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The iPad 2: A Fast and Dirty First Look

I realize that the iPad 2 remains a huge sellout around the globe. Of course there have been concerns that the earthquake in Japan is disrupting the manufacturing process, because of the impending parts shortages. With most consumer electronics gear these days, parts and assembly equipment are sourced from a number of countries. Japan is a key player.

On the other hand, it may take weeks for the shortages to be felt. In the meantime, I can’t believe that Apple didn’t anticipate potential disruptions and make alternate arrangements in case of an emergency. COO Tim Cook is too smart an operations person to make that mistake when so much is dependent on building as many units as possible.

Regardless of where iPad 2 sales stand, and the potential pitfalls in ramping up production, I lucked out. I was able to get a review unit from Apple. Sure, I don’t qualify for “A-list” status, in the fashion of The New York Times, or the Wall Street Journal, but I don’t think this preliminary look is that far behind the curve, and I hope you readers will agree.

Having previously reviewed an iPad, original edition, the setup process was pretty straightforward, little different from an iPhone. In fact, the backup copy of my original settings from last year transferred without a hitch, after which iTunes offered to download and install the 4.3.1 update.

I did run into a fairly common problem, though, when it came to charging the unit. Now unlike other tech companies, Apple seems to care about delivering a product that will run as soon as you turn it on, and not after spending a few hours for the initial charging process. So in this case, this iPad 2 arrived with the battery sitting at 75% of capacity, although you will still want to go through the standard process of conditioning the battery after the initial setup is finished. That means going to 100%, letting the unit’s battery peter out with regular use, then recharging it again. Supposedly if you do this every month or two or three, you’ll get the maximum life from the built-in lithium-ion battery.

As to that problem: Well, the iPad 2 requires more USB juice than many other gadgets. Normally any direct USB 2.0 port on a Mac or PC will be sufficient. You’ll run into trouble, however, if you use a keyboard port (which means unpowered), or one from a USB hub. The hub I have is powered. I have to plug the AC adapter into the wall socket, but it wasn’t sufficient for the iPad 2, as the battery life prompt kept saying “Not charging.”

After a little port swapping on my 27-inch iMac, I was able to get a direct connection to the iPad 2, which proceeded to replenish the battery without further incident.

Now if you’ve already used an iPad, switching to the iPad 2 will be a no brainer. Everything is pretty much the same as far as the simple, elegant interface is concerned. This is where Apple’s competition can’t compete, since they’re selling hardware, not a classy OS and loads of apps. Even when iOS versions are upgraded, the fundamentals are the same, despite refinements and new features. As the ad used to say, “You already know how to use it.”

But there is a distinct difference. Games and other apps that tax the CPU and graphics are noticeably snappier, smoother. The published benchmarks reveal far higher frame rates, and I can believe them. This is precisely what the hardware improvements were meant to deliver.

The real differences, however, stem from the new form factor. It’s slimmer, somewhat lighter, and that means that one-handed use is going to be more practical. But this is something the Mrs. and I will have to determine over the next few weeks. My preliminary evaluation is that anything over a pound will tend to wear on your wrists after a while, but Apple is getting better.

The screen is also somewhat nicer, with a wider viewing angle, although you’ll be watching it straight on most times, so don’t expect a significant change. While it might be nice to have that rumored double-resolution display, I can’t say I’m disappointed with the current screen, and, no, I am not expecting an iPad 3 this fall. Apple is selling every unit they can build, so there’s no incentive whatever to change anything till next year.

One stellar addition to the iPad product line is the Smart Cover. Fascinating how Apple continues to devise the simplest, most explanatory product nomenclature. Apple’s competitors can learn a thing or two. I mean, what does the Xoom mean anyway? Does that mean it zooms? It sounds almost the same as Microsoft’s failed Zune, so where’s the logic in that?

The Smart Cover, available in polyethylene and leather, is sheer genius. Using a system of magnets that match the ones in the iPad 2, it seems to magically adhere itself to top and left side of the unit. Made up of four rectangular pieces, it seems to unfurl as you open it. It also serves duty as a base to hold the iPad 2 vertically, and, yes, it automatically puts it to sleep when closed (if that option is selected on your iPad 2). As I said, sheer genius.

While I’ve got a lot more testing to do, I can well understand from this up close and personal encounter why the lines are still streaming around Apple retail outlets, and why the competition has little hope of catching up any time soon.