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iPad review: It's a renovation, not a revolution

Rosa Golijan/msnbc.com

At 12:05 a.m., moments after Thursday turned into Friday, my new iPad was in my hands. I tucked it under my arm and looked around. There was no magic, there were no lines and there were no applauding Apple Store employees.

It was just me, three other sleepy-looking customers, and four store employees. We were in the electronics department of a Walmart.

I shrugged that sad reality off and went home to unbox my new toy. "It's like the old one," a shrill voice kept repeating in my head, as I stood with an iPad 2 in one hand and the new iPad in the other. "The new one even weighs a bit more. Barely, but I can feel it," I thought, before finally turning the device on.

And then it was as if someone firmly smacked the back of my head and knocked me out of a daze. The screen — oh, that screen! It was sharp, clear, and it was all I could think about as I went through the motions of setting up the device. And it's still the only thing that truly stands out to me as I write these words. Oh, that screen.

The reviews painstakingly crafted by fellow tech writers made it clear: This new iPad was identical to the old one, save for a better display and some metaphorical horsepower. Since you're reading this particular blog post, you're probably already aware of all those generalities — the hype brought you here. So let's talk about the details — the devil's in 'em after all.

The screen
Most of that hype is about the gadget's display. It's a Retina display — similar to the one found on the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S — and, as BuzzFeed's John Herrman helpfully points out, most folks will tell you that you have to "see it to believe" how good it is. But here's what you really need to know about it: It has a resolution of 2048 x 1536 pixels. That's well over 3 million pixels which are crammed into the 9.7-inch device. The average, significantly larger HDTV has about 2 million pixels, and the iPad 2 only just over 700,000.

The speedy processor
The third-generation iPad has a dual-core processor with quad-core graphics. (Mind you, that's not the same thing as a quad-core processor, and Apple's introduction of the iPad's new chip was a bit misleading.) This means it should be speedier than the prior model. The folks at SlashGear tested this assumption by shooting videos with both a new iPad and an iPad 2, and processing them in the iMovie app. A one-minute 720p HD clip took 1:01 to export on the iPad 2, while it took 0:52 to export on the new iPad. A five-minute 720p HD clip took 5:11 on iPad 2, and just 3:39 on the new iPad. The speed increases speak for themselves.

4G LTE wireless connectivity
Unlike the iPad 2, which merely offered 3G connectivity, the new iPad can handle speedy 4G LTE connections. Depending on whether you choose AT&T or Verizon as your carrier, the LTE coverage in your area and the mood of the technlogy gods, the speeds you'll see will vary. Macworld's Jason Snell saw speeds of 14.5 Mbps up and 20.6 Mbps down; the Verge's Josh Topolsky noticed speeds as high as 12 Mbps up and 22 Mbps down. They tested their devices in San Francisco and New York City respectively.

Battery life?
Since the new iPad is speedier, supports LTE and offers a Retina display, it is safe to assume that it's a killer on batteries. Naturally Apple anticipated any problems and made sure to include a better battery than the one built into the iPad 2. According to the Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg, the tablet's battery life "degraded by just 11 minutes." Other reviewers saw similar results, though no one's had the chance to do extensive battery testing just yet. Most noted that the device takes significantly longer to charge than the prior model though.

Measuring up
The larger battery means that the new iPad weighs .11 pounds more than the iPad 2 and is .024 inches thicker. In real-world terms, that translates to a device with the thickness of an average pen — at least based on the pens in my desk drawer — and the weight of nearly two Diet Coke cans.

Why it's not perfect
Apps designed for the new iPad will take up more memory than current ones (thanks to graphics created to take advantage of the Retina display).

According to several reviewers, the device runs a bit hot when connected to an LTE network.

Based on my own experience, it can have "light leaks" — bright spots along the edges of the screen — like some of the iPad 2 devices. We'll see if that goes away over time, as in previous instances of not-yet-dried glue from the factory. 

To buy or not to buy?
I've barely had my new iPad for half a day, but it's met expectations so far, and my experience matches those of reviewers who got the device in advance of launch.

The display is, as I've obsessively mentioned again and again, impressive. The battery life is seemingly solid and my iPad appears to be 87 percent charged after I've downloaded a movie from iTunes, played it, kept the device's brightness high, and then idly browsed the Internet for awhile. I don't have any genuine complaints about the device — but then again I didn't find many faults with the iPad 2, either.

Besides, what else would I buy if hadn't bought the new iPad? A Kindle Fire would've saved me at least $300, but it would've felt like a significant step down as both it and the Android 's app market still lack the polish of Apple's offerings. The Samsung Galaxy Tab and Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime would've also been solid alternatives to consider, but — as testing by PCWorld's Melissa Perenson shows — they don't quite keep up with the new iPad in a lab setting. If I am unwilling to make any compromises, be they related to software or hardware, the new iPad was my most reasonable choice.

"Maybe I'll get one and sell it on eBay in a few days," remarked the woman who'd rung up my iPad as I began to walk out of Walmart. I rolled my eyes, but quietly contemplated doing the same thing.

It's a marginal product upgrade and it won't necessarily fill iPad 2 owners with the fuzzy-wuzzy feelings a new gadget brings. But if you're brand-new to the world of Apple tablets? Oh, my dear reader, it'll be as "magical" and "resolutionary" as the marketing material suggests.
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Want more tech news, silly puns, or amusing links? You'll get plenty of all three if you keep up with Rosa Golijan, the writer of this post, by following her on Twitter, subscribing to her Facebook posts, or circling her on Google+.

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