A new iPad (3rd generation) review: it’s all about the Retina baby

The new iPad has been out for a couple of days now, and while most early adopters have had their minds made up since the announcement a couple of weeks ago, there are still a lot of people on the fence about whether or not the new iPad is worth the upgrade. Instead of giving you just one opinion throughout the review, Grant Brunner and myself teamed up to provide you with a collborative review of the new iPad. Who says what isn’t that important, but we’re hoping that it provides a more even keel to our review. We also provide three very distinct conclusions in our footer so you can see what a few of our writers think about the new iPad.

We hope you enjoy what we have to say. Let’s get started.

The Display: Retinafied

Easily the most hyped element of the new iPad, the Retina display was bound to turn some heads. It’s funny, up until opening up the new iPad, I would have sworn that the iPad 2 was crisp, and that we didn’t really need a Retina display in the iPad. As it turns out, I was painfully wrong. The new iPad’s display is so clear that it feels like I’m looking at print quality graphics. It’s really difficult to put into words just how magnificent the Retina display is in the new iPad. I mean, after spending five minutes with the new iPad, I’m starting to wonder how I’ve been able to stand looking at my Cinema Display for the last couple of years. It’s that good.

The new iPad’s display, by the numbers, has a whopping 2048-by-1536 resolution, 3.1 million pixels, and 44 percent greater color saturation over the last edition of the iPad. When putting that much information onto a 9.7-inch display (the same as the last two iPads), the color depth and clarity of the device is astounding.

The display: icons and pixels

We lined up two apps that were updated for the Retina display, and compared them to two apps that haven’t gotten any Retina love yet. As you can see, Calendar and Safari are way clearer in the screenshot. For clarity’s sakes, the above image is a direct screen shot taken from the new iPad, and then cropped to fit out post box. We have not resized the image in any way, shape or form. The screenshot, pictured above, exaggerates the clarity a little bit because the icons above appear bigger in size than they would on the iPad. That being said, this example illustrates the extra pixel available to developers on the iPad.

In-app differences

The first thing you’re going to notice is that text is ridiculously sharp on the new iPad once an app supports the Retina display. Again, it’s difficult to get an idea of just how clear the text is on the new iPad through images alone, but above is a side-by-side comparison from Readability. The article I’ve used for illustrative purposes is Jim Dalrymple’s excellent iPad 3 review. The text on the left (above) is all from a non-Retina iPad, while the text on the right is from the new iPad. As you can see in the larger example, text is a lot clearer at the same size. Again, you should probably look at the displays side-by-side and draw your own conclusions; these images just aren’t doing the display justice. For clarity’s sake, in the above image we shrunk the third generation’s text to match the older generation’s display in the top half of the image, and then we expanded the second generation’s text to match the size of the new iPad in the last part of the image. We figured it would be best to show you both ways, so you can get a better idea of how clear the text can be at similar sizes on both iPads.

New iPad, Same iPad Size

We’re pretty sure that the biggest thing you’re worrying about is having to update all of your cases and docks for the new iPad. The height of the iPad is 9.5 inches (241.2mm), the width is 7.31 inches (185.7mm), and finally the depth of the device comes in at 0.37 inches (9.4mm). How does that compare to the original iPad and the iPad 2?

Sizing info

Moving from an iPad 2 to the new iPad (iPad 3) won’t be that big of a deal for you. The majority of the cases you currently own for your iPad 2 will work for your new iPad. We’ve tested the new iPad in a number of cases we had kicking around the office, and in every single test, the new iPad fit snuggly in the iPad 2 case. Results may vary depending on the case, but like we said, you should be fine with your iPad 2 case.

The dimensions

To compare, here are the dimensions of the three iPads:

New iPad (3): height: 9.5 inches, width: 7.2 inches, depth: 0.37 inches.
iPad 2: height: 9.50 inches, width: 7.31 inches, depth: 0.34 inches.
iPad 1: height: 9.6 inches, width: 7.47 inches, depth: 0.5 inches.

Weight info

One thing you’ll notice is that the new iPad is heavier than the iPad 2, but lighter than the original iPad. Right out of the box we noticed the weight difference. It’s only 0.115 lb (49 g), but we would be lying if we said we didn’t notice. That being said, having spent an entire year with the original iPad, we didn’t find the weight to be an issue, so we doubt that the new iPad will put much strain on your arms.

While we’re not 100 percent sure where the extra weight comes from, we’re pretty confident that the added bulk is due to the new battery, which is denser than the old one (needed to power the Retina display). If the cost of a Retina display is only 0.115 lb, we’re not going to complain. The trade off is worth it.

The skinny

Here are the weights of the three iPads:

New iPad: 1.44 lb (650 g)
iPad 2: 1.325 lb (601 g)
iPad 1: 1.5 lb (680 g)

Comparison to the previous iPads

If you want to see a higher resolution version, just click here.

