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Should you upgrade from iPad 2? Should you buy a new 4th-gen iPad instead?
, March 17, 2012
This review is from: Apple iPad MD364LL/A (32GB, Wi-Fi + Verizon 4G, White) 3rd Generation (Personal Computers)
UPDATE November 2012
As you know, Apple has just discontinued this 3rd-generation model and replaced it with a 4th generation iPad. This is good news if you're a buyer. You have the option of buying the newest iPad. But you have another option that I think is pretty attractive: buying a used 3rd-generation iPad at a much reduced price.
The differences between the 3rd and 4th generation iPads are mostly minor and won't affect the actual experience of using the device for many folks. The 3rd and 4th gen iPads have the same wonderful retina display, they are the same size and weight, and they have the same battery life.
So what's different? The 4th gen iPad has a faster chip and Apple tweaked the wifi and cellular connectivity. But as an owner, I can tell you that the 3rd-gen iPad is plenty fast and the internet connectivity via wifi or 3G/4G cellular is excellent. Really excellent.
The 4th gen iPad has a different type of connector, so if you have previously invested in speaker docks and other accessories designed for the old connector, it'll be harder to use them with the new iPad (you'll need to buy adapters, and even they don't solve all compatibility problems). I have a new iPhone 5 that has this new type of connector, and while I love the phone, the incompatibility problems with my existing accessories are frustrating.
The introduction of the latest iPad last week is already causing the prices of 3rd-gen iPads to drop--even though they are at most 7 months old. It should be very possible to find a like-new 3rd gen iPad that's maybe 5-6 months old at a much lower price. This is an option worth considering.
As for me, I'm still very happy with my 3rd-gen iPad and I plan to keep it for a couple more years.
My original review follows, with a few minor edits and updates to reflect new information.
This review is for iPad 2 owners trying to decide whether to upgrade to the 3rd generation iPad. It also might be helpful for people deciding between buying a 3rd-gen iPad the now-cheaper iPad 2.
I was perfectly happy with my iPad 2, a wifi-only model with 32gb. When Apple announced the 3rd generation iPad, I typed up a long list of reasons why I shouldn't buy it. And then I bought one anyway. (I'll be giving my iPad 2 to my parents.)
You've probably already know what features the 3rd-gen iPad has, and how the specs compare to the iPad 2's specs. But comparing specs on paper is different than comparing the actual experience of using the two products, and the experience matters more than the specs. I can tell you which of those features, at least to me, really makes the experience of using the new iPad better. And there's only one: the display.
I do a lot of reading on the iPad, and this is where the retina display really matters. Text is very sharp, even for very small fonts, and this makes reading on iPad much more comfortable. I've been reading Steve Jobs on my iPad 2 (using the Kindle app); I read the next chapter on the retina iPad and then tried to read the following chapter on the iPad 2 again, and going back to the iPad 2 was unpleasant. I had similar results when I compared reading articles on websites using Safari and when reading a few pages of War and Peace in the iBooks app on the retina iPad vs. iPad 2. After reading on the new iPad, you just won't want to go back to reading on iPad 2.
If you read a lot on your iPad, this to me is a compelling reason to upgrade, and perhaps the only compelling reason.
What about photos? Videos? Games? Here, you can tell the difference, and the retina display is better. But in terms of how much the retina display increases my enjoyment of viewing pictures, video, and games, it is not enough to justify the cost of upgrading.
On both iPads, I compared hi-res pictures I took at the Chicago Botanic Gardens using a DSLR with a good lens. On iPad 2, your eye can indeed discern individual pixels if you look closely enough, whereas on the retina iPad, it's like looking at a real print of the photo. But after looking at the pictures on the retina iPad, and even noticing the differences, it was still quite nice to view them again on the iPad 2. Similarly for video: I watched a scene from the Breaking Bad season 4 finale on both devices, and while it looked a bit better on the retina iPad, it still looked great on iPad 2. Streaming hi-res movie trailers looked better on the retina iPad, but still looked great on iPad 2. For streaming video from Netflix, I could not tell any difference, most likely because the resolution of the source material isn't any higher than the iPad 2's display.
