As I posted about earlier, Apple this morning unveiled a new iPad and an updated Apple TV. Over the course of just a few years, anticipation and commentary on these events has gone from a small group of diehard nerds ranting and raving amongst themselves (okay, ‘ourselves’) to headline news. I expect by the time I post this there will already be considerable commentary (and a fair bit of expectation fallout) about this news, let alone the instant feedback on various social media.
Not having seen the devices myself, I can only speculate on the effect they’ll have on end-users once they have them in their hands and whether the new features and updates are really all that - but as someone who will very likley be looking to find a way to justify their purchase, I thought I would run through the good, the bad, and the baffling things about Apple’s latest venture.
First, I’ll quickly address the Apple TV - it’s been updated to play 1080p movies available through iTunes, has a more TV-appropriate user interface, and can take advantage of iTunes Match and iTunes in the Cloud for movies (ie you can always redownload any movies you’ve purchased through iTunes). These are all positive, and given how early it is in the year, I don’t think anyone was really expecting much more than this in respect of Apple’s ‘hobby’ project - the fabled TV set will have to wait a while longer yet.
As far as the new iPad goes, the major innovation (as widely predicted) is the double resolution 2048x1536 Retina display. If the early demos are anything to go by, this is a killer feature that will draw many new and existing users to the new iPad. Interestingly, the screen resolution is 264ppi and Apple’s methodology for determining what constitutes a ‘Retina’ display (the ability to discern pixels at a typical viewing distance for a specific device) largely resembles the excellent mathematical interrogation of the subject by Richard Gaywood at TUAW. Further, the processing power was bumped to a dual-core A5X chip, including a quad-core graphics chip to support the significantly larger display - again, an expected but worthy update (even if it was not the quad-core chip some spec-hunters had hoped).
I will no longer be able to have a go at Spike Lee or my father-in-law using the iPad as a large and ungainly camera given significant improvements to the optics, sensor and the 5MP resolution in the new iPad’s rear camera - which is now also capable of 1080p video recording and some impressive software video stabilisation. While this isn’t quite up to the quality of the iPhone 4S, and lacks the flash seen in the iPhone, it is certainly on par or better than the iPhone 4, which was no slouch for basic photography itself (not to say anything about ergonomics, that is). These are accompanied by considerable improvements to photo and video editing in the new / updated iPhoto and iMovie apps. The fact that iPhoto can edit photos taken by other cameras (up to 19MP) is also quite impressive, and the range of tools available in the new iOS version of iPhoto is quite decent, with a considerable variety of photo touch-up and image editing that go well and truly beyond the stock Photos app - which Apple needed to do in order to compete with the latest iOS offerings from Adobe. In fact, with the improvements to the iLife and iWork apps on iOS, Apple has started to realise more fully something I noted following its first release - the potential of the iPad as a content creation device, rather than something limited to content consumption, a frequent criticism of the device’s early incarnations and one that Phil Schiller addressed explicitly today.
A somewhat unexpected improvement that will satisfy many US early adopters is the inclusion of two bands of 4G LTE mobile broadband, in two separate models catering for AT&T and Verizon customers. Sadly, this is not so great for Australian users, as I will address below. Despite these improvements, Apple has managed to retain the decent battery life of previous iPads, with 10 hours of life over WiFi and 9 hours on 4G/3G.
Once again Australia seems to have benefitted from increased attention from Apple, with improved Australian pricing in line with the position of the dollar*, its inclusion in the first batch of countries for the iPad release on March 16 (only a week from now) and immediate availability of pre-orders (though the site has already gone down, and one suspects that we will again be a low priority shipping destination as with the iPhone 4S - so your best chance at getting an iPad before March 22 is to go to an Apple store or retailer). Most territories will receive the new iPad by March 23.
* It’s inevitable that the usual click-baiting media outlets will continue to report that we are being done over on price by Apple in Australia compared to the US. They conveniently ignore the fact that the US pricing does not include sales tax, whereas Australian pricing includes 10% GST. Once you account for GST, the Australian dollar amount is marginally lower than the US dollar amount - perhaps not completely in line with current exchange rates, but a more than reasonable hedge from the customer’s perspective (especially considering that these prices are generally fixed for a whole year, despite fluctuations to the relatively volatile Australian dollar). If you were to choose between getting an iPad locally and importing one from the US (even if you were there in person), it would still work out to be roughly the same or cheaper to buy here after accounting for currency conversion - and would be all the better if you were to claim the GST back through the TRS if travelling out of the country.
