“An utter disappointment and abysmal failure” (Orange County Design Blog). “Consumers seem genuinely baffled by why they might need it” (Businessweek). “Nothing more than a luxury bauble that will appeal to a few gadget freaks” (Bloomberg). “Insanely great it is not” (MarketWatch). “My god, am I underwhelmed” (Gizmodo).
Good heavens! What a critical drubbing! Whatever it is must be a real turkey. What could it be?
Only the fastest-selling gadget in the history of electronics: the Apple iPad.
All right, let’s not pile onto the tech critics. The thing is, they were right, at least from a rational standpoint. The iPad was superfluous. It filled no obvious need. If you already had a touch-screen phone and a laptop, why on earth would you need an iPad? It did seem like just a big iPod Touch.
But as it turns out, the iPad’s appeal is more emotional than rational. Once you get it in your hands, you get caught up in the fascination of manipulating on-screen objects by touching them. Apple sold 15 million iPads in nine months, created a mammoth new product category and started an industry of copycats. Apparently, it doesn’t pay to bet against Steve Jobs’s gut instinct.
On Friday the iPad 2 goes on sale, for the same price as the old one (from $500 for the Wi-Fi-only model with 16 gigabytes of storage, to $830 with 64 gigabytes and both Wi-Fi and cellular Internet connections). And if you thought there was an intellectual/emotional disconnect before, wait till you see this thing.
On paper, Apple didn’t do much. It just made the iPad one-third thinner, 15 percent lighter and twice as fast. There are no new features except two cameras and a gyroscope. I mean, yawn, right?
And then you start playing with it.
My friends, I’m telling you: just that much improvement in thinness, weight and speed transforms the experience. We’re not talking about a laptop or a TV, where you don’t notice its thickness while in use. This is a tablet. You are almost always holding it. Thin and light are unbelievably important for comfort and the overall delight. So are rounded edges, which the first iPad didn’t have.
The iPad 2 is now 0.34 inches thick. Next to it, the brand-new Motorola Xoom — the best Android competitor so far — looks obese. Yet somehow, the new iPad still gets 10 hours of battery life on a charge.
Some of the iPad’s new features play industry catch-up. A 5-megapixel camera on the back (no flash) can also record high-definition video. If you’ve never used a tablet as a camera, you’re in for a treat; the entire screen is your viewfinder. It’s like using an 8-by-10 enlargement to compose the scene.
There’s also a low-resolution front camera that’s useful for video calls, like clear, sharp Wi-Fi calls to iPhone 4, Touch, iPad 2 and Mac owners using Apple’s FaceTime software.
You can now connect the iPad to a hi-def TV, thanks to a single H.D.M.I. adapter ($40) that carries both audio and hi-def video. What you see on the TV mirrors whatever is on the iPad, which makes it a great setup for teaching, slide shows, presentations, YouTube and movies. It works automatically and effortlessly.
The more expensive iPad 2 models can also go online using either AT&T’s or Verizon’s cellular networks, but figuring out the right pricing plan requires a graduate degree in forensic accounting. With AT&T, for example, you can pay $15 a month for 250 megabytes of data, or $25 for two gigabytes. Verizon’s plans are 1 gigabyte for $20, 3 for $35, 5 for $50 or 10 for $80. O.K., but how are you supposed to know how many megabytes a bunch of Web pages and YouTube videos are going to consume?
On the bright side, both AT&T and Verizon let you sign up for cell service right from the iPad, only when you need it — no two-year contract. You can turn on service only when you’ll be traveling, for example.
Now, about Apple’s new iPad screen cover. Ordinarily, devoting time to a technology review of a screen cover would indicate that the columnist was a few sandwiches shy of a picnic. But Apple’s new cover is a perfect symbol of its fondness for high-tech magic tricks.
You attach this single sheet by drawing it across the iPad’s face as though you’re making a bed. With a satisfying clicking sound, hidden magnets anchor the thing solidly to the iPad’s face.
“But Dad,” my 6-year-old son pointed out, “you’re supposed to keep magnets away from electronics!”
“I know,” I replied sagely. “But this is Apple.” And then I showed him how opening the cover turns the iPad on automatically, and closing it again puts the thing back to sleep.
This cover ($40 for polyurethane in five colors, or $70 for leather in five other colors) is not for protecting the screen, whose hardened glass doesn’t need much help. It’s for fashion, for cleaning (Apple says that the cover’s microfibers mop away dust) and for propping up the iPad. Clever hinges in the cover’s rigid panels prop up the iPad at two different angles, so you can watch movies or freely use the on-screen keyboard with both hands.
There’s a gyroscope in the iPad, too, just as in the iPhone 4. You notice it only when you play games that have been written to exploit it. For example, you can look behind you in the Nova 2 shoot-’em-up environment by moving the iPad around you, or “walk around” the tower of wood blocks in Jenga.
Now, the coming months will bring a blizzard of tablets that are meant to compete with the iPad. And they’ll offer some juicy features that the iPad still lacks. On an Android tablet, you can speak to enter text into any box that accepts typing. You also get an outstanding turn-by-turn navigation app — and GPS maps are a different experience on a 10-inch screen. It’s like being guided to your destination by an Imax movie.
Furthermore, new Android tablets will be able to play Flash videos and animations on the Web, something that both Apple and Adobe (maker of Flash) assure us will never come to the iPad (or iPhone). Flash on a tablet or phone can be balky and battery-hungry, but it’s often better than nothing. Thousands of news and entertainment Web sites still rely on Flash, and the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch simply can’t display them.
But you know what? The iPad will still dominate the market, because it dominates in all the most important criteria: thinness, weight, integration, beauty — and apps.
Oh, yes, the apps: there are 65,000 apps already available for the iPad (not including the 290,000 iPhone apps that run at lower resolution on the iPad’s screen). But Google’s programming kit for tablets just came out, so there are very few apps written for larger Android screens.
The kicker, though, may be the price. Apple is at the top of its game these days — and at the top of the industry. The rap, of course, is that you often pay extra for Apple elegance.
But the shocker here, though, is that the iPad 2 actually costs less than its comparably equipped Android rivals, like the Xoom and the Samsung Galaxy Tab. That twist must have something to do with Apple’s huge buying clout — when you order five million of some component at a time, you can usually persuade the vendor to cut you a deal.
But that surprising price detail may turn a lot of heads. It means that for the first time, your heart can succumb to the iPad mystique — without having to ignore the more practical input from your brain.