Seeing Clearly Now, The Rain Is Gone: The New iPad’s New Visuals

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When Apple dropped the New-iPad bomb on us yesterday, it focused on several principal improvements: the display, the camera, high-definition content, and connectivity options. Three-quarters of their announcement focused on visual upgrades in the new iPad experience. This makes sense: all consumption and interaction with tablets is done through the display, so delivering the best possible visual experience to users is kind of critical. Let’s take a look at a few of the refinements Apple has brought to its latest tablet: the new display, the new camera, 1080p content, and iPhoto for iPad.

Searing My Retinas

Apple says “Everything you do with iPad, you do through its large, beautiful display. And when the display is better, the entire iPad experience is better.” Couldn’t have put it more plainly myself- which is why I write editorials and not ad copy, I suppose. In this case, “better” means four times the number of pixels offered by the previous-generation iPad, bringing the count to 3.1 million pixels. This provides a display density of 264 pixels per inch. That’s lower than the iPhone 4/4S’ 326ppi, but it doubles the previous iPad’s meager 132ppi count. While anything below 300dpi isn’t conventionally considered print-quality, Apple preserves their “Retina” definition by noting that the iPad is generally held further from the eye than the iPhone. I’m sure the validity of that proclamation will be debated vigorously in the comments, but for brevity’s sake, we’ll cede this point to Apple for the time being.

eyeball rsz

Perhaps this funny image of a man with many … retinas … will delay the inevitable flame war.

Photo via BWFloral

The end result is a panel that, for the moment, tops everything else in its class. I say “for the moment” because competitors aren’t standing still. The Lenovo ThinkPad K2, slated for a global release in the second half of this year, comes close with a 224ppi resolution, as will the Huawei MediaPad 10 FHD. Technically, the MediaPad’s ppi count sits at 226, but these specs are bound to vary as we move past the hand-built trade-show prototype stage. The point is that the ppi race is by no means a static game; future developments will probably depend on competitors’ ability to deliver outstanding display panels even as Apple makes moves to buy up as much supply as possible.

One thing most spec-sticklers glaze over, though, in their quest for concrete numbers with which to beat rival nerds over the head, is color performance. Apple is claiming an increase of 44 percent in saturation- nearly half-again that of the previous iPad. This, of course, is a subjective improvement; fueled by the oversaturated nature of most early AMOLED panels, tech pundits have argued for years about whether higher color saturation is a good or bad thing. Speaking strictly for myself, as someone who almost always slightly ups the contrast and saturation when touching up photos, the saturation improvement will be even more welcome than the bump in resolution. Your mileage may vary, but it’s an important improvement to note.

Is That A Camera On Your Tablet, Or Are You Just A Weirdo?

The usefulness of cameras on tablets is already a tired debate, but it’s one I look forward to delving into in a future piece. For now, let’s just agree that it’s a feature at least a handful of people find valuable.

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A handful of very, very secure people.

For the primary camera on the new iPad, Apple has brought back the “iSight” moniker they formerly used for their external and integrated computer cameras, and which they’re now retconning onto the iPhone 4 and 4S units. It’s more than just a re-brand, though; the camera the new iPad’s sporting looks to be the best ever built into a tablet. Sure, competitors like ASUS and Huawei have it beat on the spec sheet, with 8MP sensors in place of the new iPad’s 5. As usual, though, specs aren’t the whole story: as we briefly discussed in an article this morning, the iPad’s camera uses the same ƒ/2.4 aperture, five-element lens found in the iPhone 4S, with an IR filter that prevents infra-red light from giving your photos a color cast. The sensor is the same backside-illuminated one found in the newest iPhone, as well, capturing more light and thus delivering better results. In and of itself, the camera isn’t news – but building it into a tablet is.

