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IPad 2 a modest, incremental improvement but apps hint at future potential

Thu, 03/24/2011 - 1:05pm
Michael Oliveira-Associated Press

The iPad 2 feels mostly like a modest, incremental upgrade over its extremely popular predecessor.

It's a little thinner, a little lighter, packs more processing power and has a couple of cameras built in. They're all notable improvements, especially since the new iPad is a bit cheaper than the original, which was released in Canada last May.

But if you're among those who already bought an iPad, is there a compelling reason to upgrade when the new model goes on sale Friday? For most, not really. Unless you really must have a white iPad.

On the other hand, if you were previously on the fence and itching to buy one, it's a no-brainer. It's now cheaper, has better specs, and two apps released in tandem with the new tablet offer an enticing look at what the device will be capable of in the future.

The iPad 2 feels more zippy than the original, thanks to an upgraded processor; a dual-core A5 chip for the techies keeping track. Apple says it's up to twice as fast and offers graphics performance that's nine times quicker. In reality, it doesn't feel as blazingly fast as the marketing suggests but perhaps it will eventually, as developers start to design apps that maximize the strengths of the new hardware.

Anyone who has used both the iPhone 3G and its followup, the iPhone 3GS, can attest to how differently the two phones perform and it may be that down the road, the iPad 2 really starts to differentiate itself as more demanding apps emerge.

The game "Infinity Blade" is already offering a peek at this future, with versions available for both iPads. The updated iPad 2 version has stunning graphics that are considerably more detailed — this is no "Angry Birds." The iPad 2 may not yet rival gaming consoles but it's redefining what mobile gaming has to offer.

And two Apple apps designed for the new iPad's release also do a great job of convincing skeptics why the tablet is worth its hefty price.

The iPad 2 starts at $519 for the 16 gigabyte WiFi-only version, while the 16GB WiFi and 3G version starts at $649 (add $100 for an extra 16 GB of storage, or $200 for an extra 48GB). They're not exactly cheap, although they are $30 less expensive than the prices of the original iPads at launch.

But when you look at the new apps Garageband and iMovie, which both sell for an incredible $5 each, the iPad's price doesn't seem so bad.

Both are streamlined versions of programs long available on Apple's Mac computers and dispel the notion that a tablet is a too-limited weaker cousin of a full-blown computer. The depth of those two apps, Garageband in particular, is a testament to how versatile tablets are increasingly becoming.

The iPad, an already well-rounded multi-purpose device capable of browsing the web, reading ebooks, playing games and videos —just to name a handful of features — can now also function as a portable recording studio and video-editing suite. And both apps are unmistakably Apple productions, making tasks that were once difficult and frustrating much more accessible and fun to tackle.

Garageband allows musicians to record up to eight tracks of audio and compose songs directly on their iPad. The app also has built-in instruments that allow pros and novices alike to plunk out some tunes using virtual drum kits, pianos and keyboards, a bass or guitar. You can strum a chord with a tap of the screen and Apple even presents users with groups of notes and chords that sound good together, so music making is remarkably easy. Maybe too easy: this could do for songwriting what Auto-Tune has done for off-key singers.

IMovie lets users edit their photos and videos into slick slideshows with special effects and background music. There are far more sophisticated programs that do a better job — but they're also complicated to learn and not user-friendly. They also cost far, far more than $5.

If produced by an independent developer, these apps could and would easily sell for a lot more. But Apple seems to be forgoing a little extra profit to send a message about the capabilities of the iPad going forward.

Also worth noting is the addition of cameras on the front and back of the iPad 2 and the FaceTime video chat app, which is a cool technology. The iPad 2, however, probably won't convince you to sell any other cameras you might use. Videos are shot in high definition but the output isn't very impressive, although they look much better than the low-resolution photos the iPad 2 produces.

As with the original, the biggest negative with the iPad 2 is that it can't handle Flash, which is ubiquitous on the web. It doesn't take much web browsing on the iPad to encounter blank holes where content should be. Depending on who you ask, it's either a minor annoyance or a deal breaker, but it's a problem that isn't going away.

It's been almost a year since Apple released the first iPad and no other tablet was able to truly top it — until the iPad 2 was developed. Once again, Apple has set the bar high enough that other manufacturers will have to release a tremendous product just to match, nevermind outdo, the trend-setting iPad.

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