Apple's iPad 2 is the 'Holy Grail' of computing

Eleven months ago, Apple released the first iPad, a touchscreen handheld computer that redefined tablets, disrupting the laptop/desktop market just as the iPod did to music players and the iPhone did to smartphones. On Friday, 15 million iPads later, Apple released its successor, the iPad 2. Many people -- myself included -- predicted long lines and sell-outs, just like last year. So did Apple deliver?

In a word, yes; more accurately: hell yes.

Lines formed across the U.S., even though this year's iPad 2 launch offered many more places to buy the new tablet than last year. In addition to Apple's retail stores, Best Buy, Walmart, Target, AT&T, Verizon, Sam's Club, and select Apple resellers had a limited number of iPad 2s available on Friday.

At a Best Buy in downtown Orlando, where I got mine, well over 100 people were waiting in line a half hour before the iPad 2 went on sale at 5 p.m. Staffers kept us informed of inventory levels: the 16GB models went first, followed by the 32GB versions, until only 64GB 3G models were left. (That's the exact one I wanted, in black, natch.) I got the last one available after the guy in front of me decided he really wanted another model and decided to try another store nearby; he handed me the iPad 2 that became mine. Thank you, sir.

Look and feel

The iPad 2 is 7.3 in. wide x 9.5 in. long x .34 in. thick -- thinner and lighter than the first-generation version. The 9.7-in. 1024 x 768-pixel screen is the same, framed by a black or white border. The aluminum at the edge of the screen flows into the flat back, but it's hard to describe the graceful physical design. There's no side lip like the previous iPad had, and the result is a beautifully sleek unibody design. It's hard to believe devices will become thinner than this. Of course, they will, but for now: wow. The thinner iPad is easier to hold, and the aluminum body -- in concert with the oil-resistant oleophobic coated glass -- gives it a sturdy, luxurious feel.

The iPad 2 is noticeably lighter. While officially it's just a few ounces -- the old one weighed 1.5 pounds, this one, 1.3 pounds -- the difference is enough that the iPad 2 feels at first as if you could use it extensively without propping it in your lap. Don't be fooled; If you don't prop it up, your wrist will still get tired of holding it, albeit it takes longer for fatigue to set in. Still, any weight savings is a step in the right direction, especially since build quality remains high.

Given the three storage options, I'm often asked whether the move from 16GB to 32GB or even 64GB is worth the cost. That depends on several factors, including the size of your iTunes library and whether the iPad will be a home or travel device. If the iPad will mainly stay home, iTunes Home Sharing should offset the need for more storage, as you can access your computers' iTunes libraries on your local Wi-Fi network and play their content on the device wirelessly. This includes movies, TV shows, podcasts, music and music videos, which you access from either the built-in iPod or Video applications.

In general, though, I've always felt it's better to have too much storage than too little; I'd have bought a 256GB model if I could. Then again, my iTunes library is nearly 1TB in size.

New chip, two cameras

The first iPad wasn't slow, even though competing devices (most announced without release dates) seemed to offer faster hardware. It has always been responsive, with minimal interface lag, if any. The iPad 2 takes this a step further. Featuring a new dual-core A5 chipset and double the memory (512MB instead of 256MB), everything feels faster, whether it's app launching, data loading, switching between apps, rendering photo effects, or outputting projects in Garage Band. The speed boost affects everything. (While Apple hates dishing out specs, benchmarks indicate that not only is iPad 2 much faster than the first generation model, but it smokes the Motorola Xoom, as well.)

The iPad 2 also features better graphics performance, which Apple claims has been improved nine-fold. Games such as Infinitely Blade, Dead Space and others have already been updated to support more detailed graphics. And other games like Rage HD can now use the built-in gyroscope to provide more accurate tracking.

The biggest design change is the addition of dual cameras, one facing front, one, rear. The iPad 2 now joins the iPhone 4 and the fourth-generation iPod touch in this respect. Unfortunately, the photos are more akin to those produced by the iPod touch than those from the iPhone 4.

