iPad 2: A Gaming Machine?

The iPad 2 is out, but is it a good gaming machine? Macworld’s Chris Holt checks out Apple’s new tablet to see if it’s gaming hype or a true gaming console.

Last week, Apple launched the iPad 2 to nearly universal glowing reviews. It’s lighter! It’s thinner! It has a cool magnetic cover now! But gamers were skeptical.

After a year of promises about the “next great gaming platform,” the original iPad failed to deliver on expectations. What Steve Jobs called “the most successful consumer product ever launched” met with very little enthusiasm from the gaming community. While visually impressive and selling 15 million units, the number of quality exclusive games was minimal. From a gamer’s perspective, there was very little incentive to purchase the expensive and heavier iPad in lieu of the nimble and versatile iPhone 4.

Yet we can always count on Apple to improve its creations. The leap from the original iPad to the iPad 2 is no different. What was once a technological curiosity is now a finely tuned machine, one that’s garnering praise from game developers and critics alike.

Is the iPad 2 a Gaming Machine?

The iPad 2 inherits the same 1024×768-pixel display as the original iPad. But behind that screen is a much-improved gaming machine. The iPad 2 has 512MB of RAM (the original carries half that — 256MB) — and a 200MHz bus speed, likewise twice that of the original. The iPad uses the Apple-designed A5 processor, a new dual-core processor that Apple claims can perform twice as fast as the 1GHz A4 chip that powers both the iPhone 4 and the first-generation iPad.

While the processor might be the workhorse of a machine, graphical capability is essential for games. The A5 processor promises twice the performance of the first-generation iPad, but Apple claims the iPad 2′s graphical speeds are as much as nine times faster than its predecessor’s.

Of course, this increase in hardware performance needs software that’s optimized to take advantage of the multiple processor cores, and so far a scant few titles on the App Store are even attempting to do so. Only a handful of developers have offered updates to their iPad titles to utilize the iPad 2’s hardware. Games like Epic Games’ Infinity Blade, EA’s Dead Space, Gameloft’s Asphalt 6: Adrenaline, and Firemint’s Real Racing 2 are some of the more visually impressive games on the iPad, and these look even better on the iPad 2 thanks to recently released updates.

We took Real Racing 2 for a test drive on both systems and not only are the graphics noticeably better on the iPad 2, but the handling with the gyroscope controls are noticeably better as well. Not surprisingly, the iPad 2’s lighter body makes for an easier controller to maneuver — though we didn’t expect the controls to feel tighter as well. As any racing fan will attest, playing on the original iPad is fun due to the similarity in profile between the device and a steering wheel. But after long play sessions, your arms tend to get tired due to the iPad’s weight. With the iPad 2’s lighter weight and more nimble profile, it’s much easier to execute sharp turns. We couldn’t decide if the controls just felt nimbler due to the iPad’s lighter profile or due to an upgrade with the gyroscope, but either way, we vastly prefer Real Racing 2 on the iPad 2.

Visually, we noticed more details inside the car (when in third-person view), better realized backgrounds, and less clipping. Little details—like the edges of buildings or the way light hits the car—appeared on the iPad 2 while being unseen on the first generation iPad. Real Racing 2 on the iPad 2 also has a noticeable framerate improvement to a game that already runs smoothly on the original iPad. While the differences in graphics and controls aren’t exactly night and day (consider the visual difference between a Wii title and an Xbox game), the iPad 2 does make racing titles—and especially Real Racing 2— much more enjoyable experiences.

Of course, Real Racing 2 hasn’t been built specifically for the iPad 2—it’s simply received an update. One can only imagine what games will look like when developers begin to design games specifically for the platform, understanding that the ceiling has just been raised that much higher.

As developers have only had a brief period of time to develop for the new iPad, in time we should expect games to be built specifically to take advantage of the A5 processor and the superior graphical capabilities of the device. Whether these new games are weeks or months away remains to be seen.

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