Say hello to the (likely) best-selling portable game system of 2012: our thoughts on the new iPad
The game library of the 3DS has improved greatly since launch. The double analog sticks and large touch-sensitive screen of the Vita make it a great system for a variety of games. In terms of sales, however, the latest iPad is likely going to be the most popular portable gaming device of 2012.
It’s worth talking about product in the context of a video game console launch. It looks the same from the outside: people waiting in long lines in front of electronics stores for the next shiny new thing. The demographics may be slightly different, and the need may be a little more intense, but Apple has been able to annually generate the sort of buzz the gaming industry hopes for every five to ten years with nearly constant hardware improvements. Apple also has a bad habit of running its events to announce new hardware or software during video game shows such as GDC and E3.
We waited in line for the latest iPad 3 at launch just like everyone else. The box and branding don’t mark the system as being new in any way I could see, it’s simply called the “iPad.” The “HD” and “3” monikers are used by the press to differentiate the system from its precursors. For Apple, this is the standard iPad. The iPad 2 is now the lower-priced model.
The two most prominent changes to the hardware are the improved “retina” display and more powerful guts. It’s hard to downplay these changes when the device is nothing more or less than a giant, interactive screen. The battery has also been enlarged to power those internals and the LTE connectivity that is available in the more expensive models. The iFixit teardown confirmed what most of us already knew: The system is little more than a battery attached to the screen. The rest of the electronics are tiny things packed into that sleek case.
The screen and guts
Let’s look at specifications for a moment, just to see what we’re dealing with here. The iPad 2 had a 9.7 inch screen running at 1024 by 768. That’s 132 pixels per inch. As tablet screens go, there was nothing bad about it. Most users had no complaints. If you asked them what they would like to change about the system, how many would bring up the screen as their first option?
The new iPad features a screen that may be the same size, but it now runs at a resolution of 2048 by 1536. That’s 264 pixels per inch. That means there are 2,359,296 more pixels in the latest iPad than there were in the model. That’s not a slight improvement. Pixels don’t exist to your eyes when you look at the screen; it’s pure image.
The iPad 3 uses the new A5X chip to drive all that screen. While the CPU seems to have been left alone, the GPU is a quad-core beast, and the hardware now features 1GB of RAM, up from the 512MB of RAM in the iPad 2. The system gives developers more power, but to take advantage of that new screen you need to push more pixels. What we’re likely to see is games that look similar to what we’re used to on the iPad 2, with what amounts to free anti-aliasing and a much sharper image.
This is where we hit a snag with describing how good the games look on the new screen, and this is the same problem Nintendo continues to face with the 3DS. I can’t show you good these games look, because your laptop doesn’t have the same pixel density as the iPad 3. The colors are going to look different. You can get a sense of how the games look from screenshots, but that’s not the same things as seeing them in action on the actual hardware. If you want to experience this, you need to head to an Apple store or bug a friend who bought the hardware.
So what does that screen and that extra power get the player? The games appear cleaner and the colors are brighter. Download and play Real Racing 2 HD, and you’ll see what I mean. There is not a single jagged line to be found. Everything looks clean and smooth, and the game moves at a solid framerate. Even 2D games like Flight Control Rocket look beautiful thanks to the “free” antialiasing and increased color depth you get from the retina display. The problem is that while the extra pixel density and deeper colors give you some advantages, there is a significant overhead involved in keeping all those pixels on the screen. So far I haven’t seen many games that look better than what we were used to on the iPad 2, they simply look cleaner and smoother.
“Developers of most 2D games have to remake all their sprites at a higher resolution to achieve a desirable visual fidelity on new hardware, which can take a lot of work depending on how they originally created their sprites,” Geremy Mustard, Technical Director of ChAIR Entertainment, told the Penny Arcade Report. “Infinity Blade II was easier to update because we created our 3D assets at a super high quality from the get-go, so everyone with the new iPad will start seeing more detail without much extra effort on our part. For example, you can now see all the dents in your armor, the slobber on enemies’ mouths, and even the wings fluttering on the tiny fireflies in the trees. It really is quite amazing.”
He’s right, the game is jaw-dropping on that newer screen, but those details weren’t added, they’re now simply easier to see.
Sky Gamblers: Air Supremacy looks wonderful on the retina display as you fly your fighter and take in the view, but some of the bland texture work and simple models for objects in the game can be distracting. Something has to give when you’re running games at resolutions this high, and it’s going to be a give and take as developers learn what the system can and can’t do with the available power.
Another interesting note is that iPhone games with retina-enhanced graphics look much better when played on the iPad 3. Touch Arcade has some wonderful examples of how iPhone retina-enhanced games look when played on the iPad 3.
There is also no easier way to separate the games that have been updated for the retina display and which ones haven’t when shopping in the App Store that we’ve found. Apple is promoting some games as being compatible with the new hardware, and you can see others note the update in the iTunes listing, but there is no quick and easy way to separate games. It used to be games were marked with an “HD” with they worked on the iPad, or filed as universal apps. Will we see a new moniker for retina-ready games? The market is certainly fragmented at this point, and that’s never a good thing.