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Apple iPad 4 review

Is your vintage 2012 third gen tablet now obsolete?

It is one of the most bizarre - and for many, infuriating - product releases in recent years. During the October unveiling of the iPad mini, Apple also chose to reveal an upgrade to its existing third-gen tablet, replacing it after just seven months with a newer slate boasting a significant performance bump. While iPad 2 continued to be offered to the public, its successor was quietly discontinued - a swift and embarrassing end to a product that Apple described as its most successful tablet launch ever. And yet the fourth generation tablet didn't receive much of a marketing push from Apple, with almost all of the focus centring on the mini.

It's not really surprising. Even internally, the iPad 4 is clearly considered to be nothing more than a revision of the existing third-gen slate. Last year's iPad 2 update - which saw the inclusion of a more power efficient 32nm processor - was internally designated the "iPad 2,4". This new tablet follows in its wake, carrying the name "iPad 3,4" and yet there's clearly much more going on here in addition to a die-shrunk processor: the A5X, proven to be inadequate for cutting-edge 3D games at Retina resolutions, is replaced with the A6X, offering 2x the raw processing ability, according to Apple.

It's the kind of leap in performance that Apple usually reserves for a next-gen update (see the transition from iPhone 4S to iPhone 5) and it puts the company's launch strategy under the microscope - resulting in some not-so-flattering conclusions for a firm that built its reputation on creating products that put the users first.

Firstly, product development is a procedure that takes a least a couple of years, and engineering the main processor in itself takes at least 18 months. So back in March 2012, Apple introduced the third-gen iPad knowing full well that the A5X wasn't quite there in terms of performance, and almost certainly that it would be replaced in short order. The simple fact that Apple was able to address two of the most obvious flaws of the third-gen model - heat and 3D performance - and reveal an improved product just seven months later demonstrates that conclusively. Secondly, discontinuing the older model as Apple did would require a great degree of forward-planning - at some point well before the October reveal, the firm would have slowed down and stopped production of the third-gen tablet and switched over to its successor.

So where does this leave owners of the discontinued tablet? Is the third-gen model now obsolete? Does its replacement offer the vastly improved user experience that a 2x power bump suggests? In short, if you own a third-gen model - or even an iPad 2 - should you upgrade?

"The A6X processor is the star of the show here, offering a 2x processing boost over the March 2012 iPad revision."

Spot the difference

If you're going to buy the fourth gen iPad, make sure you don't get fobbed off with the third gen model - there's still plenty of them knocking about in the supply chain. It's easy to be confused here as the exterior packaging is almost completely identical, but there are pointers on the box to ensure you get the latest version of the tablet. Flip over to the rear of the packaging and the sticker in the bottom-left reveals the storage capacity of the unit inside and then covers product contents, including the new Lightning to USB adaptor. Adjacent to this sticker you'll find other information such as the product number - the fourth gen unit in its 16GB incarnation is A1458, whereas the previous "new" iPad gets an A1416 designation.

Similarities between the third and fourth gen models extend to the actual unit itself. The size, shape and weight of the two devices are essentially identical - the only real difference being the smaller Lightning socket on the bottom of the machine. iFixit's teardown reveals that the extra room inside the chassis left over by the removal of the older 30-pin socket hasn't been put to any good use: a larger mono speaker, or even a move to stereo might have been possible but instead we have a simple like-for-like switchover. Bearing in mind that Apple has integrated stereo speakers into the iPad mini it does come across as a bit of a shame that similar technology could not have been integrated into the larger slate.

The teardown also confirms that not much else has changed elsewhere, though we do see a welcome bump in front camera spec from VGA-level 640x480 up to the same 1.2-megapixel HD spec found in the new iPad mini. Despite the die-shrink of the new A6X, the processor is significantly more advanced than its predecessor, and still requires plenty of juice: the same mammoth 43WHr batteries from the third gen model are required to sustain the ten hour battery life. To put this into perspective, the 11-inch Macbook Air features a smaller 35WHr battery, while the 13-inch model bumps this up to 50WHr, placing the third and fourth gen iPads squarely between them.

"Aside from the inclusion of a front-facing HD camera and the new Lighting connector, the exterior of the latest iPad is physically identical to the older model."

Clearly, the new A6X is the star of the show. Apple has promised a 2x boost in both CPU and GPU performance - an exceptional achievement bearing in mind how power hungry and hot the outgoing A5X could be. So how have the engineers achieved this notable increase in performance while sustaining longevity with the same batteries? The story starts last year with the stealth update of the iPad 2, which saw the 45nm A5 processor replaced with a smaller, cooler 32nm version. Performance was totally identical between the two parts, but battery life increased significantly, particularly in demanding 3D applications. This was Apple's test-run for 32nm technology and the iPad 2,4 passed with flying colours: the A6 processor in the iPhone 5 moved onto the same fabrication node and so it's no surprise to see the A6X following likewise.

