By John Gruber
Precise adjustment, first Apple-certified dock to work one-handed: ElevationDock 4.
Pixels pixels pixels. Battery battery battery. Speed speed speed.
That’s the new iPad, a.k.a. (for comparison’s sake) the iPad 3. The retina display, significantly faster graphics, and the potential for startlingly fast cellular networking — all with the same renowned battery life (and standby time) as the original iPad and iPad 2.
Now, there are a few other differences. RAM has been doubled once again, from 512 MB to 1 GB. But that’s just an implementation detail — the extra RAM partly serves to support the double resolution retina display. Doubling the resolution means four times the total number of pixels, and that consumes more RAM. Whatever extra RAM is available for use by apps simply makes things feel faster — more tabs open in Safari, more apps open in the background. Also, the camera has gotten a significant upgrade — but while the new camera is decidedly better than the one in the iPad 2 (and infinitely better than the no-camera in the original iPad), I really doubt there exist more than a handful of people in the world who would upgrade from the iPad 2 to the iPad 3 for the camera alone.1
You don’t need to be an expert or pundit to understand what Apple has done with the iPad over the past two years. It is very simple, and plainly obvious to anyone with good eyesight looking at them side-by-side. The concept is completely unchanged: a 9.7-inch touchscreen display surrounded by a bezel large enough for you to hold the device without your thumbs touching or obscuring anything, an aluminum back, a few simple hardware buttons. Last year Apple clarified the hardware: more curves, a minimization of visible aluminum around the front face, and a significant reduction in overall thickness. They made the hardware more graceful.
This year, they’ve clarified the display. We have been here before — in June 2010, with the iPhone 4, about which I wrote:
Apple seems very confident about the precise size and dimensions of the iPhone display: 3.5 inches, with a 3:2 aspect ratio. Not 3 inches. Not 4 inches. In fact, Apple seems very confident regarding everything it decided for the original 2007 iPhone. There are no new buttons, or even moved buttons. The Retina Display is emblematic of the iPhone 4 as a whole, both hardware and software: the same fundamental idea as the original iPhone, but clarified. It hasn’t really changed so much as improved — like the same picture in increasingly sharper focus.
If you’re familiar with the experience of switching from the old iPhone display to the 4/4S retina display, the experience of switching to the new iPad display will prove familiar. It is astonishingly good. Again, quoting from my 2010 review of the iPhone 4:
The Retina Display’s overall effect is like that of high-end glossy magazine print — except that it updates live. It’s living breathing print. I don’t recall ever having seen motion graphics of this resolution, anywhere. […] The iPhone 4 feels like a major step toward an idealized iPhone form factor.
Ditto for the iPad 3. The difference is that at 9.7 inches, the display actually is about the size of a glossy magazine. How many pixels is 2048 × 1536? Here’s a full-size screenshot of the iPad 3 lock screen.
To quote myself again, here’s a bit from my April 2010 review of the original iPad:
Anyone who thinks Apple only makes high-priced products has completely lost sense of reality. “Affordable luxury” is the sweet spot for mass market success today, and Apple keeps shooting bulls eyes. In fact, the only thing that makes my heart ache regarding the iPad is when I start imagining a hypothetical Pro model — imagine what Apple could put in an iPad that cost as much as a MacBook Pro. (My dream iPad Pro: double the display’s pixel resolution and include a gigabyte or two of RAM.)
23 months later, I have in my hands today exactly what my heart ached for then. Except instead of paying MacBook Pro prices for it, I simply had to wait two years to buy it at the same prices as the original iPad. My hypothetical dream iPad from 2010 is today the just-plain real-life iPad.
Reading on the big retina display is pure joy. Going back to the iPad 2 after reading for a few hours on the iPad 3 is jarring. With bigger pixels, anti-aliased text looks blurry; with smaller pixels, anti-aliased text looks good; but with really small pixels like these, anti-aliased text looks impossibly good — and what you thought looked pretty good before (like text rendered on older iPads) now looks blurry.2
Even iPhone apps look better — retina-display iPhone apps run at 2× size on the iPad 3 take advantage of their higher-resolution UI elements and text rendering. (Non-retina iPhone apps look like retro 8-bit video games at 2× on the iPad 3, but thankfully there aren’t many of those left.)
It’s not just sharp; the display also shows great bright colors without any saturation-gimmickry like you get with OLED displays. Photographs look amazingly good, but also amazingly true-to-life. It’s no coincidence that iPhoto was chosen as the app to demo on stage and debut alongside the device. Photos don’t just look sharp when zoomed out — they look sharp when zoomed in. The iPhone 4/4S can show print-quality photos at small sizes, but the new iPad can show print quality photos at hang-it-on-the-wall sizes.
All of Apple’s software has been updated to retina-caliber graphics. (If they missed anything, I didn’t spot it.) Most third-party apps, of course, have not yet been updated. Just like with the iPhone 4, these up-scaled graphics are passable, but annoying. They stick out like sore thumbs after using true retina-display-optimized apps. Websites, too — most graphics and images on the web are behind the curve, as of today. Text looks great in Safari, but non-retina images look slightly blurry. The iPad display is so good that it shows, like no device before it, just how crummy most images on the web are.
