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Monthly Archives: March 2012

Apple’s 3rd generation iPad announcement created quite a stir, but at the same time, I’ve been seeing a lot of hand wringing over hardware specs. Tegra 3 fans are disappointed by the lack of a quad core CPU, while Apple is keen to point out the A5x’s graphical superiority. Over the last few days we’ve seen a lot of debate over whether the A5x or the Tegra 3 is the better processor. Apple’s GPU performance graph was shown without much of the needed background information to know how such numbers were achieved.

Anand’s article analyzing the hardware of the new iPad is a fantastic read and explains how Apple might have gotten these numbers. For all intents and purposes, Apple does have a more superior chip in graphics performance, while the Tegra 3 has the superior chip for CPU and multitasking performance. However, it doesn’t really matter. Both Nvidia’s Tegra and Apple’s A(x) platform are upgraded for the sole purpose of moving forward Android and iOS. What these chips are not doing, is competing with each other.

It’s Not a ‘Puter

Tablets are a lot like game consoles. While game consoles are getting quite powerful lately, the CPU, Graphics power and especially the amount of RAM is incredibly low compared to most desktop and even laptop computers. A gaming laptop will easily have 10x the power of an Xbox 360. The reason for this is optimization. If game designers only have to build their game with one set of hardware in mind, they can push the system to it’s limit and know that every Xbox gamer will have the same experience as the programmers and play testers.

A game designed for a Windows computer, however, has to take in account thousands of possible hardware configurations. There is a little optimization they can do for popular hardware configurations (thus why AMD sponsored games run better on AMD graphics, while nVidia sponsored games run better on nVidia graphics), but generally they have to cater to the lowest common denominator. This is why many game companies will build first on the Xbox 360 (most popular gaming platform), then port to the PS3 and PC. It’s simply easier to optimize for one platform and then tweak the graphics settings and options on the wild cards.

Programmers Hate Hardware Options

Tablets are the same way. iOS programmers know that there are only 3 iPad configurations, 3 relevant iPhone configurations (but 3 more that may still have a small user base), and only a couple relevant iPod configurations. Fortunately, most of those different devices run on the same hardware, making optimization easier. Even easier still is that Apple filters App Store content based on which device you have, meaning you never have to worry about performance problems. Most iOS apps are optimized for the original iPad, some high end games are optimized for the iPad 2, and there will be more apps coming that will be optimized for the new iPad.

Android is a bit more complicated. there are hundreds of configurations of Android devices, with most of those being smartphones. Most tablets will be running Tegra 2 or equivilent processors, but they don’t sell as well as the smartphones. Smartphones can run ARM processors that run anywhere from the terribly low end, like many of the cheap off-brand phones offered by no-contract carriers, to the high end like the Galaxy S II, Droid Razr, and Galaxy Nexus. Since most of the Android market is smartphone-based, most programmers will focus on that and prefer to upscale or offer paid “HD” apps for tablets.

There’s no wonder that apps on iOS tend to have better graphics and seem to run better than the Android equivilents. I’ve seen many Android apps that have a 1 or 2 star rating because it’s optimized for higher end hardware and many users will down-vote an app just because their older phone doesn’t run it well. The fate of an app lies within it’s 1-5 star rating, so there is a huge reason to cater to the lowest common denominator.

Simple Software Requires Simple Hardware

The OS and GUI are another thing to take in account. iOS isn’t a very demanding OS. Considering the hardware within the original iPhone, the reason can be pretty clear. It’s a bit disappointing that Apple hasn’t updated their OS to take advantage of the more powerful hardware and graphics, but it’s understandible if Apple wants to continue to create a unified user experience. As Anand points out in the earlier quoted article, iOS and its apps are not very well threaded and so will not take advantage of two CPU cores, let alone four.

Android, on the other hand, is a lot more demanding. Most of the demand is there based on how the user customizes the interface, but where an iPad can run fast on a single core processor, it’s interesting to see that it takes a quad core Tegra 3 to actually get Honeycomb running well. When a user customizes their homescreens with different app shortcuts, interactive widgets, and memory sucking live wallpapers, the hardware in an Android device can be quickly taxed. On one hand, it’s nice having the customization, but on the other, it’s frustrating when your device lags behind because you actually took advantage of Android’s customization.

Improving the Platform

Essentially, software is key. With iOS’s simple GUI and optimized apps, high end hardware is not needed. With Android’s wealth of hardware options, lack of optimization, and more demanding OS, it does require hardware upgrades. It’s easy to see why ARM manufacturers improve hardware for Android, but what about Apple?

