Review: iPad 2 First Impressions Review (Video)

On the surface, the iPad 2 seems to be an evolutionary refinement of the original tablet, which had created a $10 billion market for Apple–it’s slimmer, sleeker, and slightly smarter thanks to Apple’s official Smart Cover case for the slate. However, the experience of the iPad 2, in my opinion, is far greater than the sum of its parts. Is it worthy of an upgrade? Many on our staff seem to think so. Read on and watch the video below to find out my thoughts on the tablet.

Please note that some sections have been updated since this post went live.


The original iPad was already the tablet to beat with its winning hardware design, affordable price point, and Apple’s attention to details. The iPad 2 sets the bar higher by evolving the original hardware into a slimmer, sleeker product that is equal parts elegant and lust-worthy while at the same time utilitarian and practical.

At 1/3 slimmer than the original iPad, which equates to the iPad 2 being slimmer than the iPhone 4, the tablet is also ligher than the original tablet by 0.2 pounds. That’s not much, you may say, but holding the tablet makes it feel very well balanced in use in both portrait and landscape mode. The numbers here really does dis-service to Jonathan Ive’s carefully crafted design as the tablet feels a lot lighter, a lot thinner, and a lot better to hold than the original.

The iPad 2 is still constructed with a front glass panel and unibody aluminum construction on the back. However, what’s new is that the bezel surrounding the touchscreen can be ordered in either black or white–and the white one, as Jobs jokingly assured us, will be available on day one unlike with the white iPhone 4.

The back cover, still made of unibody aluminum, feels thinner in our hands. Not just that the iPad feels thinner, but the aluminum shell feels thinner, though it’s still durable and I suspect it will hold up to daily use, especially since Apple is promoting the Smart Case, which basically offers protection to the screen surface and exposes the rear to showcase and highlight Apple’s industrial design. Speaking of the back, gripping the iPad still feels as slippery as ever. I would highly suggest a protective skin to aid in grip and provide scratch protection, especially for users who prefer to carry their iPad 2s naked or only with the Apple Smart Cover. Invisible Shield and Wrapsol skins are now among my top choices for minimalist gadget protection, and hopefully the two companies will have versions of their products available on day one of the iPad 2’s launch on March 11th.

Smart Covers
Apple’s introducing a new case concept for the iPad 2, called Smart Cover, which provides protection for the screen while serving double duty as a stand for the device in landscape mode while in use.

The way that Smart Covers work is that the cover attaches to the left spine of the iPad 2 via magnets, making them easy to attach and align. The covers have a microfiber finish on the underside, giving the screen protection, and are available either in polyurethane or leather–both versions feel nice to touch and have a soft texture to them.

The right side of the Smart Cover also contains magnets. When the magnets detach from the iPad 2, the screen is automatically activated to turn on so you don’t have to activate the Sleep/Wake button yourself. When the cover attaches back to the screen in closed mode, the screen turns off to conserve battery life. This feature, while new on tablets, has been a hallmark of BlackBerry smartphones for years, and it’s nice to see them implemented on a tablet environment. With RIM’s smartphones, the BlackBerry would turn on or off when you remove them or insert them into a BlackBerry holster, serving a similar function as the iPad 2’s Smart Cover.

The beautiful thing about Smart Cover is that it has folds in it, which allows you to fold back the Cover onto itself and use it as a stand. Stand it horizontally and the iPad 2 angles up for viewing on a tabletop surface and sharing your iPad 2 with friends huddled over the device. That angle is also good for propping up the iPad 2 to touch type. Use it to stand the iPad 2 up more vertically and you have a great screen for movie watching. This position is also good for FaceTime video chat as well.

Need them, want them, love them, or hate them for privacy reasons, cameras are in this year. 2011 may be the year of the iPad 2 and the year of continuing tablet dominance for Apple, according to Jobs, but it’s also the year of video chat, video calling, and increased connectivity. The iPad 2 will follow the trend with dual-cameras–one on the rear on the upper left hand corner of the iPad 2 and one on the front in the top center of the bezel display.

