Backstage at iLounge is the combined blog of our editors, featuring casual and often only loosely iPod-, iPhone- or iPad-related discussions that our readers may enjoy. Founded in July, 2004, Backstage has served as a launching pad for stories that later appear on the main site, and as a place to discuss portable phones, games, computers, and accessories. Visit Backstage Archives for past stories, and bookmark backstage.ilounge.com for new ones.
By Jeremy Horwitz | 03.16.10 | 3 comments
At the end of February, we looked at Griffin’s Video Display Adapter, a generically named, seemingly simple $40 adapter that converted a MacBook’s Mini DisplayPort video connector into an HDMI video connector. Soon thereafter, TeleAdapt contacted us with its own alternative, the Mini DisplayPort + USB Audio to HDMI Adapter shown here, which also sells for $40—only $3 more than the virtually identical-looking version sold by Monoprice.
Unlike Griffin’s smaller adapter, the TeleAdapt part transforms both video and audio from a Mini DisplayPort-equipped MacBook computer, pulling the video signal from the Mini DisplayPort connector and stereo audio from an open USB port. The video and audio signals are then mixed together into a large, ventilated HDMI housing; once again, you supply the HDMI cable to connect this Adapter to your HDMI-ready TV set. Once the TV is connected, you can output iTunes or other video—including high-definition iTunes Store movies—directly from your computer to the TV set, though some extra steps are needed.
When we connected the TeleAdapt unit to a 720p HDTV, the connection didn’t start immediately: we had to go into the MacBook Pro’s Display settings, choose 720p output, and then choose 60Hz (NTSC) rather than 50Hz (PAL), extra steps that might confuse some users—the HDTV’s screen remained black until we picked the correct settings.
At that point, the audio wasn’t working, so we had to go to the MacBook Pro’s Sound settings, choose the Output tab, and then pick USB Sound Device. As soon as this step was completed, the MacBook Pro’s video and audio were both working on the HDTV; getting the iTunes Store HD video to play in full screen on the TV required us to use monitor mirroring, another Display option.
But after these settings were in place, audio and video were perfect going from the MacBook Pro to the HDMI-equipped HDTV. The left and right channels of audio performed correctly through the TV’s left and right speakers, and the 720p video was as clear on the TV screen as on the MacBook’s. By turning monitor mirroring off, we could use the HDTV as one display for windowed video, while using the MacBook’s screen for other content, or vice-versa. There was only one surprise: the connection worked in only one direction, so we couldn’t plug an HDMI device (the Xbox 360) into the TeleAdapt box, then the Adapter into the back of an iMac, and play the Xbox 360 on the iMac’s screen. Monoprice’s web site explicitly rules this out: “This device is not Bidirectional. It can only connect a Mini-DisplayPort source to an HDMI display. It will not work in reverse.” TeleAdapt’s page says that the Adapter supports “Mini DisplayPort 1.1a input, USB 2.0 input and HDMI1.2a output,” which doesn’t rule out bidirectional performance, but doesn’t promise it, either. (Notably, TeleAdapt’s package actually certifies HDMI 1.3b support, as well.)
Whether one or neither of these cables is right for your MacBook Mini DisplayPort output needs is up to you; Griffin’s cable is much smaller and better-suited to video-only output, offering both HDMI and DVI output solutions, while TeleAdapt’s larger, boxier cable provides clean video and audio output solely to an HDMI port for the same price, with some additional settings tweaking needed on the MacBook side. Neither includes the male HDMI cable you’ll need for your TV, and neither performed bidirectionally in our testing, but both make it possible to enjoy iTunes video content on a display larger than the one in your MacBook.
By Jeremy Horwitz | 03.15.10 | 0 comments
In late January, Apple announced the iPad—a tablet computer anticipated roughly as much as the first iPhone—and last week, it opened iPad pre-orders solely to customers in the United States. Questionable reports initially suggested production-related hardware shortages and predicted first-day pre-order sell-outs, both implying that on-the-fence potential iPad customers would be left waiting for a delayed second shipment if they didn’t sign up quickly. But that didn’t happen: three days after pre-orders opened, Apple’s web site still shows that iPads can be ordered for launch day delivery, or reserved for launch-day in-store pickup. If you’re willing to believe third-party estimates that haven’t been verified by Apple, roughly 120,000 to 150,000 people pre-ordered iPads, well short of Apple’s supposed initial production run of 600,000 to 700,000 units.
This isn’t necessarily bad or surprising news—again, assuming that it’s accurate—and Apple appears to have anticipated as much, at least somewhat. Back in February, Apple COO Tim Cook disclosed that the company would deliberately limit initial iPad sales to stores where properly trained sales people would be available to answer pre-purchase questions about the device, a point that we called out as important on Twitter: unlike the iPod, which can be found almost anywhere, or the iPhone, which can be purchased even from Walmart, this suggests that Apple knows that this particular product is not going to sell itself. It is an acknowledgement that most people are going to need to actually put their hands on the iPad and try it for themselves before wanting to commit to spending $500 or more to buy it.
Though it’s easy to forget this in the wake of the iPhone’s subsequent success, the launch of the first iPhone was not the sort of unqualified success Apple had hoped for. It was wildly hyped, camp-out lines were formed, and there was a lot of talk about the $500 iPhone becoming some elite, uber-luxury device. But it actually took Apple two and a half months to sell the first million iPhones, an announcement that came only after it chopped the price by $200 and incurred the wrath of the first wave of early adopters, who saw their “elite” status rapidly disappear. Armed with more aggressive pricing, more educated consumers, and wider distribution, Apple now sells a million new model iPhones in the first three days. Having an iPhone isn’t about being “elite,” and Apple finally seems to realize that being the biggest player in the market early and selling more units is more important than skimming an extra $100 from the first customers.
Viewed from one perspective, the task Apple has to accomplish with iPad sales is more of a challenge than the iPhone. It announced the iPhone noting that 1 billion handsets were being sold annually, and said that it was aiming for 1% of that market, or first-year sales of 10 million units. Tablet computer sales are nowhere near the billion units per year level, and many people have no idea that they need a tablet yet. Moreover, Apple is approaching this comparatively nascent market from a completely different angle: rather than offering a product that outperforms existing products (old model smartphones), it has developed something that radically simplifies low-end computers (netbooks) while underperforming them on certain key specifications. Consequently, its “magical and revolutionary product” pitch seems to be aimed not at the most tech-savvy users, who have openly chuckled at the iPad’s marketing, name, and specs, but at the mainstream consumer who finds existing computers too intimidating and wants something simple and affordable that just works. Magically, even.
