By Michael Fisher | March 20, 2012 4:49 PM
After mercilessly mocking it for the first few weeks of availability, I picked up an original iPad in the spring of 2010 and fell in love. It changed my computing experience in ways I’d never imagined, rendering my then-new Macbook Air a paperweight for quite a while as I realized the utility of the tablet form factor. From reading on the train to looking up recipes in the kitchen to watching Netflix in bed, my iPad has served every clichéd use case there is. Thanks to the massive and dynamic App Store, it’s even been useful in some more unusual scenarios, like serving as a road atlas on a cross-country trip, and standing in for a clapboard on a video shoot or two. In most situations, my iPad has proven as or more versatile than a PC.
Sadly, though, thanks to the “phone-ification of tablets” I mentioned in a previous article, my original-recipe iPad is wheezing a little. Core functionality is sluggish. Some apps are crashing reliably on every startup, and others are refusing to install at all due to hardware requirements. And though it didn’t bother me before, I’m more and more put off by the device’s significant weight, especially compared to the more svelte iPad 2 units I’m seeing more frequently on those train rides.
The solution: jump to a new iPad. Deciding that the best way to future-proof would be to skip a generation, I picked up a Verizon LTE, 32GB version on launch day. Here’s what it felt like to make the jump from the original-recipe to the new hotness.
Unboxing and Set-Up
Last summer, when I first unboxed the HP TouchPad, I was stunned at how light it felt in the hand. This was after reading several months’ worth of complaints on the web about the device’s weight; my expectations had been set quite low, and I was pleasantly surprised.
With the new iPad, my experience was quite different. Though I knew it was slightly heavier than the iPad 2, I also knew the difference was miniscule, and either way, I expected a relief compared with my original iPad. But when I lifted it out of the box, I encountered a cruel reversal of the experience the TouchPad had given me: the new iPad felt quite heavy. My heightened expectations had let me down.
That linen texture on startup screen backups is so lame.
And we’re still locked in to the paradigm that Apple established for us back with OG iPad – tiny buttons in the corners, big blown-up phone app look. How is this exciting or cool? So tired of iOS.
Picking nits? Yep. But I stand behind it. Apple’s obviously staying the course when it comes to their software design for iOS on the iPad. Good for them; simplicity and familiarity and all that. But it doesn’t change my opinion that so many elements of the iPad experience still look like iPhone, Huge Edition. That was acceptable to start with, but we’re now three generations in: it’s time to make better, smarter use of all that extra real estate.
Anyway, the process rolled on and the new iPad prompted me to choose either a fresh install, or a wireless “restore” from my old iPad. I chose the latter option. As the process grinded on and the screen filled with progress bars, I began to get annoyed by how long all this was taking. Then I realized something very important: I was getting bent out of shape because my Apple iPad was taking too long to wirelessly sync. Not too long ago, the very notion of being able to do any native wireless syncing on an iOS device was a pipe dream. I was one of the most vocal opponents of Apple’s insistence on keeping the cord in the picture, and now, before my eyes, the new iPad was showing me what the new Apple experience was like. My perspective restored, I watched as the data migration finished, and my old iPad’s lock-screen wallpaper popped up on the new device. The accompanying note-to-self was suitably reverent:
iCloud backup is niiiiice …
Oh dudes. You … my wallpaper is the same. Ohhh that’s so nice.
It’s these little touches that make for a great user experience. I can’t adequately describe how I felt at the moment my new iPad showed me my old wallpaper, but the closest description would be “well taken-care-of.” Apple’s not alone in focusing on the little details, but they sure do it well.
You’ll notice I didn’t make mention of the new iPad’s high-resolution “Retina” display above. That’s because I didn’t notice much difference at first. This might have something to do with resolution not being terribly important to me, but I’ve also got an eye for detail and excellent eyesight (at the expense of poor hearing). My head was buzzing with all of the florid descriptions of how incredible the new Retina panel was in this device, but I couldn’t for the life of me get more enthusiastic than “Huh. Yeah, that’s sharper, all right.” Once again, inflated expectations are a cruel thing.
Over the next few days, I found that properly showing off the screen depends heavily on what app you’re using. Showing an iPad 2-toting friend my new device resulted in a yawny “oh yeah” when we compared screens on iOS’s sinfully dull springboard. I can’t tell much difference while watching content on Netflix, even with HD content. On the flip side, apps that have been optimized for the new, higher resolution clearly show massive improvement. This will be a boon for high-realism iOS gaming. And of course, text throughout is incredibly sharp. The biggest improvement I saw, believe it or not, was in the few blown-up iPhone apps I’m still forced to use: Google Voice looks incredible on the new device compared with its original-iPad incarnation. The app is the same, but the clarity is unbelievable.
Bottom line on the Retina display: it’s a huge jump in resolution, and it’s a great engineering achievement. It’s capable of mind-blowing performance. But with iOS looking exactly the same as it does on my original iPad, it’s only barely being taken advantage of. It’s akin to buying the clearest, most expensive glass for a window in your house that faces a brick wall. Sure, you can crank open the window, lean out, and see other sights through it, but you’ve always got to start and end at the boring, featureless expanse of bricks- I mean, icons. They’re sharper now, but they’re still just icons.
It’s only been a few days, but I’ve managed to use the new iPad for many different purposes in a range of environments. Despite my vituperative assault on those who would use their tablets as cameras, I’ve already found a few situations where the iPad’s shooter is preferable to the one in my phone (not too hard when you carry a Galaxy Nexus). The multi-finger gestures seem to work better on the new iPad than on my previous model. Apps have been faithfully executing their tasks, with nary a crash in sight. In short, the device is doing what it’s supposed to be doing, and it’s doing it faster and better than its two-year-old predecessor. It’s also easier to carry around.
The few hangups I’ve encountered are thanks to iOS itself, not the new hardware. A song I bought in 2006 on a friend’s iTunes account caused the new iPad to challenge me for her login information every five minutes for several hours one day. iOS’s lack of support for .zip files caused a slight inconvenience while out yesterday; when I tried downloading an appropriate handler from the App Store, I was told the iPad “could not connect to iTunes,” with no further elaboration. And my feelings on the stale look and feel of the iOS UI need not be elaborated upon further.
So I’ve found largely what I expected to find: to use some dated internet parlance, “iterative improvement is iterative.” It’s an awesome device and (spec-head measuring contests aside) absolutely the best tablet on the market. It does its job better than any device that came before it. I really like it, and they’re going to keep selling at an insane rate.
But coming from the lowly first-gen model, I expected more. Again we come back to the perception problem: there’s not quite enough here to live up to the increasingly-high expectations Apple (or Apple’s fans) are setting. There’s very little that’s thrilling about this device, and that’s not something I’m used to writing about an Apple product. Maybe I’m jaded, or maybe I just picked the wrong year -an iterative cycle- to upgrade. We’ll see what the wizards in Cupertino have up their sleeves for next year. In the meantime, though I’ll continue using my lighter, faster, sharper upgrade … and offering more thoughts as I have them.