Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Thoughts on the iPad

Today Apple announced the iPad, a tablet computer bearing a striking resemblance to the iPod touch (colloquially known as the iTouch).

The pricing on the iPad will range from $499 for a 16 GB model to $699 for a 64 GB model.  Judging by that, and the specs released so far, I predict that while it will be moderately successful amongst those that love their iPhones/iTouches and want a bigger screen, that overall it will not be a runaway success.

Why?  Let's look at the price first.  For $499 you can get an iPad with 16 GB of storage, whereas for $399 you can get an iPod touch with 64 GB of storage.  The iPod will have practically all the same functionality as the iPad (they both run iPhone apps), while the difference in screen size is really just personal preference as far as portability goes.

For new owners, it will no doubt be a bit of a quandary whether to buy an iPad or an iTouch.  If you intend to use it as a PDA or portable MP3 player, you can't beat the iTouch for being small enough to carry on your belt or in a pocket at all times.  That kind of accessibility is essential for a personal organizer or MP3 player.  If you're going to primarily use it as netbook/laptop equivalent (which the iTouch can also function as, although the iPad's screen and larger keyboard will make for a nicer user experience) then the iPad will be the way to go if you can afford a few hundred dollars more or if you're willing to forego some storage space, though it should be noted that these products don't have expandable storage (although part of the price-unknown Camera Connection Kit is an SD card reader that plugs into the dock port).

If you already own an iPhone/iTouch and a laptop, then the iPad isn't going to be nearly as appealing.  It's a nice product that inspires technolust to be sure, but the iPhone/iTouch are such great products that spending $500-700 for a larger screen just isn't worth it.

The one application where you could be staring at the screen for hours on end and would appreciate a larger screen is reading books (which already works well on iPhone/iTouch).  But if you already own an iPhone/iTouch, you can purchase a Kindle/Sony eReader/Barnes and Noble Nook, or another dedicated e-reader, complete with a different type of screen specifically designed for reading on (it actually looks like paper), for about $200 (and in a slightly more portable size akin to that of a paperback novel).

Looking further at the iPad specs, apart from disappointing storage, we have longer battery life.  Yawn.  For the size of the product compared to an iPhone/iTouch, it's expected they'd be able to fit a larger battery in the device (which still isn't user-replaceable).  Indeed, in that respect, 10 hours of battery life is actually disappointing.

With a screen that size, video should be great, right?  Well, while Apple's screens always look great, the resolution is still only 1024x768.  So you won't be able to play 1080i (1920x1080) or 720p (1280x720) high-def on it.  Worse still, you're still limited to 480p (720x480) output to a television.

Beyond a bigger screen and longer battery life... there's not much.  The iPhone has built-in camera and GPS, the iPad doesn't (though the more expensive 3G version may have GPS).  There's a new processor in the iPad, but since Apple is notoriously tight-lipped on technical specs, we don't know whether there's been a significant increase in 3D graphics performance, for instance.  There's also wi-fi N in the iPad... which the wireless chip in the iTouch supports but Apple hasn't activated yet.

With hardware that's good but not exactly magical compared to what's already in our hands, software is where I expect we'll see some big changes.  When the iPad finally hits stores, it will likely be accompanied by an updated iPhone OS.  Hopefully the larger screen will have spurred Apple's engineers to creative heights such that they'll have fixed existing annoyances (such as limited number of homescreens and no folders... 140,000 apps, with nowhere to go...), tweaked things, and added new innovations.  Hopefully we'll get better notifications, multi-tasking, wireless N and FM radio enabled in the iTouch.

So to sum things up, the iPad is good news for iPhone/iTouch owners, as it will spur development on the iPhone platform and bring us new iPhone OS features (and hopefully new compatible hardware, such as the keyboard and SD card reader).  But as a buy recommendation, I'd say that at the moment it's really only a buy if you've got spare cash to burn; a 32/64 GB iPod touch is a better deal.  In the meantime, the rest of us will likely hold tight, perhaps buying dedicated e-book readers or sub-$300 netbooks if we feel the need to supplement our iPhones/iTouches with something else.