I'm less of a gamer than most iPad users, but I did try Sky Gamblers: Air Supremacy (a game supposedly optimized for the retina display) and Plants vs. Zombies HD (an older game). PvZ looks exactly the same on both, Sky Gamblers looks better on the retina iPad but it still looks very awesome on the iPad 2.
In short, you can notice the difference the retina display makes for photos, videos, and games. Yet, the experience of using the iPad 2 is still quite excellent. The fact is that, even at a lower resolution, the iPad 2's IPS display is exceptional.
What about the other specs? Is it worth upgrading to get a newer processor, for example?
No. I really don't notice a difference in performance. The 3rd-gen iPad is super fast, but so is iPad 2. Some apps load a little faster, others I can't tell. But the speed difference, if any, isn't enough to make the 3rd-gen iPad more enjoyable to use than iPad 2.
What about battery life? The retina display has 4x the pixels of the iPad 2 display and requires a lot more power, which would drain the battery faster. But the new iPad also comes with a much bigger battery inside (that's why it's 1/10 of an inch thicker and an ounce or so heavier than iPad 2). Apple says battery life is about the same, and that seems to be true in my experience in seven months I bought it.
What about the improved camera? Sure, it takes better pictures than the joke of a camera on iPad 2. But do most people use their iPad for photography, anyway? If you have an iPhone 4 or newer, your camera is just as good or better as the camera on the 3rd-gen iPad, and taking pictures with the cameras on iPhone and most smart-phones is more convenient than using the iPad. Ditto for most smartphones. And only the rear-facing camera was improved; the front-facing camera is just as crappy as before. And that's a shame, because the front camera is the one I'd actually use (for skype and facetime).
What about dictation? I find it works about 80%, less in a noisy room. Sure, it is easier to dictate and then edit the few errors that result than to type something from scratch on the iPad's on-screen keyboard. But I don't think most people will use the dictation feature enough for it to matter in the upgrade decision. People who write a lot on the iPad will already have an external keyboard (or should get one).
So, for me, the only new feature that matters enough to justify the upgrade from iPad 2 is the retina display.
But there's one other reason you might upgrade: If your iPad 2 is a wifi-only model and you think it would be handy to also have 3G/4G connectivity. (Or, if you bought an iPad 2 with 3G and you never use the 3G, now is your chance to buy an iPad without it and save $130.) I bought a new iPad with 4G so that I could use it when I'm traveling and away from a hotspot. Which isn't very often, but I figured it would be handy to have.
What about 3G vs. 4G? If you have an iPad 2 with 3G, should you upgrade to enjoy the faster speed of 4G? The answer is only if you use it a lot.
4G on the new iPad is very fast. My iPad 2 doesn't have 3G, so I can't say how much faster. My verizon iphone 4S has 3G and it's way slower than a wifi connection, but 4G on the new iPad is at least as fast as a good wifi connection.
That said, the cellular service is not cheap, so most people use it only when wifi is not available, which is not very often. You have wifi at home, at work perhaps, at most coffee shops and libraries and hotels. The exception would be people that have an expensive plan with a high data allowance; if that's you and you use cellular connectivity a lot, then you have a good reason to upgrade. 4G is crazy fast.
A reader emailed me another good reason to consider an iPad with cellular connectivity (4G on the 3rd-generation iPad, 3G on the iPad 2) instead of just the wifi-only model. iPads with 3G or 4G also have a true GPS receiver built-in that will work anywhere you can get a cellular internet connection.
(Actually, the GPS radio inside the 3G/4G ipads will pick up a signal anywhere, even if you're not in a location with service; but you can't see your location on a map unless you either (1) have internet access so that the maps can be accessed from the cloud, or (2) pre-download the maps to your device, but they will take up a TON of space, at least a few GB, depending on the app you're using.)
The wifi-only model can estimate your location when you are connected to a wifi hotspot based on the location of the hotspot. But it's less precise than the true GPS that comes in the 3G iPad 2 or 4G new iPad. And, the location features of the wifi-only iPads don't work when you're moving (as in a car, plane, or boad) or away from a wifi hotspot.