Less notable, in my opinion, but important because of easy buzzword association, is the new camera’s ability to capture video in 1080p. This means you’ll be annoying the same number of people behind you at the concert with your 9.7-inch viewfinder, but now they’ll be able to enjoy their annoyance in high-definition. More importantly from Apple’s perspective, it keeps the camera spec in line with the new high-res display. Regardless of how little use it may actually find in the real world, the ability to record video in 1080p is virtually a prerequisite on the world’s highest-resolution tablet. It would have been an embarrassment not to include it, which is why it’s there.

Speaking of 1080p …

… it’s not confined to the camera. AirPlay streaming (sending video to an Apple TV) can now be accomplished at 1080p resolution. AirPlay mirroring seems to remain confined to 720p, though.

The big story with 1080p, of course, is that the iTunes store now offers some of its content at that higher resolution, and the new iPad is Apple’s only mobile device capable of displaying it (at the moment). As more content is made available at the higher resolution, this will become more relevant going forward. As a guy who’s still rocking an original-recipe iPad from 2010, I know I’ve never found myself watching a movie on it and saying “this sucks. Why isn’t this in HD?” but I know there are legions of people to whom resolution matters a great deal. My apathy also might have something to do with the fact that 90% of my viewing material is standard-definition content like Mystery Science Theater 3000 and seaQuest, so I’m hardly the proper barometer for this kind of analysis. Anyway, 1080p: it’s there. It’s important.

mst3k ipad trim

Repeat to yourself: “it’s just S-D, I should really just reeee-lax.”

iPhoto for iPad

“There’s so much power built into iPhoto for iOS, you need to touch it to believe it.” That’s what Apple says, and I suppose that’s what I have to believe until I get my first hands-on. It’s of course, not available for my dinosaur first-edition iPad, an annoyance I touched upon last week. While I wait, then, I’ll have to settle for some basic observations.

I have six third-party photo-editing apps on my iPad right now. Six. That was the minimum amount of apps I needed to be able to quickly and easily make photo modifications on the fly. And my needs aren’t all that specific; it’s just that each app has its strengths and weaknesses, and six turned out to be the magic number I had to hit before I was satisfied.

iPhoto for iPad might not eliminate the need for ALL of those apps, but it’s definitely going to send at least four of them to the Trash. Apple says, “… Adjust exposure, contrast, saturation, and more. You don’t even need to know what those things are. Just tap and drag until everything looks picture perfect.” Sure, it’s marketing copy, but it’s bound to be accurate for users who value simplicity. “You don’t even need to know what I’m talking about to know how to do it” is bliss to the ears of Luddites everywhere. Know what’s not? “Go download a load of third-party apps that may or may not do what you need, all of which work differently.”

As usual, Apple hasn’t broken any ground in delivering new features, but has directed its efforts to making basic actions -in this case, cropping, enhancing, and applying filters- more intuitive. For a device that was visual-centric to begin with, and which has only become more so with the increased focus on photography and video capabilities in this latest iteration, simplifying and enhancing the post-production process adds real value. We’ll learn more about how well Apple delivers on these promises of simplicity as we spend more time with the new iPad and the new iPhoto, but including it as an option can only help matters.

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And the only downside is yet more UI kitsch.

Visually, then, yes: this is the best iPad yet. It will remain one of the best portable visual experiences, if not the best one, you’ll be able to find in tablets this year. Competing devices will continue to bring the heat in other areas like durability, adaptability, and audio performance … and probably other metrics we haven’t even thought of yet. But as the eyeballs have it, the iPad doesn’t yet have a challenger in 2012. And if you ask me, it’ll be a while before it does.

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About The Author
Michael Fisher
Michael Fisher has followed the world of mobile technology for over ten years as hobbyist, retailer, and reviewer. A lengthy stint as a Sprint Nextel employee and a long-time devotion to webOS have cemented his love for the underdog platforms of the world. In addition to serving as Pocketnow's Reviews Editor, Michael is a stage, screen, and voice actor, as well as co-founder of a profitable YouTube-based business. He lives in Boston, MA.Read more about Michael Fisher!