Mainstream consumers weren’t sitting on the Internet last Friday morning waiting for Apple to open pre-orders. They don’t need to be the first people to buy Apple’s products, and when we spoke with a few of them last Friday, they indicated that they could and would wait until they could go into Apple Stores and try the iPad for themselves before making a decision—probably not even during the first few days, when there might be lines to wait in. But they’re willing to be convinced, specifically by seeing great stuff running on the iPad, to make a purchase. For this reason, iPad pre-sales are not a reflection of how successful this device—and family of devices—will ultimately become. Once people go into Apple Stores and actually use iPads, they’ll most likely sell themselves, assuming that Apple has the right demonstration software installed, and employees in place to answer questions. After that, pricing adjustments and new features will be the way iPads take off.
By Jeremy Horwitz | 03.12.10 | 8 comments
When the pre-order floodgates opened today for the iPad, in rushed waves of pundits ready to tell you which iPad you should purchase. We’re not going to offer advice of that sort for one major reason—we’re not quite sure yet that we should be advising any reader to go out and buy an iPad right away. This is, after all, the first-generation version of a major new product line for Apple, fraught with all the sort of question marks that always accompany brand new Apple product launches, and there should be no doubt in any person’s mind that Apple’s engineers are already working on the Son of iPad, quite possibly even the Grandson of iPad, for release in the not-so-distant future. It remains to be seen whether this iPad, its initial iPhone OS software, and the slate of early iPad-optimized apps will be a compelling enough total package to hook more than just the early adopter crowd, or like the first-generation iPod touch, a lame duck in need of some big tweaks. As optimistic as we are about the future of this product line as a whole, the questions about the April 2010 iPads will take at least a little while to resolve.
BUT, assuming for the sake of discussion that you already know that you’ve just gotta get an iPad right away, here’s our advice.
(1) Buy AppleCare for $99. First-generation Apple products tend to really need it.
(2) If you’re buying for yourself—an adult—don’t get the base 16GB model. Particularly given the expanded graphics requirements of the larger-screened iPad, the storage space will quickly seem very confining. Spring for the 32GB version, at the very least; it will have superior resale value. If you’re buying for a child, or for a less than technically savvy parent or friend, the low-end 16GB model will be fine.
(3) We’re not going to tell you to buy the 3G version if you don’t think you’ll ever use it, but if we were only buying one iPad, we’d insist on it having 3G, at least for now. The value of this device as a traveler’s tool is going to be huge, and the ability to just snag $15 per month 3G service as needed is nice, except for the fact that AT&T is completely screwing every current iPhone user by not offering iPad tethering. There should be a modest monthly charge to share an iPhone’s 3G connection with an iPad, and Apple should be facilitating this with the iPhone OS software. Period.
Accessories? Apart from film, we’d wait for a bit before buying any of them. We’re not convinced yet as to the value of any specific keyboard solution, docking station, or case, and it’s going to take a little bit of time to sort out the way people are actually going to carry and use iPads, particularly for input purposes. There are still quite a few questions to be answered regarding iPad charging and mounting in cars, homes, and planes, too.
As with the iPad itself, it’s going to take a little while for the dust to clear with these add-ons. Some developers have new products literally ready to ship now. Others are still struggling to finalize their designs, and expect to ship them in May. It’s going to be a very interesting several months, that’s for sure, and we’re looking forward to riding through them with you.
By Jeremy Horwitz | 03.11.10 | 3 comments
Back in January 2009, Just Mobile showed off three new Macintosh accessories that really caught our attention: the aluminum laptop stand Xtand Pro, the aluminum passive cooler and cord manager called Cooling Bar, and something called the Aluminum Mouse Pad that for some odd reason really stuck in our heads. Xtand Pro came out almost immediately, the Cooling Bar two months later, and the Aluminum Mouse Pad… well, it never shipped. We waited, watched for updates, and never saw it. Now it has reappeared—under the radar, really, barely promoted on Just Mobile’s web site—and it’s been completely redesigned.
Today, it’s called Alupad ($50), and Just Mobile’s packaging shows that it was redesigned by Tools, its collaborator on the Lounge stand for iPhones and iPod touches. The original Aluminum Mouse Pad was a big piece of aluminum that shared the same gentle edge tapers and curves Apple developed for its unibody MacBook, MacBook Pro, and MacBook Air computers, plus rubber on the bottom to keep it in place. Tools has thrown away the tapering, instead using a big, flat piece of aluminum that only peeks out from the edges of an almost-as-big flat piece of white plastic.
The curves now match Apple’s metal and plastic keyboards, as do the colors and generally the textures of the plastics. Our review sample had a couple of small imperfections in the edges of the metal, but was otherwise pristine.
Alupad is, in short, a near-perfect complement to these keyboards visually, and probably a better mousing surface than the original design, besides. Of the 10.5” by 8.25” platform, 9.2” by 8.25” is devoted to that white hard plastic, and Apple’s mice just glide right over it, versus the smaller and grippier leather Vaja Mouse Pad that serves as a similarly stylish competitor for your mouse pad dollars. Turned such that the silver aluminum portions face upwards or downwards, it fits just as easily on the same standard-width desk keyboard shelf as the full-length version of Apple’s keyboard; in wider orientation, it’s a tighter fit unless you have the smaller Apple keyboards without a numeric keypad. The plastic’s easy to rest a wrist on, and there’s just enough of the aluminum to remind you that yes, this really still is an aluminum mouse pad—flip it over and you can see the full sheet of metal for yourself with the rubber stabilizer feet.