The simple answer is that Apple is trying to improve the platform. The upgraded processor in the iPad 2 and iPhone 4S was completely unnecessary, but it has ushered in a new era of mobile gaming because of games optimized for the impressive graphics hardware. It’s also true that an upgraded screen, 1080p video capture, and 1080p wireless mirroring requires better hardware, but I would argue that it doesn’t need 4x the graphics power. Apple’s processor upgrade is smart. It doesn’t need CPU power, but upgrading graphics power enables better looking games and apps. I believe that the biggest thing that will improve general app graphics quality, though, will be original iPad owners upgrading to the new one. For once, the iPad 2 will be the lowest common denominator.

In Conclusion: No

Hardware really doesn’t matter. Arguments about the Tegra 3 vs. the A5x ring just as hollow as arguments between the PS3 and Xbox 360 hardware. Sure the PS3 is more powerful, but Microsoft has more partnerships than Sony, and thus, games are optimized for the Xbox and then ported. In the same vein, Apple has more partnerships with high end app makers who can easily optimize their apps for the hardware of iOS devices. Even if the Tegra 3 were 567x more powerful than the A5x, it wouldn’t matter because Android app makers would create apps optimized for the 1x devices.

The power under the hood of tablets doesn’t matter much. What matters most is the software, aesthetics, and screen quality.

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Apple’s hyped up March 7 event has come and gone, the date of release is set to March 16th, and bloggers around the world are digesting the news of the New iPad. For once the rumor mill was completely right about a new iPad. But first lets talk about that name for a moment. The New iPad? Really? Yes, that’s it’s name and yes that’s pretty much as conceited as you can get. One can argue that the name is supposed to be simpler than numbers because..well…it’s new after all, right? But what’s simpler than iPad 3? We have the iPad 2 now, and the new one is the iPad 3. They’ve been doing it for the iPhone, why change it now? Is the iPhone 5 going to be called the New iPhone? Is the iPad 4 going to be called the Newer iPad?

It’s obvious that Apple is changing from a company that humbly announces the best hardware in the world while maintaining a 10-15% market share to a company who is acknowledging it’s hipster fanbase and the massive hype that surrounds all it’s products. But anyway, enough of my rambling. Let’s dive into the new stuff.

A 9.7” Display With a Higher Resolution Than My 23” Monitor

We might as well start with the biggest upgrade. The New iPad is coming with a massive high 2048 x 1536 resolution screen. That’s 263 pixels per inch. Steve Jobs said once that the human retina will stop seeing individual pixels once a screen is “around 300 ppi,” and while the iPhone does exceed that and the iPad does not, I doubt anyone will be complaining.

The real question is whether that high resolution is necessary. On a Windows computer or a Mac, higher resolution matters because you can fit more windows on a screen, fit more text on a page, edit photos more precisely, or simply be more productive. Since the iPad is primarily a consumption device that shows everything at full screen, there is no productivity value in a higher resolution screen. The only value is that text will look crisper, pictures will be rendered at higher definition, movies be rendered at higher definition, and games will look better. These are all valuable to a certain degree, especially since we will finally get 1080p movies on an iPad, but I would argue that text, pictures, and games (especially the casual games that appear iOS and Android) won’t look that much better on a 9.7” display no matter what resolution it is.

This is a side by side comparison showed at the event between the 1024×768 iPad 2 and 2048×1536 New iPad. Do you notice the difference? Even with the little magnifying glass, I can’t tell which one is higher definition. Granted, you may notice the difference when you see it up close, but my point stands. It’s a cool little spec increase, and I’m sure it looks great, but if you have an iPad 2, it might be worth checking out in the store before you look to replace it.

A Camera That Doesn’t Suck

I’ve always been a bit suspicious of how necessary a back camera is on a tablet, but at least Apple is putting in a good set of cameras this time. The back camera has been upgraded to a 5MP version of the same amazing camera in the iPhone 4S, so should you tote around your New iPad instead of your digital camera or iPhone for taking pictures, you’ll at least good some good quality. Included with that camera is the ability to record 1080p video as well as image stabilization and noise reduction. The front camera is likely unchanged, which is a bit annoying considering that and Facetime is really the only use legitimate use of a camera on a tablet.

iPhoto

Apple did manage to make that fancy new camera a bit more useful though. They have finally (seriously, why is this not out yet?) released iPhoto for iPad on the App store, which will allow you to play with and edit those pictures you took on the go. This will be nice for amateur and possibly even professional photographers, as it will allow them to do some quick cropping and editing before they upload the photo to Facebook, or Flicker, or their webpage or whatever. I would imagine more serious photographers would use a DSLR to take the pictures, then use a Camera Connector Kit to get their pics to iPhoto for quick editing.