Unlike Android devices which may sport cameras but have no real simplicity to use–you’d have to download a video chatting app, set up your password and account, hope your other party does the same, and log in every time you want to use the feature. On iOS, everything is seamless. You don’t need to setup FaceTime nor login every time you want to receive or make a call. When a call comes in, like on the iPhone 4 or iPod Touch, for video calls, you’ll be prompted and all you have to do is accept or deny the call.

FaceTime works similarly to that on the iPhone 4 or iPod Touch. If you want to show yourself to your party, you can use the front-facing VGA camera. If you want to show your other party what you’re seeing, switch to the back HD camera.

New Apps
Along with camera integration, there are also other new apps for the iPad 2, including iMovie and Garage Band.

With dual-cameras, users can now edit their clips with desktop-like precision on the iMovie app for iOS. While iMovie has been available for the iPhone 4 before, this marks the first time that the iMovie app is available as a Universal App for iPad, meaning you can buy the app once and use it on either device. Additionally, with iMovie, if you purchase a dock connector camera kit from Apple, you can use the iPhone 4’s cable and plug in your smartphone to retrieve video clips shot on the phone and edit them on the larger tablet screens.

iMovie gives users flexibility with sound effects, animations, transitions, and themes to create professionally looking videos while on the go. Users can also use the Precision Editor feature to edit their clips and make sure everything looks right. After you’re done, you can go ahead and share your clips over networks such as CNN iReport, Facebook, YouTube, and others. Or, you can watch your edited movie on the iPad’s 9.7-inch display, share it with an audience over a larger screen and Apple TV via Air Share, or plug your iPad 2 into an HDTV via an optional dock connector to HDMI cable.

There’s also Garage Band, which will allow musicians and the tone deaf create music on the iPad 2. The program, like iMovie, is ported from Apple’s iLife studio on the desktop OS X environment. Coupled that with the gyroscope, iMovie will recognize ‘pressure’ when you’re playing instruments. That means, for example, with the piano, if you tap the key(s) lightly, the iPad will play the sound softly. Tap loud and the iPad 2 will play a louder note. The gyroscope will recognize how much movement there is based on the iPad’s movement, to discern between a loud or soft tap.

Simple Instruments on Garage Band will allow users who are new to music to create pleasant sounding song while on the go. This takes the guess work out of which notes go well with what–users just tap, go, and the iPad 2 will create a beautiful track. Unfortunately, there aren’t any Smart Vocals for the iOS Garage Band app, so unless you’re a great singer, you probably should reserve your voice audition for the shower.

You can create multiple tracks and combine them to create a song. With 8 Track, users can, for instance, combine tracks from up to eight different instruments to form a song. You can have a piano, guitar, keyboard, and more to create, for example, a jazzy song.

Photo Booth also gets ported from the Mac desktop to the iPad 2. You still get all the cool effects with photos, but the Photo Booth app on the iPad 2 allows for better controls thanks to touch. With touch, you can further manipulate your images to create the perfect distortions and effects.

A5 Chipset, Gyroscope
Apple has improved its processor inside the iPad 2, jumping from a single-core gigahertz CPU to a dual-core gigahertz CPU that’s just as energy efficient and is capable of delivering up to ten hours of use on a single battery charge. According to the company, the processing power is double that of the original iPad while the graphics capability is nine times that of the iPad 1.

The iPad 2 also features a gyroscope in addition to the accelerometer on the original iPad, which brings to life new applications and control. For example, the gyroscope was a selling point for the Garage Band app that we had mentioned above. Another app that was demoed is Roma, a virtual reality app that has you panning and tilting the iPad 2 to get a tour of historic Rome.

If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then the display is the gateway to the heart of iOS 4.3. The screen on the iPad 2 is similar to that found on the original iPad. That means you’d get the excellent viewing angles, vibrant display, and more, but the negatives are still there–you still can’t see the display under bright sunlight.

With the screen, you still have an LED-backlit IPS display, giving you bright colors and wide viewing angles. My wish here is that Apple would optimize the screen better, like on the iPhone 4, for outdoors viewing. As the demo room was indoors, and it was a rainy, wet day in San Francisco on March 2nd at the press event, I was not able to ascertain if the iPad 2 has a screen that is better for outdoors viewing under direct sunlight, but representatives on hand says that nothing has changed from the display of the iPad 1 to the iPad 2.