Yes, the new iPad is slightly thicker than the iPad 2, but you can barely notice it. Laying out the third and second generations of iPads next to each other, it is almost impossible to tell them apart with their screens off. The difference is so minor, it is pretty difficult to get it to show up in pictures in any meaningful way.

That said, the new iPad is significantly thinner than the first iPad. In fact, looking at them side by side, it seems almost cute that we thought that the first iPad was thin. Compared to the new iPad, the first generation is a hulking beast. Compared to the iPad 2, the new iPad is almost imperceptibly thicker.

Under the Hood: We Need Moah Powah

Like the iPad 2 before it, the new iPad has received a pretty substantial upgrade under the hood. This time, the new iPad has a full 1 GB of RAM and an A5x processor that features a quad-core GPU that Apple claims is four times more powerful than Nvidia’s Tegra 3 setup. Early reports have the A5X, ARMv7 dual-core processor clocked at 1GHz, which weighs in at the same speed as the iPad 2. Those reports, based on Geekbench benchmark results, failed to take into account the GPU power, so the new iPad could be quite a bit quicker than its predecessor; it certainly feels like it is at this point.

Actually, how does it feel?

It feels faster than both my iPad 2 and my iPhone 4S, which isn’t all that surprising given the spec differences. This thing not only boots up a lot quicker than the previous version, but it also simply outshines the iPad 2 when it comes to what matters the most — gaming. Apple wasn’t joking around when they said during the keynote that this iPad has more power under the hood than the Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and Wii. Take Air Supremacy and Infinity Blade II as cases in point. Both games work just fine on the iPad 2, but on the new iPad they load quicker, have smoother transitions, and way less pixelation. All of those things are a direct result of the power under the hood that drives the Retina display.

The Front and Rear-Facing Cameras

A lot of time was spent on the cameras in the new iPad during the big keynote earlier this month. Apple, and more specifically Phil Schiller, pointed out that, “when that camera gets of such quality and capability that you’re proud to use it as an everyday camera for photographs we call it … an iSight camera.”

The rear iSight camera has a 5-megapixel backside illuminated sensor, the optics system from the iPhone 4S, a five element lens, and an IR filter. I was pumped when I heard all that goodness was coming to the iPad.

How does the camera do?

I have to say, I’m pretty disappointed. I know a lot of people get high quality photos out of their iPhones and iPads, but I’m not one of those people. Under ideal studio lighting, the cameras look great for me, but anytime I’m trying to take a video or photo in real life, they’re often grainy and leave a lot ot be desired. The new iPad is more of the same. Since most of us use these cameras in the heat of the moment, hoping to capture stolen moments, I thought I’d try to replicate such scenarios to test out the new iPad’s cameras. So I just whipped out the camera, focused in on a note card I had lying around on my desk, and  snapped some picks. Once I was done there, I set off outside to quickly take a photo of the neighbouring backyard, with the sun at my back (it was pretty cloudy out). In my opinion, these are fairly normal situations that occur every day in an iPad user’s life, making it an ideal experiment to test the iPad’s cameras. Here’s how it all played out:

Indoor – Front-facing cameraIndoor – Rear-facing cameraOutdoor – Front-facing cameraOutdoor – Rear-facing camera

Now, it could just be my abysmal photography skills that made these pretty bad, but when I snapped a shot, things got pretty grainy in a hurry. The best images by far, both in the sample above and others taken after my little experiment, were those taken outside.

It is important to note that most people probably use an iPhone to snap pictures over their iPads, so the camera in the new iPad isn’t nearly as important as the camera in the iPhone 4S. That being said, I had a very difficult time getting quality shots from the iPad.

Voice Dictation, No Siri

Thoughts on dictation

Typing on the iPad, while not at all bad, is less than productive. Schlepping around a bluetooth keyboard is missing the point of a tablet, no? Well, we think the addition of voice dictation to the new iPad is just perfect. Traveling with an iPad is super easy — especially in the United States. Laptops usually have to come out of your travel bag during security scans at airports, but an iPad can just stay in your backpack. It makes a big difference in the weight of your bag and the amount of hassle you have to go through at the airport. And now, with voice dictation, we can dictate an email with minimal editing and send it, all on the iPad. With this added functionality, the need for a full-fledged laptop has gone away for a non-trivial number of people.

Sorry, Charlie, no Siri

What is somewhat strange is the lack of Apple’s now famous personal assistant Siri. Clearly, the voice recognition in the iPad is good enough for dictation, but the rest of the Siri functions are unavailable. Well, many people are subscribing to the theory that since Siri’s servers are already struggling under the iPhone 4S’s load, a huge wave of new iPads trying to use Siri would take out the poor girl. When Apple takes Siri out of beta, we hope to see the third generation iPad get full Siri support, but we won’t hold our breath.

Charging Times

The new iPad comes with an amazingly high capacity battery. That means you’ll get great battery life even though you’re looking at four times the pixels and surfing on LTE. The small downside to that great capacity is that it takes longer to charge the device than your previous iPad. While this new iPad hasn’t been out long enough for us to do any serious charging time tests, reports are coming in everywhere that, while it does take longer, it probably won’t affect you very much. That makes sense since the iPad’s charge lasts so damn long. Big deal if it takes a little longer to charge when you only have to charge it every three or four days. This is just simply a non-issue.