Obviously a mobile version of iPhoto (already a simplistic program) will not even come close to Photoshop, but it does allow an impressive amount of basic editing including bezel gestures, effects, tweaking white balance, exposure and saturation, adding geotags, notes and also captions. Since it’s on iOS iPhoto for iPad will also include multi-touch editing and direct beaming.

Of course this announcement comes about a week after Adobe’s Photoshop Touch app for iPad. But while Photoshop will cost $10 in the App Store, iPhoto will be only $4.99.

Other New Apps

Apple did also announce updates to iMovie, iWork, and Garage Band. All of the updates seem to follow the upgrades made to the iPad as well. iMovie now includes HD editing, creating trailers, and some more advanced editing tools. Garage Band allows 3 iOS devices to connect together to create a Jam Session in real time. iWork fully utilizes the higher resolution display and adds 3D charts to the mix.

A5 Processor…with an X

With all these fancy new graphics intensive features, The New iPad requires a new processor right? Initially the iPad 3 was rumored to have a quad core processor, but it seems this will not be the case. The New iPad will come with a dual core A5x processor. There doesn’t seem to be much of a CPU upgrade for this machine, but the “x” does seem to stand for it’s upgraded graphics chip. The A5x comes with an unannounced “quad core” graphics chip that promises to boost graphics power 4x over the iPad 2. This upgrade is, of course, needed to power that massive display, photo editing, HD movie editing, and the games that will run on that retina display

This upgrade is smart for a number of reasons, but the chief one is that the iPad does not need an upgraded processor. iOS is a very simplistic interface, and the apps are going to be optimized for whatever hardware Apple puts in it anyway. Android needs a bit more power because it runs a more complex interface with widgets, customizable home screens and live wallpapers in addition to running on a bevvy of hardware designs. Even the original iPad still runs perfectly well. Not upgrading the CPU to a quad core not a disappointment, but understandable. The A5x likely will also keep battery life up (10 hours) and price down(starting at $499), which is great for users.

The First iOS Device With LTE

The New iPad’s Wifi/3G models will continue to live on AT&T and Verizon, but will be upgraded to 4G LTE. As of yet, it’s unknown whether this upgrade will entail a price increase on the typically no-contract plans that these two company’s offer, but I’m sure Apple will be very motivated to try to negotiate the same pricing and data rates. The inclusion of 4G is also expected to drive the iPad’s battery life down by about an hour (9 hours).

Ironically enough, the inclusion of that high resolution panel, bigger apps to support the higher resolution, 1080p movies, and HD photos and videos uploading through iCloud will probably demand a higher amount of data use. Combine that with the faster internet possible through LTE, and you could have a lot more data overages should Verizon and AT&T keep their data plans and caps at the same pricing. But hey, that’s the fault of the user, right?

Apple TV, But New

As a companion to the New iPad, a new Apple TV was announced to be released on the same March 16th date as the iPad. The name for the new device is, yes you guessed it, The New Apple TV. Geez, Apple.

Unfortunately the Apple TV Television has still not ripened into a real product. In the same vein as the New iPad, we are seeing a modestly upgraded Apple TV.

The New Apple TV has an A5 Processor which finally allows it to reach 1080p, something that every single competitive offering has had for over a year. Ahem, also included is compatibility with iTunes Match and AirPlay(which the original already had). I understand the need for a more powerful processor to support 1080p and full AirPlay support, but iTunes Match? Really? Apple TV users will not only have to pay for iTunes Match, but also will need to pay $100 to actually play their matched music on their TV? Could we have a firmware update, maybe?

A Ho Hum Upgrade

So anyway, the rumor mill can stop. I’m happy that we actually have products to shut up the rumor mongering bloggers out there, who basically released all the specs of the new iPad before it was announced.

Basically, we have a “new” iPad which has a higher resolution display of dubious usefulness, a back camera that works as long as you actually use it, a sorta upgraded processor, and LTE internet speeds for the $630 + $30/mo. folks. It is a bit fitting that Apple named it The New iPad, since it really isn’t really enough of an upgrade to warrant a iPad 3 name. iPad 2S or iPad 2HD would have been acceptable but I guess Apple decided not to do that.

Ultimately, it seems like Apple is slowing down a bit. They are realizing the limits of their simplistic and overly optimized software. The most important upgrade Apple can make to a new iOS device is to upgrade the software and add new features. The iPad 2 was perfectly fine as it was, but Apple needed to clean up some of the things that made it seem dated: the 1024×768 screen, 3G antennas, and the unusable cameras. But even then, those lower end features still allowed Apple to sell more iPads than Microsoft sold computers. Obviously, these “low end” specs are not that important to the vast majority of users. The user experience is important, and that’s driven by software.