But this has to be said: despite its comparative simplicity and probably greater scuffability, the original design really was a bigger wow for us than the final Alupad turned out to be. By mimicking the metal MacBooks’ lids, Just Mobile’s first version looked like something Apple made, minus the Apple logo, though thanks to the fact that a mouse would be running over it endlessly, it quadrupled durability concerns that led us to plastic-wrap our metal MacBooks. In its Tools-developed form, the Alupad just blends in and keeps looking good, which is easy to live with but less to be excited about. By contrast, Vaja’s leather design is $20 more expensive and obviously considerably different, but has held up remarkably well after a year and a half of use. You can decide for yourself whether one of these mouse pads or a cheap $10-$15 alternative is the right fit for your own desk; we’d call both designs quite nice, but would still love to see a durable full metal pad for our Macs. It looks like we may be waiting a while on that.
By Jeremy Horwitz | 03.01.10 | 6 comments
Back in September 2006, we published an article titled Ten Rules for Buying Apple Products, which included one simple question that could help with Apple product purchases, and ten pieces of information that reflected time-tested truths about Apple’s release strategies. A reader wrote us today to ask how this applies to the iPad, so here’s a brief answer or two.
The simple question presented in the article—“does the product available today have the features that will satisfy me?”—remains as appropriate today for the iPad as it was back then for iPods and Macs, presaging the release of the iPhone. Once you have a chance to use the iPad in person, you’ll know whether it does enough to meet your needs, and you can safely assume that roughly annual iPhone OS software updates will expand the software functionality of the device for two or three years to come.
What about the ten rules? We’d be most concerned about number 8—“Beware of First-Generation/Revision A Models”—and number 10, “Big Changes (Typically) Come in Six-Plus Month Cycles.” Even having watched Apple for years, we were surprised at how quickly the original iPhone dropped in price and how completely the company discarded its widely liked original enclosure for the glossy, crackable plastic shell of the iPhone 3G. There were arguably good reasons for Apple to take both of these actions, but the price changes whipsawed early adopters, and the casing changes—particularly when cracks appeared in iPhone 3G units—caused some later adopters some concern.
These iPhone changes are just a couple of recent examples; we’d expect similarly bold actions from the company with the iPad. Apple now works actively to build market share for new products, and has proved increasingly willing to make rapid price, capacity, and engineering changes in the early stages of a new product’s lifespan if they’re necessary to boost sales and reduce complaints. Consider the first-generation iPod nano, released as a brand new product in 2005. Some of Apple’s changes to that model were very subtle, like the secret addition of an anti-scratch coating to the original iPod nano, while others were more obvious, like the early 2006 addition of a protective case to its package, and still others were huge, like Apple’s late 2006 switch to more durable aluminum in the second-generation iPod nano, and the late 2007 addition of video with an entirely new body design. Even if the changes don’t appear universally positive to consumers, like the switch to the glossy plastic iPhone 3G bodies, they’re always done for some relatively important reason, and generally make sense later on. Apple sold far more of the discounted, cheaper-bodied iPhone 3Gs than it did original iPhones, and the same was true of later iPod nanos relative to earlier ones.
So should you buy an iPad now, or wait? We’ll obviously have a lot more to say on this in our review—it’s way too early to judge right now. But go into the decision well-informed of the reality that the iPad, like all other Apple products, will only improve over time. That’s a guarantee.
By Jeremy Horwitz | 02.26.10 | 0 comments
It’s a space-saving, Mac-matching above-keyboard tray with integrated USB ports. And it even includes a cup holder. Welcome to America, UBoard ($50).
Unlike Pyramid Distribution’s imported iClooly accessories, which started with the Japanese-developed iClooly Alumi Stand, the company brought UBoard over from South Korea, which is currently becoming more Apple-savvy now that the iPhone is finally locally available. Though it’s a simple enough idea, UBoard uses the sort of clean design that some Mac users—and Windows users—will appreciate.
In the box are pieces that let you and your screwdriver decide whether to place the three integrated USB ports on the left or right of the tempered glass shelf, as well as a single cup holder that matches the white or black glossy plastic legs. Once assembled, a process that takes two minutes if you have the screwdriver handy, the shelf stands three inches off the surface of a table—enough space to let fingers access one of Apple’s recent, ultra-slim keyboards underneath. Though the top screw covers aren’t completely flush with the rest of the plastic legs, this is only a small visual defect; UBoard otherwise is a nice match for the glossy plastic accessories—Apple docks, mice, and so on—that are commonly paired with Macs.
One USB cable runs to the back of the computer, and there’s no additional power for the three-port hub, which may be an issue for some users. More details can be found by clicking on the title of this article, or on the Read More link below.
By Jeremy Horwitz | 02.23.10 | 7 comments
Thanks to Apple’s heavy focus on thin, small laptops, and economic conditions favoring lower-priced machines, a lot has changed over the past few years: 13” MacBooks of various types have become massively popular, while the 15” and 17” models that used to be musts for power users have become commensurately less attractive. Due to our desire to carry less heavy computers around, three of our editors have switched from 15” MacBook Pros to various 13” MacBook, MacBook Pro, and MacBook Air models over the past two years, a change that has had interesting accessory consequences, as well: we’re now looking for smaller cases and bags to carry them in.
We’ve been big fans of BBP Bags for the past several years, but haven’t found a smaller laptop bag with the right look to replace the overstuffed 15” Hamptons model we’ve been loving since 2007. So we were intrigued by the somewhat similar but streamlined Small Messenger Bag from Incase ($80), which has the same black ballistic nylon body material, a soft faux fur-lined compartment for the 13” MacBook/Pro family, a roomy interior compartment, and a bunch of pockets.
Incase describes it as weather resistant, though it’s not entirely sealed at the top; if you keep it closed properly and don’t try to submerge it in water, it’ll be OK with splashes. We think. (Click on Read More or the title of this article for additional photos and the rest of the story.)
By Jeremy Horwitz | 02.23.10 | 20 comments
For whatever reason, Griffin’s newest Mac accessory isn’t named as obviously as it could be—“Mini DisplayPort to HDMI / DVI Adapter”—but rather carries the title Video Display Converter, a generic name that’s smaller on its package than the words “CONNECT Mini DisplayPort to HDMI & DVI.” And in another understatement, the box calls the Converter useful “for Mini DisplayPort laptops,” including the “September 2008 and later MacBook, MacBook Pro, and MacBook Air,” but omits several Apple desktops—new Mac minis, iMacs, and certain Mac Pros—that can also benefit from the two-piece adapter.
