I’ve had the iPad 2 (s aapl) for just under a week now (it’ll be exactly a week Saturday morning), and during that time, I’ve gotten a lot of use out of the device. I even leaned on it heavily during an unscheduled emergency archive and reinstall of OS X on my main work Mac. So how do I feel about Apple’s latest tablet after a decent amount of time using it, and do I still think it’s a worthwhile upgrade for owners of the first-gen iPad? Read on to find out.
Same UX, but Better All Around
This shouldn’t surprise anyone, but the iPad 2 provides the same great user experience as the original version. It’s that experience which makes it hard for competitors to come close when it comes to tablet market share, and it doesn’t feel any less impressive despite the lack of any major iOS overhauls since its introduction. (The addition of third-party apps is probably the single most significant change, despite features like multitasking, push notifications, and so on).
User experience benefits from the iPad 2’s improved hardware specifications. The dual-core A5 processor and 512 MB of DRAM provide noticeable speed improvements throughout the OS and apps, and animations look and feels smoother. You’ve probably seen the number around browser performance, but in terms of actual usage, the difference makes the original iPad feel sluggish by comparison. It’s sort of like when you get a new computer even though your last one isn’t very old. It doesn’t seem like performance could be all that much better, but the cumulative effect of under-the-hood improvements really changes the overall experience, even when OS and software all remain the same.
Smart Cover Is Amazing (if Flawed)
I thought maybe the Smart Cover would be like the original iPad’s official case, in that I would use it exactly once and then bury it in disgust. Not so (haha). The Smart Cover actually is as versatile and useful as the promo videos from Apple make it out to be.
I’m using the black leather Smart Cover with my iPad, and although the surface has already endured scratches and wear, they tend to add character rather than make the thing look ratty. Some users with the polyurethane cover have complained of smudges, but owing to material and color, that hasn’t been an issue for me. The only real issue is that the cover doesn’t do anything to protect the vulnerable aluminum back of the iPad 2. As a result, I’ve already got a couple of thin cosmetic scratches back there, but I’ve never yet been able to avoid that happening to an Apple product I own, despite my best efforts.
That single flaw aside, the Smart Cover is fantastic. I’ve come to think of it as part of the iPad 2 itself, and it rarely, if ever leaves the device. The folding design really does serve as a capable stand for landscape viewing, and props up the iPad perfectly for lap or tabletop typing. It doesn’t really offer a good way to stand the iPad up in portrait orientation, but that’s not something I’ve missed during the past week. What it does accomplish, it accomplishes without adding significant weight or thickness to the iPad 2, which is maybe its best feature. I tried many cases with built-in stands with the original iPad, and none left me satisfied the way Apple’s own solution for the iPad 2 does.
One final fun note about the Smart Cover: the magnets it uses are amazingly strong. I even used it to hang my iPad on my fridge, after seeing someone tweet a photo. Check out the evidence in the gallery below, but don’t go doing it yourself, lest I get blamed for everyone’s cracked screens and dented casings.
Better Carry-Around Device
With the iPad 2, I’m finding that I’m more likely to bring it along when I set out for the coffee shop or to run errands. The original iPad was heavier (though not by much) and bulkier, and while I might have taken it with me, I wasn’t often inclined to actually pull it out and use it in public. The combination of the Smart Cover (which provides grip on the backside) and the new design that’s more conducive to holding makes it a much more convenient travel companion.
The iPad 2 is still lacking in one key respect. There’s not much I miss about the Samsung Galaxy Tab I briefly owned, except for the 7-inch form factor I could easily slide into a jacket pocket. The iPad still needs a bag, pack or purse to be used on the go, which is always going to leave you thinking twice about whether or not you really need it with you.
FaceTime and Camera are Nice, not Necessary
The new cameras on the iPad 2 might eventually allow for some amazing applications on the platform, but for right now, I found myself not really making any use of them during the past week. I used FaceTime exactly twice, mostly just to find out how it worked between iPhone and iPad, and between Mac and iPad. And I used the rear-facing camera one other time, shooting demo video for use with iMovie. A third attempt to use the rear-facing camera simply crashed the app I was testing.
Unless you already find yourself doing a massive amount of video calling on your Mac, iPhone or iPod touch, the addition of cameras probably isn’t a worthwhile motivation to upgrade at this point. Unlike some, I think the quality is fine for what you’d actually use the cameras for, but I honestly don’t think those uses currently justify an iPad 2 purchase.
A few things consistently annoyed me about the iPad 2. First, I found it really difficult to get the SIM card tray open when I had to swap in the one from my original iPad. Obviously, this is only a concern for iPad 3G models, but it was frustrating enough to merit a mention. I did eventually get it to work, but it actually felt like I may have done some minor damage to the mechanism in the process.
Overall, experience with ports and protrusions isn’t ideal on the iPad 2. Because of the sacrifices made in order to allow for minimum device thickness, the dock connector and headphone jack leave part of the connector exposed when plugged in. It can also be quite trying to get the dock connector in to the port on the iPad 2 in the first place. You really have to pay attention to what you’re doing, as an incorrect angle could cause the thing not to insert at all. And while I don’t find the volume rocker or lock switch to be any worse or better than on the previous design, I do find myself having to spend a bit more time finding the sleep/wake button.
One final minor concern: Using the March Madness live streaming iOS app, I found that streaming quality was much better on my original iPad than on my iPad 2, over the same Wi-Fi connection, even after multiple reinstalls and network setting resets. This wasn’t the case with other video streaming apps, so it might be specific to this app, but it does leave me wondering if somehow the iPad 2 might not be getting a slightly weaker Wi-Fi signal with its redesigned antenna.
To Upgrade or Not?
The iPad 2 is a great buy; there’s no denying that. Buyers looking for a tablet won’t find a better option on the market today (or likely even a year from now, if the situation continues on as it has been in that space). But is the iPad 2 really a worthwhile update for owners of the original iPad? Despite my initial inclinations, after a week of use and given the limited stock of available software specifically tailored to the device, I’d have to say no.
That’s not to say upgraders will regret their purchases; I don’t. But for the vast majority of tablet owners, who aren’t using their devices in personal and professional capacities for most of the day, the original iPad still offers a user experience unmatched by any other company’s offerings, and is more similar to the iPad 2 than not, in all the most important ways. If you’re buying new, get an iPad 2 (unless price is your number one priority), because the future will bring better apps to the platform that really show off the hardware upgrades, but if you’re thinking about updating, wait until those apps start to appear before making your decision.