Ultimately, if you’ve got an iPad 2, I don’t think it’s worth it to upgrade. If you have an original iPad or are looking at a tablet and want iOS, then it might be worth it to spend the money for the latest and greatest.

And on that note, the iPad 2 is also dropping $100 in price. Considering the minor perceivable difference between the two, it might be a better option for those envying an iOS experience. You just won’t be able to sit at table with all the cool kids sporting their New iPads.

Ah MWC. Where CES is losing relevance, Barcelona’s event is starting to gain steam. In my sometimes convuluted mind, the biggest announcement this year is ASUS’s first forey in the smartphone market. The ASUS Padfone is finally announced, and in some areas it’s a doozey, but is it all it was hyped up to be?

An Evolution of Innovation

In case you forgot, the Padfone was initially talked about all the way back in May of 2011. It’s a phone that docks in to a tablet. At first the idea seemed a bit gimmicky, but it eventually grew on me. It does seem like tablets came about primarily to offer bigger screens for our highly functional smart phones. The idea of docking a smartphone in a tablet and continuing your work on a bigger screen is appealing, but for the right price. Unforutnately, ASUS did not release that important information, but they did add some more details to sweeten the deal.

This picture will give you an idea of what I meant by the headline of this paragraph. If you take the phone out of the equation, you have the original ASUS Transformer, which is easily one of the best Android devices to date. Instead of a phone that turns into a tablet, the Padfone seems like a Transformer that turns into a smartphone.

I’m absolutely thrilled that ASUS decided to offer not only the tablet attachment but also the Transformer keyboard dock as well. It’s the perfect convergence device. When I hear about tablets, smartphones, and Microsoft coming into the market, I always talk about interconnectivity. These devices all need to be able to sync up easily so that content can be created, edited, and shared across all three form factors. And this is where Android has always suffered. Google has been allieviating this by storing most of their service content in the cloud, Android tablets and smartphones don’t have the same kind of interconnectivity that Apple offers with iPhone, iPad and iCloud. We’ve been dealing with Dropbox and SugarSync, but it’s still not perfect.

While ASUS can’t control the OS, they can control the hardware, and they’ve done something ingenious. If you need a phone, you use it as a phone. If you need a tablet, you dock it in a tablet. If you need a netbook, you dock the tablet into a keyboard dock. Technically you only have one device, but that one device can be 3 different devices. No syncing, interconnectivity issues, or App syncing issues because it’s the same device still.

Combine that with the fact that each piece has it’s own battery and you’ve got a device that can potentially have 14,000 mAh of battery life! Combine that with a Super AMOLED qHD display, an 8MP rear-facing camera with a f/2.0 aperture and a 1.5Ghz processor running on Ice Cream Sandwich, and even the phone itself is a great standalone device.

When ASUS announced it at MWC, they also announced a previously unknown attachment to come with it, a stylus. This stylus will be called the Padfone Headset Stylus, which will work as a capacitive stylus as well as a portable speaker for taking calls while it’s sitting in your dock.

Okay, What’s the Catch

ASUS was originally going to put a Tegra 3 Quad Core under the hood but due to LTE issues, it decided not to. Instead ASUS opted for a dual core processor, albiet a fast Qualcomm Snapdragon 4 dual core processor running at 1.5Ghz. The phone itself will have a Super AMOLED qHD display with Gorilla Glass, albiet at a relatively low 960×540 resolution.

But the biggest problems are the unknown specs. We have no idea what carriers it will arrive on, although we know it will arrive sometime in April. Unfortunately that April launch date will likely only include HSPA+ networks – meaning T-Mobile and AT&T. It will have an LTE version and the spec sheet lists a CDMA antenna meaning that Verizon and Sprint should receive this device, but we don’t know when it will arrive.

The biggest problem, however, will be cost. ASUS really needs to make this device worthwhile for the cost. The phone needs to start at $199 if it won’t have LTE at first. The tablet dock and the keyboard dock will not sell if ASUS charges an arm and a leg for it like Motorola does with their $250 keyboard dock.

Don’t Screw This Up

I’m really excited for this phone, but at the same time, I’m a bit disappointed that we only saw a little bit more spec info during MWC. ASUS should have had their carrier partners and price already laid out if they are going to release this next month. Obviously, though, they are still in negotiations.

But in any case, it’s good to see that the Android market is seeing innovation that will keep it relevant and keep it competitive against iOS.