iPad 2: Initial Impressions

After spending my first week with Apple’s latest tablet, I offer a few cursory observations on — and from — my iPad 2.

Design

Upon removing it from its box, I was immediately struck by how slim the iPad 2 is. I was familiar with the fact that iPad 2 is thinner than iPhone 4, but it isn’t until you actually hold it that you fully appreciate what that svelteness translates to ergonomically.

Despite its slenderness, the build quality of iPad 2 is rock solid. The glass and aluminum unibody design is as strong as it is simple. In handling it, I could detect no flex or weak points in iPad 2. Although I wouldn’t call it a tank, it’s a far cry from being fragile. If you’re not one to baby your tech, there’s little need to worry — the iPad 2 should handle the rigors of daily life in the home or on the go admirably.

Having said that, if you are OCD like me, the iPad 2 can seem like your worst nightmare. The finger-friendly touchscreen picks up prints as easily as pinching to zoom. Although residue is barely visible during use, that slightly oily feeling is perceptible enough to be off-putting. Luckily, iPad 2’s display has an oleophobic coating that makes wiping that grease away a trivial task.

The aluminum backside is another thing that I find irksome. As much as I love aluminum as a material, it simply isn’t resistant enough to scuffs and scratches for a mobile device (one reason I love the glass back of the iPhone 4). The finish seems harder and smoother than that of a MacBook Pro, but matte unlike the mirror polished back of the iPod Touch. Even still, mine had scuffs on the corner by the sleep/wake button right out of the box, presumably from chafing within the packaging while shipping. I also noticed a few tiny nicks and dings along the edges that encase the glass. From someone who considers the iPhone 4 an objet d’art, the iPad 2 doesn’t quite exude the level of care and attention to detail as the iPhone 4.

It is still quite the specimen though. Given its physical dimensions, one could easily mistake it for a pad of paper were it not for one thing — its weight. Although 1.35lbs doesn’t seem like much, spread over a nearly 70-sq. in. surface area, the heft is definitely noticeable, especially when holding the iPad 2 in one hand for prolonged periods. The weight seems to become more inconsequential the more you use it, but if Apple can bring the iPad’s weight down to under a pound, I could really see it leading the charge toward a paperless society.

Display

The second I booted up my iPad 2 for the first time, I was dismayed to find a dead pixel smack dab in the center of the screen. Dead pixels are not uncommon in a display this size, but when you’ve spent hundreds of dollars on a product from a company that is legendary for its attention to detail, you can’t help but be a little disappointed. In general use, that sole dead pixel has been unnoticeable — only when the surrounding area is dark can you really spot it. In other words, it does nothing to detract from the overall experience except, perhaps, psychologically.

Speaking of pixels, coming from an iPhone 4, they are really noticeable. The iPad 2’s XVGA resolution is respectable, but make no mistake about it, this is no Retina Display. Apart from the decidedly average pixel density, the iPad 2’s display compares very nicely to the iPhone 4. Colors pop, viewing angles are fantastic, and the overall impression is of high quality.

An iPad screen with crystal clarity is only a matter of time. In the meantime, I’m hopeful that Apple will vastly improve their anti-aliasing software in iOS. This would go a long way in enhancing the perceived sharpness of graphics and especially text on the iPad mitigating the need for a Retina Display.

As others have reported, I did notice some backlight bleeding around the edges at the default brightness setting (50%) when dark colors are being displayed. In practice, however, I haven’t found myself in a situation where this detracts from the user experience. Overall, besides the pixellation — and that infernal dead pixel — I’ve been very happy with the iPad 2’s display.

Connectivity

After some deliberation, I opted for the 32GB black iPad 2 with AT&T 3G. Since I wasn’t planning on loading music on the iPad 2, I figured 32GB would be enough for photos, apps, books and games with enough space for several movies while traveling.