In other words, just because you can take photos with the iPad 2, doesn't necessarily make that the best option. The resolution on the front-facing camera is a mediocre 640 x 480 pixels, or the standard resolution of computer monitors 15 years ago. The rear camera takes pictures and video shot at a resolution of 1280 x 720 (720p).

While video is technically shot in HD, you must make sure that lighting levels are high to avoid compression artifacts and grainy results. I confirmed that pictures are noticeably bad when taken in low-light situations. Neither of the cameras holds a candle to those on the iPhone 4, never mind most dedicated point-and-shoot cameras.

However, as photographers would acknowledge, the best camera is the one with you when you need it. In other words, having cameras on the iPad is better than not having cameras. Still, I don't think taking pictures is what Apple engineers had in mind with this design; their focus, more than anything else, was on Apple's no-configuration video conference technology, FaceTime, and in that sense, the cameras work exactly as designed. The front-facing camera allows for easy video conferencing, and, with the press of a software button, the rear camera allows you to effortlessly share your point of view.

There is one notable way that the Camera app is better on the iPad 2 than in any other iOS device: the Camera Roll, where photos and movies taken by the built-in camera are stored, can be shared easily using AirPlay. There's an AirPlay button right at the top of the screen that allows you to instantly stream movies or photos taken on the iPad directly to your TV by way of AppleTV. It's a small thing, and while I dinged Apple on the lack of this capability in iOS 4.3 on first-generation iPad and iPhone 4, its inclusion here makes a big difference when sharing photos or movies shot with the iPad 2.

Battery life, connectivity, Smart Covers

Surprisingly, despite the new iPad's sleeker/lighter build and higher performance architecture, battery life doesn't suffer. I pulled the iPad out of its box, restored software and apps from a previous iPad backup, and -- save for the five hours I spent sleeping Friday night -- it was still going strong after nearly 20 hours of heavy intermittent use. By 1 a.m. today, I still had 11% battery life left. I've done everything from FaceTime calls to streaming movies from my iTunes library hosted on a computer across the house, playing games, surfing the Web, checking social sites, watching news videos about the earthquake in Japan, and transmitting video and audio to an AppleTV. Note: When I pulled the iPad out of its box, it was 80% charged.

Other iPad 2 users have confirmed that Apple seems to be accurate in saying the tablet should get at least 10 hours of consistent battery life, if not more.

Like last year's model, iPad 2 comes in two variations, one with Wi-Fi only and one with Wi-Fi plus 3G (for an extra $130). Pricing is the same as before: $499, $599 and $699. The Wi-Fi-only models lack the true GPS found in the 3G models, but can still pick up your location using information gathered from wireless networks. If you really want to cut the cord, you can get one of the 3G models (with optional data plans that can be subscribed to and canceled from within Settings: Cellular Data), or you can tether your iPad to an iPhone with Personal Hotspot options available from AT&T and Verizon. If you go with a 3G model, you must pick the one specifically designed to work with either AT&T or Verizon. Check out the data plans to decide which one is more cost-effective for you.

If data speed is important, AT&T seems to be the winner, but Verizon seems to be the most reliable and consistent, especially in congested cities. If you travel often, though, stick with AT&T's GSM network, as GSM is the standard across the Europe, South America, Russia and Asia.

One thing Apple does very well compared to other electronics makers is to pay attention to the details, even with accessories like the new Smart Cover for the iPad 2. Good design, of course, involves how something works as well as how it looks. Unlike last year's iPad cover, which added bulk and weight to the iPad, the new version (available in leather for $69 or colorful polyurethane for $39) comes with an auto-adjusting, self-aligning hinge that snaps into place via hidden magnets. When the flap is opened to reveal the iPad screen, the iPad automatically wakes up; when the flap is pulled back up over the screen, the iPad automatically locks and shuts down. It's clever in its simplicity and execution.