Why would anyone need this? See this explanatory photo: it lets your HDTV become a huge external display for your laptop or the aforementioned Macs, and serves as an alternative to an earlier Apple adapter for DVI monitors, as well. The details—and a noteworthy alternative—can be found by clicking on this article’s title or the Read More link below.
By Jeremy Horwitz | 01.28.10 | 4 comments
I was going to post this brief iPad-related thought on Twitter, but figured it needed a little more than 140 characters.
A while back, Microsoft introduced the Surface table and Apple introduced the iPhone. Those who didn’t grasp the fact that Apple was offering a pocket-sized, actually commercially viable version of a similar multi-touch technology understand as much now. Microsoft still hasn’t commercialized anything relating to Surface.
It was obvious then that the only thing Apple was missing was a multi-touch device with greater surface area. Less than three years after the iPhone first became available (6/2007), the iPad will achieve this goal.
If Apple had showed up at its event yesterday with a killer, Minority Report-style application running on the iPad, everyone—even the current iPad haters—would be flipping out right now. Have a few video windows getting swiped around on screen at once, video overlays on top of maps, whatever tech demo sort of stuff you can imagine. For all its failings, Microsoft knew to do this with Surface—the problem was that people could never afford whatever it demonstrated.
But Apple didn’t bring flashy demos. It dropped the ball on a few arguably trivial parts of the UI and didn’t bring any really showy software to the event; rather, it focused almost entirely on updates to old apps. The biggest hint of what the iPad will enable was a two-second reference in the N.O.V.A. demo to opening airlocks by putting your fingers on the screen and turning the door handle. It was shown, and if you knew what it was—basically, Metroid Prime using your fingers rather than a Wii controller—you realized what this meant for games, and for other apps on the iPad. This is just not possible on the little iPhone screen unless you have baby fingers.
So there’s your Minority Report moment. It’s on the video. There are going to be many, many more such moments to come, and you’re going to be able to carry them in your hand or enjoy them while sitting in a chair, not whilst standing next to a huge table. Unfortunately, like the iPhone, it may well take a year before the apps catch up with the hardware’s capabilities. Just imagine what we’d be looking at today if developers had started working on the iPad simulator last year…
By Jeremy Horwitz | 01.27.10 | 50 comments
You want impressions of Apple’s new iPad? We have impressions. They’re going to go here until we’ve had the time to build a proper First Look; we’re in the process of adding more now. Updated! The complete Apple iPad First Look with YouTube and HD Vimeo interface walkthrough videos is now online—this article has not been updated with the additional (over 45) photos, videos, and details, so go check out the final Apple iPad First Look.
The Big Concept. Apple’s iPad is designed to be a bridge device between the smartphone and the PC/Mac—a tablet-shaped computer that allows users to access data like the iPod touch and iPhone, including streamlined Safari web browser, e-mail, and iPhone OS applications, without providing voice calling functionality. The pitch is that it does a better job of presenting the web, photos, videos, and apps than a smartphone, due to the large 9.7” multi-touch screen, and makes them easier to use than on a computer because of the simplified touch interface.
The Big Gripes. Starting at $499, Apple’s iPad costs as much or more than a PC netbook computer and, apart from the multitouch interface, falls short in many other categories: storage capacity starts at a mere 16GB, no camera or videochat functionality is included, only a single device connector is integrated for charging, wired synchronization, and accessories, and the device’s apps and features feel more like stripped iPhone OS programs than powerful PC or Mac applications. It has no integrated stand for video viewing, and even when you’re using the on-screen virtual keyboard, you need to support it yourself unless you buy an accessory to hold it up. Either you “get” the idea that this device is supposed to be super simple, thin, and carry-friendly—like an iPhone or iPod touch, used in your lap or with one hand while standing up—or you see it as an overly stripped-down computer.
Different Versions, Capacities, and Confusion. There are two different versions of the iPad, each sold in three storage capacities: 16GB ($499/$629), 32GB ($599/$729), or 64GB ($699/$829). The lower price refers to a version that is wireless just like the iPod touch, only with 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR capabilities, while the higher priced versions add unlocked 3G wireless features for a $130 premium, plus the ongoing monthly cost of no-contract service. The iPad versions with 3G add a black plastic antenna stripe to the back of the otherwise aluminum casing, positioned near the top of the device immediately below the headphone port, microphone, and sleep/wake switch. Users can pay AT&T $15 per month for 250MB of data or $30 per month for “unlimited” data on the 3G versions. International data plans are not yet negotiated.
Screen and Body. If you want to look at the iPad completely objectively, there’s one fact you need to understand up front: sales pitch aside, it is in fact the equivalent of a big iPhone or iPod touch with a 9.7”, 1024x768 screen. Rumors and reports from sources aside, the screen’s old-fashioned aspect ratio, 132dpi detail level, and other characteristics are not groundbreaking or shocking. But the actual quality of the LED backlighting, the IPS screen technology, and the multi-touch responsiveness of the display are all essentially beyond reproach. The screen mightn’t be OLED, or ultra high-resolution, or widescreen like the new iMacs, yet it’s beautiful: strong, rich colors, great viewing angles, and of course, that glass top surface that makes everything glossy. It’s oleophobic, just like the iPhone 3GS, for reduced smearing. People are going to love watching videos on it, even if the aspect ratio could use a little tweaking in a future version of the device—not that it’ll actually get these tweaks for various reasons.
The body of the iPad is what we heard (very late in the process and with conflicting details) that Apple had shifted to: a design that looks just like the lid of a MacBook Pro or MacBook Air, only smaller. On the top are a headphone port and tiny microphone hole, along with a small sleep/wake switch. The right hand side has volume buttons and a switch to mute the speaker, which is located on the bottom with three little mesh-covered grilles—odd—near the single Dock Connector. There’s nothing on the left-hand side of the unit, contradicting reports we’d heard that there would be a second Dock Connector for widescreen mounting of the iPad, like a computer screen. Apple appears to have hidden the 802.11n wireless antennas inside the Apple logo; the version with 3G antennas will differ visually from the 802.11 Wi-Fi only version in that it has an antenna stripe on the back like the iPhone’s, only at the top instead of the bottom, and not extending fully from one edge to the other.
