iPad 3 ★★★★☆

The iPad has always been “a screen you hold” — that’s the soul of the thing. Doubling the resolution of that screen — and it is exactly double, to the pixel — is certainly not a trivial upgrade, as so many people seem to think. Such leaps are unusual in technology. Gadgetry improves quickly, of course, but in the last few decades we’ve rarely seen single generation jumps of this magnitude, and fewer still that didn’t require excessive trade-offs.

The iPad’s screen is impressive in itself, but the real surprise is that the iPad still runs just as fast and just as long (almost/depends), which required major upgrades to other components. The graphics processing power and the battery had to improve dramatically — not incrementally — to power the screen. The battery has literally twice the capacity, but the device is somehow only a few grams heavier. That’s a remarkable engineering accomplishment. And all that extra energy goes into the display. The battery doesn’t last twice as long — it just feeds hungry pixels for the same 10 hours. It’s interesting to wonder what the new iPad would be like if all that power was available for something else. Imagine an iPad with an 18-20 hour battery life (but the same old “low” resolution screen). That would have been pretty great too, of course.

But putting the power into a great new display works for me.

Apple really put all its technological eggs in one basket here: it’s all about that display, and it’s a fine idea that seems overdue to me. We’ve been saddled with chunky pixels for too long. Too me, they are as glaring as if you could hear the bits in digitized music. It’s really about time we had computer displays at least as sharp as lower quality print. (Perspective: I had a 1200dpi laser printer in my office in the mid 90s.)

Icons are so sharp on the Retina display that they look like they are printed on the glass — they look better than the icons that were printed in the product photo on the packaging of my original iPad. My brain does not expect these things to respond to touch, because they do not seem like icons rendered in pixels — they seem like nicely printed icon artwork.

This was also my impression of the iPhone 4 screen when it debuted, of course. I have seen this quality every day for more than a year. But it is another leap again to have many square inches of pixels like this. The difference is … acreage, and it’s a “big” difference. Jason Snell of MacWorld calls it “a revelation,” and I agree. In the same way that people wondered if the iPad was “just” a big iPod, and it turned out that the much larger screen added up to a different kind of computing experience, and a very desirable one, same here: it’s a different beast, and very appealing. It hasn’t even been two weeks, and already I’m deeply irritated by lower resolution screens. Ew, pixels!

The most dramatic difference I’ve noticed in image quality was a side-by-side comparison of graphics on my own website, PainScience.com. I upgrade some book cover images from 132 to 264pi. I had the old graphics open in one Safari tab and the new ones open in another. Everything was identical except the graphics, so as I flipped tabs only the graphics changed — and wow. Pretty sweet!

Battery life

The giant battery is amazingly slow to charge. It’s like filling a swimming pool.

As much as I understand why, it’s almost a problem, because the thing doesn’t last twice as long. You have to charge for about twice as long to get the same amount of fresh life out of the device. The iPad has always had too big a battery for fast charging, but the new iPad takes this to new levels, approaching a one-to-one ratio of charge time to use time. Ten minutes of charging gets you about fifteen minutes of use. Yoiks.

We are used to things that “fill up” faster than they “use up” — cars and batteries — and it’s a bit of an uncomfortable adjustment to get used to a device with a much less convenient ratio. It’s not a big deal. But it is an interesting difference, and I find I have to remind myself not to be disappointed.

The heat: not dire, not nothing

The heat “scandal” started by Consumer Reports is generally silly. And yet … one day my iPad 3 got too hot to hold. Really. I’ve felt the warm. This was not “warm.” This was “holy crap, I need to put this down now.” Hot.

I was not in the sun. I was not playing a fancy game. I was reading a website. Ironically, I had been reading reviews of the iPad. It had not happened before and it has not happened since. Something went wrong on that day. It would not have burned me, but I could not happily hold on to it. I shut it down, it cooled off.

