2050-2100 ms. As you can see from the above numbers for the iPad 1, though, SunSpider is obviously very sensitive to the underlying JavaScript engine — it’s not simply a test of CPU performance.

One more benchmark: Geekbench, which is available both for iOS devices and the Mac.

Geekbench (Higher Is Better)

Device Overall Integer Floating Pt. Memory Stream
iPhone 4 356 292 361 499 280
iPad 1 453 364 457 676 308
iPad 2 721 648 879 778 311
MacBook Pro 3399 2825 5079 2353 1621

My MacBook Pro is relatively ancient — it’s a March 2008 model with 2.5 GHz Core 2 Duo. I include it here as a reference point. In short, the iPad 2 being “up to twice as fast” seems about right.

One thing that struck me about these benchmarks, though, is that the iPad 1 consistently outscored the iPhone 4. But in real life, my iPhone 4 feels faster than my iPad. Most people I know who own both agree. For one thing, it’s because the iPhone 4 has better graphics capabilities than the original iPad. That doesn’t show up in benchmarks like SunSpider or Geekbench. With these iOS devices, how it feels is what matters.

In practice, the iPad 2 feels like the fastest iOS device I’ve ever used — faster in every way than the iPhone 4. It doesn’t make my iPhone 4 feel slow, per se, but it does feel faster. Doing various side-by-side comparisons with an iPad 1, I noticed all sorts of places where the iPad 1 lagged. Apps that were launched slowly. Buttons that were pressed that didn’t take effect immediately. Every little thing on the iPad 2 feels more responsive. The Photos app is one example. With the same photo library on both iPads (consisting of several thousand images), it takes about two or three seconds for the iPad Photos app to be ready for use after a cold launch on my iPad 1. On the iPad 2, it’s ready almost instantly. This repeats itself throughout the system: apps launch faster, sometimes way faster, and every little thing within each app feels faster.

Apple, for whatever reason, never advertises how much RAM they include in iOS devices. It’s easy to glean using Xcode, however. Last year’s iPad had 256 MB of RAM. The iPad 2 has 512. This allows more apps to remain open in memory at the same time, and allows Mobile Safari to keep more web pages loaded in memory. Those waiting for a gigabyte of RAM will need to keep waiting, however.

Looking for a better benchmark, I asked my friend Guy English, an iOS developer who has worked on games like Tap Tap Revenge (as a contractor for Tapulous and Disney), to write a custom test app to measure an iPad’s graphics capabilities from the perspective of a game developer. It’s a simple app that renders hundreds (or even a few thousand) sprites moving around on screen, with gravity, and tracking up to three touch points. The results show that the iPad 2’s graphics improvements far outshine its straightforward CPU improvements — exactly as Apple has advertised.

For example, on my original iPad, with 200 on-screen sprites, the framerate dropped to 45 fps. On the iPad 2, with 400 on-screen sprites, the framerate remained at 65 fps. On the iPad 1, Guy’s demo app dropped below 60 fps with about 100 animated sprites; on the iPad 2, it didn’t drop below 60 fps until there were over 750 animated sprites.

After I showed him the results, Guy told me, “The results show that the iPad 2 is easily about twice as powerful as the original and that this speed gain is a freebie — you don’t need to change your code structure in order to see significant gains. The differences in the amount of time spent rendering indicates that the GPU is really much faster than the original. The original iPad had a comparatively weak fill-rate and it was an issue for the device. The second generation really leaves that behind and it looks like it’ll be able to do some really incredible things graphically. My demo code is workman-like, competent code — meant to measure the relative strengths of the parts of the system. Taking some time to get the most out of that GPU and CPU will pay off with some really remarkable games and graphics apps.”

The thing is, it’s hard to find slow iPad apps — including games. Even edge-pushing games like Id’s Rage HD or Real Racing HD run very well on the original iPad. They do seem to run better on the iPad 2, but they’ve been painstakingly developed to take advantage of — and only of — what the iPad 1 had to offer graphically.

We’re not going to see the iPad 2 truly show its stuff until game developers have time to write games that fully take advantage of it. My guess is that it won’t take long until we see games on the iPad 2 that blow away anything possible on the iPad 1, but I’m not aware of any such games yet.

A year from now we might look back upon the iPad 2 as having been built for gaming.

Smart Covers

The star of the hands-on demo experience after the event last week was the Smart Cover, and that really is the perfect name. You don’t really have to try to line it up when attaching it. Just get the hinge vaguely in the vicinity of the left edge of the iPad and it acts like a robot that knows how to (and wants to) connect itself. It jumps into place, and the near-perfection of its automatic alignment is uncanny. There are no indentations, notches, or visible marks along the side of the iPad 2. It just works.

And note: an iPad 2 wearing a Smart Cover is considerably thinner than a naked original iPad.

In addition to securing itself at the spine via magnets, the Smart Cover also stays closed via a magnetic connection to the front face of the iPad. It’s this magnetic connection that allows the iPad to wake up as soon as you open the Smart Cover (with no “slide to unlock” gesture).