But we also see some crucial changes in hardware design too. The vanilla dual-core ARM Cortex A9s in the A5X have given way to the new Apple-optimised variants found in the iPhone 5's A6 - these appear to clock up to 1.4GHz according to Geekbench, representing a notable increase in speed for the A6X. GPU architecture also sees a significant boost too. The PowerVR SGX543 MP4 - a close relative of the PlayStation Vita GPU - is upgraded to the more capable SGX554 MP4. In terms of raw specs, this makes the iPad 4 the most powerful piece of mobile gaming technology available on the market right now.

Gameplay results demonstrate a clear bump in 3D capabilities, but similar to our iPhone 4S/5 tests, benchmarks are not really reflected in real-life applications. NOVA 3 sees all the bling removed from the third-gen iPad version rightfully restored with the game operating at full retina resolution, but just like the iPad 2 game, it's still rather choppy. Modern Combat 3 looks much the same, but clearly runs without the debilitating drops in frame-rate we experienced on the third-gen tablet. However, both games still run more smoothly on iPhone 5. Riptide GP sought to mitigate the deficiencies of the A5X graphics core by offering a resolution slider in the options, effectively allowing users to choose between frame-rate and pixel depth. With the iPad 4, players can run the game at max settings with no drops in the target 60FPS update. So far, so good - there are clear advantages to running demanding 3D titles on the iPad 4, but nothing to suggest a 2x improvement.

But then we find ourselves playing Epic's Infinity Blade 2, operating on the firm's excellent Unreal Engine 3. This game is a good example of the kind of fudge developers had to employ with the third gen iPad: A5X wasn't powerful enough to sustain full Retina resolution, so Epic scaled the game in line with the GPU power available, doubling pixel count over the iPad 2 version at around 1440x1080 and using upscaling to make up the difference. With the new tablet, Epic still doesn't quite have the horsepower to produce native resolution but at a ballpark 1920x1440, the game is taken to the next level and it's a superb graphical showcase for the capabilities of the A6X.

"The benchmarks demonstrate a colossal improvement in CPU performance and a new standard in mobile 3D power, but it's fair to say that this is not reflected in the overall experience."

Apple iPad (Fourth Generation) Apple iPad (Third Generation) Apple iPad Mini
Geekbench 1790 756 751
Rightware Browsermark 2.0 2468 2072 2035
Sunspider 0.9.1 (lower is better) 884.6ms 1585.2ms 1509.8ms
GLBenchmark 2.5.1 Egypt HD (onscreen, device native res) 42FPS 22FPS 25FPS
GLBenchmark 2.5.1 Egypt HD (onscreen, device native res, 4x MSAA) 37FPS 21FPS 24FPS
GLBenchmark 2.5.1 Egypt HD (offscreen, 1080p) 52FPS 27FPS 14FPS

Why the seven month lifecycle? Will it ever happen again?

Apple's not talking about the reasons why the third-gen iPad was dispatched to the silicon graveyard mere months after its debut, but it's clear that the release of the new iPad represents a genuine shift in the firm's product strategy. In previous years, new processing tech received its debut in the iPad before being downclocked by around 20 per cent and inserted into the new iPhone - something we saw in both the iPad/iPhone 4 and the iPad 2/iPhone 4S. When display pixel densities were similar, it was a logical approach that paid massive dividends, but the move to the Retina display on the iPad changed everything - the graphical resources required were too vast to justify running the same outsize GPU on the much smaller iPhone screen.

At the same time, Apple has undertaken a fundamental shift in how it creates its processors. Both the A4 and A5 were basic amalgamations of licensed technology from ARM and IMG. With the iPhone 5's A6, we see the firm re-engineering the CPU cores and producing fantastic boosts to efficiency to the point where Apple's dual-core approach significantly outperforms many quad-core competitors in the Android field. Clearly, we now see that the firm is developing its new separate and distinct tablet and phone processors in parallel, with a view to maximising revenues from the key Q4 period.

