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Apple's iPad 2 is the 'Holy Grail' of computing

March 13, 2011 02:19 PM ET

New chip, two cameras

The first iPad wasn't slow, even though competing devices (most announced without release dates) seemed to offer faster hardware. It has always been responsive, with minimal interface lag, if any. The iPad 2 takes this a step further. Featuring a new dual-core A5 chipset and double the memory (512MB instead of 256MB), everything feels faster, whether it's app launching, data loading, switching between apps, rendering photo effects, or outputting projects in Garage Band. The speed boost affects everything. (While Apple hates dishing out specs, benchmarks indicate that not only is iPad 2 much faster than the first generation model, but it smokes the Motorola Xoom, as well.)

The iPad 2 also features better graphics performance, which Apple claims has been improved nine-fold. Games such as Infinitely Blade, Dead Space and others have already been updated to support more detailed graphics. And other games like Rage HD can now use the built-in gyroscope to provide more accurate tracking.

Front-facing camera
The front-facing camera is located in the black bezel next to the iPad 2's screen. (The iPad is sitting horizontally in this photo.)

The biggest design change is the addition of dual cameras, one facing front, one, rear. The iPad 2 now joins the iPhone 4 and the fourth-generation iPod touch in this respect. Unfortunately, the photos are more akin to those produced by the iPod touch than those from the iPhone 4.

In other words, just because you can take photos with the iPad 2, doesn't necessarily make that the best option. The resolution on the front-facing camera is a mediocre 640 x 480 pixels, or the standard resolution of computer monitors 15 years ago. The rear camera takes pictures and video shot at a resolution of 1280 x 720 (720p).

While video is technically shot in HD, you must make sure that lighting levels are high to avoid compression artifacts and grainy results. I confirmed that pictures are noticeably bad when taken in low-light situations. Neither of the cameras holds a candle to those on the iPhone 4, never mind most dedicated point-and-shoot cameras.

However, as photographers would acknowledge, the best camera is the one with you when you need it. In other words, having cameras on the iPad is better than not having cameras. Still, I don't think taking pictures is what Apple engineers had in mind with this design; their focus, more than anything else, was on Apple's no-configuration video conference technology, FaceTime, and in that sense, the cameras work exactly as designed. The front-facing camera allows for easy video conferencing, and, with the press of a software button, the rear camera allows you to effortlessly share your point of view.

There is one notable way that the Camera app is better on the iPad 2 than in any other iOS device: the Camera Roll, where photos and movies taken by the built-in camera are stored, can be shared easily using AirPlay. There's an AirPlay button right at the top of the screen that allows you to instantly stream movies or photos taken on the iPad directly to your TV by way of AppleTV. It's a small thing, and while I dinged Apple on the lack of this capability in iOS 4.3 on first-generation iPad and iPhone 4, its inclusion here makes a big difference when sharing photos or movies shot with the iPad 2.

iPad 2 camera comparison
The iPad 2 camera delivers grainier photos than the iPhone 4. (iPad 2 photo, left; iPhone 4 photo, right.)

Battery life, connectivity, Smart Covers

Surprisingly, despite the new iPad's sleeker/lighter build and higher performance architecture, battery life doesn't suffer. I pulled the iPad out of its box, restored software and apps from a previous iPad backup, and -- save for the five hours I spent sleeping Friday night -- it was still going strong after nearly 20 hours of heavy intermittent use. By 1 a.m. today, I still had 11% battery life left. I've done everything from FaceTime calls to streaming movies from my iTunes library hosted on a computer across the house, playing games, surfing the Web, checking social sites, watching news videos about the earthquake in Japan, and transmitting video and audio to an AppleTV. Note: When I pulled the iPad out of its box, it was 80% charged.



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