Posted on January 19th, 2011 in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »
So I bought an iPad. I seem to be going through the following three phases with new technologies, to the irritation of my friends who ask me for advice about these things.
Phase one: anticipation. “Have you heard about X? It looks really interesting.”
Phase two: dismissal. “I’m not planning on buying X, for the following reasons.”
Phase three: purchase. “I’ve just got myself an X.”
In the wake of, at the very least, Palm Pilots, the iPhone and Blu-ray, the Apple iPad followed the same rather predictable pattern. On its first release, I was fascinated by the unveiling of this “breakthrough”, “magical” device. The leverage which Apple was able to achieve by releasing a tablet computer which on launch day was able to run hundreds of thousands of apps specifically designed for the touch interface I thought was staggering. But as clever as the idea was, as slick as the implementation was, and as desirable an object as it was, I really couldn’t think of where it could fit in to my existing lifestyle.
I’m a slave to my iPhone 4. It contains my calendar (shared via Google with my work colleagues and across several computers), it’s the only camera I’ve used in years, I check my email on it with neurotic frequency, I read books and newspapers on it, I walk around London staring at the map, and travel on the tube listening to podcasts and audiobooks on it, I’ve got three stars on every level on Angry Birds and I’ve achieved all the achievements on Plants vs Zombies. It also make phone calls. Given that I’ve already shelled out for this device, which slips into my jacket pocket and which I always have on me, why would I want an iPad?
Well, I’ve also watched a number of movies and TV shows on my iPhone, typically on long train journeys. With the iPhone 4’s super-duper high-resolution “retina” screen, this isn’t too bad at all. But it’s not exactly ideal, even if you find a comfortable place to sit and a convenient way of propping the phone up. Even while promising my friends I wouldn’t be buying an iPad, I mentioned that if I was habitually making long plane or train journeys, I might reconsider. Well, I’m flying to Brisbane at the beginning of February, and then to Moscow almost as soon as I get back. I recently took the train to Birmingham and back and Stockport and back on consecutive days, and I may have to revisit both locations – Birmingham maybe quite frequently. What clinched it was seeing a 64Gb 3G model going on eBay for the about price of the regular wi-fi only model (not quite sure how this was achieved, but I didn’t get a box of used pinball machine parts for my money, so I assume it was all perfectly legal). Okay, I thought, I’ll get it now, load it up with games, movies and TV shows for these long journeys and if I get back from Moscow and find it’s gathering dust in a drawer, I can sell it and I should get back at least as much as I paid for it.
Why am I even thinking about selling my new toy? Because only an idiot would buy a new iPad in January. The original iPad was announced on 27 January 2010 and was available for sale (in the US) on 3 April. At their recent quarterly earnings call, Apple confirmed what we all knew already – that an iPad 2 of some kind is in the works. With a regular pattern now established of iPhones announced in June and iPods announced in September, Apple is sticking to an annual product cycle. So the new iPad will likely be announced in a matter of weeks, if not days, and will be available in a couple of months. If you’re considering buying an iPad – wait!
What might such an iPad 2 bring with it, to tempt me away from my new toy? I imagine there’ll be a be at least two out of the following four: a speed bump, a slimmer design, a longer battery life and an increased capacity at the top end. None of these is much of a dealbreaker for me. It’s fast enough and slim enough, the battery life is stunning and 64Gb is spacious compared to my 32Gb iPhone 4 (and I’ve kept all the audio on the iPhone and put all the video on my iPad which effectively balances the load).
A front-facing camera seems likely, as Apple continues to push FaceTime, although I regard a rear-facing camera as less likely and certainly less useful. Who the hell is going to try and take holiday snaps with an iPad, or use it as a barcode scanner? Fucksake. The Internet is also all a-flurry with reports of an iPad case which seems to include extras slot for an SD card, or a USB device or an extra dock connector. I don’t really care about any of these.
I’m chiefly using my iPad to consume video – on trains or in bed – and so I care most about how this kind of content looks and sounds. Let’s take sound first. The iPhone has two identical-looking grilles at the bottom edge. To the confusion of some users, one is a mic and one is a speaker. Try covering one with your thumb while playing music to see which is which. The iPad has a similarly-positioned speaker. Holding the device with the home button at the bottom, the single speaker is on the bottom edge, towards the right. This is fine if watching video in portrait mode (which almost nobody does), but in the more usual landscape orientation, with the button at the left (which is how my Jack Spade case prefers things) all the sound comes out from the left. I’d dearly love stereo speakers, one on each side. Of course, if I were watching video in portrait mode, I’d want the speakers to be in the long sides instead of the short sides, so we’d actually need four speakers, triggered by the accelerometer. As far as I know, no such innovation is planned. Bah!
