Even with the lower quality sensors, Apple still gets to span the gap between the original iPad and its new competition -- so that means video calling is now on tap. And since this is Apple, we get treated to a FaceTime app, Photo Booth, and the new iMovie (more on those in a moment). At the end of the day, the company is putting its flag in the ground when it comes to tablets with cameras, but it feels like it's done the bare minimum to make it happen. We won't lie: we're disappointed by how low end these cameras feel. We don't expect to be doing photo shoots with a tablet (in fact, we find using a tablet in this manner to be tremendously awkward), but that doesn't mean we want a camera that produces results reminiscent of our RAZR. In short, it feels like the iPad 2 has a serious photon deficiency.
It wouldn't be a new iOS product without an iOS update, and the iPad 2 ushers in iOS 4.3, a minor update which touts a few bells and whistles. Notably, Apple has improved browser performance, added broader AirPlay support, mercifully added an option to toggle your mute switch for rotation lock duties, and (on the iPhone at least) brought Personal Hotspot to GSM devices (but not the iPad 2).
Alongside the iPad update, Apple also introduced two fairly major pieces of software -- GarageBand and iMovie for the iPad. Here's our take on those apps, as well some of the other big additions.
In general use, we found the browser to be noticeably faster and more responsive than on the previous iPad, which is a good thing considering that the browsing experience still doesn't quite give you a desktop experience. That said, the iPad 2 gets a lot closer to the speed and fluidity you see on your laptop -- and it's obvious Apple is putting time and effort into making this complete.
We still have to take issue with the lack of Flash, however. Though many sites have begun to employ HTML5 for video and interactive elements, there's still loads of content we couldn't view because Apple won't allow Flash on its platform. We're not saying that we think the experience will be killer (though we've seen good Flash performance on a jailbroken iPad), but the option to turn it on and off would really be welcome.
FaceTime / Photo Booth
As you might expect, the FaceTime experience on the iPad isn't wildly different than the experience on an iPhone or OS X computer. Though the layout is different, you're getting basically the same results. As with the phone, you're unable to use the service when not on WiFi, but given that you're dealing with a tablet as opposed to a handset, it seems to make a little
Results were unsurprising but satisfying with the video calls we placed, but again, those cameras don't produce stunning images -- especially when you're piping video in both directions.
Photo Booth, on the other hand, has gone from a minor sideshow in OS X to a full blown event app on the iPad 2. The device's A5 CPU seems to have little trouble cranking out nine separate, live video previews of the kinds of effects you can do in the app, and when you're in full screen mode, you can tweak the silly-yet-often-psychedelic graphics to your heart's content. It's not something that is wildly useful, but we imagine a lot of people will be walking out of Apple stores with an iPad 2 in hand after playing around with this for a few minutes. It's just kind of cool.
Coming from a background in professional audio production, our initial reaction to GarageBand was one of heavy skepticism -- but that attitude changed pretty quickly. The $4.99 piece of software offers eight tracks of recorded audio or software instruments, along with the ability to mix your levels, add effects, and even apply amps and stompboxes to your tracks. The software also features a library of preset loops, along with options to sample audio and create your own playable instruments.
We were immediately impressed with the layout and thoughtfulness that's obviously gone into this app; it doesn't feel like a watered down version of the desktop application -- it feels like a whole new game. Creating tracks and recording pieces for a song couldn't have been easier, and the provided software instruments provide myriad options when it comes to sound creation and manipulation. Besides the standard selection of pianos, keyboards, and drum kits, Apple has also introduced an ingenious (and sure to be maddening to some) set of instruments called Smart Instruments.
Smart Instruments work in a kind of uncanny way; if you're using the guitar setting in this mode, you're presented with what looks like the neck of a guitar and a spread of preset chords. You can pick or strum the instrument as you would an actual guitar and the results are surprisingly, disarmingly lifelike. If you're really not musically inclined, you can have the guitar basically play itself for you while you switch between styles and chords. We were amused by the latter option, but completely hooked on the former. We would like to see Apple add options to let users define their own chords, which would open up tons of options and really let musicians get creative, but this is an excellent start to a completely new concept in music-making. There are also Smart Instruments for piano / keyboards (a little more hands-off than the guitar variation), and drums. The drum Smart Instrument allows you to mix and match specific drums on a grid which represents volume and pattern, allowing you to create fascinating combinations of rhythms just by dragging and dropping your kicks, snares, and hi-hats. Again, we'd like to see Apple allow for user-definable patterns here, but there's lots to like and explore for musicians and non-musicians alike.
In the pattern mode, you're able to draw out and sequence complete songs with your eight tracks. Apple takes an approach here that's a bit strange, asking you to duplicate or extend each set of patterns as a section, but once you get the hang of it, it starts to make sense. We would like to see some options for being able to edit specific note data as well -- as it stands, Apple only allows you to re-record a part, not fix or alter notes within the part.
