Apple's third-generation iPad arrived with me a week ago, courtesy of Vodafone, and I've been using it alongside an iPad 2 since then.
The latest iPad — notably not called the iPad 3 but the 'new iPad' — is currently available starting at £399 (inc. VAT) for a Wi-Fi-only (802.11a/b/g/n) model with 16GB of storage; you'll pay £479 for 32GB and £599 for the full 64GB. Models with integrated mobile broadband as well as Wi-Fi cost £499 for 16GB, £579 for 32GB and £659 for 64GB. Check operator web sites for deals. The mobile broadband support goes up to '4G' (LTE), but that's of little use in the UK at the moment as network operators are still trialling the technology — and use different frequencies to the US in any case.
The iPad 2 and new iPad look remarkably alike — it was very easy for me to pick up the wrong one to start using it. Both iPads were black, with just a very slightly larger camera lens on the new model and signs of wear and tear on the older model to distinguish them.
The two iPads are identical in footprint — 185.7mm wide by 241.2mm deep — although the new model is slightly thicker (9.4mm versus 8.8mm) and heavier (652g v 601g for Wi-Fi only and 662g v 613g for Wi-Fi + mobile broadband). However, these differences didn't help me distinguish the two models in the hand.
The inference is that Apple decided that the chassis design was perfect before, and there was no need to change it. Having been an iPad user for many months, I have to say there's nothing about the hardware design that has particularly annoyed me. Being picky, I'd prefer the speaker grille to be moved slightly so I don't cover it with my hand in some situations, but it's not a biggie.
The key differences between the two models relate to their processor, cameras and display.
The A5X processor in the new iPad is dual core with quad-core graphics. With the new processor things seem to move slightly faster in general — even scrolling through home screens feels quicker on the new iPad. Nothing I do involves a wait I can't live with, and everything feels silky smooth and responsive.
That said, and while the speed improvement is welcome, I never found much to complain about with the iPad 2 in speed terms, and the enhancement, while notable, doesn't feel revolutionary.
The 5-megapixel camera on the back of the chassis (which Apple calls iSight) is capable of 1080p video recording at 30 frames aper second (fps). It's not the best camera I've seen on a tablet, and it lacks a flash, but the iPad 2's camera really needed a serious face-lift, and this it has got. Among the camera's features are tap-to-focus and face detection.
I wouldn't want to use the main camera for photography on a regular basis — the iPad is just too unwieldy a device for that — and the absence of a flash it a serious failing. However, the camera is now more than passable when used in good lighting conditions.
The front-facing FaceTime camera remains at VGA resolution and is perfectly adequate for video calling — which is the only thing I do with it.
What really shines out, as reviews have noted time and time again, is the display — or as Apple calls it, the Retina display.
With 2,048 by 1,536 pixels crammed into a 9.7in. screen, the display is quite simply stunning. Reading web pages, watching catch-up TV — in fact, looking at anything graphics-rich, is simply a pleasure. Viewing angles are good, and everything feels pin-sharp. It's by far the best tablet I've used in this respect.
One reason for the thickness and weight increase over the iPad 2, noted earlier, is that the battery has been enlarged to allow the new iPad to match its predecessor's 9-hour-plus longevity, while driving the more powerful backlighting required for the high-resolution display. I didn't notice the new iPad performing any less well in battery life terms than its predecessor.
There are some things Apple has chosen not to do with the new iPad. There is no SD card slot for adding to the internal storage, and no HDMI — although both can be accommodated via Apple's proprietary connector and a suitable adapter. Output from the single speaker is tinny, and on a premium device such as this I'd prefer stereo speakers.
Apple has done enough with the new iPad to ensure that it remains a hugely popular tablet. But this year's developments are much more refresh than redesign.