Hands-on review: Consumers unsure about Apple’s first tablet will want the iPad 2

by Phil Hornshaw

After a few seconds of playing with the iPad 2, I can confirm that Apple’s new tablet computer is a pretty great (and little) machine that is more technologically advanced than most close observers anticipated.

The new A5 dual-core chip clips right along in a variety of applications. I spent a little time sampling a few offerings -- a National Geographic photo app, some websites and video running through Apple’s (AAPL) new mobile Safari upgrade, as well as the premium games N.O.V.A. 2 and Infinity Blade. They all looked great, and the processor handled all of them perfectly on the event’s local Wi-Fi connection.

Like the original iPad, the iPad 2 looks really great. Internet surfing and video viewing are well-supported by the upgrades, and along with a new accessory cord that allows the iPad 2 to be plugged straight into HDMI-capable high-definition TVs, viewing the kind of media the iPad was created for will reach an even wider audience. There are a lot of little improvements that make the experience better.

Why the iPad 2 will push you over the line

Overall, if you’ve touched an iPad before and been impressed, but were on the fence, the iPad 2 will likely push you over the line -- especially if you’re a fan of Apple’s GarageBand and iMovie programs on Mac computers. Those two apps alone perfectly crystallize what’s great about the iPad 2, and offer a lot of great functions that change the iPad from being, for many users, an expensive web browser and video viewer, into a really useful tool.

The touch display of the iPad 2 makes creating things with Apple’s two big editing apps a snap and makes a lot of sense, too. Laying out movie clips, editors can quickly and easily realign elements to cut together footage, add music, and watch what they’re making as they make it. The iPad 2 simplifies the interface by making it extremely easy and intuitive; iMovie will be very useful for novices and experts alike, and could transform the iPad 2 into a serious movie-making device.

Garage Band has a great feature that will endear it to all kinds of users: virtual instruments. They’re intuitively designed to go with the touch controls and make smart use of the iPad 2’s accelerometer, as well. One good example: playing Garage Band’s virtual keyboard, the keys respond differently depending on the force used to hit them. It’s a little touch that helps take the virtual instrument a long way toward being a decent substitute for a real-life instrument.

The simplified smart instruments are going to be even more interesting to novice musicians who wish they knew how to play something like the guitar, the drums or the keyboard. Smart instruments will play notes more or less on their own as you specify the chords and other options, removing the necessity of having pretty much any musical knowledge at all. Instead, all you need is a decent understanding of timing and the ability to hear the music you’re making to actually create something. I couldn’t see how deep it was, but during the large-scale demonstration, Apple played a song that mixed user-played tracks on the virtual instruments with the smart instruments. It ought to open up a lot of avenues for musically-minded people of any level, including the totally uninitiated, like me.

Perfect for FaceTime

Anyone interested at all in the video conferencing capabilities of FaceTime will find a great way to use it with the iPad 2. The two new cameras, one in front and one in back, mean video conferences aren’t tied to just looking at the person you’re talking to, or attempting to pan the camera clumsily around to show something important in real time. You can change on the fly to the rear-facing camera and see what it sees, and what your FaceTime correspondent sees, instantly.

FaceTime looked a little clunky during our demo, though. It doesn’t run as well as other videos did, and that’s probably a function of the VGA camera up front rather than the connection capabilities. It’s not as clear as other video, and runs about as well as FaceTime does on the iPhone 4. FaceTime might not make a believer out of anyone, but again, if you were interested in the capability before, this will surely work for you.

Faster graphics, great browsing

I also got to try a few games on the iPad 2. Gamers, take note: the iPad 2 now has the same capabilities as the iPhone 4 with its gyroscope and accelerometer, and this is going to mean a whole new gaming experience.

My time with N.O.V.A. 2 HD, for example, was spent swinging the iPad 2 around to make use of the game’s accelerometer and gyroscope aiming system: the camera actually pans around based on how you move the device, which I found to be really immersive on the iPhone 4 and equally so here. I also saw the same capabilities on a virtual tour app that was showing off Rome, again, by moving the device around in 3D space to replicate a moving, 3D look at the city. These are the kind of features that give the iPad 2 that “magical” feeling that Jobs likes to talk about -- it feels a whole lot more intuitive than any other interface out there.

Infinity Blade, a game with some astounding graphics, looked and ran phenomenally in the short time that I got to see it on the iPad 2. It was highly responsive and reacted really quickly to user input to slash the character’s sword at enemies, without even a little video stalling.

Not exactly a game-changer

For all the cool upgrades to the iPad 2, in a lot of ways, that’s just what this is: an upgrade. Mind you, it’s a substantial, much faster, much prettier upgrade, and Garage Band and iMovie are a couple of great apps and great examples of apps that the iPad 2 is capable of handling.

If you were in the market for an iPad before, the iPad 2 is a great decision. Its massive iTunes App Store support -- sporting 65,000 iPad-specific apps -- coupled with the same price point as the last generation of iPad, make it a pretty great buy. It’s also slightly lighter but better designed than the last iPad. It feels great in your hands, it’s easy to pick up off a table and use, and it’s really, really thin.

But for people who haven’t been wowed by the iPad up until now, even after having picked one up in a store, you’re not suddenly going to get blanketed in fairy dust by this new device. It does what the iPad did, it just does it better. There are a lot of great features, and taken together they make a worthwhile device, but skeptics will likely not see so significant an upgrade between the iPad and the iPad 2 to change their minds about the tablet.

That said, the iPad 2’s upgrades make it a strong competitor with just about anything on offer in the tablet market, including the camp that runs Google’s (GOOG) Android operating system. The best way to figure out if an iPad is for you or not is to pick one up in the store and mess around with it to see if it wows you. If it does, the iPad 2 is probably your best bet.