Editors' note (October 22, 2013): Apple has released the iPad Air.
Every year since 2010, there has been a new version of the iPad. In 2012, we've already seen three. One, the iPad Mini, is a different beast altogether. Still, even the third-generation iPad with its Retina Display has suddenly become the recipient of a surprising seventh-month upgrade, to a very similar-looking device now known as the "fourth-generation iPad."
Should owners of the now "old" third-gen March 2012 iPad be upset? Should new buyers be wary? The answer to the first is yes. The answer to the second is no. The new iPad (technically just known as "iPad" at the Apple Store) has a few upgrades, two minor, one significantly major. A Lightning connector replaces the old 30-pin, just like all other new iOS devices this fall. And while the rear iSight camera remains the same (5 megapixels), the front-facing FaceTime camera has been upgraded to HD status: 720p video recording and sharper self-portraits. The LTE versions of the new iPad also work with a wider range of international carriers.
Biggest of all is the new processor lurking beneath: an A6X processor, replacing the third-gen's A5X. The previous iPad was no slouch in the performance department, but as we remarked when we reviewed the iPad in March, its speed gains weren't such a huge quantum leap compared with what we got from the iPad 2.
The A6X speeds up the iPad back to levels you'd expect, and it handles Retina Display graphics even better. This is the iPad 3S, so to speak. Considering that the iPad still has the same price as before, starting at $499 for 16GB, it's an even better buy than it was seven months ago.
The landscape's changed a little bit since March. Competing tablets have become more affordable. Windows 8 and RT tablets now offer an alternative set of products. None of these can touch the iPad. The biggest competitor, really, is that innocent iPad Mini, which could be the biggest little disruptor of them all, especially when it gets its own Retina Display.
You may be concerned to buy this iPad: could Apple surprise us with more frequent updates instead of yearly cycles? I think that's unlikely. Plus, the important point is that this iPad is the best one. It's polished. It's improved over the third-gen model. If you were on the fence about buying one before, now's the time to go ahead and do it. And it's still a better product than the iPad Mini...this year, at least.
(Editors' note: updated on November 5 with additional performance tests and battery life testing results.)
Design: Deja Pad
Place the new fourth-gen iPad on a table anywhere and no one will be able to know it's the latest and greatest unless he happens to see that telltale, teeny-tiny Lightning connector. This isn't a product you can easily show off. Just like the iPhone 4S, it has the same weight, size, and overall design as its predecessor. Even the back panel doesn't give any hint that this is a newer iPad than before. For a deeper dive on what this iPad feels like, go back and read Donald Bell's review of the third-gen iPad.
My Wi-Fi review model came in black (64GB); the iPad also comes in white. Both, as usual, have differently colored front glass and the same aluminum backs.
Does the iPad's design still hold up? Yes, mainly because of its all-metal-and-glass construction, still a rarity among tablets. The 1.4-pound body doesn't feel lightweight, but it's comfortable to hold in two hands. As a one-handed device, it's awkward and cumbersome. The sleek feel makes it seem fragile; indeed, you wouldn't want to drop one on a hard floor.
The Retina Display also remains the same, and it's still as lovely as ever. The 2,048x1,536-pixel 9.7-inch IPS screen is unmatched among tablets. Color accuracy is superb, movies look great, and photos look even better. Text is crystal-clear, just like on the iPhone. It makes a big difference when looking at Web pages. Still, this is all exactly the same as the third-gen iPad.
The thicker bezel of the iPad is necessary at this size and weight; it helps keep a grip on the otherwise ultra-sleek body. The single home button still feels a little vestigial, but it's not going anywhere anytime soon. Volume rocker buttons on the side and a silence/orientation lock switch remain. Speakers, headphone jack: they're all the same.