The new Apple iPad – the UK's first review

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It’s hard to imagine rivals matching Apple's gorgeous Retina Display without pricing themselves out of the market

What do you use your iPad for? Chances are it’s not quite the same as anyone else. Part of the key to Apple’s success has been the company’s skill in creating an object that’s intimate because it’s personal. With the third-generation iPad, out tomorrow, Apple has taken its winning formula and upgraded the display, camera and connectivity to offer a greatly enhanced experience.

From the arrival of version one, two years ago, Apple’s skill was to create an interface which responded so instantly, so delicately to your every touch that it felt much more personal than a computer ever could.

Apple assembled a blank canvas versatile enough for everyone to use precisely as they wanted. That meant delivering hardware capable of the functions needed for music playback, video streaming, document creation, full-on gaming, elegant reading for magazines and books, map navigation and much more.

Last year’s iPad 2 added cameras, a slimmer, lighter form and faster processor. This time around, the design is the same as last year. It’s actually a little fatter, but only by 0.6mm, and a little heavier – but only by 50g. It feels similar, then, and many accessory cases will fit both. Apple’s cool Smart Cover, with hidden magnets which wake the screen as you open it, works perfectly.

The very best case is the Knomo Folio for iPad 2 (www.knomobags.com). It will still fit but the magnetic screen lock won’t routinely work. However, Knomo has told the Independent that a new, magnetically compatible model is on its way.

The new iPad so closely resembles the 2011 version you can’t tell them apart. Until you turn the screen on.

The latest iPad has a Retina Display – Apple-speak for a screen so high-resolution you can’t spot individual pixels. It’s as sharp as print. The iPad 2 screen was already pretty good and it was hard to spot flaws. Text was the main giveaway. Though highly readable, a good squint would reveal rough-edged letters or jagged lines where curves should be. For books on the new iPad display the text is curves all the waydown.

Personally, I’ve always preferred, you know, real books. You can feel that you’re half way through a novel from the way it sits in your hand, not from checking a bar chart along the bottom. And paper is more restful on the eyes than a backlit screen. However, the increased sharpness of the Retina Display improves the experience radically. Books still win, but it’s a closer-run thing now.

Gaming is a particular delight on the iPad, with the extra real estate compared to the iPhone making for easier to use, visually striking games. Now, with the new screen, the way is open for even smarter visual effects, rich, colourful graphics and eye-popping details. Even current games look great, thanks to an effective upscaling effect.

The new iPad has exactly four times the pixels of the old one, so the processor has been improved. In fact, the main part of the iPad’s brain, the CPU, is unchanged from last time, but the graphics processor has been upgraded to quad-core, so the pixels can be manipulated efficiently. The result is stunningly smooth, and since the new display delivers much greater colour saturation, impressively vivid, too.

Apple also points out that the display has been constructed in a new way, to separate the pixels from the signal each receives. By putting them further apart, the company argues, it solves problems of crosstalk, image noise and other issues. Whatever, it looks amazing.

This year’s iPad has a much-improved camera: a 5MP sensor instead of the less-than-one megapixel found on the iPad 2. The lens structure is borrowed from the iPhone 4S, which has an 8MP camera. The optics here include a wide-open aperture (f/2.4) and a backside illuminated sensor – where the wiring and other gubbins are hidden out of the sensor’s way – to allow more light through the glass.

The results are very good: sharp, detailed stills and high-quality HD video. There’s no flash, so low light can still defeat it. And ultimately there are good ergonomic reasons why no camera has ever been designed as large, flat and glassy. But for snaps – and very good ones at that – which you can view in all their glory on the iPad’s display, this is more than good enough.

The new iPad has faster 3G connectivity so that if you’re in an area in range of the new, faster speeds networks are rolling out you could find data traffic of up to 42Mbps – faster than much home broadband. Much of the time you’ll find speeds are lower than that, but the iPad can cope with them all. The label on the box, if you don’t opt for a wi-fi only model, says wi-fi and 4G. This is correct, except we don’t have any 4G networks in the UK yet, and when we do they will be on different frequencies – the 4G will only apply if you’re in the States and buy an AT&T sim card. Still, it’s the best-connected iPad yet and by the time we do have 4G here, there’ll probably be another iPad along first.

Even so, the iPad could be improved if it were easier to get documents or photos on and off it. A neat optional adaptor makes it a breeze to transfer images from a camera’s memory card to the tablet. But even though there’s also an adaptor so you can attach a USB stick, there’s no way to move documents or photos from iPad to USB – which would be handy if you’re stuck without wi-fi and needed to print a letter or save a document elsewhere, say. True, iTunes permits file sharing, and transferring documents by connecting an iPad to a Mac by cable is effective, but not quite the answer.

Last week, before it was announced, the technology world assumed this gadget would be called the iPad 3. But it has no number, in the way that other Apple products often lack them.There’s no iPod 12, for instance, or MacBook Pro 18. It’s a sign that the iPad is here to stay and perhaps that we should expect future versions to just be “the iPad”.

Though it does, by the way, leave the way open for additional names. The iPod was supplemented by the iPod nano, for instance. For now, though, it’s unlikely there’ll be a small-screened iPad – the late Steve Jobs was against such a thing – even though it would be a direct response to the iPad’s chief US rival, Amazon’s Kindle Fire.

I haven't yet examined fully the new software that's been introduced or upgraded for the latest software. Check out the separate review of iPhoto, iMovies and more soon.

Amazon apart, Apple has the tablet market more or less to itself. Samsung has launched several alternatives recently, and Asus has an excellent model with detachable keyboard to turn it into a faux laptop. But most other manufacturers seem to have given up.

Partly it’s down to the apps. There are now 200,000 iPad-native apps. No other tablet can claim anywhere near as many, with even Android only scoring highly when you include apps designed for phones.

And price is a factor. Each year, Apple produces a new iPad at the same price as last year’s, if not lower. Apple’s economy of scale has meant other manufacturers haven’t been able to undercut iPad prices, so why would you choose an alternative when the iPad is the same price?

This year the contrast may be even starker – it’s hard to imagine rivals matching the gorgeous and expensive Retina Display without pricing themselves out of the market.

Finally, the reason the iPad is out in front is that blank canvas again, with the combination of gorgeous hardware and an inviting interface mixing with the ingenuity of app developers to create an utterly appealing system.

The Apple iPad goes on sale at Apple's retail stores and the Apple Online Store (www.apple.com/uk) on Friday March 16 at 8am, from £399.

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