New iPad and Apple TV
by Mark W. Hibben
The First Post-HD Device
As I watched the unveiling of the New iPad on Wednesday March 7, I couldn’t help thinking, “This is the iPad I wanted last year.” The high definition iPad has arrived not a moment too soon, but it’s really a “Post HD” device that goes beyond the standard HD conventions such as 1080p or 720p to deliver a visual experience that is unlike any other from a portable device. With a display of 2048 x 1536 pixels, the pixel pitch of 264 pixels/inch is fine enough that the human can’t resolve the pixels, and one ceases to be aware that one is looking at a computer display. Apple has moved the iPad one step closer to the stuff of science fiction, nanotech “books” and “magic panes of glass”. Why is Apple so successful? Because they have a vision of the future that they are continually striving to create. Apple may not always successfully realize their vision, but when they do, the results are spectacular.
Being Post-HD in a Post-PC World
It’s not easy being so far out in front, even for Apple management. Apple CEO Tim Cook began the special event by belaboring the now obvious reality, which even Ballmer gets, that the PC has ceased to be the center of the consumer’s digital life and become “just another device”. Cook can be forgiven, however, for celebrating Apple’s enormous success in the mobile device market.
Mobile devices do indeed play to Apple’s strength in software-hardware integration, and the 315 million iOS devices sold through the end of last year are testimony to that strength. Cumulative sales of iPads alone have reached 55 million, despite over 100 competing tablets being introduced in 2011. As good as Apple’s products are, their success has been in large part fostered by Apple’s retailing acumen: the 362 retail stores help ease customers into the Post-PC world, and the App Store and iTunes provide unmatched on-line shopping experiences. But Cook’s intro dwelt mostly on the recent past, as if even he did not realize the enormity of what Apple was about to unleash. While the retina display was an interesting innovation on the iPhone, it was really too small to greatly impact the subjective experience of watching video, playing games, or any other visually oriented activity. The retina display on the iPad is another matter. Now, for the first time for most consumers, the pixel has simply ceased to be.
The pixel has been, since the earliest days of television, a key reminder that one was watching something artificial, a construct of photons and electrons. The pixel has represented all the technology that got between us and the content, and still does, even though we engage in a willing suspension of disbelief. Now Apple has made the pixel vanish in their quest to make technology invisible. The response from the tech media has of course been muted, as it usually is when an innovation is offered that consumers don’t yet know they need. Apple is much practiced in the art of anticipating consumer needs before they know them, and I’m convinced that Apple has got this right. Once consumers see and use the new iPad, watch videos, read books, play games, read email, all with nary a pixel in sight, they won’t really be satisfied with mere HD anymore.
Unfortunately, in terms of content, it’s still an HD world, and the transition to post-HD content may pose some challenges for Apple in the future. Apple is only now offering 1080p content through iTunes, having waited a couple of years for Internet infrastructure to catch up with the bandwidth required to handle 1080p downloads. At 1920 x 1080 pixels, this is more or less a good match to the iPad’s new display, but I don’t expect the content industry to rest on its 1080p laurels. Even higher definition standards, such as 2560 x 1440 pixels have long been planned for Blu Ray disks, which have the capacity for such higher resolutions. Having unleashed the post-HD future onto the content industry and consumers, it’s not clear that Apple’s content delivery approach can keep up with the future demand for post-HD content, but for the time being, the upgrade of iTunes video content to 1080p will be most welcome and is a good match to the current generation of HD TVs.
Other iPad Upgrades
Not content to provide a revolutionary display technology, Apple has achieved a balanced set of upgraded features for the new iPad. To support the display, Apple has produced the Apple A5X system-on-chip (SOC) with four graphics processing cores. Apple claims that this provides up to 4 times the graphics performance of the nVidia Tegra 3. The backside camera of the iPad has been upgraded to the equivalent of the iPhone 4S with a 5 Mpixel backside illuminated focal plane and 5 element auto-focus lens assembly. Like the iP4S, the new iPad will now record full 1080p video at 30 frames/sec as the A5X provides real-time image stabilization.
