May 9, 2011 12:15 am

Tablet talk: how does the iPad 2 measure up?

 
Apple's iPad 2

The iPad 2: a classic design, and twice as fast as its predecessor

Apple insists 2011 will be the year of its iPad 2, but plenty of rivals are launching their own tablets in the hope of stealing the technology company’s thunder.

About 60m tablets will be sold in 2011, according to IMS Research, the industry analysts, and Apple is likely to be responsible for three out of four of these. Is such dominance justified? After testing the iPad 2, Samsung’s Galaxy Tab and the Motorola Xoom, as well as seeing several other tablets demonstrated close-up, I believe the iPad faces strong competition in several areas.

Design

It would be hard to match the looks of the iPad 2. Apple honed down an already classic design with its second attempt at a tablet, making it 15 per cent lighter and shaving 33 per cent off its thickness. The basic Wi-Fi version weighs just 21.2 ounces and is 0.35 inches thick.

But the iPad 2 still has a large bezel framing the 9.7-inch screen, while other tablets such as the Motorola Xoom are heading towards edge-to-edge screens.

Samsung is into its second-generation designs as well, refining its Galaxy Tab line-up. A 10.1-inch version, which goes on sale in the US on June 8, is slightly thinner and lighter than the iPad 2, despite its bigger screen size. At 0.34 inches thick, it weighs 20.98 ounces.

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Speed

The iPad 2 is twice as fast as its predecessor, with a dual-core A5 chip giving it two processing brains instead of one. There is also an updated graphics chip that dramatically improves handling of video and games.

However, many rival tablets run dual-core processors from Nvidia, a specialist graphics chipmaker. Its Tegra 2 will be followed by a quad-core processor in the summer, so the iPad 2 is likely to be outgunned by the end of the year.

Software

This should be no contest. There are more than 65,000 apps designed specifically for the iPad 2. New possibilities are created in gaming as cameras and a gyroscope have been added. The software is maturing too – Apple raised the bar with the introduction of its GarageBand and iMovie apps at the iPad 2’s unveiling, offering rich tools to create music and edit movies. Version 4.3 of its operating system enables faster browsing and allows more apps to stream video wirelessly to a television.

In contrast, the Android Market – the rival to Apple’s App Store – has only about 100 apps designed for tablets. However, with so many manufacturers using Android to power their devices, this number should climb rapidly in the coming months, just as it did for smartphones. Expect to see many of the best iPad apps replicated for Android tablets.

Version 3.0 of the Android operating system, codenamed Honeycomb, is the first purpose-designed for tablets and it has enough innovations to make Apple’s iOS seem a little old-fashioned.

Instead of static app icons, an Android tablet’s desktop interface can have a live feel to it, with widgets for e-mail and calendars to scroll through. Items such as pictures, books and videos can also be stacked and flicked through.

Multitasking is easier, with large thumbnails of previously used apps appearing on screen at the touch of a button, while notifications and settings are easier to access and better summarised on screen. The Android Market can also feed apps to tablets over the air if they are chosen through a PC’s browser – there is no need to tether devices, with everything being managed in the “cloud”.

The HP Touchpad, due this summer and featuring Palm’s webOS operating system, also has a more sophisticated interface than the iPad. It stacks and links items too – an e-mail and a web page can be grouped together, for example. Apps can be displayed as cards to be flicked through, and are closed by flinging them off the top of the screen.

Screen size

The iPad comes in just one screen size (9.7 inches diagonally), with a resolution of 1,024 x 768 pixels and in a shape that does not fit the 16:9 ratio of widescreen movies and television. Apple offers no improvements to the screen with the iPad 2. Its rivals have a range of screens and higher resolutions – the Motorola Xoom’s is 10.1 inches with 1,280 x 800 pixels and a wider aspect ratio that is better suited to movies. The Samsung Galaxy Tab and BlackBerry PlayBook are seven-inch tablets that fit in a jacket pocket. Samsung is offering a choice of 8.9-inch or 10.1-inch screens.

Cameras

These are the big addition to the iPad 2, enabling video conferencing with FaceTime and high-definition video recording. But the front and rear cameras are both less than one megapixel, have no flash and offer distinctly average results when it comes to photos. I took much better pictures and video with the Xoom, which has a five-megapixel rear-facing camera with dual-LED flash, along with a two-megapixel front-facing camera.

Price

The iPad starts at $499 in the US for a 16Gb version, but I find that size inadequate given the number of apps worth buying, including sizeable games, along with music, books, videos and photos.

Although Apple argues its competitors struggle to match it on price, I bought the 32Gb version of the Wi-Fi-only iPad 2 for $599 – the same price as the 32Gb Wi-Fi-only Xoom. The BlackBerry PlayBook also matches the iPad’s price. Its 16Gb version sells for $499, albeit with a smaller screen, while the seven-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab is available for $350, although it runs an earlier version of Android.

Magic

In the words of Steve Jobs, chief executive of Apple, the iPad is a “magical and revolutionary” device – and indeed it is, in the sense of author Arthur C. Clarke’s assertion that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. Apple’s mystique is also at work in its marketing, its retail stores, the allure of its brand and ingenious features such as the new covers that latch on to the iPad magnetically to protect its screen.

Rivals may match the iPad on price and beat it on specifications, but that old Apple magic will be harder to dispel.

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