First Look: New iPad's A Pair Of Stylish Glasses You May Not Need

Apple Compares iPad Text

The new iPad isn’t exactly like Oakland and Gertrude Stein – there’s a there, there — but it won’t be obvious to most people.

If you’ve already seen an iPad 2 you’ve essentially already seen a third-generation iPad.  It’s slightly thicker and heavier but the form factor is essentially the same as are the external controls. 

The second iPad represented change on just about every level; this is primarily under the hood. (Gizmodo had fun with this by offering people an iPad 2 to try as a new iPad. They loved it.)

What’s different?

Video delivered through apps taking advantage of this iPad’s key gimmick, the Retina display with 2048-by-1536 resolution and 264 pixels per inch, is richer. Photos are sharper with better color registration and text is clearer and easier to read.

Some of the best examples are The Daily and Flipboard, each originally designed as iPad-only and among of the first to launch designs improved by the Retina display. The distinctions are can be subtle to the average eye. Even the person I rely on most to see differences in color and font first picked The Daily on the iPad 2 as the new one. When we looked closer though, especially at white text on black, the difference was clear. Ditto for text across photos, a device The Daily uses a lot. The images are all higher resolution. More developers will start to factor retina display in, raising the quality of how content is displayed and delivered.

Even apps that weren’t designed for the iPad benefit. Aside from the magnifying glass used to highlight the difference at apple.com, one of the clearest ways to see the improvement is to look at an iPhone app shown with pixels doubled (thanks for the idea, Rob Pegoraro.) This isn’t something Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) brags about but it makes using Spotify on an iPad a more pleasant experience. An actual Spotify app for iPad would be better still but we’ll take what we can get.

Stylish new glasses

Apple’s Erik Lammerding compares looking at the new iPad screen to putting on new glasses. He’s right — and trying to gauge the difference is like having that eye test where the optometrist keeps clicking the cylinders back and forth while she asks if it’s better like this or this. Sometimes the change is barely perceptible but even when it’s obvious, it doesn’t always add up to a new prescription. (Ed Baig compares it to Lasik .)

The changes to this prescription probably aren’t worth a new pair of glasses at a minimum $500 (16GB, Wi-Fi) to most. If you spend a serious amount of time reading and watching video and you’re commited to the iOS ecosystem, it may be enough to merit swapping up. Ditto if you want to do a lot of video calls via Skype or Facetime.

On the user side, the 5-megapixel camera, one of the areas where iPad 2 flat out failed, takes a serious leap forward. That means you can take usable pictures and video; I only use the iPad 2 for screengrabs although I saw other people holding it up to take video at SxSW. So far, photos live up to the advertising: they really do look brighter and sharper. The 1080p HD video is a plus.

The overall performance is significantly faster. I didn’t try benchmarking, relying instead on a personal patience meter while comparing app behavior on an iPad 2 and its new sibling side by side. Even with the better performance, content creators are going to need to be careful about how they employ the new pixel density. Magazine apps especially have gotten much more efficient and I’d hate to see bloat creep back in. Some usability has improved but that’s more about iOS 5.1 and individual apps. Speaking of bloated, the general settings page is getting harder to manage.

Worth buying?

I went WiFi-only for the third time with iPads, opting instead to rely on my AT&T (NYSE: T) 4G hotspot when wireless isn’t available. The data option was tempting, particularly the Verizon LTE version, but the additional $130 would have pushed my 32GB model from $599 to $729. That plus the additional data costs (even if I turned the contract on and off) kept me away. I expect my GigaOM colleague Kevin Tofel will weigh in on that version.

My biggest concern after using the iPad for a few hours is that 32GB won’t be enough storage. If you’re judging it based on current use, you probably want to bump up estimates.

In a way, the differences only matter to those of us who already own an iPad 2 and want to know if buying the new one is worth it. For everyone else, it’s about whether it is time for an upgrade from the first iPad or whether taking the tablet plunge means investing in an iPad or going in a different direction. 

If you don’t have a tablet yet, you’re already ok with not being an early adopter. If you can’t see a difference, plan to go wireless only and you don’t care about a camera but you really, really want an iPad*, go for the discounted iPad 2 and invest the difference in content. 

* I’m not suggesting iPad to the exclusion of other tablets. If you are into tablets and iOS doesn’t matter, there are less expensive routes that may give you what you want. I like the smaller-scale Kindle Fire and expect new models from Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) that improve the usability and the quality. The Samsung Galaxy tablets are worth a look and there are a lot of choices if you want to go outside the highest-profile brands.

Update: A quick note after a weekend of use: I could have been a little more effusive about the glories of the new display. I can see (no pun intended) why it has so many supporters; even though the differences really aren’t always as obvious as they think, it is a better view of much that tablets have to offer. (For those who suggest keeping it on highest brightness for maximum kick, that works if you don’t mind hot metal and you’re ok with shorter battery life.)

One more thing — Apple has taken full advantage to improve its iBooks app, upping the clarity considerably. It’s also added a night view with white on black, something I considered a significant gap compared to Kindle. But that slightly heavier form factor also makes reading a book in this size device more cumbersome. If you’re planning to read a lot of books that don’t rely on graphics, think e-reader.

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