Touch response on the display is excellent. With the powerful dual-core 1.0 GHz ARM-based proprietary Apple A5 chipset, touching and interacting with the iPad 2 feel fast. No lags, a smooth experience, plentiful apps, and increased polish makes this the tablet to beat in 2011. Games, like Infinity Blade, show more detail and provide more polish thanks to the more capable A5 chipset, which makes them render beautifully on the 9.7-inch touchscreen.

If the 9.7-inch display is not large enough for you, Apple is also releasing a dock connector cable accessory that will allow you to plug in your HDMI cable to mirror your iPad’s content on an HDTV.

Along with improved hardware, the other part of the equation is better software. Apple claims that the tight integration between hardware and software gives the company an edge and a competitive advantage over rivals who use other OSes like Android as the OS is made by Google while the hardware is made by another company. With iOS, everything is made by Apple.

With iOS 4.3, Apple is introducing some new features. One feature is Home Sharing, which is similar to Air Share, but in reverse. Rather than pushing content from your iOS device to Apple TV to play on an HDTV, Home Sharing allows users to pull content from a network connected Mac OS X laptop or desktop and play it on the iPad 2. Essentially, if you have music or videos on your laptop and have it on, you can connect your iPad 2 to the home network to grab stream the song from your MacBook to your tablet so that you don’t have to sync the content over.

In and of itself, Home Sharing may not be a big deal, but given rumors that Apple my take music and content storage to a cloud-based iTunes and MobileMe service, Home Sharing may pave grounds for Cloud Sharing in the feature where users can store content in the cloud, rather than on their Macs, and stream it to their Macs or iOS devices.

Another useful feature that’s part of iOS 4.3 and not designed for the iPad 2 is WiFi tethering. That feature is exclusive to the iPhone, but will definitely impact iPad 2 owners. Users who have an iPad and an iPhone 4 now don’t need to obtain a separate data plan for the iPad 2. Instead, they can share the iPhone 4’s mobile broadband plan by connecting with the iPhone 4 via WiFi.

Also, with iOS 4.3, the mute switch is now customizable. Users can use the hardware switch and configure it to either mute sounds from the iPad quickly, or use it to lock the rotation to prevent auto-rotation of the screen.

Pricing, Models, and Availability
The iPad 2 will come in the same storage configurations as the iPad 1–16, 32, and 64 GB variations, with options for a base WiFi only mode, starting at $499, or a 3G model that tops out at $829.

There are two separate 3G models, so users who want integrated mobile broadband data access will either have to choose an AT&T 3G GSM version or a Verizon Wireless 3G CDMA/EV-DO version of the iPad–both models are priced the same.

If you’re using, or hoping to use, the iPad as a navigation tool, I would recommend users opt for the 3G version as the 3G version comes with an embedded GPS chipset. Couple that with a car mount and a navigation app, like Navigon, users will have an excellent turn-by-turn car solution. Additionally, the convenience of having 3G may be worth it and you can get a pre-paid 3G data plan and turn it on or off as needed to avoid staying with a long-term contract. Just be prepared to check data pricing and coverage before determining which carrier or model to get, but the AT&T model may be the most useful if you opt to travel. AT&T uses GSM for its network, which is compatible in more countries around the world whereas Verizon’s CDMA will give you far more limited international roaming for those who travel overseas. Additionally, if you’re concerned about mobile broadband data speeds, AT&T’s 3G network offers faster speeds than the comparable Verizon network, though Verizon’s 4G LTE blows away AT&T’s 3G.

While the iPad 1 was the de facto standard to which all tablets were compared against, Apple has effectively designed a device that kills the iPad 1. With the iPad 2, it feels like you’re driving a luxury sports convertible compared to the luxury sedan of the iPad 1.

Despite Apple’s successes in the tablet market, the company will have increased competition in this space. Steve Jobs acknowledged that fact in his keynote, stating that the tablet market will quickly fill with not only other smartphone vendors creating tablets, but also PC-makers.