Now let’s talk about the screen. What made the iPhone 4 a must-purchase for me, more than anything else, was the astonishing screen. The original iPhone, and the first two revisions had a screen resolution of 320 x 480. Given the size of the screen, this works out as around 163ppi (pixels-per-inch) which was relatively high for 2007. The iPad has a resolution of 1024 x 768 (so it’s a little squarer than the iPhone screen) with a pixel-density of 132ppi. Given that one typically holds a larger screen further away, the iPad screen tends to look as good if not better than the iPhone screen, and obviously feels more spacious, having more physical room and more pixels.
“Native” iPad apps obviously tend to take up the whole screen, but apps originally designed for the iPhone sit in an iPhone-sized oblong in the middle of the screen, unless or until you tap a little 2x button in the corner of the screen, whereupon the iPad doubles all the pixels, so you get a 960 x 640 oblong taking up most of the 1024 x 768 space available, but all looking rather blocky. The iPhone 4, released after the iPad blows all of this out of the water. It already runs at double the resolution of previous incarnations, with older apps looking blocky (but no worse than on the old models) and newer apps written to take advantage of the whole 960 x 640 space, with its eye-watering 326ppi.
Amazingly, even after the recent software update, bringing to the iPad iOS 4 features such as multitasking, unified inbox, folders and so on, full-resolution iPhone 4 apps still run at the old resolution on the iPad, which is a horrible and pointless compromise. I can only hope that this will be corrected before iOS 5 comes out, presumably in June or July. The eye-popping screen of the iPhone 4, and the convenience for developers of a screen resolution exactly double (or half) that of another model has led many pundits to the conclusion that the iPad 2 will also come with an upgraded display – 2048 x 1536 which would work out to 260ppi.
But it’s not pixel-density which is going to be the issue here. 2048 x 1536 is over three million pixels, which is a staggering amount. All MacBooks sport 1280 x 800 pixels (about a million pixels). The 21.5” iMac has a 1920 x 1080 screen (about two million pixels). Only the very top-end 27” iMac has more pixels, and then only just – 2560 x 1440 which is about three and a half million pixels. Those who imagine that a 2048 x 1536 screen will be found on the iPad 2 are imagining that – without sacrificing battery life, speed and all-important responsiveness – about the same number of pixels found on the 27” screen of a top-end $1700 desktop will be found on the 10” screen of a $500 tablet. Some very significant breakthroughs in processor speed and efficiency will be required to bring this to pass.
And if it did – what would we use it for? All of Apple’s “HD” content on iTunes is 720p – 1280 x 720 pixels. This doesn’t quite fit onto the iPad, but video content scaled down generally looks okay. On the proposed iPad megascreen, 720p content floats around the middle or is stretched out to fit – and scaling up makes content look blocky. True HD is 1080p or 1920 x 1080 pixels. Today, that only really means Blu-ray. Remember, no iTunes content is currently available at this resolution – the file sizes would be much bigger for only a small visible increase in picture quality. And yet even images at this size would have to be scaled up, or float around in the middle of the 2048 x 1536 screen.
Given all the foregoing, I don’t think a 2048 x 1536 iPad is likely. I can’t rule it out, of course. No-one expected a 326ppi resolution from the iPhone 4, and Apple is certainly prepared to push the envelope. If they do it, I’ll probably upgrade. If not, I’ll probably stay put or even sell my existing model. So far, my assumptions have been pretty much correct. For watching video, it’s great (and if, like me, you have a big networked hard-drive with lots of video content on it, then the Air Video app is a must). I do use it and prefer it to the iPhone to read Kindle books, or The Times newspaper (there’s no Guardian iPad app yet), or flip through RSS feeds (I like Reeder). Given the choice, I’ll use the iPad to check my email or look at my calendar. But when, as today, I go for a meeting without it, I’m perfectly happy to do all those things on my iPhone.
Meet me back here when the iPad 2 is announced…