iPad 2: The best just got better, app-solutely

Apple’s newest gadget hits the shops at 5pm tomorrow. David Phelan snagged early quality time with the iPad 2.

Apple’s new tablet doesn’t need the introduction last year’s model did. In a year, touchscreen tablets have become familiar, even commonplace, thanks to Apple. Last year, the burning question with the iPad was, what’s it for? Of course you wouldn’t ask that about any other computer, but the iPad was a puzzle: who needed a glass screen with no keyboard, no mouse? Turns out, a lot of us did, with over 15 million sold worldwide in nine months.

Like the iPhone, the iPad uses apps, those small, quickly downloadable applications which add to the machine’s capabilities. These threw up a three-way contract between Apple, app developers and us. Apple created the hardware and the sublimely intuitive interface. The app developers created features we never knew we needed, like the sophisticated painting program Brushes, cool electronic magazines and newspapers (like the i app) and gorgeous, interactive ways of showing us weather or the periodic table. Then we, the customers, found ways to make the most of them. Like taking a screenshot of a website so the information is saved in case we’re out of wi-fi contact later, say. Developers create apps all year round (65,000 iPad-specific apps and counting) but Apple only gets to update the hardware once a year or so.

That time has rolled around and the iPad 2 is faster, lighter and whiter. Faster is important – although the original iPad was speedy, as apps have become more advanced, they risked slowing the hardware down. Now, the souped-up processor and increased graphics performance mean more complicated effects can be achieved quickly. Games will probably be the biggest apps to gain: Apple promises graphics processing will be up to nine times as fast as on the first machine. Some games are already taking advantage of this, offering greater detail, a richer colour palette and no slowdown.

The increased speed in other uses besides graphics (twice that of the first iPad) is evident enough. Take the two new Apple-developed iPad apps, iMovie and GarageBand. The iMovie app means you can edit footage with great precision, add multi-track audio and video sharing. Typically for Apple, it’s astonishingly straightforward to use and delivers satisfying results. It takes advantage of the iPad’s cameras, so it doesn’t work on the original iPad. It’s not perfect, mind. There are easy ways to share the video by uploading to iTunes, Facebook YouTube and more. But even with an adaptor to connect a USB stick, there’s no way to download content directly, which would be nice.

GarageBand is a revelation, with lots of effects, touchscreen versions of instruments and even ways for the least musical among us to create songs. There’s a piano keyboard which includes a sustain pedal and even responds to different finger presses. The screen’s not pressure-sensitive, it uses the iPad’s accelerometer motion sensor to judge the sound you want to make from classical-gentle to rock-hard. This will work on the first iPad, but loading times were visibly quicker on the new machine.

So that’s faster. As for lighter, the weight is more crucial than you’d think. The first iPad weighed up to 730g (1.6lbs), depending on configuration. Now the maximum weight is 613g (1.35lbs). It may not sound much but in the hand it’s noticeably lighter, so it suddenly feels like a one-handed device, like a book, and one that you will take with you instead of leaving on the coffee table.

And since the stand-out omission of the first-gen machine (front- and back-facing cameras) has been rectified, there are more reasons to use it on the move. I mean, it’s still too unwieldy to making long video recordings and the resolution for still photographs is low, so it won’t be your first choice at a wedding perhaps. But a business user could launch FaceTime, the video calling over wi-fi program, to send live video from a satellite office back to headquarters, for instance. The lighter weight adds to the machine’s versatility.

Anyway, what about whiter? Well, this is only relevant if you want to stand out from the crowd by choosing the version with a white bezel. The white (or as I like to say, fashion-forward) version of the iPhone 3GS was in less demand than standard-issue black, but here the gleaming frame looks great: I suspect it’s going to be popular.

There’s also a stunning new accessory, the Smart Cover, a sheet of leather or polyurethane which attaches to the screen to protect it. With the super-obsessive attention to detail only Apple would bother with, this cover attaches perfectly, auto-aligning to fit the screen, folding to provide ways to stand it up and even waking the iPad as you open it. For £35 (£59 for the leather one), it’s an essential add-on.

Last year, Apple had the tablet market to itself, but now there’s a raft of alternatives. Scores of tablets are on their way, but few compare with the iPad 2. The strongest large-screen competitor is the HP TouchPad, a similar-sized machine using the highly enjoyable operating system developed by Palm, which HP bought. And there are two 7-inch display machines coming which are definitely worth considering. They’re the BlackBerry Playbook and HTC Flyer, both of which have great features. But they’re not here yet.

And so far no competitor is beating Apple for price. Indeed, while the US price matches what it was last year, in the UK it’s now cheaper than the original. Last year, the cheapest iPad here was £429, rising to £439 when VAT went up in January. Now you can pick up the 16GB wi-fi only version for £399.

I’d recommend splashing out on the 32GB model with wi-fi and 3G (£579). Not only will you fill the hard drive with apps, movies and photos faster than you think, the 3G version includes GPS.

Add a 3G micro-sim and you can affordably use it to stay connected if you just can’t find a wi-fi hotspot. A Pay-as-you-go sim from Three gives you 3GB of data download for a one-off payment of £20.99 and you have three months to use it up. Mind you, if you have an iPhone with the latest software, you can use its 3G connection instead.

The iPad 2 is a subtle but actually quite big step forward from the first machine. There’s a rumour that iPad 3 might arrive before the end of the year. I don’t know, but I think it’s unlikely. Whether that rumour is true or not, you shouldn’t let it hold you back from buying – the iPad 2 is an elegant, capable and deeply desirable object.

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