With the advent of the iPod some years ago, Apple revolutionized the way we listen and interact with our music. They've changed the way we use cellular telephones and have even ushered in a new age of Internet movie downloads. Not one to be caught standing still, Applehas released a product that endeavors to be the best of all of their peripherals combined: the iPad 3G.
The iPad 3G is currently the number one selling must-have gadget available today, selling over a million units in its first month - besting Apple's own iPhone sales. Retail prices for the iPad 3G start at $629 and top out at $829. My review sample was the 32GB version, which falls smack dab in the middle of the lineup and retails for $729. You can purchase a non-3G iPad for as little as $499 with the prices topping out at $699; however having played with both the 3G and non 3G versions, I'm not sure if going with the non-3G iPad is a smart move for most home theater enthusiasts.
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There's almost no visual difference between the 3G and non-3G iPads save a small black piece of matte plastic that spans almost the entire width of the top of the iPad itself. Beyond that visual distinction the two are identical, measuring in at almost seven and a half inches wide by nine and a half inches tall and just under a half an inch thick. The iPad weighs a meager one and a half pounds. Think of it as a jumbo-sized iPhone or iPod touch. Both versions of the iPad feature a nine point seven inch LED-backlit widescreen display with a max resolution of 1024 by 768 pixels. While not quite 1080p, the resolution, combined with Apple's high gloss screen, is still very impressive. The iPad uses Arsenic-free glass and is also Mercury-free and PVC-free meaning there are no recycling charges applied upon purchase. Even the aluminum and glass casing that make up the iPad's sleek exterior are recyclable. The display itself is a touch screen featuring IPS multi-touch technology and also has a fingerprint resistant oleophobic coating, which near as I can tell does absolutely nothing, but I'll get into that later.
In terms of controls outside of the iPad's touch screen, it has a power button located along the top right edge, which can put the iPad into standby mode as well as power the unit down completely. There is a lock switch, which rests above the volume up and down controls located along the right edge of the iPad. As far as inputs/outputs go the iPad has the Apple standard dock connector port, which allows you to dock the iPad to a bevy of Apple peripherals as well as charge the iPad itself either by plugging it into your computer's USB input or to a wall outlet using an Apple power adaptor. Speaking of power, the iPad features a built-in 25-watt-hour rechargeable lithium-polymer battery good for 10 hours of continuous web surfing, movie watching or listening to music. The battery life drops down to nine hours when surfing the web using a 3G connection. Exclusive to 3G iPads only, there is a Micro-SIM card tray that rests, almost completely hidden from view, along the left outer edge of the iPad. Last but not least the iPad has a mini stereo headphone jack located on the top left edge, which allows the user to connect a pair of headphones or connect the iPad to an outboard amp or receiver/processor for integration into one's stereo or home theater system.
Inside, the iPad runs off a 1GHz Apple A4 high-performance, low-power system-on-a-chip processor and can be had with 16, 32 or 64GB of flash memory. On the audio side of things the iPad boasts a frequency response of 20Hz to 20kHz and supports HE-AAC, AAC (16 to 320Kbps), AAC iTunes files, MP3 (16 to 320Kbps), MP3 VBR, Apple Lossless AIFF and WAV audio files. In terms of video the iPad supports H.264 video up to 720p at 30 frames per second. It also supports MPEG-4 video up to 2.5Mbps at a resolution of 640 by 480 at 30 frames per second. Lastly, on the video side, the iPad will also display Motion JPEG (M-JPEG) files up to 35Mbps at 1280 by 720 pixels at 30 frames per second. Outside of the video realm the iPad can display files and or documents in JPEG, JPG, tiff, gif, doc, docx, html, key (keynote), pages, PDF, PPT and PPTX (Microsoft PowerPoint), txt, rtf, vcf, xls and xlsx (Microsoft Excel).
In order to enjoy the iPad you'll need a Mac running OSX v10.5.8 or later with an iTunes 9.1 or later and an active and valid iTunes store account. If you want to have your iPad connect to your wireless home Internet you'll need to provide your own Internet access as well. PC users can enjoy the iPad as well and will need all of the above-mentioned equipment except instead of a Mac you'll need to bring a Windows 7, Vista or XP OS to the party.
