Does the Apple iPad still set the benchmark for tablets?
The tablet revolution of the second decade of the 21st century may have started with the iPad, but the iconic device came after many failed tablet ventures – including Apple’s own Newton. Even Microsoft came up with a variation five years ago.
This history holds one of the first lessons of the iPad: it was not an immaculate conception that came into the world fully formed with no labour pains. It was a result of numerous and elaborate improvements. That, in turn, means it represents a moment in the evolution, rather than revolution, of a device category. The revolution was in design – all the elements gelled into a device that anyone could use; and in marketing – it was a device every iPhone user would want to use, along with everyone else who laid eyes on the device.
The iPad 2 holds rather different lessons. It shows that even the supposedly perfect gadget can always be improved. And that, even with a device that has electrified the market, there is room for alternatives that fill the gaps left wide open.
The Gadget Ten Question Tablet Test reveals where the iPad 2 leaves the gaps.
1. The sound of one-hand tapping (Can you comfortably hold it in one hand and operate it in the other?)
There’s a reason Apple have put so much energy into the design of covers that allow you to stand it up in almost any direction. And why iPad cases are among the most popular Apple accessories on the market. This gorgeous device, Apple fans will tell you, was not made to be pawed but to be caressed. Consequently, it needs to be placed on an appropriate surface to get the most out of it –partly because it is a little heavy to hold in one hand and operate with the other.
That said, the iPad was the first computer ever to adapt its monitor to the position in which it was held. In whatever way it is positioned, the screen image instantly orients itself to be upright. Yes, the other tablets do that too, but few as instantly as the iPad.
Typing on an iPad, however, is no pleasure. The design of virtual keyboard is the prime reason we recommend that anyone who needs to produce complex documents should revert to a laptop. But there is one small change that would make all the difference: allow users to place the cursor where they wish, and insert what they wish. It is deeply frustrating, when attempting to correct mistakes, to be forced either to accept a spellchecker recommendation, or to struggle with manipulating the cursor into the right spot – and then only to be allowed to backspace-delete. With the iPad’s famed ease of usage and lightness of being, this is one inexplicable nod to the dark side.
2. The Angry Birds test (How responsive is the device in interactive tasks?)
The iPad 2 hardware runs on a 1 GHz dual core Apple 5 system on a chip (SoC). It’s also described as a package on package (PoP). If you want the technicalities, the chip is a dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 MPCore CPU with NEON SIMD accelerator and a dual core PowerVR SGX543MP2 GPU. Want a translation? Serious fire-power. Other tablets that come with a 1 GHz chip tend to lag behind the iPad, since it’s not merely about the chip, but about all that integration.
Ironically the processor is manufactured by arch-rival Samsung – but from Apple’s design.
This processing power means the iPad packs serious punch in any multimedia applicaton that needs serious punch. Or catapult.
Angry Birds was practically made for this device, and the iPad’s performance here shows up most other tablets, including its closest rival, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. Run them side by side, and you realize the catapult gets a little sticky on the Galaxy. With the iPad, there is never a moment’s doubt that it will handle whatever is thrown at it with elegance and speed.
3. The tablet gender test (Can it multi-task? Hint: males can’t.)
The iPad is male. In the past, it wouldn’t let you so much as look at another app while you’re running your current operation. Now, thanks to hormone replacement therapy from the new iOS 5 operating system, you get to double-tap the main control button to show a ribbon of open apps along the bottom of the screen and to switch between them. You close them by holding your finger on the icon and then clicking on the minus button. A very elegant solution (thanks to @RobinMeisel for pointing that out on Twitter). However, the ability to manage apps in the ribbon remains limited. On this score, the Android 3 tablets tend to be ahead of Apple. But hey, look at the positive side: it’s something to get the media excited about for the next edition of the iPad.
The single-button approach is part of the charm of the iPad, though. It means there is no learning curve whatsoever. You click the button, or you tap the screen. But once you’ve learnt to use the device after the first 60 seconds, you do want to get more out of it.