Back in December 2009, a few months ahead of the original iPad announcement, I wrote a piece called “The Tablet”. Therein, I asked:

I have a thousand questions about The Tablet’s design. What size is it? There’s a big difference between, say, 7- and 10-inch displays. How do you type on it? With all your fingers, like a laptop keyboard? Or like an iPhone, with only your thumbs? If you’re supposed to watch video on it, how do you prop it up? Holding it in your hands? Flat on a table seems like the wrong angle entirely; but a fold-out “arm” to prop it up, à la a picture frame, seems clumsy and inelegant. If it’s just a touchscreen tablet, how do you protect the screen while carrying it around?

Most of those questions went unanswered by Apple last year. The Smart Cover answers them now. I bought one of Apple’s covers for the original iPad last year and almost never used it, for the reasons outlined by Steve Jobs during last week’s event: it was hard to get the iPad into and out of it; it made the overall device too thick; it just wasn’t elegant. The Smart Cover for the iPad 2 is a joy to connect and disconnect, maintains an overall thin profile while attached, and works terrifically as a prop for the iPad while watching video or typing at a slight incline.

Smart Covers are so cool that I can imagine iPad 1 owners — who think they’re happy to stick with what they’ve got — changing their minds and deciding to upgrade upon seeing Smart Covers in person.

The New Apps

Apple provided me with access to the new iMovie and GarageBand apps for the iPad. iMovie is a universal binary, so if you already bought it for your iPhone 4, you’ll get the upgrade to the iPad-native version free — but it’s only available on camera-equipped devices, so you can’t use it on the original iPad. GarageBand is only available for the iPad, not the iPhone, but it works on any iPad, not just the iPad 2. GarageBand works fine on my original iPad, but it definitely feels better on the iPad 2. It takes less time to open and close projects, touches are more responsive, etc.

Both apps are fun, GarageBand in particular. iMovie is not for everyone, but it’s a shame to imagine any iPad without a copy of GarageBand installed. I’m no musician, so I can’t speak to using it in any serious sense, but the “smart” instruments are amazingly fun and continually surprising. My seven-year-old son loves it.

As for iMovie, it was clear from the on-stage demo last week that the interface was excellent: a fun, simple, obvious way to edit video clips into a movie. One question I had, though, was how to get footage into the app. The obvious way is to shoot it using the iPad 2’s built-in camera, but, come on, no matter how much you love your iPad, you’re not going to use it as your camcorder. Apple’s Camera Connection Kit works well for this. You can shoot footage on an iPhone, then connect the iPhone to your iPad using the Camera Connection Kit. Import the photos and videos from your iPhone to your iPad, and boom, they’re ready for use within iMovie on your iPad.

This seems like something that ought to work wirelessly, though — and ought not require a $29 dongle purchase. I’d love to see Lion’s AirDrop file sharing feature appear in iOS 5. Sending files of any sort between your iPhone and iPad should be easier, but iMovie is just begging for it.

HDMI Out

Apple’s new $39 “Digital AV Adapter” provides HDMI out for the iPad 2. It defaults to mirroring, and works great, including support for device rotation. In apps that already support video out, such as Keynote and some video playing apps, it’s like having a second display. This latter feature works on the old iPad and on iPhones, too. Display mirroring over HDMI, however, is an iPad 2 specific feature.

Battery Life

As far as I can tell, the iPad 2 gets identical battery life to the iPad 1. I played three movies, back to back to back, on an iPad 1 and iPad 2: Casino Royale (HD), The Fantastic Mr. Fox (SD), and the 1980 theatrical cut of The Empire Strikes Back (SD). Both iPads were set at 50 percent brightness (the factory default setting), and I kept the iPads in airplane mode for these tests. Both iPads dropped the same amount of battery life percentage for each movie: 12, 11, and 15 percent, respectively.1

These numbers are rather amazing, looking back at the pre-iPad era. I recall many times over the past decade when it seemed as though my MacBook (or, depending on the year, PowerBook) was in a race against time to finish a single DVD before the battery ran out during a long flight. Now, you can watch three full-length movies on an iPad and still have 60 percent battery life remaining on the device. It’s a portable computer you don’t have to worry about.

My assumption last year was that behind the iPad’s display, there wasn’t much inside other than a big battery. I guess not, given how much volume Apple has removed from the iPad 2 while maintaining the same excellent battery life.

Conclusion

Here’s another snippet from that Macworld column I wrote a year ago:

That brings us to the iPad. Initial reaction to it has been polarized, as is so often the case with Apple products. Some say it’s a big iPod Touch. Others say it’s the beginning of a revolution in personal computing. As a pundit, I’m supposed to explain how the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes. But I can’t. The iPad really is The Big One: Apple’s reconception of personal computing.

Everyone now seems to agree this is a new product category, and most of Apple’s rivals — from computer makers to phone makers — want in on it.

The iPad 2 is a solid second-generation iteration. Easier and more comfortable to hold, noticeably faster, equippable with foldable covers that are both literally and figuratively magnetic. Like last year’s iPhone 4, it seems like technology from the near future.


  1. I believe the reason The Empire Strikes Back drained more battery life than the other two is that it was a movie I’d ripped from DVD myself, using HandBrake. Movies from the iTunes Store require less CPU to decode. 

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