Video to Apple TV

1080p playback to Apple TV 3

The third generation of Apple TV that was just released will output 1920 by 1080 (1080p) content to an HDTV. That means that if you have shiny new 1080p content from iTunes (or your own *cough* alternate content) on your iPad, when you play the video on the Apple TV over AirPlay, it will now show full 1080p content. That’s right — your iPad wirelessly streams video of roughly the same quality as a Blu-Ray to the new $99 Apple TV. Damn, that is pretty impressive. We’d love to see any other tablet that can do that as quickly or as seamlessly.

Screen mirroring

Now that everything has such high resolution, your iPad has never looked so good. Its Retina display has over a million more pixels than an HDTV, but that doesn’t make the screen mirroring function any less cool. Your brand spanking new iPad will take advantage of the (Black) Apple TV’s HDMI connection to show off whatever is on your screen. Keep in mind, the Apple TV 2 is less powerful, so your milage may vary.


While the industry talks up how great LTE is, people outside of major metro areas aren’t even likely to have LTE yet. Luckily, Dover, DE, is covered by Verizon 4G LTE, so I was able to test it out.

Verizon LTE speed test in Dover, DE

Eh, it’s not slow, but it’s no 70 MBps.

About 10 minutes north of Dover is a town called Smyrna. This town only has Verizon’s 3G EVDO service.

Verizon 3G speed test in Smyrna, DE

That is slow and pretty terrible.

Even if you have LTE coverage, it might not be exactly what is hyped. While we can say that some locations like the Denver Airport have great 4G speeds, not everywhere does. That said, it is only going to get better from here on out, so this gripe is time sensitive and really fairly minor.

Final Thoughts

Joshua Schnell

Buying this iPad over the iPad 2 is going to be a hot debate for a lot of people. The cash savings on the iPad 2 (now $399.00) versus the Retina display and extra horsepower in the new iPad is what the internal mental dialog should be weighing at this point. Everything else is secondary. The new iPad is quicker, and the screen is substantially better than the iPad 2. If you’re not keen on saving your cash, the upgrade for the Retina display alone is worth it. But, if you don’t think you’re going to need that ultra-sharp display, I lean towards recommending you wait for the next edition of the iPad. If you decide to save some cash and go for the iPad 2, I very strongly encourage you to never, and I do mean never ever, look at someone’s third generation iPad. Once you do, you’ll never look at that iPad 2 screen again in the same way. The love affair with the iPad 2 will be over faster than it started because the new iPad’s display is just that amazing.

Grant Brünner

Using the new iPad for more than a couple of minutes makes using an old, non-Retina iPad seem a lot harder. If the only user-facing feature was the updated display, the price of entry would be worth it. As it stands, the Retina display, updated camera, LTE capability, and slight increase in speed make the new iPad worth every penny. If you’re interested, and you have the money to spare without starving or missing your bills, pull the trigger. You won’t be disappointed if this is your first iPad or third. You’ll love it, hands down.

I have owned the first generation Wi-Fi-only iPad, the Wi-Fi-only iPad 2, and now an LTE-enabled iPad. I was somewhat surprised that I could notice the weight difference right off the bat, but that faded to the background immediately. It feels much the same as the iPad 2, but so much clearer and more vibrant. I’m thrilled with the purchase, and I can’t wait for each and every app I use to be updated to take advantage of the Retina display. Playing games at Retina resolution is absolutely wonderful and helps the immersion factor immensely. Go get your own, and come back and tell us why you love it.

Nic Lake

The first time I saw the home screen of the new iPad, I was hooked. Everything just looks so stunning and crisp. Retina-ready apps like Tweetbot and Reeder dazzle, while some apps that have yet to update seem fuzzy and low-tech. Many of the apps will obviously be upgraded, so have no fear. The system still blazes, with apps ready to go almost as soon as you launch them. The “fingerprint-resistent glass” still sucks, and I’m constantly wiping it down with the case or the microfiber cloth I have, but this is to be expected with a screen that I’m practically salivating over. And while the battery will run for 10 hours, the increased capacity means that charging is much, much slower than the Apple devices that I’m used to. Not a deal breaker, but something to be aware of.

Should you buy it? If you’re looking to get your first iPad, this would be a great one to pick up. iPad 1 owners (who, in my eyes, were the primary target of this update) should also feel no hesitation about pulling the trigger. iPad 2 owners might need to mull this over a bit more, but there are many retailers like Gazelle that will still give you a fair chunk of change for your old model. And this screen looks really, REALLY nice.

Joshua is the Content Marketing Manager at BuySellAds. He’s also the founder of Macgasm.net. And since all that doesn’t quite give him enough content to wrangle, he’s also a technology journalist in his spare time, with bylines at PCWorld, Macworld… Full Bio