First Look In Progress: Apple iPad (and TONS of new details to share)
Published: Wednesday, January 27, 2010
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.
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