Speaker. Apple’s built-in speaker didn’t have a prayer of competing with the volume level in the room where everyone was testing the iPads. You can feel the iPad vibrating when the speaker’s turned up. There was no application on the device for Voice Memos to make use of the microphone; it’s unclear at this point how exactly Apple intends users to make use of it. The Apple web site shows the 3G version of the device as being “data only,” not for making phone calls—obviously there’s no Phone app on the iPad right now—so it looks like it’ll be up to developers (such as Skype) to offer similar functionality.
Size, Weight, Battery, and Pack-Ins. iPad’s physical size is 9.56” (tall) by 7.47” (wide) by 0.5” (thick), and it weighs 1.5 pounds with Wi-Fi features, or 1.6 pounds with Wi-Fi and 3G. Only the Wi-Fi version was available to be held during the hands-on session after Apple’s event, and it felt very solid and substantial rather than flimsy—the weight is, in our view, not an issue in any way, shape, or form. It’s unclear how the iPad will stay cool, but the answer appears to be that its aluminum body will work as a heat sink, and the chips inside are essentially smartphone-class mobile processors that don’t give off as much heat or consume as much energy as laptop components.
iPad is packaged with a new 10-Watt Dock Connector-based power adapter and a USB Dock Connector cable like the ones used for iPods and iPhones since 2004. The battery is rated for 10 hours of Wi-Fi data or video viewing, with the same number for listening to music, however, it’s highly unclear as to whether the iPad will actually only achieve such limited music runtime if used solely for that purposes—not that this is likely.
UI. The user interface is obviously very familiar from the iPhone and iPod touch, but there’s going to be a little learning curve for some of the new features, and there are some questions as to how much of the software we saw—iPhone OS 3.2, incidentally, not 4.0—was just buggy rather than non-responsive. Almost everything we tried to do on the iPad was very fast—faster than the iPhone 3GS and current iPod touch despite pushing considerably more pixels—but there were buttons, screen rotations, and other features that didn’t seem to be working at all, or properly, during our tests. You’ll see this for yourself in our complete interface video, which we’re about to post for your viewing pleasure.
Turning the device on presents you with a slide to unlock screen and a new button that looks like a photo icon. Press it and you turn the iPad into a picture frame for displaying photos from your photo collection—the slideshow activates immediately after you press the button, without having to unlock the device. You can also choose a background image now for your home pages—a single image that remains the same when you switch between pages of apps. If there’s one disappointment in the iPad UI as-is, it’s that the apps and dock UI really hasn’t evolved as much as it should have from the iPhone: it’s just more space, with similar-looking icons, spread out. The one nice twist is that you can now navigate the home screens in tall or wide mode, and the icons reshuffle automatically to fill the screen. We wish (and hope) the iPhone could do this.
Apps. Expect a lot more in the detail department here soon, but here’s the skinny. Every one of the “old” apps feels a lot like the iPhone version in terms of simplicity and functionality, as if Apple used the iPhone and iPod touch apps as a base, but each has grown features that range from merely displaying prior “second screen” or pop-up content as an overlay, to now being able to do more—generally a little more—than they did before. The expanded calendar views are going to be key for people who do their social planning digitally, and the photo viewer, maps app, and video viewers are obviously benefitting a lot from the expanded real estate. That said, there was nothing revolutionary in any of the updated apps: they all were a step or two forward from the versions we’ve previously seen for the iPhone, some dating back to the 2007 launch of the device, and obviously, a number of apps—the calculator, weather, stocks, clock, voice memos, and compass apps, as a handful—have disappeared entirely from the device, presumably because Apple would be fine with you acquiring your own apps if you want them.
iBooks and the iBookstore. Apple has capitalized on its prior iBook laptop name for its eBook reader, which provides access to a fairly sophisticated book reading program built upon the popular (if old-fashioned) ePub standard. The reader provides users with a choice of five fonts and multiple font sizes to read their books in—unfortunately, neither of these features actually worked when we were trying to test the application, despite reloading the app a couple of times—and can also shift into widescreen or tall orientations to provide one- or two-page viewing options, making use of the full display. In tall orientation, you can actually use your fingers to turn a page so that you can preview the words on the next page, or just tap on the screen to change pages. Apple’s iBookstore is built into the iBooks app to let you buy new books, which appear automatically on a virtual bookshelf that rotates around on the screen like the entry to a secret passage in an old house. The features are slick, as is the paper-like texture applied to the screen behind the black words of the books to give them more of a “real book feel.”
But the iBooks app falls short of really bringing books forward into the 21st Century—they are basically the same black and white things you see on an Amazon Kindle or Barnes and Noble Nook, only presented on Apple’s nicer color screen with little bits of extra shading. Nothing was said or shown about magazines or newspapers within the iBooks app; Apple instead demonstrated access to these publications via the Safari web browser and publication-developed apps (such as the New York Times app). Thus, Apple appears set to let individual publishers evolve their products through apps rather than ePub-format eBooks, and isn’t providing a special newspaper or magazine reader, or subscriptions, to push this forward. At least, yet.
More on Pricing, Capacities and Versions. The 16GB base capacity of the iPad almost seems like a joke, but like the very limited 8GB iPod touch, it’s clearly being produced as a “get them in the door” model with a super-attractive $499 price tag. This iPad will wind up being the one people buy for their kids, and the others will be the ones that power users buy—unless they wait for the inevitable second- and third-generation versions of the iPad to get in.
Regarding 3G/Wi-Fi, no one expected that Apple would actually charge more for the 3G version of the device—rather than going the subsidy route—or that there would be a no-contract way to make the service purchase. The approach that it took, namely offering 3G for those who want it, unlocked, at a $130 premium, seems like a fair compromise at a slightly higher price than it would optimally be offered at. The lack of an obvious tethering option for those who are already shelling out money for their iPhone service is a big miss, as well, but one that could possibly be addressed before launch. Here’s hoping.