With the iPad 2, Apple will not only have to compete with other tablets on the market–like RIM’s PlayBook or HP’s TouchPad–but the company will also have to compete with other form factors as well that deliver a mobile experience and large screen. One such form factor is Lenovo’s LePad, which offers an Android tablet, but also a docking case that converts the tablet into a laptop. With the U1 Hybrid Dock, the LePad tablet will work in Windows mode with an Intel Core i5 CPU. Also, there’s the Motorola Atrix 4G smartphone, which when docked to Motorola’s Laptop Dock will convert the Atrix 4G into a smartbook or netbook.

I was among many people at Apple’s San Francisco unveiling event who were skeptical of the iPad 2 before Steve Jobs took the stage. I had told family and friends, having owned the iPad 1, that I would skip a generation. After all, on the surface, not a lot has changed–the design is nicer, the processor is more capable but the A4 chipset on the iPad 1 was no slouch either, and the display is the same size, resolution, and comes with the same greatness and limitations. Why invest money in an iPad 2 when an iPad 3 can offer more radical changes? Well, after spending some quality time in the demo room with the iPad 2, my opinion has changed and I will be among the many in line to get an iPad 2 come this March 11th.

Apple has done a great job showing us why the company still calls and considers itself a software company. Steve Jobs essentially told us that Apple will not be competing on specs alone, as it’s the ecosystem, software and apps that create the ‘magical’ user experience. In the past, this has been the mantra of Apple prior to its switch to Intel CPUs for laptops and desktops, and in this post-PC era, Apple is continuing this tradition. In fact, the company didn’t even announce specs such as RAM, how many cores and who made the GPU, and other details. What I do know, however, is that the fluid interaction and mature ecosystem with over 65,000 apps make the iPad 2 both a pleasure and a joy to use. I am not quite sure that I will use FaceTime all that often, and I have an iPhone 4 to record HD video so I probably won’t use the iPad 2 as a video recording device. One would think that by not using those enhancements, I could resist the calls of Apple’s sirens, but the reality is that the performance boost makes the iPad 2 feel like an even more polished product that’s worthy of a second-generation offering.

When comparing the iPad 2 to Android 3.0 Honeycomb tablets, Apple’s experience really does show through. While Android 3.0 offers a lot of compelling features, it’s lack of polish makes it a lackluster product after a few days of use, which is rather unfortunate as the Motorola Xoom is both heralded as the first true iPad competitor, but also labeled as a beta-like product. The Android 3.0 Honeycomb operating system offers a number of enhancements to make the OS more tablet-like and take advantage of a better user experience. Live widgets, customizable home screens, and multi-tasking make the Xoom stand out, but the lack of apps, non-Flash support out of the gate, and frequently crashing apps really ruins the fun.

Update and correction: While I mention below that YouTube is playable in-browser on the iPad, that information is only semi-correct. YouTube videos do not load on the desktop view in the browser, but they do load on the mobile version on both the iPad and the Xoom. As a result, there is no real advantage. On the iPad on the mobile view of YouTube, videos actually are played in the browser, similar to how YouTube plays on the desktop, and you do have the option to go full screen to iOS’s video player. On the Xoom, in mobile view, you’re taken to Android’s video player to play YouTube videos and don’t have the option to view videos in-browser, which allows you to browse information about the video while the video is playing.

What’s ironic is that while Google is responsible for YouTube and Android, the Xoom cannot play YouTube videos in the Android browser. I get that YouTube videos will play once Adobe Flash 10.2 comes, but the least the Xoom can do is play the HTML5 versions of YouTube videos in the browser at this time, after all the browser can support HTML5. On the Apple end, while the company has decided against the implementation of Flash, YouTube videos are both playable in-browser and in the YouTube app on the iPad and iPhone.

While I originally had not intended on upgrading to an iPad 2 prior to March 2nd, I do now after having played with the device and experiencing the full user experience. As Jobs says, Apple is at the intersection of technology and liberal arts. No where else in Apple’s product line is this as apparent as it is on the iPad 2 where Apple has added human touches to a marvel of technology, re-defining the “Tablet PC” category to encompass not only the simple technologies behind it, but adding a human face and voice to the engineering efforts through apps like FaceTime and Photo Booth. While the iPad 1 was deemed a content consumption device by many, allowing you to view videos, watch online movies, and browse the Web, the iPad 2 transforms the iPad line once again and makes this tablet a production-capable device with apps like iMovie, Garage Band, and the iWork studio like Keynote, Numbers, and Pages.