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09/11/2012 10:30 | By David Phelan, contributor, MSN Tech

Apple iPad with Retina display (4th generation) review

The full lowdown on Apple's latest flagship tablet

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What is it?
Just seven months after the last iPad came out, Apple has updated it. But please, don’t call it the iPad 4.

What’s great?
Faster graphics processor, better front-facing camera, UK-compatible 4G connectivity and that same design we know and love.

What’s not?
This is the latest gadget from Apple to switch to the Lightning connector, making existing chargers and speakers incompatible.

The bottom line:
Same design, same weight, same display – this is a tweak to the existing iPad, which it has replaced, rather than an all-new machine. Not worth upgrading to unless you want the 4G speeds, but a great place to start if you don’t have an iPad.

iPad 4 review (© Apple)

iPad (fourth generation): Review
The 2012 Apple iPad was launched in March. And those Apple guys only release one iPad a year, don’t they? Well not any more. Last month, Apple CEO Tim Cook announced what he called the fourth generation iPad, which is on sale now. It’s not as if Apple is unfamiliar with the criticism it gets for updating its products too soon. The iPad 2 went on sale 11 months after the first one in the UK and there was much grumbling about that.

But this is something different. It’s not the iPad 4 – if Apple was still numbering its iPads this might be the iPad 3S. In fact, that’s a good way to think about this new model. It’s not a whole new deal, just a gentle upgrade – in much the same way Apple and other computer manufacturers tweak processor speeds and raise the specs of laptops during the year, rather than waiting until a new computer design is launched.

Even so, it’s going to leave third-generation iPad owners a little confused. Should they upgrade? Or do they now have to wait until next autumn before the fifth generation iPad arrives? Or will it be out next spring (which is our guess, by the way)?

iPad (fourth generation): Connectivity

Here’s the thing: when the iPad was launched in March, Apple came in for some stick when it described it as “Wi-Fi and 4G” when, in lots of countries it wasn’t. Like the UK, where the 4G frequencies in the iPad were incompatible with the forthcoming 4G ones to be used here. The new words are “Wi-Fi and cellular”. So we imagine Apple wanted to change frequencies as soon as they could, especially when it became apparent that EE would have 4G transmitters up and running by, well, by now.

Certainly that was one of the elements that has been addressed this time around. The fourth generation iPad is available here either with Wi-Fi only, which is the model tested here, or with GSM frequencies including 1800MHz, the one that EE uses.

Note that the other frequencies we’ll be using in this country, 800MHz and 2.6GHz, are not included here. So this iPad’s cellular option won’t be compatible with 4G services from Vodafone and O2, for instance. Since their services are likely to launch in May or June next year, there’s another reason to think there’ll be a new iPad well before next autumn, even if it’s only a minor upgrade like this one. Like we say, we're sure the next generation iPad will be a full upgrade and will probably arrive next spring.

Apple iPad 4 review (© Apple)

iPad (fourth generation): Lightning

There are other upgrades here, but not all are going to please. We're talking about the switch to the new, smaller Lightning connector which the iPhone 5, iPad mini and new iPods all share. A change to a new connector was bound to happen some time, especially since less data and more power are transferred by cable. Even software updates are over the air.

But it means that millions of speaker docks, chargers and rechargeable batteries littering the living rooms of the world no longer fit. You can buy a neat enough little adaptor, but we still think it would have been nice if Apple had given the first adaptor free. Instead it costs £25.

iPad (fourth generation): Performance

Beyond that, the big news is the A6X chip that gives the new iPad its power. It’s the same A6 processor found in the iPhone 5 but with a graphics boost. It’s up to twice as fast as the A5X chip in the third-generation iPad and is aimed at increasing graphics performance. Well, the graphics in games on the iPad were already pretty stellar thanks to the Retina display, but now they’ll be even smoother. No pop-up as your car rockets round a corner in a driving game, for instance.

In practice, the differences were hard to spot because the previous model was so good. Perhaps things will be more noticeable when developers design games and apps that push the hardware capabilities to the limit. For now, everything looks the best it could. Apps open fast on the third-gen iPad, but some are noticeably quicker here.

iPad (fourth generation): Camera

There’s one more difference – the front-facing camera. This now has a resolution of 1.2 megapixels so when you’re doing FaceTime calls you see things in greater detail. Beyond that, the elements that made the iPad the best yet are unchanged: strong battery life, Retina display, and so on are unchanged.

Including the weight and thickness, both of which increased from the iPad 2 thanks to that hi-res display. A slimmer, lighter iPad? Now that would have been an upgrade, as anyone who’s tried the iPad mini could vouch for. But the key indicator that this was a gentle power increase to benefit anyone who hadn’t bought an iPad earlier this year was confirmed with one glance to the Apple website: the third-generation iPad was removed from sale the second the new model was released.

iPad (fourth generation): Verdict

If you bought a third-generation iPad, don’t feel bad. There’s no real urgency to upgrade unless you found the speed at which apps launched just too slow for comfort. True, the front-facing camera has been improved, but it doesn’t change FaceTime Out of all recognition. The biggest reason to upgrade from version 3 to version 4 is the 4G connectivity, assuming you’re on EE. The biggest reason not to is if you have lots of stuff that uses the old 30-pin connector.

The iPad remains the best tablet bar none. This iPad is better than the model on sale a month ago. So if you were going to buy one, this is the best time to jump aboard. Though remember there may be a new model next spring. Still, there’s little point in playing the waiting game with technology. The brutal truth is that whenever you buy any Apple product, there’s going to be a better one along in a year, maybe a bit more or less. If you buy now, you get to enjoy now.

And enjoy you will because, despite the complaints about the quick upgrade, the latest iPad is still the most desirable and, dare we say it, best tablet in town.

Five star review iPad

iPad (fourth generation): Wi-Fi only: Available now -  £399 (16GB), £479 (32GB), £559 (64GB). Wi-Fi and cellular: Available late November – £499 (16GB), £579 (32GB), £659 (64GB)

9.7 inches too big? Then take a look at our Apple iPad mini review
Or maybe you prefer Android? If so, check out MSN Tech's Amazon Kindle Fire HD review
Also, you may need something stronger....Apple MacBook Pro with 13-inch Retina display review

Make sure you also take a look at our guide - What iPad should I buy?