In general, it certainly does run a bit warmer than the previous iPads. Many reviewers have dismissed the difference as trivial and understandable. But the difference is not trivial. It may be only a few degrees, but it’s the wrong few degrees: somewhere in those degrees is the difference between not noticing and noticing. I simply never noticed the temperature of my original iPad (except maybe to marvel that it was not heating up, even when I was playing Infinity Blade — that fascinated me).

The heat reminds me that the iPad is a computer. It’s a reminder I could do without. It detracts.

Performance: perfect

The new iPad has basically not made me wait so much as one moment for anything: perfect responsiveness. Apps snap. Games scream. No touch is ignored. Every scroll is perfectly smooth. All at high-resolution.

This is what “a little warmer” gets you, and it’s good.

This is all absolutely dreamy compared to my original iPad, which had constantly pausing in the middle of every thought like a pothead ever since I installed iOS 5 on it (the only iOS upgrade I’ve ever regretted, incidentally).

Camera: my, what a big preview you have

I am far more pleased with the camera than I expected to be. It’s not that it’s such a good camera, but just that it’s good enough and … that large, high-resolution preview is just breathtaking. I think it’s actually quite a fun way to take photos.

Taking pictures with the iPad 3, your preview includes about 3 out of every 5 pixels you’re going to capture. Wow. That’s quite a preview. That’s a way higher preview-to-picture ratio than I’ve ever seen before. You really, really see what you’re going to get. It’s not profound. But it is fun.

Software quality and reliability: this is why I knocked off a star

Recent updates to iOS and iCloud define the new iPad. More than any gadget that has ever been, it must be considered as a package … and that fact in itself is significant. While it’s not new to this iPad, the tight integration continues to be a defining feature and vital to its continued success.

So is it still good? Still only in comparison to the competition, and the one area of clear weakness is one of the most critical components: iCloud. I’ll come back to that at the end.

iOS has always been a blend of insanely great with the greatly insane.

Cutesy skeuomorphism — making things look like something more familiar — is still the bane of my high-tech, Apple-fied existence. Indestructible stock Apple apps are still a facepalm-inducing puzzle. The lack of iPad clock, weather and calculator apps is even more bizarre. (What is that one about? There’s got to be a story there, because it just makes no sense at all.)

Some Apple apps are essentially perfect, while several others are still maddeningly primitive and don’t remotely cut it for me. The new reminders app? There’s just so, so much it can’t do.

And it grates on my nerves how Apple can lead the world in user-friendly design in so many ways, and then fail to apply its own excellent rules so often — like settings where you have to tap “deeper” to get to a mostly empty screen, just to flip a single switch that could have simply been sitting by the setting. Sometimes it’s as if Apple doesn’t understand its own success. (And presumably quite a few Apple engineers actually do not “get it.”)

Finally, one major (broad brush) exception is that there are still a number of rough edges on Apple’s cloud services, which continue to throw me little curve balls. For instance, I have assisted a number of friends and family now with transitions from Mobile Me to iCloud, setting up and using the iMessage system, and dealing with multiple Apple ID accounts (one for iCloud, one for the store, arg) and so on. There have been plenty of head-scratching, hair-pulling, Jobs-grave-rolling moments along the way.

Especially with such glitches, the iPad is still not nearly easy enough for a lot of Apple’s newest customers: legions of total n00bs.

What I’m seeing in the wild is that iPhones and iPads are in fact easy for such users once they’re set up and as long as nothing goes wrong. Initial setup on the iPad is now at least twice as easy as it used to be, thanks to getting iTunes out of the picture, but it’s still not easy enough, and most true beginners really need help. Would it kill Apple to supply a nice little manuals? I have always hated the “it’s so easy it doesn’t need a manual” pretension.

But the “magic” is all in the comparison to competition and full computers, which are much more difficult still for the great majority of humanity that has never dared to compute. The iPad operating system and apps are still the same generally high quality that they have always been. In aggregrate, it all works amazingly well, and the jankiness we more or less take for granted on computers (even Macs!) is impressively absent from the iPad. Most everything is (still) quite straightforward and polished.