Video Output Capabilities. The 1024x768 screen is just shy of natively displaying full 720p resolution for high-definition video, however, iPad is capable of playing 720p H.264 videos, with standard MPEG-4 videos capped at 640x480 like the current iPod and iPhone models. Output from the device to a TV appears to be capped at 480p/576p with audio, or 1024x768 output without audio if you use the new Dock Connector to VGA Adapter cable.
iPad Accessories. (Click here for more photos.) There’s a new VGA to Dock Connector Adapter ($29) for attaching the iPad to a projector or monitor; it outputs from the iPad at 1024x768 resolution without audio. Apple will also sell a Camera Accessory Kit ($29) that comes with a USB adapter and a SD card reader in one package, two separate pieces, to let the iPad import photos from a camera or SD card. There are two different docks: the Keyboard Dock ($69) has a normal keyboard grafted on to the front of a plastic dock; the function keys include shortcuts for adjusting brightness, accessing photos, search, volume levels and iPod music playback keys, returning to the home screen, and changing keyboard features. Apple offers a standard Dock ($29) with audio and dock connector ports on the back, with no keyboard. Bluetooth keyboards will also be supported on the iPad for those who want to use the wireless functionality instead.
And an Apple case ($39) made from plastic and microfiber, with a front flap that folds backwards to serve as a stand. Finally, there’s a new 10W power adapter that is included with the iPad or sold separately for $29; it uses a Dock Connector but obviously supplies more power than a typical USB port. There’s nothing amazing about any of these items, but they’re all coming; check out the article linked above and our Flickr photostream for more accessory photos.
By Jeremy Horwitz | 01.22.10 | 1 comment
For every Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, the App Store offers something between 100 and 5,000 games that fall into the “sorta kinda a real game” category—titles that everyone knows would never have seen release on a Nintendo, Sony, or Microsoft platform prior to the opening of the App Store. Even today, many of these titles are the sort of brief, semi-amusing distractions that no one will remember three years from now, perhaps even three months from now; some are just plain bad, and plenty of others are titles that are just missing a little something special that would take them from okay or good up to great. Since developers have been e-mailing me for advice on how to make their titles worthy of As rather than Bs and Cs, I’ve been mulling a useful, general pointer for a while. Today, I have one.
What I’d like to propose today is beyond my personal ability to actually implement, but it’s something that everyone in the iPod and iPhone development community should be considering right now: partnerships. Having spent the last year and a half testing applications that so often feel incomplete—really great graphics and a nice game engine but no music, or a great puzzle idea with cool levels but awful art, and so on—it’s very obvious that the vast majority of iPhone OS game developers are one- to three-man acts with a couple of core competencies and a couple of big missing pieces. Developers know this, too: the e-mails I receive often acknowledge their missing assets up front and ask how to fix them. Partnering up with the right people is the answer.
I’m going to draw just three examples from the big pile of games I’ve been playing over the past few months in order to illustrate how this could and should work.
Hook Champ (reviewed here): I don’t know them personally, but the developers at Rocketcat Games are clearly very smart, funny, and abnormally talented at transforming a seemingly simple play mechanic into something deep via upgrades. They also need help with artwork and audio. If there’s any game that has been released in the past year or so that plays as well as Hook Champ but looks or sounds this much like an 8-bit game, we can’t think of it; the developers have even said that they are planning an update or sequel that will bring the art into the 16-bit era. That’s 1992, for those who have forgotten the days of the Sega Genesis and Super NES. It’s my feeling that if these guys were paired up with the art and engine team behind, say, Minigore, the world would be their oyster. Probably. There are other talented developers out there, but the trick is finding one that has the right visual style to match a game’s theme, gameplay, and most importantly, potential; artwork is going to become considerably more important as Apple boosts the resolutions of its upcoming devices.
Ramp Champ (reviewed here): There’s zero doubt that The Iconfactory has some of the most wickedly talented art, music, and UI people making App Store software today. Ramp Champ is, at times, an assault of beauty and aesthetic polish on your senses, slapping you out of any delusion that the iPhone has some little-known technical limitation that prevents it from performing pixel-perfect art, brilliantly themed- and crossfaded music, or useful downloadable content. The Iconfactory proved that it’s all about possessing the talent and ability to just execute properly. Yet many months after its release, the game still doesn’t play quite right, as the extremely simple ball-rolling controls continue to feel imprecise relative to other identical skee-ball titles we’ve tested. No game this good should have an almost equal percentage of 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5-star ratings, and this would change in a heartbeat if a partner skilled in polishing gameplay (like, say, people at Ngmoco) worked on tuning the swiping and increased the game’s depth.
Speed Forge Extreme (not reviewed): Over and over again, Wipeout clones show up on the iPhone from companies I’ve never heard of before, and every time, they get part of the way towards replicating Sony/Psygnosis’s series of masterpiece-class futuristic racing games, then fall off somewhere significant. This time, Ratsquare is the developer, and the result is Speed Forge Extreme, which uses blur and lighting effects to create one of the better graphics engines we’ve seen in a Wipeout wannabe, then adds a techno soundtrack that’s sufficient to evoke the same cool Wipeout vibe. That’s two big checkmarks, and on challenging boxes to fill, right there.
What’s missing? Unfortunately, basically all of the gameplay. The action is soulless, and due to a weird little “unlock one item per race” idea, you start the game just doing laps, then move onto a track with one (unbalanced) weapon floating around, then another with acceleration and deceleration pads, and so on. Ugh. Double ugh. Then there are even less appealing arena levels where you and other ships zoom around in an open space trying to hit each other with missiles. It’s this sort of stuff that makes Speed Forge Extreme feel completely unfocused, despite the fact that it actually looks and sounds better than most of the futuristic racers on this platform. One can only imagine how great this title might have been if it had started with the underlying AI and physics engine from, say, Real Racing. And mightn’t a developer like Firemint benefit from having a second team developing cool and diverse spins on its popular realistic driving game? A partnership of this sort could work for all involved, and the results would be much better games for everyone.
For those who might be skeptical of the partnership prospects from either side—the “would a big developer really work with a smaller one,” or “won’t the big developer exploit the little guy” questions—my suggestions are relatively simple. In most cases, developers who want to stay independent should be looking for partnerships with equals rather than companies that are grossly disproportionate to their size; by contrast, those looking to be acquired need to have complete, working teams assembled that are actually capable of turning out polished, finished products. Slightly larger developers with known discrete needs should obviously consider bringing on one or two people to fill their gaps, such as music, level design, or art, which will bring them up to the level of polish needed for growth and an eventual acquisition. But in any case, serious developers need to start figuring out at this point what they’re good at and not good at, and start addressing it.
