In the beginning, there was the original iPad (well, in April 2010, to be exact). The world saw it, and it was good. The second generation 'iPad 2' then launched almost exactly one year after the original, and was then followed a further year on in March 2012 by the third-generation iPad. But this wasn't called the 'iPad 3'. Not officially anyway. The third iPad was known only as 'iPad'.
Confused? We haven't yet started.
Just a few months after the launch of the third-generation iPad, or iPad 3, Apple called back the world's press to announce the long-expected iPad mini. It then threw everyone a curveball by announcing an upgrade to the full-sized iPad. The third-generation 'iPad' would now be replaced by, well, the fourth-generation 'iPad'. Now known as the iPad with Retina Display.
If you wanted a cheaper option you could and still can buy the iPad 2, but the iPad 3 was no more. It had disappeared from Apple's shelves overnight.
So what happened to the iPad 3? Why did Apple announce a good product in March only to have it disappear in November? And why can you still buy the iPad 2 but not the iPad 3?
Here we answer the question: what happened to the iPad 3? (And for simplicity's sake I am going to refer to them as iPad, iPad 2, iPad 3 and iPad 4. Apologies to Apple employees.)
What happened to iPad 3? iPad 2 vs iPad 3 vs iPad 4
The clue to all of this is to look at the iteration of iPads from the iPad 2 through the subsequent two generations. You'll see that the iPad 3 was a big step up from the iPad 2, but the iPad 4 only a gradated development of the iPad 3. In fact, the iPad 3 became the iPad 4. That's what happened to it.
The third-generation Apple iPad built on the staggering success of iPads 1 and 2 and added in an HD screen, as well as a camera that can capture 1080p footage, an improved processor and a bigger battery. It was a big step forward at the time. (For more, see: Apple iPad 3 vs iPad 2 comparison review.)
Physically there was little to distinguish the iPad 3 from the iPad 2. The newer iPad was a fraction thicker and around 60g heavier. But the noticeable difference was in the display: Apple uprated the new iPad screen's resolution fourfold. Gone was the iPad 2's PC-like 1024 x 768 resolution, to be replaced by the HD-punishing resolution of 2048 x 1536 pixels. The result was described by our reviewer as 'breathtakingly sharp typography and cunningly crisp images... writ large across a 9.7in rather than 3.5in phone touchscreen, the upgrade in image quality is quite extraordinary on the new iPad.' (You can read more about this here: iPad 3 vs iPad 4 comparison review.)
Thus the iPad 3 was a winner. But it lived for only a few months when along came the fourth-generation iPad: what changed?
The fourth-generation iPad brought with it only a handful of key upgrades, at the same prices and storage options as the iPad 3, with the same dimensions and weight. And, critically, that same great display. The iPad 4 is very much an iterative update of the iPad 3.
The biggest update from iPad 3 to iPad 4 was the new Apple A6X processor, a dual-core chip featuring quad-core graphics that Apple said could be twice as fast as was the iPad 3's. The numbers are certainly impressive. In GeekBench 2 we saw a then record of 1769 where the iPad 3 scored 'only' in the region of 750. We also found graphics performance impressive with a frame rate of 39fps compared to the iPad 3's 22fps. In real-world testing, however, the iPad 4 is a nippy device but it doesn't feel that much quicker than the iPad 3. It's certainly not twice as fast. A solid upgrade, but not a different device.
In other upgrades Apple also added the new Lightning connector to the iPad 4 - making it incompatible with older peripherals, but offering future-proofed compatibility with newer Apple speaker docks and chargers. This was the only change to ports and buttons from iPad 3 to iPad 4, however. So again it's an upgrade and not a redesign.
There was an updated 4G LTE modem, too. This largely righted the wrongs wrought by the iPad 3 in the UK and elsewhere when it turned out that the '4G' frequencies that tablet used weren't compatible with many 4G networks. The iPad 4 supports 1800MHz - a crucial number since this is what EE and other telcos use for their 4G networks in the UK.
This was a problem solved by the iPad 4, but not a new feature. (Apple also said that the iPad 4 has 'advanced Wi-Fi technology - up to twice as fast as any previous-generation iPad' but actual details of how this is achieved are sketchy to say the least.)
One bigger change was that the front camera of the iPad 4 became a 'FaceTime HD' snapper, with support for up to 720p video and 1.2Mp photos. This is a big step up from the iPad 3's VGA camera. The back camera was largely unchanged, a few teaks notwithstanding.
So, in the end, the iPad 4 is the iPad 3 with a handful of updates - most of which you cannot see. It's like the sort of software update you are told you have received, but you barely notice. (See also: Nexus 10 vs Surface RT vs iPad 4 tablet comparison review.)
What happened to the iPad 3? The verdict
Here's what I think happened to the iPad 3: in early 2012 Apple wanted to launch a Retina-display iPad and keep to its yearly upgrade cycle. It hadn't yet completed the design or couldn't get the stock for the new, faster processor, and it wasn't yet ready to move the iPad to the Lightning connector - although that was clearly on the cards. It also wanted a 4G tablet to take to market. Finally, Apple wanted to retain a less expensive iPad option, but give value to those paying more to upgrade to the new iPad.
So it launched the iPad 3, called it just 'iPad', and retained the iPad 2. The iPad 3 was largely well received, with the exception of the international 4G problem.
But when Apple could make the incremental upgrades it did so, keeping the nomenclature vague to reduce the urge of early adopters to upgrade again (technically the iPad 4 is known as 'iPad with Retina Display', despite the iPad 3 also having the HD display).
So what happened to the iPad 3 is it had a few bells and whistles added, and it was relaunched as the fourth-generation iPad. Annoying if you bought one? Perhaps: if you own an iPad 3 you have a great product, but your peers who waited for the iPad 4 have a marginally better one. That's life in Apple's world, I guess - Apple could have rushed out the iPad 4 before it was ready. Instead of which it launched a product which was entirely fit for purpose, but quickly superceded it.
See also: what's the best iPad?