Hands on with the new iPad

San Francisco — Special to The Globe and Mail

The new iPad (Peter Nowak)

In Apple’s aesthetic view of the world, simplicity has always been the goal, which perhaps explains the name of the new iPad. Numbers, acronyms and other suffixes have been jettisoned so it’s not the expected iPad 3 or iPad HD, but rather “the new iPad.”

That probably works because it’s how most people refer to it anyway, as in, “Hey Joe, are you going to buy the new iPad?” But, of course, there is the question of what happens when the next iteration comes out. How will we refer to this current new gizmo then? The “old new iPad?” Or will the next one be the “new and improved” iPad?

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Regardless, Apple’s next tablet – which goes on sale March 16 at the same price as the iPad 2 currently sells for – spotlights several new specifications. It has the faster A5X processor that in turn enables the retina display, or graphics that are four times sharper than with predecessors, as well as a more powerful, five-megapixel camera. And finally, higher-end models also have fourth-generation long-term evolution (4G LTE) wireless capability, with monthly plans available from Bell, Rogers and Telus.

How do the new features stack up? After spending some time with it at a hands-on event in San Francisco, the quick answer is: very well.

At the outset, the improved graphics are a subtle touch. They’re hard to obviously perceive on simple things such as text, but clearer when looking at photos close up or high-definition movies. As with the iPhone 4, Apple’s first phone to get the retina display, the difference is most evident when compared to predecessors. Text on the iPad 2 now seems blurry in comparison.

The speed at which apps load up and perform is also noticeably better. The new iPhoto picture editing and sharing app is a good showcase for both the retina display and the processing power, as it renders a screen full of images quickly. Photos can be moved around and manipulated, yet the tablet keeps up without slowing down.

Apple’s tablet offerings have so far been lacking, compared to rivals, as far as the cameras has been concerned, a deficiency the new iPad largely corrects. Still photos and videos, shot in 1080p high-definition, now look considerably sharper with a lot less noise. Of course, video and photo capability on tablets may not be a priority for many users, since it’s rather awkward to hold the large gadget up to snap an image.

With those three improvements, it’s understandable that the rumour mill expected this tablet to be called the iPad HD – the better processor, graphics and camera combine to make the new device a solid high-definition machine.

The wireless speeds also appeared fast during demonstrations on AT&T’s network, but it’s difficult to judge properly – or how Canadian networks will perform – without a longer test duration.

The improvements come at a price, however, as the new iPad is slightly thicker and heavier than its immediate predecessor. It’s a counter-intuitive progression, since gadgets seem to get smaller and thinner as they iterate (although smartphones are also disproving this general truism).

The first iPad today feels clunky and heavy compared to its sequel, yet the new tablet is a step back in that direction. In terms of pure feel, it seems to have lost some of the iPad’s 2 elegance. It’s a clear case of sacrificing a little form for improved function.