My review unit from Apple is an AT&T 4G model with 64 GB of storage. In downtown San Francisco I saw remarkable performance on LTE — easily as fast, perceptually, as a rock-solid Wi-Fi connection. Even better, after dicking around on the web and email for close to two hours — all of it using LTE — battery life was still showing over 80 percent capacity. I’ll leave comprehensive battery life testing to other reviewers, but anecdotally, the iPad 3’s battery life seems indistinguishable from that of the iPad 2, even when using LTE. This alone strikes me as a remarkable engineering accomplishment.
The iPad has changed my expectations regarding mobile computing. I use two Macs — one that remains at my office desk, and an 11-inch MacBook Air which I use anywhere and everywhere else. My flight to San Francisco prior to the iPad event lasted a little over 5.5 hours, and in-flight Wi-Fi was available. I started with my Air, which lasted about two hours, most of it spent browsing the web and posting to DF. Then I switched to the iPad, and spent the next 2.5 hours using it for the same tasks. The Air was completely depleted after two hours; the iPad still had more than 60 percent battery available after 2.5 hours of use. To be fair to the Air, it wasn’t quite fully charged to start the flight — I think it started around 85 percent or so. But the reason it wasn’t fully charged to start the flight is that the iPad has so thoroughly spoiled me regarding how much battery life a device should lose while sitting idle, waiting to be used. I’d neither used nor charged the Air for a few days prior to leaving for the airport.
That was the iPad 2, not the new one I’m reviewing here, but I bring this up because what matters most is not how the new iPad 3 differs from the iPad 2 and 1, but rather how “The iPad” as a concept differs from what came before it. The iPads 3, 2, and 1 are simply three iterative and successively improved passes at that same concept, and a big part of that concept is that battery life — even while using wireless networking — should be far longer than what we expect even from laptops like the MacBook Air, which is widely lauded for excellent battery life.
What is changed — and what is unchanged — in this newest iteration of the iPad reveals Apple’s priorities. Most important: how things look on screen, how they feel, how smoothly they animate. Not important: a faster CPU. Important: faster graphics. (Those last two priorities emphasize the hole that Intel has dug itself. Their expertise — CPUs — is no longer the most important processing bottleneck for personal computing. Graphics are.)
Somewhat important: pricing. Pricing remains unchanged from last year at each existing tier, but Apple added a new tier at the bottom, the 16 GB iPad 2, at a $100 reduction ($399 Wi-Fi-only, $529 for 3G). Not important: increased storage capacities. (I’ll bet next year’s iPads go from 16/32/64 to 32/64/128.)
Which brings us to an immovable object meeting an irresistible force. Apple doesn’t make new devices which get worse battery life than the version they’re replacing, but they also don’t make new devices that are thicker and heavier. LTE networking — and, I strongly suspect, the retina display3 — consume more power than do the 3G networking and non-retina display of the iPad 2. A three-way tug-of-war: 4G/LTE networking, battery life, thinness/weight. Something had to give. Thinness and weight lost: the iPad 3 gets 4G/LTE, battery life remains unchanged, and to achieve both of these Apple included a physically bigger battery, which in turn results in a new iPad that is slightly thicker (0.6 mm) and heavier (roughly 0.1 pound/50 grams, depending on the model).
50 grams and six-tenths of a millimeter are minor compromises, but compromises they are, and they betray Apple’s priorities: better to make the iPad slightly thicker and heavier than have battery life suffer slightly. And keep in mind that the new iPad 3 remains lighter and far thinner lighter than the original iPad.
The retina display is amazing, everything in the UI feels faster, and the price points remain the same. What’s not to love? It’s that simple.
I put some side-by-side comparisons between the cameras in the iPad 2, iPad 3, and iPhone 4S on Flickr. In short: iPad 2: crummy; iPad 3: OK, but pictures have that hazy cellphone-camera look; iPhone 4S: good. ↩︎
Oddly, text in Amazon’s Kindle app is not rendered at retina resolution. I presume Amazon is working on an update to address this, but I don’t understand what they’re doing that they don’t have it already. I’ve noticed no other app where text isn’t rendered at retina resolution. It’s especially glaring in an app whose raison d’être is long-form reading. It looks terrible as it stands — like reading a fax of a photocopy of a book, rather than reading a book.
Update 15 March:One day later — and still a day ahead of the iPad (3)’s launch — Amazon has indeed released an update to the Kindle which renders text at retina resolution. ↩︎
The Wi-Fi only model is also thicker, year-over-year, by just about the same amount as the cellular networking models, but just like with the cellular models, battery life specs are unchanged. So if the Wi-Fi model has a bigger thicker battery, I can only presume it’s needed to power the quadrupled number of pixels in the display. Maybe it’s just easier for Apple to keep the Wi-Fi-only and cellular models at the same thickness, though, for the benefit of case, cover, and other peripheral makers. ↩︎