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New iPad: Should I Stay or Upgrade?

Holy crap, that screen is sharp. The question is, should you join the avalanche, stick with your current iPad or — heavens forbid! — remain tablet-less?

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New iPad: Should I Stay or Upgrade?

Bloomberg via Getty Images

People wait outside the Apple Inc. store on Broadway in New York, U.S., on Friday, March 16, 2012. Apple Inc. started selling its new iPad today, betting on a sharper screen and faster chip to extend its lead over Google Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. in the growing market for tablet computers. Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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Have you seen the lines at the box office? It's an avalanche! It's a torrent! It's the biggest hit on Broadway!

Wait, that was "Springtime for Hitler."

I meant to describe the third annual avalanche and torrent at Apple stores — and Verizon, AT&T, Wal-Mart, Best Buy and other retailers — that started selling the new iPad 3 this week. (Yeah, I know — "iPad 3" verboten. Tough nuggies, that's what it is and that's what I'm calling it.)

The question is, should you join the avalanche, stick with your current iPad or — heavens forbid! — remain tablet-less? Not surprisingly, I have some thoughts on these various usage case scenarios upon actually handling and seeing the iPad 3.

Holy crap, that screen is sharp. For weeks I've been trying to figure out just how much sharper iPad 3's Retina screen would be and — holy crap. It's like when an optometrist puts that giant lens shifting thingie over your face and asks you which eye chart looks better. "This…?" And you think that fifth line is kinda clear until he flips the lenses and continues "…or this?" And all of a sudden those lines of letters jump off the screen.

Retina is like the second "this." Holy crap.

Technically, it's a 2048 x 1536 pixel screen. As you might have read, that's 3.1 million pixels, a third more pixels than those collected in your 1920 x 1080 HDTV.

Why does a portable device need a million more pixels than your HDTV? Because your HDTV is eight to 12 feet away, fuzzing any potential pixel perception (which is why you can get away with a 720p set for HDTVs smaller than 50 inches — but I digress).

An iPad, however, is not eight to 12 feet across a room but eight to 12 inches away from your nose. Pixels in even high-resolution displays become visible at that intimate distance in the form of jagged edges and small smudgy type.

iPad 3's Retina screen wipes out even this tiny reminder that what you're looking at is a whole mess o' tiny dots and is the prime reason why anyone should consider an upgrade or initial purchase, regardless of current tablet ownership situation.

But there's that whole, nasty $499-$829 price tag, and responsible budgetary constraints to consider (those suffering mid-life crises excluded).

How Sharp Is Sharp?

There are three levels of resolution improvements to consider: older, iPhone-only apps that have to be blown up to use effectively, current iPad apps and the couple of dozen (and growing) apps optimized for the Retina screen, including the ABC player, Evernote, the news app Readability, Amazon's Kindle and The New York Times.

Thankfully, there are fewer and fewer apps that have no iPad-specific version. But there are a few. In the past, when you blew these iPhone apps up two times on the two previous iPads, your get jaggy everything. Not any more — or at least, not as much. On the iPad 3 you get far fewer jaggies, with near iPad 2-like distinctness. Similarly, current apps offer an impressive edge improvement, both in their icons and actual usage.

But the true revelation are the Retina-optimized apps. Did I say holy crap?

You can now step-down the type size on e-books (which means fewer page turns) because smaller type is crisper and more readable. Movies, even older 720p versions, tighten up considerably. Fast-moving visuals don't blur as much and details are more distinct. Text and images on Web pages and in emails are a pleasure to behold. But it's not as if iPad 2 was like watching a 20-year-old VHS tape on an HDTV.

So…

Should You Upgrade Or Not?

Of course, there are other iPad 3 improvements to consider. Thanks to its new A5X chip, apps load much faster. I'm not a gamer (I have a dramatic enough real life), but the A5X engine offers quad-core power for graphics, which supposedly is a boon to realistic and quick-reaction game play.

Perhaps the most convenient iPad 3 improvement is 4G LTE connectivity — but not just the speedy, almost-always connected connection. Verizon's iPad 3 offers mobile hotspotting for free, which means your iPad 3 can feed a high-speed 4G LTE connection to a nearby laptop, your smartphone — up to five other Wi-Fi-enabled devices. This is well worth the $20/month for 2 GB of data (which is more data than you think since, when you're home, you'll most likely use Wi-Fi), especially if you're a road warrior with multiple mobile devices. For one thing, iPad 3's 4G LTE hotspotting will save you a fortune in hotel room Wi-Fi charges.

The iPad 3 also has an iPhone 4S-like 5 MP camera, but no one should buy a tablet for its picture-taking abilities. What's disappointing is the front camera for video chatting is still just VGA. Boooo!

And don't worry about old iPad 2 accessories. iPad 3 is less than a millimeter thicker, and I managed to squeeze it into my already form-fitting ZeroChroma case. Your old Apple Smart Cover also still comfortingly latches on.

Even with all these wondrous improvements, upgrading from iPad 2 to iPad new depends solely on your financial means. If you can afford it — or, if you can sell your current iPad to subsidize it (and iPad 2s are holding their value remarkably well so far) — I would.

By the same token, upgraders should consider stepping up in memory as well. Because Retina-optimized apps offer higher resolution, they also take up more space (as will new 1080p movies from iTunes). For instance, the optimized New York Times app goes from 4.3 to 4.9 MB, the Kindle app jumps from 16.7 to 18.3 MB, and the ABC Player leaps from 23.4 to 33.3 MB.

And since they take up more memory, current iPad owners who aren't upgrading should consider their storage situation before upgrading to Retina-optimized apps.

First-Time Buyer Options

First-time tablet owners jonesing for an iPad will not be disappointed by a new iPad 2, especially at a $100 discount.

Personally, I'm disappointed by the mere $100 cut; after Apple slashed the price of the iPhone 4 in half after the iPhone 4S came out, I thought the iPad 2 discount would be steeper.

A better deal may be a refurbished iPad 2 — why do you think so many people are willing to buy used iPad 2s? Apple itself is selling refurbished 16 GB Wi-Fi-only models for $349, which is closer to the discount on new iPad 2s Apple would offer. (The page is kind of buried, so follow the link.)

There is no difference between a new and used iPad 2 (at least from Apple) — at least that's what I've been told. That, and you get the same warranty. (I've bought a couple of refurbished products from other companies, and would never had known the difference if I didn't know beforehand.) The difference is emotional — YOU know you "settled" or however your brain processes your choice of refurbished over new. In reality, you will save 50 bucks.

So, bottom line: if you're a current iPad 2 owner, can sell your current iPad and can afford it — treat yourself. First-time tempted tablet owners working with a thinner wallet, a refurbished iPad 2 is a sweet deal.

Happy tabbing!

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