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Tuesday March 15, 2011 6:26 pm

Apple iPad 2 review: Second Thoughts

Ever since I picked up an Apple iPad 2, I've spent more time with it than my original iPad. At 1.3 pounds, the 33 percent thinner iPad 2 is unquestionably more comfortable to hold and offers the promise of greater speed and utility. In some cases, doing what was once impossible with an iPad 1 is obvious. I could never, for instance, shoot or edit video with my old device. The remaining iPad 2 differences, however, are harder to spot; so I spent some time this weekend in search of them.

The iPad 2 has always had an accelerometer, which basically tells the device if it's in motion. It's great for, say, driving games, so you can steer with the whole device. I use this when playing Real Racing HD. Now the iPad 2 has a three-axis gyroscope, which not only recognizes motion, but the speed and angle of it. That's the good news. The bad news is that it's still hard to find any apps (from Apple or anyone else) that use it.

Apple reports at least two games that take advantage of the new gyroscope: "Dead Space" from EA and "N.O.V.A 2 Near Orbit Vanguard Alliance HD." According to the "Dead Space" page in the App Store, version 1.0.2, which was released on the same day the iPad 2 arrived in stores, now has "more intuitive controls of your movement". This is made possible through "Y-Axis Inversion". No mention of gyroscope axis, but I'm guessing that's probably what EA is talking about. I downloaded the game to try it out.

You have to play "Dead Space" for quite a while before you even begin to use the entire iPad 2 as a game control. To turn my weapon sideways, for example, I needed to turn the iPad 2 left or right. Interesting, but I don't think the gyroscope does anything to particularly enhance that activity. "Dead Space" grows increasingly intense (and frightening) as you play it, so I guess I'll see more gyroscope action later on.

Apple's not using the gyroscope with its newest apps, which include iMovie and the music-creation app GarageBand, but at least one of them takes decent advantage of some of the iPad 1 and 2's existing hardware. Inside Garage Band, for instance, is a virtual piano that not only mimics a physical keyboard's sounds, but can recognize if you tap the keys lightly or pound them like an angry circus monkey. I tried both methods on Garage Band on my iPad 2 and, sure enough, I could make sharp loud notes by hitting the keyboard hard.

The accelerometers inside the iPad 2 must be wicked sensitive. Even planting the iPad 2 on a hard surface and doing my best not to move it a millimeter, the virtual keyboard still recognized the difference between a tap and a pounding. It was not foolproof though, and sometimes the hard tap would sound just like the light tap. This was so random, though, that I couldn't figure out if it was a glitch in the software or simply the angle of my keystroke. Garage Band has a variety of virtual instruments, including an electric guitar. I'd suggest attaching the gyroscope to a virtual whammy bar so a downward thrust of the iPad 2 creates a cool whammy sound.

Another under-the-hood change that you could miss if you're not paying attention is the increased Web browser speed. This comes courtesy of iOS 4.3, and in my anecdotal tests on a Wi-Fi network, I saw some pretty significant differences. When I pitted the first-generation iPad running iOS 4.2 against the iPad 2 running iOS 4.3, the speed differences were dramatic. Upgrading the first-gen iPad to iOS 4.3 closed the gap significantly, but the iPad 2 still maintained a lead. Part of that must be due to the faster, dual-core A5 CPU (the iPad 1 has a single-core A4.)

Need for Speed

Overall, Steve Jobs promised that the iPad 2 would be twice as fast as the iPad 1 and could run nine times faster than the first iPad on graphics operations. These facts have been harder to verify. My problem is that I do not know exactly where to look for the performance improvements. As I've said before, I never found the first iPad particularly sluggish, yet I was excited when Jobs announced these impressive speed gains. It's like when you have a computer you're pretty happy with and then you get a new graphics card. The measureable speed improvement puts yesterday's system performance in stark contrast.

Obviously, Web browsing is one beneficiary of the iPad 2's new specs, but where else could I see it? In another report on PCMag.com, we note how games manufacturers are positively salivating over the new specs. Apple shared very few details about specs, but teardowns have shed some light. During the iPad 2 launch event I met an executive from Epic Games, a company that makes "Infinity Blade," a popular iOS first-person action game that won numerous awards last year. Recalling how excited the exec was about the iPad 2's 9x graphic improvement, I decided to try a little test.

I installed Epic's "Infinity Blade" on both my iPad 1 and the peppier iPad 2. Then I played each until I met the boss and was summarily dismissed by his superior sword-wielding skills. To be honest, beyond load speed, I didn't see much of a difference. I think the iPad 2 may have smoothed out any animation stutters and, if I looked real close, I could see that the character edges were a bit smoother on the iPad 2, but that was about it. Obviously, future games will take greater advantage of the iPad 2's graphic prowess. Still it was a bit disappointing to see so little change, especially with a game from a company that's so clearly jazzed about the iPad's new graphic capabilities.

I also edited a bit of 720p video shot with the iPad 2 this weekend. Video editing is easily one of the more graphics- and processor-intensive operations, and the iPad handled my two 720p clips with aplomb. Too bad the iMovie for iPad app is so limited. I couldn't split clips or really edit them in any meaningful way.

Look, I'm not trying to say the iPad 2 isn't a great device. It is. In fact, I wouldn't recommend any other tablet—at least not today. On the other hand, I'm not sure I'd recommend that current iPad owners run out and buy this new model. My compromise is going to be to give my original iPad to my wife and then buy the iPad 2 for me. As an early adopter, I'm certain I can make good use of the cameras, and, when they arrive, more powerful, resource-intensive iPad apps.

A few other small things before I take a break from writing about the iPad 2:

1) Screen's All-Good: There have been some reports of iPad 2 screen imperfections. I went looking for those, too, but even in a sealed room (no windows and darker than the darkest night) I detected zero light leakage from any of the iPad 2 edges. If this problem exists, I bet it's with a very few units.

2) Speak Louder: I'm not thrilled with the re-positioned speaker. When I have the iPad 2 resting on my lap—which is most of the time, my leg muffles the audio. The iPad 1 doesn't suffer from this problem because the speaker is along the bottom edge of the iPad. When I have it on my lap, the speaker usually points out toward my body or into open air if I have it facing away from my body. By putting the speaker grill on the iPad 2's base, Apple ensures that it will often be blocked.

3) Where's the Microphone? In the iPad 1 the microphone was right next to the audio input jack. Nowhere on the Apple iPad 2 tech specs page does it indicate where the mic is located. I noticed this when using Garage Band for the iPad's audio sample feature. The screen image shows you where the mic is for the iPad 1, but not for the iPad 2. I think the mic is on the face, right next to the VGA camera, but I am not 100 percent certain.

This article, written by Lance Ulanoff, originally appeared on PCMag.com and is republished on Gear Live with the permission of Ziff Davis, Inc.

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