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 fianc�'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.