4. Testing by the book (Can it replace novels and textbooks?)
Apple is known for its powerful and effective ads, but one of the best ads yet to reference the brand was for the Amazon Kindle. It showed a man lying down on a deckchair by a pool and pulling out his iPad, all the while glancing smugly at a woman reading on a rival device. Then social disaster strikes. The glare of the sunlight on his screen makes it impossible to read a word. He calls over to the woman, asking how she can read in the sun. She smiles ad says simply, “It’s a Kindle”.
That ad only tells half the story, though. In normal light, however, reading on the iPad is a spectacular experience. When it comes to textbooks, newspapers and magazines, the iPad offers an experience that is superior to the original printed format. The Kindle merely matches the original experience – albeit with massive capacity that you couldn’t match in a personal library.
The bottom line is, most reading occurs in normal light – or should, say the optometrists – and that is where the versatility of the iPad overcomes the natural reading of the Kindle (we’ll review the Kindle in more depth soon).
5. Live long and prosper (How’s the battery life?)
One of the crucial breakthroughs for the iPad was its battery life: 10 hours. The iPad 2 initially appears to have poor battery life, but after fully charging and fully de-charging a few times, it appears to perform to promise. In standby mode, I’ve gone a week without using it (Yeah, I know, but some of us have to work), and come back to find almost no loss in battery status.
6. It’s all about You(Tube) (How well does it handle online video sites?)
For a device that doesn’t support Flash, Apple does a remarkable job with video, and especially YouTube. Demonstrating the depth and range of music videos on YouTube, recently, no other tablet matched the experience on the iPad.
7. The retro test (Can it replace your radio? TuneIn Radio reveals all.)
TuneIn Radio installs quickly and seamlessly on the iPad. Using the iPad’s location information, it instantly displays all local stations, from 5FM to Chai FM and hundreds of international station in dozens of categories and sub-categories. Bye bye FM.
Incidentally, pushing the all-doing Control button to exit the app won’t silence the audio. You have to stop it in the app itself.
Two mono speakers behind a single grill make for a simple approach to audio – although it does result in a mildly tinny sound. The sound offering is backed up by a Volume button below the top right corner, and stereo audio-out socket on the top left. Bluetooth enables wireless headphones. If you want to make your own sounds, a microphone is also built in. It may seem like the bare minimum, but touches all the bases most users need.
8. On target (Is the on/off switch easy to find and use in the dark?)
The On button protrudes slightly above the top right corner, and can’t be missed, even in the dark. However, it does get hard to find when you’ve been tilting the device in all directions and forget which side really is Up.
9. Keep control (How effective are the control buttons – hardware and software?)
Control buttons? We don’t need no stinkin’ control buttons, as a Mexican bandit might once have said in a movie. The most compelling feature of the iPad is its sheer simplicity. It is the reason this is the number one choice for schools looking at rolling out tablets, despite it costing far more than low-end 7” devices. For the power user, however, the lack of virtual control buttons becomes a hindrance, and needs to be addressed when that multi-tasking gap is also repaired.
10. The iPrice Test (Is it competitively priced?)
Traditionally, Apple computers were far more expensive than equivalent devices from other manufacturers. That has changed in recent years, and the iPad has led the charge down the price ladder, although not down the quality ladder.
It is deeply ironic, then, that almost every other tablet entering the market to take on Apple has been more expensive. That’s like giving up the battle even before you’ve fought it, but still sending armies onto the field to be wiped out. The exception has been Amazon, which announced its Kindle Fire would cost $200 – less than half the price of the cheapest iPad. Motorola followed by announcing a cheaper Xoom. And finally, the rest of the industry is waking up. French electronics company Archos has announced an 8” tablet for under $300 and a dual core 1.5GHz tablet for less than $400.
In other words, price pressure has finally arrived, but that has not yet reduced the demand for the iPad at current prices.
The bottom line
The iPad narrowly edges out the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 as the best tablet we have yet tested. The benchmark device retains its status, but by a slim, reachable margin.
Overall score: 83/100