March 3, 2011 at 3:48 PM ET
When Steve Jobs revealed Apple's iPad 2, it was inevitable that the detail-focused tech media would quickly point out what it was missing. While it is indeed bereft of some nice things — 4G networking, a higher-rez screen and improved notifications, among them — there are reasonable explanations for why they're out.
I should point out, before you get too worked up, that I don't necessarily agree with all of Apple's decisions here; I am just providing the most reasonable explanations for them.
Super-fast 4G wireless connectivity
This was a big one, because Apple's two U.S. phone carriers are both rolling out new high-speed wireless networks this year, and already market other products labeled "4G." What's more, the Motorola Xoom sells now with a promise of a free upgrade to 4G, albeit a hardware update that takes up to a week — in the shop — to process.
But the iPad was confirmed to support only the current 3G level of wireless connectivity. Why?
The two biggest reasons are timing and battery life. Clearly, if the 4G hardware was ready, the Xoom would ship with it. In the tablet war, months, even weeks, matter, especially for Apple, whose momentum is a major stopgap against Android. And as for battery life, the Xoom's 10 hours are only for 3G — we don't know what the battery life is on 4G. If it's diminished even slightly, then people might want their money — or their old 3G chip — back.
A lot of rumor milling centered around the iPad's screen, which — gorgeous as it is — is certainly lacking in the resolution department. The iPhone 4 (or really any $200-and-up smart phone) have tighter pixels, which very well could mean less eye strain and a more pleasant e-book experience. E-books are central to the iPad pitch, so rumors about a higher-resolution screen are something to take seriously.
But the screen on the iPad 2 is essentially the same screen as the original iPad. Why? Battery life probably plays into this one, too, since it takes more juice to drive more pixels. The iPad 2 was built to be faster with the same battery life; add an increase in screen resolution and either speed or battery life suffers. (Even "magical" products can't defy physics.)
The other reason, discussed when the rumors were debunked, is that an incremental increase in resolution would play havoc with app development. The people who have written the 65,000 iPad apps now in the App Store would have to re-scale them, and Apple appears to believe in keeping that kind of re-scaling to a minimum, by exactly doubling resolution. But the screen that's exactly double the current iPhone 4 screen doesn't exist, at least as something that can be affordably produced by the millions. (For more on this, see discussions by blogger John Gruber at Daring Fireball and semiconductor-industry veteran Avery Pennarun.)
For me, the bigger heartbreak was that the iPad 2 didn't have an outdoor-friendly, anti-glare screen. The reason for that is probably vanity: Anti-glare screens come with a perceived loss of sharpness. I have an anti-glare MacBook Pro, and it looks great to me. But in the wider world of consumer gear, crisp and shiny still wins.
Higher-resolution digital cameras
The rear-facing camera on the Motorola Xoom is 5 megapixels, the one on the iPad 2 is around 1 megapixel. Apple calls it 720p, and stresses the video-recording capabilities over still shooting. The front-facing camera is, of course, even lower-resolution — just VGA quality. In a spec-by-spec comparison, these are not very competitive stats.
There are a few ways to explain this one. Presumably a piece of it is cost: The lower rez cameras surely cost less, though in this age where tens of millions of phones ship with 5-megapixel cameras, cost is probably not a huge issue. Another explanation could be thickness: The lower-rez cameras are likely to be smaller, easier to squeeze into the super slender frame.
The most agreeable explanation is use: Tablets aren't camera replacements, the way phones are. You are not going to go around snapping glamor shots of your kid using your tablet, no matter how much you love it (the tablet or the kid). But you will use an iPad to videoconference with the grandparents, and you'll want to be able to switch between front and rear cameras as you chase your kid around, trying to help your parents catch a glimpse of their fast-moving descendants.
SD card slot
Apple is super funny about SD card slots. It took them ages to add SD to MacBooks, four or five years after the PC industry had considered such slots a standard feature. Also, an SD card slot may imply expandable memory, so that people will spend less on the iPad's memory up front. It would be a mistake: The SD card slot would be a transporter of photos and possibly other files, but given the way the iPad's operating system currently works, the SD wouldn't be able to be re-formatted to be pure expansion. Better — for Apple, at least — to keep the SD card reader a separate, expensive accessory that doesn't imply as much.
New user interface
The greatest unrealized hope of the iPad 2 launch was the arrival of a new user interface. If there's one thing that the Android Honeycomb tablet OS has on the iPad, it's a more sophisticated-yet-elegant home screen. There are unobtrusive pop-ups and an easy-access notification panel, and there are system and third-party widgets that let you design a home page to deliver your most pressing information to you without having to open a bunch of apps. Wake up a Honeycomb tablet, and you can, in a single glance, check Facebook, Twitter, Gmail — and the weather.
Apple probably doesn't have a full-on answer to this interface ready for even beta testing, but part of this is probably due, yet again, to battery life. The more activity on the home page, the more action for the processor and communications chip to worry about. You install 20 or more widgets, like you could on Android, and pretty soon your tablet's working 24/7 whether you need it to or not.
Instead, Apple popped the newest version of iOS, 4.3, with incremental improvements but nothing too thrilling.
Even with 4.3, Apple could have advanced things at least a little. As our friend at Laptop Mag, Mark Spoonauer, points out: "One feature that the developer version of iOS 4.3 supports that didn’t make it into the iPad 2 (at least for launch) is the ability to quickly switch between apps with a swipe," he wrote in an article. "The developer build also supports swiping up to reveal the multitasking bar and pinch to get to the home screen."
Gizmodo and others have noted that this cool gesture system for app switching was never intended for public release with 4.3, but we can just as well be disappointed. After all, a major hardware release deserves a few surprise software enhancements, right? Most of Apple's iPad 2 feature decisions are easily explained, but this one, alas, is not.
More stories by Wilson about the iPad 2 and its Android-equipped competition: