Review: Why the new iPad doesn't merit a '3'

Hard to distinguish at first glance from an iPad 2, the new iPad's changes are welcome but subtle for business users

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A better display for eyes of all ages
The Retina display has rightfully received most of the attention in the mainstream press -- it really is a big user experience improvement. The Retina display doubles the number of pixels from the previous iPad models but doesn't shrink the screen to pack in those pixels. Instead, it essentially has four subpixels for each pixel, allowing greater levels of gradation and, thus, greater smoothness and sharpness. The screen's color range is also wider, allowing for more natural-looking hues.

Where you really notice the benefit of the Retina display is in the lowly word. Text in all forms -- emails, Web pages, e-books, and legal fine print everywhere -- is much sharper, so it's easier to read and to read longer. Anyone much past their mid-30s will appreciate this textual sharpness. Although the previous iPads were quite readable, once you have a third-gen iPad, you suddenly feel like you've been using the wrong eyeglass prescription all this time.

Standard videos and photos seem no clearer or crisper on the Retina display than on the iPad 2's display. However, you'll see quality improvements on the new iPad versus the iPad 2 if you play an HD video, both in reduce artifacting during playback and better color balance. When zooming into graphics, the Retina display shows smoother lines and edges and, for high-resolution images, more detail.

The big advantage of the Retina display for users of all ages is in games, and developers have already started releasing eye-popping Retina-enhanced games to tap into that advantage. Also coming in droves are photo-editing, painting, and other pixel-pushing apps. Another advantage will come in the form of rich-media e-books, such as those Apple's free iBooks Author can create for the iPad's iBooks e-reader app.

Better connectivity on the go, sometimes
The other aspect of the new iPad that has garnered a great deal of attention is the 4G cellular radio option, which adds $130 to the cost and ties you to a specific carrier domestically. In the United States, Verizon Wireless and AT&T offer 4G LTE models; Bell, Rogers, and Telus get the honor in Canada. Android fans have been pishposhing Apple's lack of 4G support for nearly a year now, but in truth, 4G coverage is spotty and, as Android users found out the hard way, eats up a lot of battery life. (When 4G is unavailable, the cellular devices use 3G.)

Because of that inconsistent coverage, in the 4G Android devices I've tested in the last six months, I've rarely seen meaningful speed improvement over 3G in the San Francisco area, where I live and work. But when I secured an LTE connection from a Verizon 4G iPad, I found that I got double the download speed on the new iPad compared to an iPad 2 connected to the Verizon 3G network. I placed the two iPads side by side, to minimize external network effects during my tests, and downloaded the same files simultaneously.

When I used the SpeedTest.net app, it too showed a rough doubling of speed from about 3Mbps on 3G to about 7Mbps on 4G at my home, and a quadrupling from about 500Kbps to 2Mbps at my favorite café in a business district. I'm not sold on SpeedTest's results, despite its popularity among bloggers, because its 4G numbers sometimes showed wildly high, improbable performance (15Mbps to more than 20Mbps) that I did not in any way experience in real-world tests. Reports from other reviewers show 4G availability and performance vary widely across the country, with several trusted colleagues claiming consistent 10Mbps SpeedTest results in their areas.

Unless you already know you have good 4G availability where you are, you should think of 4G as icing on a cake, not the cake you're buying. Enjoy the icing if it's available!

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