Monday, March 21, 2011

The iPad 2: It’s a Game of Millimeters and Ounces, or the Lack Thereof

More than most unannounced Apple products, the second-generation iPad–which we now know is the iPad 2–has been subject to wild swings of the Expectations-o-Meter. It was going to have a “retina display.” But only for awhile. Then it was going to be the meatier of two iPad revisions for 2011. It was also going to have two cameras. Until it wasn’t.
Finally, as of yesterday morning, the new iPad was supposed to be a “ho-hum” speed-bump of a refresh. Nothing to see, folks–move along.

At this morning’s press event, I sat next to gdgt’s Ryan Block. While I was gawking at Pixar’s John Lasseter, Ryan noticed that Apple COO Tim Cook and marketing honcho Phil Schiller were hobnobbing with the audience. Which meant they weren’t backstage prepping to host the event. Could that mean that Apple’s CEO would do the honors, Ryan wondered?

Yup. And the iPad 2 that Steve Jobs introduced easily cleared the low bar set by the last round of rumors. Everything about it is evolutionary, not revolutionary. But that’s okay: It means that Apple will have an even more fully-evolved, even more polished product out before most of its major competitors have managed to get their first-generation competitors out the door. (Motorola’s Xoom is good enough to get me hopeful about Google’s Android 3.0 Honeycomb, but it feels like an 0.9 release–not a 2.0.)
The two most interesting things about the iPad 2 don’t involve (de facto) new features like the cameras and dual-core processor or the (minor) iOS 4.3 upgrade or the (very cool) iMovie and Garage Band apps. They don’t even relate to the Smart Cover–although the magnetic, articulated doohickey is remarkably interesting for a cover. No, what’s most significant about the iPad 2 are a few millimeters and a few inches, or the absence thereof. The iPad is .34″ thick (8.6mm) , vs. .5″ (12.7mm)  for the first version; it weighs 1.33 pounds (Wi-Fi version), vs. 1.5 pounds for the original.
That doesn’t like a big whoop, but it is–as I discovered in Apple’s demo hall after the presentation, the iPad 2 is much easier to lift and easier to hold. The difference would be instantly recognizable even if you did it blindfolded. All in all, the device is more like a magazine that happens to be made out of aluminum and glass, and less like a (very stylish) notebook that’s lost its keyboard. (The more highly-tapered case edges also help a lot–they’re slimming, like a flattering outfit.) It still doesn’t have the go-anywhere, cute-little-paperback-book feel of Samsung’s 7″ Galaxy Tab, but it does feel more portable than its predecessor.
Steve Jobs repeatedly referred to the iPad as a post-PC device, and its svelter makeover certainly helps move it in that direction.
Other than that? Well, the Smart Cover is remarkably clever: It snaps to the side of the iPad using magnets that guide it into place, can be folded back in a way that doesn’t obstruct the rear camera, folds up to put the iPad at either a typing or a movie-watching angle, and has a microfiber lining designed to help keep the notoriously smudgy iPad display tidy. It’s not going to eliminate the need for standard cases–it doesn’t protect the iPad’s back or edges from scratches and other damage. But it’s earned a place in the Brilliant Accessory Hall of Fame among such gems as Think Outside’s Stowaway PDA keyboard.

Additional quick thoughts:
  • Just for the sake of comparison to the iPad 2′s .34″ and 1.33 lbs: The 7-inch Galaxy Tab is .4″ thick and weights .8 lb., the 7-inch BlackBerry PlayBook is .4″ thick and weighs .9 lbs, the 10.1″ Xoom is .51″ thick and weighs 1.61 lbs, the 10.1″ Galaxy Tab is .43″ thick and weighs 1.32 lbs, and the 9.7″ HP TouchPad is .54″ thick and weighs a hair over 1.6 lbs.
  • By keeping the same price while upping the features and refinement, the iPad 2 continues to benefit from voodoo economics (Apple would call it “magical pricing”): It’s a distinctly more more lux-feeling product than its competition at  a meaningfully lower starting price. I’m still not sure how any other tablet maker intends to compete with that proposition…
  • I was glum over the fact that iOS 5 wasn’t part of the announcement–iOS 4.3 is, as its version number suggests, a modest-sized deal. (Pollyannish take: That means there’s presumably a meatier iOS update to come in the next few months.)
  • Anyone who can look at the new iMovie and GarageBand and insist that the iPad is a consumption-centric device for passive sheep is  either a dolt or a poltroon.
  • I’m still somewhat uncertain about front-facing cameras and video calls on tablets, in part because it’s hard to hold the tablet at an angle that (A) shows your whole head, and (B) is flattering. (Until I adjusted the angle of the iPad 2 carefully, I looked a little bit like I’d been Photo Boothed into a pinhead.) But I’m pretty sure that Apple made the right decision to place the camera at the top of the iPad 2 in portrait orientation, so it’s more likely to be closer to your face than the Motorola Xoom’s camera, which is oriented for landscape-mode use.
  • I love SD slots. Love ‘em. (One of the best days of my life as a user of devices made by Apple was when it finally put SD readers in MacBooks.) I was up enough on my iPad rumors that I already assumed the iPad 2 had no SD slot and was therefore not crushed when that turned out to be the case. But with its newly skinny profile, I’m now concerned that it might not be possible to squeeze one onto the edge of any future iPad.
  • I don’t remember Jobs calling the iPad 2 a post-PC device before. Maybe he’s using the term in part because other tablets–especially Honeycomb ones–do have a more computerish feel to them. (I don’t mean that as a criticism, just a statement of fact about stuff like Honeycomb’s more traditional drop-down menus and pop-up notification panels.)
  • Jobs pointed out that the iPad has 65,000 apps to Honeycomb’s one hundred. That’s an entirely valid argument in favor of the iPad. But the big unanswerable question is one you wouldn’t assume Jobs would try and tackle: Where will Honeycomb be in, say, six months? (Not to 65,000, obviously…)
  • Now that a few hours have passed since the announcement, it’s not irrational to begin speculating about the iPad 3–whether it’s going to come out in the fall or a year from now. If all it does is add the rumored-about features that failed to materialize this time, it’ll have a “retina” display, 128GB of storage, an SD slot, the ability to roam between GSM and CDMA networks, a free version of MobileMe, and a nifty streaming-media service that feels like the second coming of LaLa. Sounds good to me…
[via Technologizer]


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