But the 4G model contains a true GPS chip. It is very precise, and combined with 4G connectivity, your iPad can take advantage of some great navigation apps. For example, your iPad can effectively become a Garmin with a huge 10" display. And there are lots of apps for hiking in the national parks, or fishing, or aviation, that take full advantage of the GPS inside the iPad models with 3G or 4G.
Thanks very much to the reader who emailed me this info; I'd forgotten to include it, even though I use and love the GPS mapping on my iPad.
But back to the main point of my review, whether to upgrade from iPad 2. Upgrading is a tough call, because it's expensive. The difference between what you'll get if you sell your iPad 2 and what you'll spend for a similarly configured retina iPad is probably around $250, maybe a little more. And if you upgrade, you might want more memory since apps designed for the retina display take up more space than standard apps designed for the iPad 2's display.
I recommend that most iPad 2 owners upgrade only if they really want or need the retina display, especially for people who do a lot of reading on iPad. Or, if they bought a wifi-only iPad 2 and always regretted not getting cellular internet, now's their chance.
If neither of these is true for you, stick with your iPad 2. It is still an absolutely great device, and still a very worthy purchase for people who want an ipad but can't afford or don't need the retina display.
UPDATE APRIL 22
Still very happy after 5 weeks. Excellent battery life, and no heat problems as some have reported.
In case you're considering a 4G iPad with Verizon, you should know that Verizon offers two types of service plans. You should know the difference between them before you buy. I didn't, and it was a hassle and unnecessary expense.
The two plans are "post-paid" and "pre-paid." Pre-paid has no activation fee. Post-paid has a $35 activation fee. The cheapest pre-paid plan is $20/month for 1 gig. The cheapest post-paid plan is $30/month for 2 gigs. So if you use wi-fi as much as possible and don't use 3G/4G a lot, you've got 2 reasons to choose pre-paid.
The pre-paid plan also has an option for 2 gigs for $30, same price as the post-paid plan, and you can pre-pay for larger amounts of data for the same prices you'd pay with the post-paid plan. So you really don't give up anything by choosing the pre-paid plan, as far as I can tell.
You control the pre-paid plan from the ipad itself (under settings > cellular). You can easily set up the account, choose the option you want, buy more data if you need it, and do all this without any help from Verizon customer service. Furthermore, you can purchase data only when you'll need it, with no activation fees, ever.
You control the post-paid plan from the verizon website. You can "suspend" service when you don't need it, for a limited amount of time, and you won't be billed during this time. If you suspend it, better write down in your calendar when the suspension will end, because you'll start getting billed automatically on that date. I think there are restrictions on how many times per year you can suspend the service, and how long you can suspend it for. There are no such restrictions on the pre-paid plan.
I bought my iPad at a Verizon store and, without explaining the differences between these plans, they set up my iPad for the post-paid plan before I left the store. I didn't find out about the different plans until a month later when I got my first bill and saw the $35 activation fee and the $30 charge for 2 gigs. I thought I was going to be paying $20 for 1 gig.
I called VZ customer service, learned about the two plans, and asked to switch from post-paid to pre-paid. This turned out to be a hassle. The two types of plans are managed by completely separate departments that don't communicate well with each other. One department turns off your post-paid plan, which fries the sim card in your iPad. Before you can start a pre-paid plan, you have to get another sim card. Some verizon stores believe that they are not allowed by corporate to give you or sell you a sim card unless they install it and activate it to a new account, and you don't want that if you're switching to pre-paid; I had to go to two different stores with calls to customer service in between to get my sim card. Once I had the sim card, it was super easy to replace the fried one and then set up my pre-paid plan.
I learned that Verizon stores make a commission when they sell you a post-paid plan. That's probably why the guy set me up with a post-paid plan when I bought the iPad. He acted like he was doing me a favor by setting up my device. That's shameful, and all of this is a huge surprise to me - I've been with Verizon for 8 years and generally had excellent customer service, both on the phone and in Verizon corporate stores.
Despite these hassles, I still recommend Verizon to folks considering an iPad with 4G cellular. Verizon's 4G service covers way more of the U.S. than AT&T's 4G service. And you can avoid the hassles I experienced by telling the Verizon store NOT to set you up on a post-paid plan when you buy the iPad - or, better yet, buy it from an Apple store.
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