As I suggested above, it’s not possible for one person—an external person, like me—to get developers to introduce themselves to one another, pitch the deal terms necessary to work together, or even in some cases to realistically identify their own weaknesses so that they can find the right people to make their games better. It is, however, possible for an internal person like you—developer reading this—to figure out who you admire and approach them about working together. If today’s indie game makers hope to become tomorrow’s bigger, better developers, partnerships like this are going to be the way it happens. The alternative is that yesterday’s (and today’s) big Sony and Nintendo developers will so flood the market with ports of Nintendo DS and PSP titles that smaller names and games will fade into the background. Given the success of the App Store and the growth of Apple’s devices as a viable gaming platform, it’s only a matter of time before this happens, and smart companies should be planning now for a better tomorrow.
By Jeremy Horwitz | 01.21.10 | 4 comments
“Yo dawg,” the Pimp My Ride meme would start, “I heard you like Macs and books, so we put your MacBook inside a fake book so you can look like you’re carrying a crazy big book around!” That’s the pitch, essentially, behind TwelveSouth’s $80 BookBook, which uses a deliberately aged leather hardbound book as a facade for a zippered carrying case.
The spine says “Book Book,” and “Vol. XII,” a cute little reference to TwelveSouth itself, and you can choose between “Classic Black” (actually brown) or “Vibrant Red” versions, each in either 13-inch or 15-inch MacBook-ready sizes. Inside is a soft, velvety lining, with enough padding to keep your MacBook safe while it’s being carried around. Twin zippers have leather pulls that match the case.
Is BookBook going to keep someone from stealing your MacBook? Maybe, maybe not. Is it worth $80? Ditto. But as with the other TwelveSouth products released thus far, we have to say that we dig the idea and most of the execution. Little streaks of gold ink on the book and other small texture and stitching touches speak nicely to the distressed theme, and it’s really not hard to imagine giving one of these as a gift to someone who loves books. Both kinds. It’s a cute idea.
By Jeremy Horwitz | 01.21.10 | 19 comments
So yesterday, I promised on Twitter that there would be a tablet-related update today. Here are a couple of late-breaking, interesting details that we’ve had double-confirmed by sources.
(a) Double Dock Connectors. We’re hearing that the tablet is going to have one on the vertical bottom edge and one on the horizontal bottom edge, enabling this device for the first time to be both mounted and charged either in portrait or landscape mode. iPhone and iPod touch users have long had to deal with the unusual sight of a cable or hard-mounted connector sticking out of the side of their devices when it’s being used as a widescreen video or game player, and accessory companies have struggled for the past three years to figure out ways to accommodate Cover Flow and the like in their speakers and docks. Two Dock Connectors fixes this, and depending on how Apple handles multiple accessory connections, could have some other nice benefits, as well.
(b) Antennas. The various reports of the tablet’s iPhone-ish-ness continue with the antenna compartment, which like the original iPhone has a long rear stripe for wireless radio broadcasting. This is necessary due to the metal used in the rest of the shell, which would inhibit radio performance, and the size of the stripe—not an iPod touch-sized pill—suggests room for nice-sized antennas, and 802.11n compatibility.
Obviously, nothing’s 100% certain here, but these details come from highly reliable sources.
The other interesting topic of discussion around here: pricing. I need to make clear that none of what follows comes from external sources—it’s purely our internal discussion and speculation—but it’s seriously worth thinking about in the lead-up to next week’s announcement.
It’s an absolute certainty that the tablet (or, uh, iPad) is going to have Wi-Fi functionality, and every piece of information we’ve had for many months has suggested that cellular service will be offered optionally to enable it to access the Internet when you’re not near an 802.11 hotspot. This naturally raises three related questions: “subsidy,” “type of data service,” and “service fees.”
(1) Subsidy. If one carrier, or two carriers, were to get rights to offer the tablet with multi-year data service contracts, they would likely cut the up-front price of the tablet in exchange for ongoing monthly revenues. The typical subsidies these days are in the $350-$400 range for a 2-year contract, such that an unlocked iPhone 3GS would sell for $599 and an AT&T locked one would sell for $199. A similar slice would apply, presumptively, to a tablet.
(2) Type of Data Service. We’ve heard theories that Apple will, matching Amazon’s Kindle approach, offer free coast-to-coast data services for the tablet. But that doesn’t really make a lot of sense when you think about it. Kindle and similar devices barely touch their data networks by comparison with data-hungry iPhones, which gobble plenty of data from the web and other types of apps. Might Apple’s partners offer a limited level of free service—basically sub-10MB iTunes Store and App Store downloads, so you can grab books, music, and the like in the same sort of way that Kindles work—with data plans for those who want full web access? Or will there be no such free offering: buy cellular data or use Wi-Fi, that’s it? And will voice minutes be offered at all for this device?
(3) Service Fees. Obviously, the fees will vary depending on what the cell companies are actually offering, but it’s worth noting that AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon are all in generally the same ballpark right now in offering data service packages for netbooks—the easiest analog to the tablet in terms of data hungriness. T-Mobile offers 200MB of data for $30 per month, with AT&T charging $35 for the same 200MB, and Verizon $40 as a base price for 250MB. All three companies offer 5GB of data for $60 per month, with T-Mobile also offering a less expensive $40 unlimited plan for certain devices.
Is anyone going to actually be willing to cough up $30-$60 per month for cellular access on a tablet? Our guess is that this would be a hard sell, particularly for the earliest wave of Apple tablet adopters—people who already likely have iPhone service contracts that would suddenly go way, way up in price for the tablet. This reality might well compel prospective service providers to offer more aggressive service pricing, or better yet, a combined iPhone and tablet service pricing plan.
Strictly speaking, there’s no reason that tablet and iPhone users should have to pay anything above the cost of their existing iPhone service contracts if they buy an unsubsidized device: the iPhone is capable of tethering, and in every country with tethering support (say, Canada) can connect to a Mac or PC via cable or Bluetooth to provide data access. Making the same connections between an iPhone and a tablet would be a no brainer. Interestingly, you wouldn’t even need an “unlimited” data plan to be comfortable doing this: the iLounge editor who tethers the most—Jesse in Canada—has used a whopping total of 8GB of data in one year between his iPhone and tethered MacBook without trying to limit himself in any way. He pays for 6GB of data per month and actually uses less than 1GB per month with tethering on the road. Obviously, the numbers would vary from person to person, but most people would be well under his usage numbers, and harder core video and audio streamers might easily go above it.
