[Tech] iPad 2 – Successor or Update?

So, after months of relatively fevered hype the successor to Apple’s smash hit iPad has been unveiled. As expected it’s lighter, faster and features a camera, but it’s perhaps most noticeable for the things it hasn’t added.

Let’s take a look at the important headlines one by one.

Faster

As we anticipated, the iPad 2 is based around a dual core processor – the A5. Apple claims CPU functions are about twice as fast as the old A4, but it’s claiming GPU-led speed increases of around a factor of 9 – something that will doubtless be a boon for 3D gaming and video decoding.

Slimmer

The original iPad was no porker, but Apple have mange to shave a full third from it’s waistline, taking the iPad 2 to a practically anorexic 8.8mm. Remarkably that’s even thinner than the iPhone 4, and makes the iPad 2 the slimmest tablet we’re likely to see all year. The device is also around 15 per cent lighter.

Colours

We’re still waiting for a white iPhone 4, but the iPad 2 will – just like the latest Pokemon release – be available in both black and white from day one. Honestly though, that white surround doesn’t do it for me. Tt reminds me of those nasty Philips TVs from the late nineties that were only bought by people that live in council houses. Black is, for me, the new black.

Apple's very keen that we all by lots and lots of its overpriced "smartcovers"

Apple's very keen that we all by lots and lots of its overpriced "smartcovers"

Cameras

No surprise this one, but the iPad 2 gets a pair of cameras. There’s a snapper on the back capable of taking 720p video at 30 fps, and a VGA camera on the front for use with Facetime (and presumably other video chat apps like Skype). The front facing camera makes a lot of sense, but will anyone really use their iPad as a video or stills camera? Maybe if they don’t have a recent smartphone they might, but that’s got to be a pretty small sector of the tablet buying demographic, right?

Covers

Apple’s clearly seen the size of the iPad case market and decided it wants in. It no longer wants iPad owners to hand over upwards of £50 after purchase to third party case makers. Instead it’s pushing its own £40(ish) covers. They clip on to the top and use magnets embedded in the screen frame to snap shut over the iPad 2’s front. The cover then rolls up into what my old maths teacher would have called a triangular prism and can be used to rest the iPad at an angle suited to typing or video viewing. There’s no protection for the sides or back of your iPad, and I’m not convinced of the cover’s ability to either stay attacked when chucked in a bag or to hold the iPad upright on a slippery surface. I’ll stick with my leather, folding, note-book style cover thank you.

Faster 3G

Just like mobile broadband connections the iPad 2’s 3G model features HSUPA, to squeeze more data into the upload stream of your 3G connection. It’s not new technology, but it’s very welcome and if it doesn’t rear its head in the iPhone 5 I shall I eat a very large and particularly flavourless hat.

HDMI Out

Despite not having a true HD display, the iPad 2 will be able to output full 1080p video to an HDTV via a £30 cable. It should work nicely with iTunes content, but will doubtless require a jailbreak to output stuff like Sky Mobile. Still, it’s a useful feature that’s always worth having, even if it does mean uncle Steve gets another thirty hard-earned quid for a simple cable.

Black or white? .... The iPads, I meant the iPads!

Black or white? .... The iPads, I meant the iPads!

What hasn’t changed?

And so we come to the most interesting part of the puzzle. For starters it’s worth noting that the main thing that won’t change is the price. The iPad 2 will hit the market this month at exactly the same price points across the range as its predecessor. In these days of rampant inflation that actually represents a slim real-world saving. It’s also probably the real reason why some rumoured and anticipated features didn’t make it to the final design.

Perhaps most noticeably the screen is totally unchanged. It’s the exact same 9.7 inch 1024 x 768 panel. That will disappoint all those who were clamouring for a large-scale version of the iPhone 4’s retina display or, at the very least, a genuine 1080p screen. It also scuppers notions of a larger screen within a similar size chassis, with a reduced bezel width.

There’s also no extra storage on offer. The same 16, 32 and 64 GB versions will be on offer. Perhaps Apple is banking on the increasing use of video streaming instead of local storage.

More worryingly, it’s being reported that Apple reps at the launch event weren’t commenting on the device’s RAM. The original iPad weighed in with just 256MB, a figure that the iPhone 4 doubled just a few months later. When the iPad eventually got Apple’s interpretation of multi-tasking in iOS 4.2, it seemed like the iPad was slightly underpowered on the memory front. Eyebrows have certainly been raised by Apple’s coyness over the iPad 2’s memory size, and it if really does turn out that it still has just a quarter of a gigabyte it will be interesting to see if causes a performance bottleneck that damages the speed of that lovely A5 processor.

