What hasn’t changed

Though it’s thinner and lighter, the iPad 2, at a glance, looks very much like the original iPad. Its front is a sheet of glass over a bright 1024-by-768-pixel display surrounded by a bezel (again, now available in black or white) that’s going to be necessary so long as humans grasp with opposable thumbs. The aluminum frame around the outside of the bezel of the original iPad has been reduced to a thin edge, almost entirely invisible, in the iPad 2.

The position of the iPad 2’s buttons and ports are, likewise, more or less undisturbed. There’s a sleep/wake button at the top right edge, a standard headphone jack at top left, a volume rocker and a sliding switch (configurable to lock screen orientation or mute alert sounds via the Settings app) at the top of the right side, a 30-pin dock connector port at the bottom, and a home button at the bottom of the front face. The iPad 2’s built-in microphone is dead center at the top edge of the device—it was next to the headphone jack on the original iPad. Both 3G models feature a black plastic cutout along the top rear face in order to improve cellular reception; the AT&T 3G model also has a micro-SIM card slot along the top left edge.

Dual-core speed

The iPad 2 uses a new Apple-designed processor called the A5, which is making its first appearance on the scene. Apple is generally cagey about tech specs for products like the iPhone and iPad, but by all accounts, the A5 is a dual-core version of the 1GHz A4 chip that powers the iPhone 4 and the original iPad. The iPad 2 also has 512MB of RAM—twice that of the original iPad—and a 200MHz bus speed, likewise twice that of the original.

Because the A5 is a dual-core processor, Apple claims the iPad 2 can run at speeds up to double that of the original iPad. As with any dual-core processor, the key about “up to double” is that software must be optimized to take advantage of multiple processor cores, or that speed goes to waste. This is the first dual-core processor to appear on an iOS device, and it’ll be interesting to see under what circumstances the A5 is noticeably faster than the A4, and when it’s not.

But processor speed isn’t the only part of the system that determines how it performs. Graphics performance has become a major component in determining how fast a computing device feels. And Apple says that the graphics performance on the iPad 2 is as much as nine times faster than on the original iPad.

So does the iPad 2 measure up to Apple’s claims? Absolutely, though it’s hard to determine whether the dual-core processor or the improved graphics performance deserve the credit. (Maybe the question is moot.) From the moment I started using the iPad 2 with familiar apps from my original iPad, I could tell that the system was faster. I thought scrolling through tweets in Twitterrific on my iPad was smooth as can be … until I scrolled through the tweet list on the iPad 2. Everything felt smoother, and items loaded faster.

Part of the speed boost, especially when I started to test performance in Safari, probably needs to be credited to iOS 4.3, which ships with the iPad 2 and includes a dramatic improvement to Safari’s JavaScript engine. When I installed the golden master version of iOS 4.3 on an original iPad, performance improved as well. But even when both devices were running iOS 4.3, the iPad 2 was 1.6 times as fast as the original in running the SunSpider JavaScript test, and 1.9 times as fast as an iPhone 4 running the iOS 4.3 golden master.

In short, the iPad 2 is the fastest iOS device ever made, by a long shot. And it’s not just an academic distinction: you can sense the speed when you use it, because everything’s faster and smoother than it was on the original iPad.

Despite the boosts in processing power, Apple claims that the iPad 2 has the same ten-hour battery life as the original model. In nearly a week of use, I never saw a reason to disbelieve the claims. The iPad’s all-day battery life, perhaps its killer feature, remains intact.


Cameras and FaceTime

The original iPad debuted just before Apple embraced video chat with its FaceTime software and added a front-facing camera to the iPhone. (It subsequently added both front- and rear-facing cameras to the iPod touch.) With the iPad 2, the company has brought two cameras to all of its mobile iOS devices.

The cameras in the iPad 2 are essentially the same as those in the fourth-generation iPod touch: it’s nice that they’re there, but they’re not particularly impressive in terms of quality. The front-facing camera is the same one used in the iPhone 4 and the iPod touch, offering only VGA resolution (640 by 480 pixels). It’s grainy in low-light settings, but is perfectly serviceable for its intended purpose, which is video chat.

FaceTime works on the iPad 2 much like it works on the iPod touch; in the Settings app you log in with an Apple ID and set an e-mail address to use as your FaceTime “number,” so people can call you. From the FaceTime app, you can call people in your contacts list and set favorites. (FaceTime on the iPad is, like FaceTime on the iPhone 4, supported only over Wi-Fi connections.)

Once you’ve connected, the iPad’s larger screen definitely exposes the low quality of FaceTime video (whether it’s caused by the low-quality camera or the intense bandwidth required by a live video chat, or both, is debatable). Still, the video is good enough to be usable. The iPad’s size, however, makes it a bit ungainly as a FaceTime device. It’s hard to have a long conversation while holding the iPad in your hand. Propping the tablet on a tabletop or in your lap works better; propping it up with Apple’s Smart Cover in typing position gave my interlocutor a nice view of my ceiling fan, while putting it in the Smart Cover’s movie-viewing position made me hunch down in order to get in the frame.

The rear camera on the iPad 2 appears to be identical to the one found on the iPod touch. (It’s positioned just beneath the sleep button on the back side of the device, creating a challenge for iPad casemakers everywhere.) Apple touts this camera as being “for video,” and there’s a reason: as a still camera it’s about seven-tenths of a megapixel, with poor performance in low-light conditions. But it’s capable of shooting 720p HD video and, in well-lit environments, the quality is decent.

I’m not sure I’m ever going to hold up the iPad 2 and use it as a video camera, but it does work—and most important, you can use that camera from within FaceTime, so you can shoot video of your kids crazily running around and send it all back to grandma.

Only 3G iPad models come with GPS capabilities. There’s a good reason for this—iOS devices use something called assisted GPS to dramatically decrease the amount of time it takes for the devices to determine their location. (Despite the name, this is not some sort of phony GPS—the assisted just means that the devices look for nearby cellular towers to get a general fix on their location, which prevents a minutes-long GPS scan that would be required on a GPS device without the cellular assist.) In any event, if you dream of using your iPad as a jumbo GPS navigation console, you’ll absolutely need a 3G model.