In addition, the iPhone-style strategy of retaining the older iPad 2 at a reduced price is a wise move that may potentially increase significantly the penetration of the iPad as a platform - especially in educational and corporate markets. It also compares very favourably with lower-priced Android tablets that are crowding the bottom end of the tablet market (though not quite as favourably as the Amazon Kindle Fire - which of course is not yet available here).
There’s not a lot to complain about with the new iPad, but there are a few minor flies in the ointment. For starters, despite the fact I wouldn’t have expected any improvements to the I/O (such as the bizarrely persistent demand for USB), given the fact that iPhoto is now capable of decent photo editing, and iMovie of some considerable 1080p video editing, mostly limiting these to iPad or iPhone-acquired content is a bit of a downer. iPhoto can theoretically edit photos up to 19MP (unfortunate for those of us with cameras capable of taking even greater resolution images such as Canon and Nikon DSLRs), but there’s no good way to get those photos into the iPad (other than the use of the perennial middle-man iTunes, and presumably the camera connection kit).
In addition, there has been a slight increase in the thickness and weight of the new iPad compared to the iPad 2. This in itself is a small concession for the improved performance and resolution without sacrificing battery life. Unfortunately the rumoured abolition of the Home button has not yet arrived, but that may simply take some more time and isn’t really that big of a deal.
On the other hand, given the significant improvement in capability (and the attendant file sizes that will accompany editing large photo files, taking / editing / watching 1080p movies), the fact that the same storage capacities were retained at the same standard US prices seems a little counter-intuitive. Surely Apple must eventually recognise the need for greater storage to accommodate improvements in other technologies, especially given its position as the single largest customer for flash memory in the world and the fact that iPad capacities have stayed stagnant since the device was first announced over two years ago (the iPhone’s maximum storage capacity has always increased every two generations). I hold out hope this might be address with a mid-cycle 128GB model, but that is very much up in the air.
Finally, from an Australian perspective, the choice of only two bands of LTE that so far appear to be incompatible with existing Australian 4G / LTE networks is quite disappointing. We had to deal with a similarly disappointing feature disparity with the iPhone 3G, but at least one carrier supported the bands used in the iPhone 3G nation-wide and most did within metropolitan areas. Time will tell if it will be the local carriers or Apple who will eventually address this unfortunate narrow focus on bands used by North American carriers, but hopefully it will be ironed out in time for the next iPhone release (where I believe 4G LTE implementation will be much more important).
Apple did introduce ‘voice dictation’ on the iPad (which allows you to dictate text instead of typing it) but the omission of Siri seems a little odd, given the time Tim Cook spent extolling its virtues and diversity of languages / accents at the start of his presentation. It seems unlikely you would use Siri on an iPad (just as it would seem unlikely you’d take photos on it), but in order to increase uptake and use of a new technology, it needs to be spread across as many devices as possible in the market. It may be that Apple plans a broader roll-out of Siri across other devices when iOS 6 comes around, so there’s a sliver of hope we’ll see it on these new iPads yet. More importantly, Australia has yet to receive a full implementation of Siri’s business and directions search capabilities. One can only hope that this will finally come with iOS 6 or sooner, but that may be somewhat dependent on Yelp getting its act together locally.
Unsurprisingly, despite a flurry of last minute rumours, there was no electrostatic or haptic touch feedback on the new iPad. This technology is still in its infancy, and it will very likely make it to the iPad and similar devices within the next couple of years, but it’s simply not quite there just yet. What was odd about its exclusion was the seemingly teasing ‘And something to touch’ line of the event invitations, which wasn’t really supported by anything in today’s announcement - usually such invitations have been eerily on the money (eg ‘1000 songs in your pocket’ = iPod nano, ‘Let’s Talk iPhone’ = iPhone 4S with Siri). Perhaps Apple’s clever phrasing is finally exceeding its grasp.
Finally, the most bizarre element of this announcement is the fact that the new iPad was simply referred to as ‘the new iPad’, without any further nomenclature. While I agree that maintaining numerical versions according to feature sets or product generations will eventual become trite, we’re only in the third generation and there was no problem in calling the previous generation the ‘iPad 2’ while selling it simply under the iPad brand with no reference to the ‘2’. This is even more confusing as the iPad 2 is still around, so there’s no clear differentiation in naming between the old iPad and the new iPad.