Even though an iPhone-tethered data solution would work for millions of potential tablet buyers, we’d be shocked if AT&T wouldn’t salivate over another opportunity to charge customers a $36 activation fee and additional monthly service fees, “necessary” of course because of the additional strains tablet access would place on its fragile infrastructure. That way, it could finally have enough cash on hand to make its network reliable. Right? Right?
Feel free as always to discuss and debate the possibilities in the comments section below.
By Jeremy Horwitz | 01.18.10 | 1 comment
Over the past half year or so, you might have noticed that our administrators have taken a different approach to moderating comments, and that there are consequently far fewer of the obnoxious trolls who once threatened to turn many of the reader conversations here into pointless flamewars.
At some point in 2009, the moderation philosophy shifted from what was once “anything goes” to a “sorry, but if you’re a jerk, you’re banned” attitude. Readership hasn’t suffered in any way as a consequence, and the vast majority of our readers have been able to enjoy a more relaxed, less snarky environment as a consequence. Now that the dead weight’s been cleared out, we’d like to re-invite everyone who might have been holding off on posting to do so—we and the rest of the iLounge community appreciates your insights and opinions.
Just be civil and decent. Disagreement and debate with your fellow readers is welcome, but our moderators will swing the ban stick if they see conversations devolve into name calling, personal attacks, or posting of falsehoods. The golden rule continues to apply here. And, once again, if you have issues with an article, contact an editor directly through e-mail - news (at) ilounge (dot) com for news articles, or me [jeremy (at) ilounge] for anything else. Thanks!
By Jeremy Horwitz | 01.14.10 | 3 comments
As you probably already gathered, this year’s CES was a massive success: attendance was up, lots of seriously cool new iPod and iPhone products were debuted, and companies appeared ready to reverse the sleepy past year of uninspired releases. So much was going on that we decided to let the dust settle before sharing this list of five big picture things you should be looking out for in 2010—big topics of discussion within the Apple development community.
1. Apple Tablet and iPhone 4. Though one might have guessed from media reports that Apple’s upcoming tablet device was casting a huge cloud over competitors, there was surprisingly little buzz about its specifics on the show floor—most companies were very focused on their current products, and waiting for the other shoe to drop with an official announcement from Apple. We heard whispers about what’s apparently the final tablet housing, which takes design cues from the iPhone, MacBook Air, and unibody MacBook Pro: it looks like the top casing of the MacBook Air and Pro, only smaller—roughly the same width as Amazon’s Kindle DX but a little shorter—plus space on the side for a surprising number of I/O ports.
Apparently, the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro curves are carrying over to the next-generation iPhone, as well, which will resemble a shrunken, thinner bottom half of the MacBook Pro laptop casing, bringing Apple’s lineup of portable computers, tablet, and phones into visual alignment.
2. Enthusiastic Response to Both CES and Economy. Early in 2009, the prevailing wisdom was that the battered economy would improve somewhat by mid-year, and that the consumer electronics industry would start a real recovery during the holidays. The optimism and positive responses we saw at the 2010 CES appeared to validate this timeline, as third-party developers told us about better-than-expected year-end results, plus impressive new lineups that were more thoughtful and distinctive than the ones in previous years. They also committed to the 2011 CES with record speed, selling out the previous 25,000-square foot iLounge Pavilion space in only one day (!), and demanding twice the booth space for the upcoming year.
3. Cases Are Making a Big Comeback. iPod and iPhone cases didn’t evolve much in 2008 or 2009, and readers were as tired of reading about them as we were when writing about them. This year, cases are making a huge comeback thanks to new designs from a number of companies: Case-Mate and Uncommon—former Nike iD folks—both showed cases that could be customized with user-created or -submitted artwork. Speck blew people away with its incredible Special Edition lineup of Fitted, CandyShell, and SeeThru cases. Incipio had aisle-filling lines for its new Dotties case and debuted the impressive DuroShot DRX, unusual Q, and other interesting designs. SwitchEasy debuted an anti-scratch case called Nude that has far-reaching potential for the durability of future designs. And finally, XtremeMac launched some iterative but very attractive designs for both soft and hard cases. We haven’t been this excited about iPod and iPhone protection in a long, long time.
4. App-Enhanced Hardware As Growth Area. Griffin and Belkin may have been first to connect App Store downloads to their accessories, but iHome made a huge splash with its iHome+Sleep app and multiple compatible alarm clocks, transforming the iPhone or iPod touch into uber-clocks with weather, sleep tracking, and Facebook and Twitter integration. Parrot provided an even more tangible demonstration of the App Store’s potential with its AR.Drone, which enabled iPhone and iPod touch users to control a toy hovercraft using touchscreen- and Wi-Fi-based Apple devices as remote controls. The challenge: Apple representatives at the show were actively pushing more developers to tie apps to future accessories, but the technical and cost factors involved in doing so can create a quagmire for companies. It’s going to be very interesting to see how this plays out in 2010 and 2011.
5. Awful AT&T Phone Service. When companies weren’t talking about their products, people couldn’t stop complaining—rightfully—about how terrible the AT&T service was in Las Vegas: even outside the Convention Center at various hotels, iPhones were failing to make calls, dropping calls after only seconds, and generally proving useless—voicemail and text messages weren’t sending or arriving properly, and web access was stopping before pages would load. Battery drain was staggering, too; users learned that they had to literally switch off 3G in favor of EDGE just be able to make telephone calls. Our editors from Canada and the United Kingdom couldn’t believe how slow and unreliable the service was, even when most of the influx of show-goers had left town. At some point, we stopped counting the number of people who were praying for AT&T’s exclusivity to end in favor of Verizon-compatible iPhones, but different people continued to have varying opinions on whether the issues were actually AT&T’s or Apple’s fault. We continue to think that the evidence strongly suggests AT&T is the big problem.
Comments and thoughts are, of course, welcome.