Voice dictation will now be a part of iPad, but not SIRI. I expect SIRI eventually to become available for iPad once Apple has enough server capacity to accommodate demand, since SIRI is a server-hosted app. Also, good news on the wireless front: iPad will be available in 4G versions, but separate for Verizon and AT&T. I consider the price for the 4G versions to be worth it just to get Apple’s excellent GPS system. Battery life is claimed to be identical to iPad 2 at 10 hours for non-wireless activity and 9 hours for 4G activity. All this goodness does come at the price of a slight weight and bulk gain: thickness has grown 0.6 mm to 9.4 mm and weight has grown 49 grams to 662 grams for the 4G version. This actually is a shame, as the iPads were never particularly light or comfortable to hold for long periods. It’s surprising how heavy a pound and a half feels in your hands after five or ten minutes. The main weight culprit is the huge 42.5 watt-hour lithium polymer battery. Since this is the best (proven) battery technology available for mobile devices, there wasn’t much Apple could do about the weight, given the self-imposed battery life requirement.
Apps and Gaming on the New iPad
Apple also took the opportunity to show off the graphics of the New iPad with graphics oriented apps and games including Autodesk's Sketchbook Ink, and a couple of games: Sky Gamblers: Air Supremacy and Infinity Blade: Dungeons. Ink looks simply amazing, and we're anxious to try out the new games. It was claimed that the games were "console quality". Which console, we wonder? But hyperbole aside, having games of this caliber on any mobile device is an achievement, and the games can only get better as iPad improves.
Apple TV, not Apple Television
Two years ago at the Goldman Sachs Technology Conference, Tim Cook made it clear that Apple has no interest in building televisions per se, i.e., devices that can receive and display terrestrial commercial television broadcasts. For good reason. Apple would find itself head-to-head, toe-to-toe, with manufacturers such as Sony and Samsung who are already struggling with intense competition and razor thin or non-existent margins. Despite this, rumors of an Apple Television persist and seem to intensify in the run up to every Apple Special Event, only to disappoint the tech pundits when it fails to materialize. Meanwhile, the pundits don’t seem to grasp what Apple TV is about. This is perhaps understandable, since Apple deliberately confused matters when it created the second generation Apple TV. The first generation Apple TV was pretty straightforward. It was an iPod Touch in a box that used a TV as a display, and which necessarily substituted a remote for the full touch screen interface of the normal iOS device. But it could store and manage content bought on iTunes, and as such, was much like any other iOS device. The first gen Apple TV was the ugly duckling of the iOS family, graced with neither the elegant touch interface of iOS devices nor their mobility. What was Apple to do? In July 2010, I wrote a Tech Chat article in which I advocated that Apple scrap Apple TV in favor of a video version of Airport Express that would allow iOS and Mac devices to wirelessly stream video to an HD TV. This device would have a 1080p HDMI output as well as optical Toslink output for digital audio, and would provide mirroring capability for iOS as well as Mac devices. The idea was to eliminate the overlapping functionality between Apple TV and other iOS devices, while giving those devices a way to wirelessly display their content on an HD screen. The second generation Apple TV, introduced in the Fall of 2010, essentially moved in this direction, but in half measures. The new Apple TV eliminated on-board content storage, in effect becoming the infrastructure device I had advocated, but with only 720p output for the HDMI video. iOS and Mac devices could stream content, but there was no video mirroring, which would see first implementation in the iPad 2. The second gen Apple TV provided for Internet streaming of rented iTunes content, thus preserving some of the feel of a content oriented iOS device.
The third gen Apple TV introduced on March 7 moves even further in the infrastructure direction. Output is finally at 1080p, so that streamed iTunes content, whether from the Internet or from other Apple devices, can finally be viewed in the best available HD standard, although frame rate is limited to 30 Hz. This isn’t a serious limitation however, as most movies are filmed or recorded at 24 frames/sec and many Blu Ray disks will default to this rate if the video display supports it. iOS devices can mirror only at 720p (1280 x 720 pixels) however, and the new iPad and iPhone 4S can support dual screen mode allowing for controls to be displayed on the handheld device while the HD screen shows the action. Can’t wait to try this out. With Mountain Lion (arriving this Summer) Mac devices will finally get to mirror through Apple TV as well, though once again, only at 720p. It’s not absolutely clear why wireless mirroring is limited to 720p, but it’s probably needed to support a higher frame rate of 60 Hz for interactive content such as games. Powering the new Apple TV is the now venerable A5 chip (not the A5X). Should Apple really have kept the name Apple TV for this device? It might have been better to make a clean break. Apple TV is positioned to become the new hub of Apple fans’ digital lives, providing a convenient, cable-free connection hub for all Mac and iOS devices, as well as iCloud, to what is still, for most people, the center of their home entertainment systems, the HD television.