But let's be honest, protection it is not. While it may cover the screen, we all know which side buttered toast lands on when dropped. Without a screen cover, a dropped iPad that lands screen-side down is likely to be damaged; with the Smart Cover, the screen would have some protection, but the back and corners could be damaged. If you're a techno klutz, invest in a full case.

Pros and cons

Despite the arrival of other tablets, the iPad 2 remains the best available, perhaps for the foreseeable future. This is because the whole is easily more than the sum of its parts; in addition to what's new and what's changed, there are 65,000 high-quality applications available on the App Store, tight integration with the iTunes store, and the silky smooth experience made possible by iOS 4.3. That doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement. The implementation of app notifications could be better and even in its second revision, the iPad 2 is still not a standalone device. It has to be plugged into iTunes on a computer before it can be even used.

It, like other iOS devices, still doesn't do Flash, and it's safe to assume that that isn't going to happen. For mobile users, I'd chalk this up as a feature, not a flaw, because Flash is a known battery hog. I'd argue that Flash is as important to the success of iPad 2 as the inclusion of a floppy drive. Still, others are working on ways to bring some variation of Flash to the device.

While the screen looks to be of slightly better quality than the one used on last year's model, it's still as glossy as ever, so be mindful of reflections and outdoor use. Reading at the beach may not be possible, especially on bright days, though I have yet to thoroughly test it outside. Indoors, though, the iPad 2 is choice.

Any drawbacks are more than outweighed by what the iPad 2 can do. Some want to argue under-the-hood specs, but quality iPad apps and execution in software are far more important than faster hardware. For instance, iOS games are all very well done, even on last year's model; and while competitors hope to muscle into the tablet field touting higher technical specs, their software still doesn't work smoothly on simple things such as scrolling. As long as the App Store apps remain competitive, specific hardware specs will matter as much as the inclusion of Flash, which is to say they don't matter very much. Check out the Guided Tours on Apple's site, especially the one about Garage Band, to see what I mean.

Another leap forward?

I said a year ago that the iPad was computing's Next Leap Forward. After a year of using that device, and speaking to other iPad owners -- especially those who aren't techies -- I have to say that the iPad may really be the closest thing to a perfect computer. I don't say that lightly, either.

If we were to define the Holy Grail of computing, I bet the definition would be something like this: an easy-to-operate device with built-in environmentally aware sensors, cameras and wireless access to data and communications with other devices; a device that features intuitive app installation and deletion and the ability to add capabilities not originally included; a device that can operate for long periods of time with no wires, yet still has access to endless libraries of videos, books, music and data; a mobile device with a screen that adapts to how it's held; a device that can be used by doctors to help patients, mechanics to diagnose cars, and by pre-schoolers and seniors to learn; something that can be used by the hearing- and sight-disabled, by musician, lawyers and athletes.

In short, it would be a device that can be pretty much anything to anyone -- at home or at work -- turn on instantly and operate day in and day out, without maintenance, fear of malware, or the need to troubleshoot. And it has to be portable, preferably held in a single hand.

That, to me, is the Holy Grail of computing: a device not based around a checklist of hardware specs, but one that actually gets out of the way of doing stuff. Until the iPad arrived last year, such a device existed only in science fiction. The updated iPad 2, in concert with the App Store and a growing ecosystem of peripherals, completes the evolution. Compared to other tablets, it remains without rival.

Let me explain that last point. Given the definition of the word rivals -- "a competition for over-all superiority" -- I would say that without major software refinements the current competition in the tablet space is no more a rival to the iPad 2 than I am a rival to Michael Jordan. Just because we both play basketball, doesn't put us in the same league.

If you need or want a tablet, get an iPad 2.

Michael deAgonia, a frequent contributor to Computerworld, is an award-winning writer, computer consultant and technologist who has been working on computers since 1993. You can find him on Twitter (@mdeagonia).

This story, "Apple's iPad 2 is the 'Holy Grail' of computing" was originally published by Computerworld.

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