January 27, 2010
The Apple iPad -- Description and first impressions
On January 27, 2010, after months of intense hype but no leaks, Apple announced its latest product, the iPad. iMac, iPod, iPhone, iPad. The iPad is a sleek tablet that looks like a cross between an iPhone and the LCD case of the MacBook Air. It measures 7.5 x 9.6 inches and is only half an inch thick. It weighs a pound and a half. It has a 9.7-inch multi-touch screen with 1024 x 768 resolution. Apple says its internal 25 watt-hour battery lasts ten hours. The iPad is powered by a 1GHz Apple A4 chip, a first as Apple never before used an Apple-branded chip. The iPad comes with 16, 32 or 64GB of Flash, and each version is available with or without 3G. Pricing starts at US$499, the most expensive 3G model runs US$829. Apple has special AT&T wireless data deals: US$14.99/month for 250MB or US$29.99/month unlimited, without contract, and the devices are unlocked. The standard version of the iPad will be available within 60 days of the January 27 release, the 3G version within 90 days. So that's the deal.
Now let's take a closer look at how this all came about, and what the iPad can do. Essentially, Apple, which by now is a US$50 billion company and just sold its 250 millionth iPod, felt that there was something missing between an iPhone/iPod Touch and a full-fledged PowerBook. Something in the middle that would be far better at some key tasks such as browsing, email, enjoying and sharing pics, video, music, games, reading books than either a smartphone or a laptop. In his presentation, Steve Jobs emphasized that if there is to be such a third category, it has to be better at these tasks, or else there would be no reason for being. He bluntly stated that netbooks, while they are selling by the millions, are slow, use pokey PC software, have low quality displays, and aren't really better at anything.
Enter the iPad.
After many months of hype, it's interesting to see what Apple believes is that magical device that fits between smartphone and notebook. It's a tablet that uses the same high-powered multi-touch technology that so endeared the iPhone to millions. That means the same sleek, elegant, ultra-smooth user interface adored by 75 million iPhone and iPod Touch users.
The footprint of the iPad is roughly the same as that of a netbook though the iPad is a little wider because it's display uses the "conventional" 4:3 aspect ratio. However, since the iPad is a tablet and not a clamshell, it is thinner than any netbook, and lighter, too. While most netbooks are in the 2.5 pound range, the iPad weighs just 1.5 pounds. It also feels even thinner than it is, thanks to the same beveling trick Apple used with the MacBook Air.
If netbooks have failed to provide adequate performance to drive some of the more demanding PC software applications (most painfully HD video), how can Apple hope to offer a better user experience in the almost impossibly light and sleek iPad?
Mostly because the iPad is not a scaled-down version of a MacBook computer. Instead, it is a scaled-up version of the iPhone. That is an important distinction. The iPad is not meant to run desktop versions of such powerhouse applications as Adobe Photoshop or Quark Xpress. Instead, it can run almost all iPhone apps as well as a rapidly growing lineup to specially enhanced iPhone apps.
As a result, the iPad does not need very powerful (and power-hungry) hardware to do what it does quickly and effortlessly. While netbooks struggle in many applications with a 1.6GHz Intel Atom chip, a gig of RAM and a 160GB hard disk, the iPad cruised through demos as smoothly and speedily with the same aplomp we're used to from the iPhone. I have no idea as to the origins or architecture of Apple's new 1GHz Apple A4 processor, but it sure seems to get the job done. And 16, 32, or 64GB of Flash will certainly be enough. How all of this can run 10 hours on a 25 watt-hour battery is a mystery, but apparently it does.
As far as software goes, Apple says that virtually all iPhone apps run on the iPod unmodified. In fact, you can simply sync the iPad and load all of your existing iPhone apps onto it. They will, however, run in their native iPhone display resolution, which is 320 x 480 pixel. The iPad supports pixel doubling. In the demo it looked like pixel-doubled iPhone apps filled the whole 768 x 1024 display, though doubling would only amount to 640 x 960. Apple also released a new rev of iPhone SDK (release date January 27, 2010) that now supports iPad, and presumably that will allow the creation of native iPad apps as well as iPhone apps that fully scale to the iPad's much larger screen.
