It seems fitting that on Pi day (March 14th, or 3/14: named for the irrational number π which loosely translates to 3.14159 and goes on forever from there), the geekiest unofficial holiday of the year, we are taking a look at the iPad 2, the least geeky gadget ever made. Released 3 days ago on March 11th, the iPad 2 is…well, the 2nd iteration of the iPad, and that pretty much tells you everything you need to know. I’m sure there will be people who decry this lack of enthusiasm, but and wax eloquently about how the few, subtle changes Apple made render this a new device, the deus ex machina of tablets, infinitely superior to everything that came before (See this review in the NYT for an example). These are probably the people still clutching their Newtons and praising the devices as strokes of genius ahead of their time. But enough of that, let’s see what’s in store for millions of consumers who rush to pick one of these up.
Without doubt, the iPad is a pretty piece of electronic hardware. From the sleep hardened-glass screen, to the sleeker rounded metal back, Apple once again shows us that when it comes to making devices geared to the kind of people that think Crate & Barrel is the height of interior decorating style, no one can compare. The device fits neatly on top of a category of design we can call “modern but not so much so that it could possibly offend anyone”. I will give credit to Apple for incorporating function into the design, as the beveled back panel seems to make the device easier to hold comfortably. The iPad2 is also noticeably thinner and lighter than the last generation iPad, something that is quite important in the tablet market (though not as important as some reviewers seem to think. See NYT above) It also introduces a camera on the back that is stylish enough, but makes up for that by being utterly abysmal, as we will soon discover. Other than that, the outside of the iPad2 has not changed at all. On one hand, there’s something to be said for “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, on the other hand, this approach failed horribly for Motorola after the 6th or 7th year of releasing the same exact Razr.
So what’s changed under that aluminum and glass skin? Well, for starters we now have not one, but two processors. Apple claims that this doubles the speed (duh!) and increases graphics performance by 9 times (less duh. 9?) This actually seems to be the case, as Apple is usually spot on with the performance claims it releases. It’s also immediately noticeable, with a significant improvement in response and crispness in the UI. Unfortunately, these improvements still put it noticeably behind the leading Android tablet, the Motorola Xoom. Still, not bad for what is essentially an over-size iPhone. The internals also get a new 3-way gyroscope, allowing for significantly better motion control than in the previous iteration. In fact, numerous reviewers have compared it to the feeling of holding a Wii-mote, which is ironic because the accelerometers in the original iPhone were more precise than the Wii-mote. Is Apple regressing here? Still, this is a pretty nifty addition and it should be interesting to see if anyone does anything really original with it besides the countless ball-maze applications we’ve grown to
love hate. The battery life has also reportedly shrunk by about half an hour, but that still puts it above Apple’s own estimates. The most glaring change is the lack of change on the Flash front. Jobs has apparently locked down his anti-Flash agenda and refuses to yield, despite the fact that it will likely be another year to two years before HTML5 application is widespread enough that we can all enjoy videos with the <video> tag. Locking out your customers from Youtube (unless you use a proprietary Youtube app) seems like a silly decision to make, and any other company besides Apple would not have survived this particular move.
The device you just spent almost a thousand dollars on (or that you’re about to spend almost a thousand dollars on) is the exact same device you spent a thousand dollars on last year. In essence, you are buying the most expensive patch in the world. And even though it is still the best all-around device in the tablet market, it is quickly being gained on by Android devices, with the Xoom overtaking it in a couple of significant areas. Anytime the majority of the reviews of your product focus on the availability of apps and spend more time talking about a snazzy new cover than about changes to a device, you know things are looking a little shaky. That aside, the device has sold magnificently, and will continue to sell magnificently, as millions of Apple fans toss their virtually identical tablet of yesteryear into the rubbish-heap and leap to extol the virtues of the iPad 2 and the ways in which it has changed their lives. If you have the money to drop, by all means indulge (or better yet donate the money to your favorite charity). Otherwise, wait till the prices on the first iPad plummet and get one of those instead. You won’t be missing much.