In terms of getting up and running with a new iPad, the process is no different than what you'd expect from an iPod touch or iPhone in that you connect it to your computer, launch iTunes and initialize. The process takes but a few seconds and requires you to name your iPad as well as link it to your iTunes account. If you have a 3G iPad you'll have an extra step to deal with if you wish to activate the 3G capability (why wouldn't you?) of your iPad, which includes signing up for a 3G-service plan. AT&T handles iPad's 3G services for the time being with prices starting at $14.99 a month for 250MB on up to $29.99 a month for unlimited 3G access. All iPad 3G plans include unlimited Wi-Fi at AT&T hotspots and are capable of data speeds up to 7.2 Mbps. You can activate your 3G service on the iPad itself and there are no contracts involved so you can cancel anytime. I've heard that the iPad is an "unlocked" device meaning you can take it to another 3G service provider-provided their SIM will work with the iPad's microSIM.
Once you've initialized your iPad you can begin loading it up with all the music, movies, apps, books etc you can throw at it; either via iTunes or by downloading them directly from iTunes or the App Store on the iPad itself. I made a few playlists in iTunes consisting of a combination of iTunes purchased files as well as uncompressed, self-ripped files and set them to sync with the iPad. Next, I hand selected a few films, again some purchased from iTunes and others ripped from my own DVD collection, and set those to sync as well.
The iPad comes fully charged (at least mine did) so once I loaded it up with a couple of films and a few hundred songs I disconnected it from my iTunes and carried it about the house with me. I was able to connect to my wireless Internet signal, which gave me the opportunity to test the iPad's wireless (non 3G) capabilities when surfing the Internet and downloading apps, such as Pandora, from the App Store. The iPad connects to available Wi-Fi networks thanks to its built-in 802.11n wireless capability. The iPad seemed to be as fast if not a touch faster than my wireless MacBook Pro laptop when it came to loading basic, non-Flash, websites or downloading a couple of free apps from the App Store.
I say non-Flash websites because the iPad, or should I say Apple CEO Steve Jobs, hates Flash. Flash-based sites and video will not play (at present) on your iPad, so that means sites like Hulu.com and the like are out - for now. Google isn't that into Flash websites as they are hard to index, so let this be an insiders SEO tip for you if you run or manage a website - skip the Flash if at all possible.
When it came time to start playing music via the iPad on my two-channel system I simply connected it via its headphone jack using a mini to stereo RCA cable from Transparent. I used the iPad on two different two channel systems, one consisting of a pair of Revel Studio2s being fed power by a pair of Mark Levinson No 53s with a Mark Levinson No 326s for my preamp and the second being an Anthem integrated amp and a pair of Paradigm Studio 20s. I didn't have the standalone iPad dock on hand for this review so I had to make due with a semi-bulky cable sticking out of the top of the iPad when using it as a source. Luckily, I had a table stand for a large decorative plate on hand that held the iPad beautifully at a 60 or so degree angle atop my equipment rack, so I always had a clear view of what was playing.
I was a little shocked to see that at launch the iPad does not allow you to stream music from your existing iTunes library, like my AppleTV will, nor can you steam music from your iPad to say your AirPort. Now, I've since found apps that somewhat let you do this, however they're workarounds at best and still will not allow you to play DRM protected files like the ones you purchase from iTunes. While the iPad's initial lack of streaming is frustrating, I can't imagine that it's going to be an issue that isn't remedied in short order.
In terms of Bluetooth capabilities (the iPad comes standard with Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR) the iPad is a lot like my iPhone - both have Bluetooth, yet both have trouble syncing or finding other Bluetooth devices such as my fiancé's Ford F-150 with Microsoft Sync or a Bluetooth-enabled home theater receiver. My iPhone had Bluetooth issues out the yin-yang when I first got it, though it has gotten progressively better with each Apple update so I have to assume the iPad will follow suit and become more universally compatible with time. Connecting the iPad to Bluetooth or wireless headphones seemed to be easier and more reliable.
Before I get into the iPad's music and movie performance there is another aspect, or I should say promise, to the iPad that has many high-end home theater enthusiasts drooling all over themselves-control. Like the iPhone, the iPad, with the help of a few apps and/or a knowledgeable programmer, can be used to control one's home theater, lighting, HVAC and beyond. Companies such as Crestron and AMX are currently working on ways to integrate the iPad into their control systems, which any Crestron or AMX user will tell you is big, big news; for the iPad is far cheaper and easier to use than many of Crestron or AMX's own touch panels. Consumers into home automation but unable to afford control systems from Crestron or AMX can still use an iPad to control their home theater or two channel systems using various remote apps or in some cases by purchasing a separate, stand alone control box that can communicate with a proprietary app designed to run on the iPad. The prices vary from free to hundreds of dollars so be sure to shop around; nevertheless the prospect of using an iPad to control ones system is very cool.