Other omissions include the rumoured SD card and USB interfaces, though given Apple’s desire to make as much money as possible by limiting connections to its own proprietary formats one can’t be too surprised.

So is it worth upgrading?

Judging by the plummeting trade-in prices and eBay values of iPad 1’s plenty of people appear ready to fork out again for the iPad 2. Honestly, if you’re not going to get much use out of the camera I can’t see much to recommend the new tablet beyond it’s faster processor. This really is more of an iPad 1S. It’s certainly not the sizeable leap the iPhone took between 3GS and 4.

If new killer apps are released that push past the first generation iPad’s limits of performance then perhaps an upgrade will become more appealing but I, like many, will wait with one eye on the iPad 3 and the other on the coming army of Android tablets.

What about the competition?

The first iPad effectively had a year on the market to itself. We’d seen tablets and UMPCs come and go many times before, and a good many people were sceptical when Apple announced that it was trying to re-invent the format. As Steve Jobs has rightly pointed out though, the iPad succeeded where others had failed because it wasn’t simply trying to be a downsized laptop. In truth it was an upsized smartphone, a path that Samsung also followed with their underwhelming 7 inch Galaxy Tab in the second half of 2010. It, though, proved that Android 2.2 simply wasn’t ready for use in tablet form and it failed to make much a dent in Cupertino’s market share.

Fast forward to CES 2011 in January and with a special tablet-friendly build of Android in the hands of manufacturers almost every electronics and PC firm on earth is lining up an iPad killer. Most feature the same kind of dual core processor behind the iPad 2 and will doubtless offer similar hardware performance. Up against the first-generation iPad they looked tempting. Now though, things have changed.

The iPad 2 may only be a half step forward from Apple, but it closes the performance gap with its rivals, adds a camera and is lighter and thinner than anything else on the horizon. It’s telling that in the immediate aftermath of the iPad 2’s announcement Samsung pulled its soon-to-be released 10 inch Galaxy Tab, calling some aspects of its design “inadequate”. Expect to see other rivals delayed as they go through last-minute redesigns and spec upgrades to compete with Cupertino.

Android 3.0 is pretty, but appears fiddly, and somewhat too desktop-like next to iOS. Almost every new non-Apple tablet we’ll see in 2011 (except the RIM Playbook) will run on it. It’s vital then how well it performs, and how easy it is to use next to Apple’s operating system. Android’s biggest advantage is its agility. It has now split development tracks with a phone and tablet offshoot to allow each to be optimised. iOS may have been updated plenty of times in its lifetime, but it remains essentially the same user interface that Apple unveiled in 2008, and certain aspects of its design (like the notifications system) are starting to creak with age. If Google can score a win on the software front, it will render the hardware battle more open, and give Apple’s rivals a real hope of grabbing more of the market away from Steve Jobs’ baby.

The other major hurdle that Apple’s competitors have to overcome is price. The iPad may have been seen as a flashy luxury item next to contract-subsidised smartphones and low-end laptops, but as more and more new tablets launch at eye-wateringly high price points it’s beginning to look like good value. That Apple haven’t increased the RRP for the iPad 2 will be unwelcome news for the the Sonys and Motorolas of the world. They’re struggling to ensure their tablets even attain price parity with Apple’s product, let alone steal market share by undercutting Cupertino.

It’s not just down to economies of scale either. Not only does Apple sell more tablets than all its rivals put together, it also profits at every point of the process. So vertically integrated is Apple that it makes money through its retail stores, its App Store, iTunes and accessory sales. Don’t forget Apple take a huge slice of app sales and subscriptions and even demands a lofty percentage from any third party manufacturers who want to be welcomed into Apple stores. It can afford to reduce its margin on the hardware to ensure it builds a userbase who’ll keep feeding into the other parts of its economy. Samsung, Motorola and the like have to make all their money from selling their product at wholesale prices to other retailers, who then add a mark-up.

It may well be that 2011 is the year that sees the tablet market open up to genuine rivals, but it’s unlikely that Apple will lose the lead, and even more unlikely that they’ll give up at any point in the next decade without an almighty scrap – and that will be a hell of a thing to watch.

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