iPad v3

A Few Clicks to the Front of the Queue

My 3rd generation iPad arrived early Friday morning. I had rushed to hit the buy button right after orders opened, but it turned out that you had about two full days to order and still receive the device on launch day. Apple is magically competent at logistics.

Bias

My own wife, surprised that I was ordering, described me as “anti-Apple”. Sigh. I am anti-Apple domination. More accurately I am anti-any big corporation domination. It seems like pretty reasonable position, and I’m truly surprised that anyone could feel otherwise: People actually gloat about enormous Apple, Microsoft or Google profits or influence If they aren’t insiders, what is the motivation beyond simply wanting to belong to a group?

The Screen Leads

The screen on the 3rd gen iPad is simply gorgeous. Considering that the screen is the primary methods of inputs and outputs on a tablet, it’s a pretty important attribute, and this device does not disappoint. Text looks close to perfect. Photos and websites look stunning, courtesy of both the raw pixel count and the improved colour saturation.

There are observations making the rounds that if you see a 2nd and 3rd generation iPad side by side that it is difficult to impossible to tell which is which. Those people cannot have seen both units: The display is a night and day improvement over the old screen. Text is a work of art.

It isn’t a perfect display, however (regardless of how infatuated with Apple DisplayMate might be). Black levels are more like grey levels, with a contrast ratio that is middling at best. After seeing a video on a better AMOLED screen, the new iPad looks underwhelming in comparison, although it leads in every other use.

Speaking of videos, the aspect ratio is sub-optimal for video entertainment, with most modern content having substantial black (or rather grey) bars above and below. I have long believed that Apple’s original 4:3 aspect ratio was a mistake for many uses — in particular video — and I maintain that position.

It’s also possible that the display simply has too many pixels, overloading the system excessively for limited return. Pixel-heavy apps like SketchBook Pro have substantial lag trying to service the screen on the new unit.

Apple chose this resolution not because it hit some magical biological threshold, but rather because it was a whole-number multiple of the prior technology-limited resolution due to some short-sighted choices in the original platform.

A higher resolution is a benefit, though the return diminishes beyond a certain point . I doubt there is measurably increased utility of this 3.1 million pixel display (compare with the iPad’s prior 0.8 million pixels) over the 2.3 million pixels of some upcoming competitors, yet the battery and computation cost still needs to be paid.

Getting Going

The iPad and iPhone that you can buy today are quite evolved from their beginnings. One of the big improvements is the decoupling from a PC. I enjoyed the fact that not once did I have to connect this to a PC. Instead the setup was all on the unit itself, as has always been the case with Android devices. Setup was a breeze and I was quickly using the device. It is generally intuitive and responsive.

I discovered multitasking gestures by accident while using Garageband (the one app where I wish it would disable them) and quickly came to depend upon them. That is a very intuitive interface mechanism that is a welcome alternative to hitting the physical home button constantly.

Quirks and Quarks

It isn’t perfect, however, which is a bit surprising given some of the narrative about the mythical iOS.

During the setup, as I was quickly jumping through the steps, it kept notifying me how to move icons on the home screen, as if it was committed to making me aware despite the fact that I was much further in the process, busy entering my credit card number for iTunes.

If you set the iTunes password to immediate expiry, many operations will see you forced to enter your iTunes password two or even three times for a simple operation. Either they don’t test this setting at all, or they are heavily trying to dissuade against choosing that option. In an era when endless applications are moving to the shady freemium model (which I personally find terribly dishonest, and as a general rule steer clear of), having an immediate password expiry is a very good idea if you ever let children use your device, unless you actually want an expensive harvest of smurfberries.

The browser has inexplicably stalled out a number of times on me despite connectivity otherwise working perfectly. The music browser can access your library on a PC running iTunes (a crashy app that is nonetheless far improved over its infamous past), but it won’t even provide the option to access that shared library until you’ve added at least one track on the iPad itself. A quick Feist purchase later and I could now access my completely unrelated shared library.

I’ve experienced lagginess and brief stalls in a number of apps. I see them much less frequently than was common in Honeycomb, and still less than in Ice Cream Sandwich, but thought that was interesting.

Options are generally non-existent. You can record surprisingly good quality video but have absolutely no control over the video quality. That is a general philosophy throughout iOS, with fairly typical options being omitted. I think Apple did the right thing: Making the choices for the user leads to a cleaner interface and a simpler implementation, thus with fewer bugs. Competitors should learn from that. Less is often more.

The Good

The overall platform is polished and beautiful. The web browser — greatly improved in more recent iOS outings — is second to none. It really is an incredible browser and I can honestly say that it is probably the best browsing experience across any device, including full-powered PCs. Sites like The Verge somehow offer a much better experience than they do on the desktop.

Garageband is, I believe, the killer iPad app. It is a full-featured demonstration of all of the potential of this platform. There is nothing remotely like it on Android. iMovie is also one of those apps that makes you re-evaluate what is possible on a power-sipping mobile device like this. Virtually all of the Apple apps are stellar.

Many other apps, though, are less impressive. I was primed and ready to dish out to load it up with good apps, but many just aren’t worth the trouble. Many of the educational apps seem incredible on first blush but you quickly learn that the App Store is absolutely overloaded with superficial apps hosting lot of flash but absolutely no educational value. Essentially tech demos.

The App Store is a thousand miles wide and an inch deep. Perhaps this is a side effect of the low prices of apps limiting the investment. It is interesting that the $0.99 app standard was set on trivial apps (e.g. find my car), yet the expectation has remained for complex apps made by teams of devs. After buying what I thought was reams of apps, my iTunes receipt came through and I’d barely passed $50. Somehow I feel like developers are the losers in this equation, a few lottery-winning exceptions notwithstanding.

On the gaming front, Infinity Blade II is the go to iOS game, with impressive visuals for the platform but with gameplay that is incredibly superficial. That game is such a disappointment with lofty reviews that focus overwhelmingly on the visuals. I suppose if I weren’t accustomed to incredible PC graphics I would be more entranced by that, but as is it’s a game that hasn’t held the attention of any member of my family.

My children, I’ve noticed, have absolutely no inclination to favour the iPad over the Android 4.0 tablet. The apps they enjoy — Angry Birds, Where’s My Water, Fruit Ninja HD, Cut the Rope, Netflix, YouTube, and so on — are virtually indistinguishable from their Android counterparts, if not deficient in some ways (unsurprisingly the Google Maps and Google YouTube players in Android 4.0 are far superior to their iOS counterparts).

Conclusion

Having tried to drink in the iPad 3rd generation for a bit, I think I’m a bit surprised that the competition is as close as it really is: The gap has dramatically narrowed. The iPad lacks features that I’ve come to consider critical on my Android tablet, most important being widgets: I don’t want to jump from app to app to app to get information delivery that I have ganged on my home screens.

You can’t even set an alarm on the iPad without buying third party apps (all having various warnings and negative reviews about their detriments). Really?

UPDATE 2012-10-01– One of many improvements in iOS 6.0 is the addition of alarm clock functionality.

If the Asus Infinity were the same price as this unit, I’d still have to say that the iPad 3rd generation is probably the better choice (unless you heavily use it for videos in which case you have to consider a device with a more appropriate aspect ratio). The iPad is just so refined and has such an excellent web browser that it’s a tough champion to unseat.

The competition really has to bring some incredibly compelling benefit, whether something technical or a significantly better price, to upset the iPad. It had looked like the screen was where they would differentiate, but that window has closed and it’s going to have to be something else.