I kicked things off with some iTunes purchased music by way of Rob Thomas' Cradlesong (Atlantic Recording). On the opening track "Her Diamonds" I found the iPad to be quite a capable performer, especially given the download's low resolution. Thomas' vocal presence was surprisingly natural and lifelike in its size and placement. While it did exhibit a bit of grain and lacked that last bit of air you'd expect from a CD or higher resolution rip, it wasn't enough to take me out of the performance. When the song picks up steam, the performance was a touch flat overall in that instruments seemed to lack a certain organic quality and roundness to the notes. However, as long as I kept the volume at a reasonable volume (dig the Office Space reference) it wasn't at all distracting. High frequencies were a little rolled off at the extremes and didn't have a tremendous amount of air or extension but were definitely listenable. The bass was a bit flat, lacking ultimate impact and weight but overall when heard in concert with the other elements remained musical and did elicit a bit of toe tapping and head bobbing if I'm honest. In terms of soundstage the compressed track seemed to favor width over depth, presenting the entire performance in a very linear way, right to left, though it never managed to extend beyond my Revel Studio2's boundaries.
Read more about the iPad 3G's performance on Page 2.
In comparison to my iPhone playing the exact same track on the same system, I did find that the iPad seemed to have a bit more heft overall, though the high frequencies seemed to change little if at all. What I did like about the iPad was the fact that once a song was chosen, the entire screen became devoted to the album's cover art and when placed on shuffle was a great visual reminder of what and who I was listening too. On the flip side, the iPad doesn't have a true cover art setting like iTunes, that lets you scroll through the covers sitting on top of black, which kind of struck me as odd. I was hoping the iPad would have a sort of Sooloos-like interface or at the very least its sex appeal, but I have to say it's not quite there yet. There is a way to view all of your albums' cover art at once but it's inside the iPad's iPod interface itself and comes complete with a left justified menu bar where you can select playlists, genius etc.
Getting back to the music, I cued up an uncompressed, self ripped, audio file "Layla" from Eric Clapton Unplugged (Reprise). I had the actual CD on hand for a direct comparison, which I'll get to in a minute. From the onset the uncompressed rip had far more going for it than the low-res iTunes track from earlier. Clapton's initial strums were silky smooth with surprising detail, texture and dynamics. The accompanying drums also benefited from the higher resolution, retaining their natural impact, snap and decay, but also picking up a fair amount of added weight, which was a good thing. The cymbals weren't at all harsh nor did they sound compressed, though they did seem to just a touch cool and lean when compared to the CD itself. Then again, I was playing the CD back via a $15,000 CD player in the Mark Levinson No 512, which isn't exactly a fair comparison. Clapton's vocals sounded very natural and had far more presence than Rob Thomas', though the album as a whole is of a much higher quality than Thomas' Cradlesong. In terms of the soundstage the higher resolution rip of "Layla" was far more three dimensional than "Her Diamonds" and seemed to recess back as much as it did laterally. Instruments were appropriately placed and stood in stark contrast to one another. In comparison to the CD itself the two performances weren't that far off from one another, with the CD possessing just a touch more air, extension and depth over the uncompressed file. Needless to say, the entire performance was immensely enjoyable and showed that with properly ripped music the iPad is a legitimate source capable of mid-level audiophile grade performance with the right system.
I ended my music evaluation with something a bit more hard-core: House of Pain's "Jump Around" from The Best of House of Pain and Everlast: Shamrocks & Shenanigans (Rhino). "Jump Around" was another track I ripped myself in Apple's own lossless format, which isn't quite the same as true lossless, though Apple claims their format should sound identical. Well, through an iPad I'm going to have to agree, for I couldn't tell a difference between the two formats in either of my systems. The opening horns were visceral, loud and carried enough impact to transport me back to junior high. The bass had plenty of grit and slam to get me head bobbing in my seat and didn't sound at all compressed. The bass was full bodied with plenty of dynamic snap and low-end punch. The high frequencies, especially the song's trademark screech (a sampled bit from Prince's "Gett Off") were crunchy and harsh, but very appropriate and in line with the artists' intent. The entire track was lively and dynamic and even at high, okay - insane volumes didn't compress the way I thought it would. Again, for most consumers and even some audiophiles, the iPad's musical performance was more than just acceptable - it was enjoyable.