The decision to pay the $130 premium for a 3G model when I already own an iPhone capable of slinging WiFi was a tough one, but I based it on two main factors. For one, unlike iPhones sold in the US, all GSM iPads are unlocked. I plan on taking a trip to India this summer, so having the option to drop in a local SIM to use mobile broadband abroad at local rates is worth the extra price. Second, unlocked 3G capabilities will likely command a higher resale value if I decide I want to upgrade to iPad 3.

I am currently taking advantage of AT&T’s promotional offer that gives you one free month of 2GB of data when you sign up for the 2GB Personal DataConnect Plan for iPad. Call 1-888-237-5888 or visit your local AT&T Store to sign up (unfortunately, you can’t accept the offer by signing up for data service on the iPad itself).

For anyone with a GSM iPad, I highly recommend taking up on AT&T’s offer while it lasts. There is no activation fee and the plan is commitment-free. Simply cancel before the end of the month if you wish not to be billed. You’re still liable for overage fees, though — $10 for each additional GB after the first two.

I’ve found AT&T’s data service on the iPad to be similar to that of the iPhone — generally fast and reliable, at least in the central Massachusetts and Boston areas I frequent. An informal test of AT&T’s mobile broadband on my iPad 2 using the SpeedTest.net app reveals download and upload speeds of slightly over 4Mb/s and 1Mb/s with 285ms latency — not bad at all. Your mileage will vary by location, but generally speaking, if you get good AT&T coverage, their mobile broadband will not disappoint.

The iPad 2 is the first 3G device I’ve owned that I am not planning to connect with my home WiFi network regularly. It will be interesting to see how much data I burn through over the course of a month. I’m also eager to test the quality of India’s 3G network when I visit there in May.

Performance

Having only used it for a week, I have little of substance to say regarding the iPad 2’s performance thus far. I plan on doing a full review next month after having more time with the device, but I will say that I have yet to experience any lag using it.

Apple’s buttery smooth scrolling is all the more evident on the iPad 2 and all general tasks like opening or switching between apps and browsing the web have been seamless. Even streaming a Wallace & Gromit short from the Netflix app over 3G proved to be no problem for the iPad 2. Other than a few third-party apps quitting unexpectedly — which is likely more a developer issue than Apple’s — the iPad 2 has worked without a hitch. I’m eager to see developers push the A5 chip to its limits, especially in the graphics department.

One other quick note: The battery life on the iPad 2 is impressive. Even over 3G, I was able to go a few days on a full charge with moderately heavy use. I can definitely see the iPad 2 edging out my MacBook Pro as a travel companion on long flights.

Experience

Anyone familiar with the iPhone or iPod Touch user interface will be right at home with the iPad. Apple has a knack for designing a user experience that is as simple as it is delightful to use, and the iPad 2 is more of the same. Although the iPad certainly looks like a larger iPod Touch, you are really doing the iPad disservice considering it as such. The larger screen size isn’t merely a quantitative difference — it’s qualitative, too. Multitouch gestures are much more natural on the iPad’s 9.7″ screen and open up a whole new world in the area of touch/gesture-based computing. Even simple things like zooming and typing feel fresh on the iPad.

The combination of a large multitouch screen with precise motion-sensing and location-awareness makes the iPad an exciting platform to use and develop for. Given new input paradigms, the ways in which we consume, interact, and create need to be redesigned accordingly for tablets. This space is still very young, so expect to see some major changes in software design as more developers embrace the strengths of tablets and free their minds of the old input conventions tied to the traditional personal computer.

Impression

While the iPad is certainly no replacement for a PC, I firmly believe multitouch, gesture-based computing will eventually supplant the keyboard and mouse as the dominant input paradigm in the next 5-10 years. PCs will not fade into oblivion, but the iPad is the beginning of that shift away from the PC’s dominance as a computing platform. And let me tell you, after only a week with the iPad 2, this is the first piece of technology that I’ve used in a long while that makes me believe that this is the future.