Getting in Touch: We Go Hands-On With the New Apple iPad

We touched it. We caressed every bezel. The new iPad is a model of inspired industrial design, and its specs best the previous-generation iPad 2 in all the important areas. But while our hands-on time with the new iPad was admittedly brief today, we nonetheless left Apple’s demo room with an overwhelming sense of, well, “sameyness.”

Very little during our hands-on demo provoked a moment of jaw-dropping awe. The best tablet of 2011 is now undoubtedly better — but for Apple, is this good enough? If anything, we’ve been spoiled by the performance and finesse of Apple’s existing products. We’ve become inured to the company’s unique charms.

At first glance, the new iPad exudes familiarity — and not just because most of its features were telegraphed via leaks and rumors during the last four months. The new slate’s physical design is nearly identical to that of the iPad 2, and nothing about its Appley comportment screams, “I’m an entirely new tablet!” The home button remains intact, and all but one physical dimension remains the same.

It’s only when you hold the new iPad in your hands — and then turn on its screen — that you begin to notice two key differences.

The first is extremely subtle: The new tablet is thicker. Now, it’s true, you have to be an iPad 2 user to notice the difference, but this latest model really does look a bit pudgier in the flesh. From generation to generation, the tablet’s waist line has grown from 8.8mm to 9.44mm. Who knew such a small size differential could even be noticeable?

We didn’t find the new dimension to be a problem, mind you. During our 15-minute hands-on demo, the extra thickness had no bearing on useability — nor did the new tablet’s extra weight (the baseline Wi-Fi model has grown from 1.33 lbs to 1.44 lbs). But if you’re obsessed with industrial design aesthetics (or simply want to argue), you can take Apple to task for sliding just a wee bit backwards in the race to manufacture the slimmest, lightest mobile gear around.

The second key difference between the iPad 2 and “the new iPad” (come on, Apple, choose a name already) comes to light as soon as you turn on the screen. Packed with a 2048 x 1536 resolution, and pixel density of 264 pixels per inch, the new tablet’s so-called “Retina Display” is a sight to see.

It doesn’t boast the 326ppi spec of the iPhone 4 and 4S, but during our brief demo we couldn’t discern any difference in display quality between Apple’s best smartphones and newest tablet. This alone would seem to support the company’s overall promise that in a Retina Display, individual pixels melt into nothingness, leaving nothing but brilliant, near continuous-tone images in their wake.

To be sure, the new iPad’s display is drop-dead gorgeous, as well as notably bright. We scrutinized a bunch of high-resolution images pulled from Apple’s new iPhoto app, and found display quality on the new iPad to be sublime. Just one problem, though: All its brilliance notwithstanding, the iPad Retina Display didn’t show us anything that iPhone 4 and 4S users haven’t seen before.

Yes, the pixel density is world-class, but the Retina Display is no longer breath-taking the way it was when it was first introduced in June 2010. It’s a welcome addition to the iPad line, yes, but it no longer reeks of breakthrough technology.

It was much harder to evaluate other new features during our brief hands-on demo. The new iPad supports 4G data speeds, but demo units were locked down to Wi-Fi during Apple’s event, so we can’t comment on the 4G experience. And while we were able to snap images with the new iSight camera, we couldn’t evaluate resulting image quality against competing sensors (including the iPad 2’s).

As for the new A5x processor — which boasts dual-core CPU functionality, but a with quad-core graphics engine — we found performance in Safari web browsing and Infinity Blade Dungeons to be blissfully zippy. But, again, without some semblance of comparative testing, it’s difficult to comment on what performance bumps, if any, the new processor provides.

Only a full review will tell the complete story, so please stay tuned for our final, hands-on critique. For now, just enjoy our pretty iPad pictures.

Article courtesy of Jon Phillips at Gadget Lab:

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