The iPad's movie interface is different from its music interface and in many ways is much more in line with what I was expecting from Apple. Unlike its music counterpart, the iPad movie interface features colorful poster art that when touched gives way to a large image of the poster flanked by the film's metadata. You can scroll through chapters or simply hit play and the film starts playing immediately. You turn the iPad 90 degrees in any direction and the image will self adjust to fit the screen. Tap on the image twice in rapid succession and the image will fill the screen, tap twice again and it will return to the appropriate aspect ratio.
I loaded up James Cameron's Avatar (20th Century Fox), which I ripped myself using a bit of freeware - and yes, I own the film. I had to rip the DVD to be compatible with iTunes so I ended up with a MPEG-4 video file (H.264 compression), which took the nearly 8GB DVD file and made it into a far more manageable 1.76GB file. Obviously, this introduced a fair amount of compression to the image and sound, which, when viewing back on the iPad itself was far less apparent then when I connected it to my home theater via Apple's Component AV Cable adaptor ($49.00). Now, I'm not going to lie to you and say that on the iPad's 10 inch display Avatar looked as good as a Blu-ray or even the DVD because it simply didn't. However, compared to other portable devices, say your iPhone or even a portable DVD player, the quality was equal if not better. Ignoring the inherent compression you're going to experience when converting a large video file into a small one, the overall image quality in terms of color, contrast, black and white levels and motion was impressive and very enjoyable in hand. Obviously, when I connected the iPad to my home theater, the inherent flaws associated with lower resolution downloadable movies became harder to overlook. The iPad's high gloss screen and LED backlighting is a great one-two punch in making compressed video files look better than they actually are.
Now, I know for a fact that iTunes encoded content is better than what you can rip on your home computer, for their compression engines are better, so I cued up my iTunes purchased copy of The Dark Knight (Warner Brothers). Via the iPad the image was punchy thanks to its stark contrast between the film's inky blacks and brilliant highlights. Black levels were quite good, though they did lose a bit of detail in some of the darkest scenes, especially those taking place outdoors at night. Colors were natural, or as natural as can be expected from a comic book film, with good saturation. Skin tones, despite the iPad's high gloss screen, still retained a good amount of detail and texture. Motion was smooth, with no signs of ghosting or excess noise or digital compression outside of what one can and should expect from a low-res video file.
When I connected the iPad to my home theater rig and played back the same scenes from The Dark Knight, the image appeared a bit washed out, especially in terms of black levels. Across the board the film seemed to lose a bit of its "sheen" once the high gloss screen wasn't between my eyes and the film. Overall I have to say, I don't think the iPad will be replacing Blu-ray or even DVD players in your home theater anytime soon; however rest assured, higher resolution downloads will, for the convenience and the ability to store vast quantities of content in a relatively compact device is far too promising. For critical viewing I always default to a disc, however I can't say I didn't enjoy watching a movie on the iPad while, say, waiting in line only to return home, plug it into my home theater and pick up where I left off.
Overall, I must say I think the iPad is an interesting piece of technology, one that is already making an impact in the way we use and enjoy downloaded media. The iPad is far more versatile and easier to use for personal entertainment than an iPhone or iPod Touch. While I enjoyed it as a portable music and movie device, I really liked it for browsing the Internet (both wirelessly and 3G) and found the experience of reading my favorite blogs and articles to be superior to my MacBook Pro. In fact, since the iPad's arrival in my home, my laptop usage has decreased by nearly half; I even contemplated using the iPad to type up this review, but I couldn't bring myself to spring for the iPad's separate, full-size keyboard. That, and the fact that the iPad doesn't have Microsoft Word on it...yet.
There's no getting around the fact that the iPad is still in its infancy and there are numerous issues that are bound to be resolved with the coming updates. That being said, there are a few glaring oversights that I think keep the iPad from being the truly revolutionary product I think Apple and Steve Jobs currently think it is.