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Apple iPad: The retina display redefines the tablet

Melissa J. Perenson | March 19, 2012
The 2012 refresh of the Apple iPad wows, but not for the reasons so often associated with Apple products.

Most telling to me were the results of our still-image tests. In a group-portrait photo that matches the iPad's native resolution, the new iPad showed the most realistic skin tones and the best handling of neutral browns we've seen yet; for one person in the photo, the reddish highlights in the hair were evident for the first time on a tablet (usually, those highlights simply blend into brown). On a 4K-pixel still image that we let iTunes optimize for display on the iPad, we saw outstanding detail and more subtle color gradations than we've seen on any other tablet to date. The image popped with a sense of dimensionality we haven't seen on tablets.

Text was crisp, with no jaggies in sight. However, while text universally looked lovely on the display--not surprising given its outstanding 264 pixels per inch--we quickly noticed that the iPad's Retina display and Apple's upscaling can't perform miracles. Web images, as well as graphics in games, apps, and many magazines in the Newsstand, looked disappointingly fuzzy and overblown on the new iPad. The apps will catch up, eventually; it's a simply a matter of developer time and resources. Until then, be prepared for mixed results with your apps.

iPad Inside and Out

To be honest, I decided to focus so much on the display in this review because anyone who is buying a new iPad is likely doing so for that feature alone. Some people will rave about the 4G speeds, should they take that option; others may point to the quad-core graphics engine, which should make iPad gaming even better than it is today. For anyone considering the upgrade quandary--whether an iPad with a Retina display is worth the money, versus an iPad 2 at $100 less--the answer is yes, the display alone is worth the extra outlay. You'll feel the difference every time you read on the tablet, every time you use an app with optimized graphics, and every time you view your pictures.

You'll also see the difference whenever you play or capture a 1080p movie, or take photos with the new 5-megapixel camera (now dubbed "iSight," and vastly improved over the iPad 2's pitiful less-than-1-megapixel camera). The camera app was a pleasure to use compared with those on the Android tablets we've looked at, too. Sure, it lacks the finer exposure controls that the Android models offer, but Apple's app simply works more smoothly--it's quicker to focus, and it's more responsive overall, which means you're more likely to get the shot you're after.

Inside the iPad, Apple has applied moderate improvements to the tablet's guts. The new slate runs on an A5X dual-core Cortex A9-based system-on-chip, but it now has a quad-core graphics engine. That translates into what appears to be reasonably powerful graphics muscle, and solid overall performance. In the benchmark tests we ran at launch, the iPad excelled at some metrics, as you can see in the GLBenchmark 2.1.2 charts below.


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