Perhaps the real question we need to be asking here is not why the third gen model was discontinued so soon, but rather why it was released at all when the product was not quite everything that it could and should have been, and when the required "fixes" were just months away from show-time. It strongly suggests that the company was under pressure to release an unfinished product, that the firm's release strategy is perhaps now too beholden to maintaining the firm's huge share price as opposed to getting the best user experience out there. We believe that the seven month lifecycle was a result of a strategic re-alignment, but we hope that this doesn't represent the start of a slippery slope of rushed products: we loved the iPad mini, but how long will it be before the slightly disappointing screen gets an upgrade? We find it rather unlikely that Apple will continue to release two tablets simultaneously and imagine that we will see another less seismic alignment at some point, keeping the iPad where it is now but shifting the mini to another point in the calendar year.

iPad 2/Mini
iPad 3
iPad 4
Infinity Blade 2 compared across our three test tablets. We've upscaled the iPad 2/mini shots, while the iPad 3/4 images featuring internal upscaling to Retina resolution. With a pixel ratio in the region of 19/20, we reckon that the iPad 4 version is rendering at 1920x1440 - a nigh-on 78 per cent boost over the third gen tablet's efforts, and 3.5x the pixel density of the iPad 2 game.
iPad 2/Mini
iPad 3
iPad 4
Infinity Blade 2 compared across our three test tablets. We've upscaled the iPad 2/mini shots, while the iPad 3/4 images featuring internal upscaling to Retina resolution. With a pixel ratio in the region of 19/20, we reckon that the iPad 4 version is rendering at 1920x1440 - a nigh-on 78 per cent boost over the third gen tablet's efforts, and 3.5x the pixel density of the iPad 2 game.

Apple iPad 4: the Digital Foundry verdict

The fourth generation iPad is an excellent tablet - for our money, the best larger tablet on the market today - resolving almost all of the issues we had with its predecessor. However, despite the 2x power boost, we cannot seriously recommend this as an upgrade from the third-gen model. To put it simply, twice the horsepower does not translate into twice the overall experience: iOS 6 is a lean, swift OS that works almost as well on the third generation tablet as it does on its successor, with only a few applications - such as the 3D maps - being notably faster and smoother on the newer hardware. There is an improvement in overall responsiveness, especially when it comes to browsing, but these factors in themselves are not enough to justify the upgrade and it's clear that radical revisions to the overall form-factor are being kept back for a future refresh.

"The fastest, most powerful iPad ever is by default one of the best tablets you can buy, but the unchanged form factor is a bit of a disappointment."

Those who play demanding 3D games like Infinity Blade 2 will notice a significant difference with the new revision though. What the PowerVR SGX544 MP4 graphics core offers is the ability to match and occasionally exceed iPad 2 gaming performance in terms of raw frame-rates, while offering a resolution boost worthy of the Retina display. This is something that the third generation tablet had severe difficulties achieving, resulting in numerous compromises and fudges in various games. The arrival of the iPad 4 is good news for gamers and developers: with the current product range (iPad 2, mini, 4) there is something approaching a level playing field for performance across a multitude of devices with resolution the only real differentiator. However, we'd be remiss in not pointing out that despite its cutting-edge graphics core, the iPhone 5 still commands the frame-rate advantage overall - it simply has more GPU resources available factoring in the much lower resolution. For example, we get a locked 60 frames per second on Modern Combat 3 on iPhone 5, but performance is still a little wobbly on the iPad 4. But that screen undoubtedly takes mobile gaming to a whole new level, as Infinity Blade 2 demonstrates.

So if 3D gaming performance is the only really noticeable difference, many third-gen users probably won't mind that they've been sold a slower, less capable unit that was replaced just seven months later - but at some point in the future that 2x performance bump will make a genuine difference. Perhaps it'll come with a more demanding iOS 7, maybe it'll coincide with the arrival of the next-gen PowerVR Rogue chipset - which if the rumours are true represents current-gen HD console rendering power in a mobile form factor. At that point, the "untapped power" we find in the iPad 4 will become that much more important in keeping your older hardware in the game.

But in the here and now, the iPad 4 is a real "tweener" of a product - not improved enough to represent a true leap over its predecessor, but at the same time a far more capable 3D games machine and clearly more future-proof. It's the device the third-gen product should have been, but overall, it's not a particularly compelling proposition from those owning the earlier 2012 model. Indeed, even if you own an older iPad 2, display resolution alone might not be enough to make the leap worthwhile - the lighter, slimmer form factor of the mini, with all the power of the iPad 2 contained within its diminutive chassis might be the better choice for many users.

There's always a better iThing around the corner, but it's safe to say that next year's transition to even smaller fabrication processes and the arrival of the PowerVR Rogue GPU could well bring about a revolution in mobile gaming performance. Our advice? If you're a first gen iPad user, this model represents a colossal leap in almost every regard, but otherwise, unless you absolutely must have a Retina display, we'd recommend holding off for now - we have a feeling that continued patience may well be very rewarding indeed...