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The New iPad

A great deal of press attention for the new iPad seems to centre around rumours of the next version - apparently a bigger leap forward.

Having watched the iPad 2 keynote, I don’t think this is going to deter customers that much. The apps which were demonstrated were putting emphasis on creative uses for the iPad. Over the past year we have seen a lot of passive apps: those which allow you to consume media such as books and magazines. There have also been many apps exploiting the touch screen for creative purposes such as sketching and drawing, and even word processing and DJ’ing. The possibilities for this interface are absolutely amazing; just give it a little more time and I think lots of people will be able to eschew their personal laptops for these tablets.

It's certainly an interesting time to be in the market for a portable computer. I chose to go for an iMac last year instead of a MacBook or MacBook Pro because my main use cases for a laptop did not require the power they offer. When I used my laptop away from home it was typically for entertainment (watching videos on holiday or on the train), reading and note taking (jotting ideas down and keeping up with lecture slides), and collecting and sorting photographs (particularly when on holiday). I had been using my 15" laptop essentially as a desktop from 2007 to 2010, with an external monitor, keyboard and mouse as well as several external hard disks. The iMac simplifies things to the point where my desk just has the computer, the mouse and the keyboard. Admittedly, I also have an external hard disk plugged in for Time Machine backups, and my Wacom tablet sits there waiting for wrist pain to strike again (or if I'm doing lots of photo editing). The stunning 27" screen allows me to do everything I want, especially with multiple desktop switching ('Spaces'), far better than I could with my old laptop and its tiny screen. I used a 21.3" 16:10 display alongside the laptop, and while this is quite a nice setup, it's not quite a match for 2560 x 1440 (basically four times the resolution of many 13" laptops).

But I digress… Why would I choose an iPad over a new laptop? (The old laptop is still chugging along nicely, but is a little worse for wear and the battery doesn’t hold any charge). For my personal uses, the iPad is really cool. I could take it on holiday in a fraction of the space my laptop takes, without having to take a massive power supply and an external hard disk. When I go abroad I tend to take a camera bag with pro-grade lenses that weigh a lot; adding a 3kg laptop is not nice (and it doesn’t really fit my camera bag that well). The iPad with the camera connection kit is actually capable of doing all my remote photo storage - I am not a professional photographer taking tens of gigabytes a day, all I want is a screen to review the shots of the day and delete the bad ones, while allowing me to back them up (OK, the iPad has limited storage, but I don’t typically take enough photos to quite fill the smallest one up - I could always get more memory cards and only back up the best shots to the iPad).

In terms of consuming media, the iPad just wins. Ten hours of battery life and a month of standby time is such a bonus over a laptop. I see so many people on trains with their laptops plugged in to power sockets; I haven’t used a laptop which can live up to the iPad in this regard. What are these people usually doing on their laptops? Watching videos, doing a bit of reading, playing solitaire, maybe writing something like an email. The iPad can do all this, and it excels at many of these tasks.

I must admit that I have done some programming on my laptop when out and about. It’s useful to be able to take my work environment with me and then get things done while travelling. But that’s work. If I was earning money to do programming or web development then that work ought to beget a laptop. If I was a professional photographer with deadlines, then a full blown laptop would be necessary to reliably back up all my work and get some heavier post processing done before returning home. These hypothetical situations shouldn’t really come into consideration until the need arises, at which point the money for a laptop should be forthcoming.

What would an iPad with a Retina display do that the current one can’t? This is the main ‘missing’ feature of the iPad 2, but I can’t see how it would be a problem for most people, at least if you can put up with most other portable screens. Those I know with the iPhone/iPod Touch 4 always like to go on about how they can’t see pixels, but my sight isn’t good enough for that to matter to me. I do notice jagged font edges on my iPod Touch but it’s not something I want to worry myself about. When Retina comes to the iPad, it will make the device more pleasurable to use for many people, but it ought not to add anything to the capabilities.

An awesome new capability for the iPad would be more I/O connectivity. With the iPad 2 there will already be an HDMI output adapter, which is great for teachers or those who need to give presentations (we already have Keynote for the iPad). The camera connectivity kit is rather clunky; some people spoke of a possible SD card reader, and that would be great in terms of simplifying cables, but my camera doesn’t use SD cards so it wouldn’t help me or many others with professional cameras. Thunderbolt on the other hand would have great potential. I don’t think it would be able to work like the Thunderbolt on the new MacBook Pro; the interface on the host computer provides a PCI-Express bus and monitor connection, which are not really needed for an iPad (it has no PCI Express and now there is an external display option anyway). But if you could have a breakout box from a Thunderbolt port with more audio connections, or a proper card reader, that could really enhance the iPad for creatives in the music and photo industries. I don’t think Thunderbolt would come as an additional port; it might come as a future replacement for the dock connector, but we’ll see.

Now I am just weighing up whether I do really want to spend money on an iPad and if so which capacity would I want? 3G would be great, but it only leads to spending more money. If I had a smartphone with a personal hotspot, then that issue would practically go away. I’ll see if I can make my mind up by 25th March.

Edit: Apple is selling the old iPad at a greatly reduced price. That might swing my decision towards a bigger capacity old model. Then I could save my money for the Retina version.