The Internet Isn
One of my first camera-phones was also one of the first devices on Sprint to offer true SMS, as Sprint was a latecomer to the standard. In fact, when I bought the phone -a Sanyo SCP-5500, if you’re wondering- SMS hadn’t yet been launched in my market. I had a device capable of something awesome and convenient which the network didn’t yet support.
The same thing happened when I bought my first “4G” device, the original HTC Evo; while WiMAX was indeed built-in, it took a while for Sprint to bring coverage to my neighborhood. Once again, my fully-capable device was hobbled by a network that wasn’t ready.
Something similar seems to be happening with the new iPad. Except instead of 4G or SMS, the new unsupported feature is the Retina display. And instead of a wireless network, the new problem-child is the whole internet.
The internet is experiencing technical difficulties. Please stand by.
I’ve talked about the new iPad’s Retina display before; it’s a stunning achievement and offers a beautiful canvas for content that’s been written for it. The problem is that not much has been optimized for it yet, so things like magazines tend to look, well, awful. This National Geographic feature on the Titanic looks okay in wide view:
Of course, these are growing pains. Affected publishers and web designers are scrambling to catch up with the new benchmark Apple established when it threw more pixels into a mobile device than ever before. Innovation is a good thing, and we’ll soon enjoy a bevy of new, high-resolution magazines and cookbooks and games and what-have-you.
But then there’s the capacity issue.
In times past, you could be forgiven for trying to save some dough by buying a 16GB iPad. “I don’t have a lot of music,” you’d say, or more recently, “I’m just going to stream my music and movies over the air.” Makes sense; with all the buzz surrounding “the cloud” these days, the concept of a massive amount of on-board storage is almost starting to look archaic. But then, amid a nearly audible sigh of relief from the GeeBee-makers in the memory industry, the new iPad launched.
“I’d like to assure everyone that they still have a need for silicon. Lots of it.”
In case it hasn’t been said enough: that 2048 x 1536 resolution is huge. With four times the pixel count of previous iPads, magazines and applications written to take advantage of that gorgeous new Retina display look incredible- but at the cost of a great deal of memory. Vogue magazine is the media’s current favorite example of this Jekyll-and-Hyde phenomenon; optimized for iPad 3 since launch day, it’s sharper than it’s ever been at least, that’s what readers of Vogue tell me. But its premiere issue consumes a staggering 408MB of storage. One issue. That’s almost half a gig.
Of course, magazines aren’t going to be taking up permanent residence on your iPad; that’s why they’re called periodicals. (Right? People still use that term, yeah? Anyone?) You can delete each issue as you finish it. No problem. But what about other software, like games and productivity apps? The Retina-optimized version of Infinity Blade II, a game which seems to involve castles and textured metal armor and throwing a lot of swords around, weighs in at 791MB. The new iMovie clocks in at 404MB. Granted, these are the harder-hitting examples -many popular apps still float somewhere below the 100MB threshold- but if the history of computing has taught us anything, it’s that our appetite for storage space is insatiable. Apps will continue to grow as developers find new ways of leveraging that display, and that’s why I don’t recommend the 16GB iPad to anyone doing more than browsing and light app use.
Even putting aside storage concerns and issues with specific apps, the internet itself is ugly through the new super-clear window of the iPad. Well, ugly is overstating the case, but just load a popular site (like YouTube’s homepage) and give it the ole’ pinch-to-zoom treatment. Most of the web, generally optimized for anywhere between 72-180ppi, doesn’t look great on a 264ppi display. It’s analogous to watching standard-definition programming on an HDTV; I’m not a resolution snob by any means, but that right there is a crappy viewing experience.
This might look fine on your display, but on the new iPad – yuck.
Of course this is all very expected and natural, and yes, yes: it’s old news to anyone who subscribes to “Pixel Density Monthly.” But more people don’t. Most people buy the new iPad thinking they’re going to get the best-ever viewing experience on a tablet. That’s what they get, yes, but not across the entire experience. Who knew that buying a third-generation iPad consigned one to early-adopter status? Not me … and I’m normally pretty savvy about this stuff.
Then there’s all the hardware the new iPad carries around. Its new battery and new GPU are there almost exclusively to power the new display. As a result, charging times are longer, and the heat output is a little higher. These aren’t earth-shattering design defects by any means (I happen to consider the entire “hot iPad” situation to be a lot of hot air), but along with the new iPad’s increased thickness and weight, they’re certainly not steps forward. They’re compromises made by Apple to provide the best-ever display on a mobile device.
Those compromises are already well worth it thanks to optimized apps, but maintaining and escalating that worth will take a sustained effort by those who create future applications and web content. As we press forward to the next-generation “HD web,” the iPad experience will only get better, but the wait is the hard part. In the meantime, we’re “stuck with” a longboard that’s too slick for the murky waters it’s surfing. Put another way: it’s like waiting for the fog to clear while on a drive through the country: our windshield is polished and we’ve put on our new glasses, but the view isn’t going to get any better until the sun comes out.