Overall, this is a groundbreaking piece of software for tablets. It wasn't without issues -- in fact, we had some major, system-stalling crashes which required a reboot of the iPad. It's clear that there are bugs to be worked out, and that despite that A5 CPU and increased memory, a music tracking and arranging app remains a fairly heavy piece of code. Still, we found ourselves completely fascinated by GarageBand and unable to put it down. Whether you're tinkering, writing, or recording, this software's value will be clear right from the start.
Here's a couple of quickly thrown together originals -- the first was made almost entirely while on a plane.
iMovie for the iPad wasn't quite the revelatory experience that GarageBand was, but the application provides loads of utility for video editing on the go -- and it does it on the cheap, clocking in at just $4.99. In a kind of blown-up version of the iPhone app, iMovie now lets you edit both videos you've shot on the device and imported files in a touchy-feely environment that's actually more intuitive than its desktop counterpart -- at least in a some ways.
As with other versions of the software, you get a set of movie templates and associated effects which you can apply to your clips. Editing is a new experience -- all swipes and gestures -- but surprisingly simple. There aren't a slew of options for transitions or effects, but the raw materials provided are more than enough to create competent work, especially if you're editing together family vacations or first birthday parties. We would like to see some better options for dealing with audio (cross fades and proper iMovie style volume curves would be great), but we're sure people will come up with some very interesting work despite the limitations of the app.
You can immediately export and upload your content to a variety of sources, including YouTube, Vimeo, CNN's iReport, and Facebook. And yes, you can do it in HD. In our experience, the process worked flawlessly.
The version of iMovie we tested -- like GarageBand -- was slightly buggy and prone to full on crashes while we were editing, and we did have to backtrack and recreate some of our edits after one of the crashes. It wasn't tragic (no actual content was lost), but we're hoping Apple takes a long look at the bug reports which are sure to pour in. Despite that issue, however, you simply can't beat the utility of this app at what is an astounding price point.
AirPlay / HDMI adapter / Smart Cover
AirPlay has now been expanded to work with more applications, which means developers can plug into the API to get video (and more) out to TV screens anywhere an Apple TV is located. That's nice, but until people start taking advantage of it, there aren't a ton of places you can use it right now. You can, however, stream all H.264 video from websites, and you can now access photos and video you've shot on your device that live in your camera roll.
If you're really serious about getting video out to your TV, you'll want to pick up Apple's new HDMI dongle ($39), which allows you to plug directly into your HDTV (and has a spot for your dock connector as well). It's a pretty odd product, considering that you've got to have your HDMI cable stretched across your living room. Unless of course, you're just dropping your iPad off by the TV to watch some content, and never pausing or skipping anything. That said, the adapter worked flawlessly, and when we had HD video running on the iPad 2, it sent that content to the TV with no trouble whatsoever.
The other accessories of note are Apple's Smart Covers. These ingenious little flaps are basically screen protectors with a set of smart magnets along the side -- instead of wrapping around your iPad or hanging onto the device with unsightly hooks or straps, Apple has devised a method for attaching the cover with well placed magnets. It's hard to explain how the covers work, but the effect is surprising when you first see it; the magnets just seem to know where to go. It is a neat trick, and the covers (which come in polyurethane for $39 and leather varieties at $69) do an excellent job of keeping your screen protected. The covers also can put your device to sleep and wake it up as you close or open the flaps -- and it can be folded over on itself to be used as a stand in a variety of positions. The accessories also have a microfiber lining, which supposedly helps keep your screen clean. But of course, there's more to the iPad than just a screen, and our test device actually got a nasty scratch on the back because there was nothing there to protect it. We love the convenience of the Smart Cover and the way it looks, but if you're seriously concerned about the entire iPad (and not just the display), you might want to check out other options.
It might frustrate the competition to hear this, but it needs to be said: the iPad 2 isn't just the best
tablet on the market, it feels like the only
tablet on the market. As much as we'd like to say that something like the Xoom has threatened Apple's presence in this space, it's difficult (if not impossible) to do that. Is the iPad 2 a perfect product? Absolutely not. The cameras are severely lacking, the screen -- while extremely high quality -- is touting last year's spec, and its operating system still has significant annoyances, like the aggravating pop-up notifications. At a price point of $499, and lots of options after that (like more storage and models that work on both Verizon's and AT&T's 3G networks), there's little to argue about in the way of price, and in terms of usability, apps like GarageBand prove that we haven't even scratched the surface of what the iPad can do.
For owners of the previous generation, we don't think Apple's put a fire under you to upgrade. Unless you absolutely need cameras on your tablet, you've still got a solid piece of gear that reaps plenty of the benefits of the latest OS and apps. For those of you who haven't yet made the leap, feel free to take a deep breath and dive in -- the iPad 2 is as good as it gets right now. And it's really quite good.