Demos did not reveal any new type of controls (like at the backside of the device or so) and neither did I see evidence of multi-tasking, so that's reserved for a future rev and will undoubtedly be listed among the disappointments. Among the initial demos shown were a new New York Times app just for the iPad. The NY Times app for iPhone has been downloaded three million times and is quite useful, but the iPad app easily trumps it with a layout that looks just like a regular print paper. You can watch embedded video, resize, and adjust things with "pop-over" menus that seem a new thing for iPad apps. Steve Sprang showed off a Brushes demo that also made heavy use of pop-up menus, and Travis Boatman from game developer EA showed off the "Need for Speed Shift" game that moved at a snappy clip. A baseball game demo by Chad Evans from MLB.com concluded an interesting, albeit perhaps not overwhelming demo session.
There's big news in the eBook arena. Steve Jobs lauded Amazon's Kindle for having blazed a trail, but said the ePad would stand on their shoulders. To that extent, there is a new iBooks app with a very appealing interface with books sitting on a nice wooden bookshelf that can be rotated to reveal a bookstore! That's because after the iTunes music store and the app store, Apple has created a new iBook store. Slides revealed that apparently Penguin, Macmillan, Hachette Book Group, Harper and more have signed up with them and there will undoubtedly be many more. Book prices on the demo slides showed prices ranging from $7.99 to 14.99. Books and book pages look like real books and you can easily change fonts and font sizes via a pop-up. Apple store books will be using the ePub format.
As a preview of coming attractions, Apple showed iWorks for the iPad. iWorks for the Mac is a $79 suite that include a word processor (Pages), a spreadsheet (Numbers) and a presentation application (Keynote). These have been reworked for the iPad in a way that preserves functionality while taking advantage of the iPad platform. There are, for example, special keypads for spreadsheets and other dedicated tasks, etc., and there is heavy use of the new pop-up menus. The three apps that normally make up iWorks are split into three different apps that each cost US$9.99. Very reasonable, and probably a harbinger of things to come in terms of apps that reside somewhere between iPhone class and full desktop class.
How does the iPad sync? Exactly like the iPhone, using USB through the iPad's docking connector. Apple will sell a dock for the iPad, and also a dock that includes a standard physical keyboard. The iPad includes speakers and a 3.5mm headphone jack, but there are no other USB or other ports. Likewise, there is no expansion slot. And there also does not appear to be an onboard camera, so no picture taking and no video conferencing. That's a surprise.
Now for the big question: how does the iPad communicate? First, it does NOT appear to be a phone. Other than that, communication is exactly like with the iPhone and iPod Touch. All iPads will have WiFi, but there are also versions that have 3G data as well.
The availability of 3G data instantly brings up the big, fundamental questions of cost. I mean, those who already have an iPhone will not likely want to fork over another small fortune to AT&T for just data, and they are almost equally unlikely to want another AT&T 2-year contract. Yet, without contract to subsidize the purchase price of the iPad, Apple had to be very careful with pricing.
So what did they do? They offer the iPad itself at a price that is probably somewhat lower than most expected, starting at US$499 for a WiFi-only 16GB model, with the 32GB and 64GB WiFi models running US$599 and US$699. That's much more than a netbook, but low for an Apple product, and much lower, inflation-adjusted, than what Palm and Pocket PC pricing started out. The WiFi + 3G versions run US$629, 729 and 829 for the 16, 32, and 64GB versions, respectively.
More importantly, Apple is offering two very attractive 3G data plans through AT&T. For US$14.99/month you get 250MB of data and free use of AT&T hotspots. For US$29.99/month you get unlimited data and free use of AT&T WiFi hotspots. The 250MB plan is probably for those who primarily do emailing as even 250MB is quickly used up with today's websites. The unlimited data plan runs the same as what AT&T charges for the data plan on an iPhone 3G/3GS, and given that iPads will likely use up much more data than iPhones, that's quite a deal. It's also a deal that makes one wonder about AT&T's recent complaints that iPhones use too much of their bandwidth capacity. Oh, and best of all: no 2-year plan. You can cancel anytime, and the iPad is not locked either. No, you can't just stick any old SIM card into it. It uses one of those new GSM micro-SIMs cards that measures just 12 x 15 mm as opposed to the standard SIM cards that measure 25 x 15 mm.
So did Apple deliver? I think they did. The device itself is gorgeous and seems as meticulously engineered as anything I've seen. The iPad will answer the prayers of all those who have found they use the iPhone for much more than they initially thought, but wish it were larger. Apple very elegantly handled the pricing and wireless plan issues by offering the iPad at an affordable price, offering both WiFi and WiFi/3G versions, AND offering an unlimited wireless plan that is pleasantly affordable. There are some weirdnesses, like no camera, the uncommon micro-SIM slot, and the usual Apple characteristics such as no expansion slot and no ports, but that's all part of the game. Overall, a very solid triple.