At the iPad mini event, Apple did something that it hasn't done in quite some time: it surprised us. With most of the company's recent products leaking well before their announcements, the days of being thrown for a loop at an Apple event appeared to be over. But thrown for a loop we were, when Apple announced a new 4th-generation iPad.
We knew that a new iPad was coming, but it was supposed to be a new 3rd-generation iPad with a Lightning connector. Instead, we got a new model with not only the new connector, but updated front-facing cameras, and a new A6X chip. A modest upgrade, yes; but a much bigger one than anyone expected.
Now that the iPad 4 is here, is it worth upgrading? Or should you hold out for the inevitable 5th-generation model? Let's take a look.
If you've ever used a 3rd-generation iPad, then you're already familiar with the 4th-generation iPad's design. The only external difference is that the older iPad's larger 30-pin port is replaced by the tiny Lightning port.
Otherwise it's the same aluminum build, tapered back, and 9.4-mm thickness. Even the weight stays the same, at 653 g (1.44 lbs). The difference between this iPad and the last is like the jump from the iPhone 3G to 3GS or iPhone 4 to 4S: it's all on the inside.
Nothing has changed here either. It's the exact same 9.7-inch, 2048 x 1536 Retina Display found in the 3rd-generation iPad. Text looks nearly like printed paper, photos are crisp and vibrant, and games like Infinity Blade II and N.O.V.A. 3 offer an absurd amount of graphical detail.
The only other tablet display that compares to the iPad's is the nearly 300 pixels per inch (PPI) screen found in the Nexus 10. We'll have to wait to see these two side-by-side, but there's nothing to complain about in this stellar display.
The iPad 4 is only upgraded in one major area, but it's quite an upgrade. Its A6X chip features a 1.4GHz dual core processor, along with quad core graphics. Apple promised over twice the performance of the 3rd-generation iPad. This was no bloated claim: the new iPad sizzles.
The iPad 3 never felt slow to me, but it also wasn't noticeably zippy. The iPad 4 is. If you've used an iPhone 5, expect similar speeds here. Apps open and close instantly, pictures snap in rapid-fire fashion, and intensive gaming is flawless. Putting the new tablet through Geekbench paces yielded a score of 1766, a huge improvement over the iPad 3's 757.
One of the big places you'll notice the A6X is in loading screens. Apps and games which previously took several seconds to load are now ready in less than half of that time.
The new iPad blazed through one of the more processor-intensive productivity apps, Photoshop Touch. Applying filters, tweaking lighting levels, and making selections all went much quicker on the 4th-generation iPad. Adjusting selections, which used to be interrupted by constant processing, now happens almost in real-time. Adobe hasn't updated its app in any way for the A6X chip, so this boost is without any help from the software.
If the 3rd-generation iPad doesn't feel slow to you, then you might want to keep a distance from this 4th-generation model. After using it, the old one will feel slow.
The front camera was upgraded in the 4th-generation iPad, and it's a noticeable improvement. It's still only 1.2 MP, but that's significantly higher than the VGA front shooter in the iPad 3.
As you can see in the above (non-processed) samples, the new front camera will make your friends look significantly sharper on the 9.7-inch screen.
The rear camera is basically the same as the one in the iPad 3, but Apple is advertising the addition of some of the optics from the iPhone 5. You can see below that it isn't a huge difference, but the new camera does appear to let in a bit more light:
Apple claims that the new iPad has improved Wi-Fi capabilities, supporting dual-band (2.4GHz and 5GHz) 802.11n and channel bonding. Depending on your connection, you may see faster network speeds.
On the 20Mbps DSL-based network I tested it on, I saw no difference from the 3rd-generation iPad. Speed tests clocked the 4th-gen. model at roughly the same speeds. Uploads, downloads, and latency were all in the same ballpark. Perhaps those with faster home networks will see improved performance, but I wouldn't recommend basing your purchase on this.
Apart from its Jony Ive-helmed design, the biggest reason to choose the iPad over rivals like Surface RT and the Nexus 10 is its software. The App Store has over 275,000 native tablet apps, many more than any of its competitors. A great computer is nothing without great software, and the iPad delivers.
The new iPad presently ships with iOS 6, and you can immediately update it to 6.0.1. Siri, Facebook/Twitter integration, Maps (for better or worse), and all of the familiar staples of iOS are waiting. For more detail, you can see our overview of iOS 6.
Who is it for?
When Apple announced the 4th-generation iPad, iPad 3 owners were furious, as their seven-month-old devices were deemed obsolete. There is, however, one big problem with this assessment: the 3rd-generation iPad is far from obsolete. Though the older model is off the market, the iPad 4 is essentially the same device with some improved guts.
Apart from those obsessed with having the latest-and-greatest (and those with money to blow), iPad 3 owners don't even need to consider upgrading. Is the 4th-generation iPad better? Sure. But not by wide enough of a margin to justify dropping an extra US$500 (or more), just a few months after buying its predecessor.
First-time iPad buyers and owners of older iPads (original or iPad 2), though, are in for a treat. The new iPad has one of the best displays you've seen on anything, an attractive design, and turbo-charged performance.
If you're in the market for a new iPad, there are only two reasons to balk at this 4th-generation model: the iPad mini, and the possibility of a new model in March.
If Apple released this iPad 4 only seven months after the iPad 3, who says we won't see an iPad 5 in a few more months? I'm not sure if Apple would abandon its typical iPad release slot and crunch all of its big announcements into the (Northern Hemisphere) autumn. This model was likely released to maximize holiday sales; a bigger update could be just around the corner.
Then there's the iPad mini. Though it sorely misses the larger model's Retina Display, it sports an airy new design, it's more portable, and holding it with one hand is extremely comfortable. If you can tolerate its 1024 x 768 display (1/4 the pixels of the iPad 4's display), it may be a better buy than the full-sized tablet. See our iPad mini review for more.