Logo   Banner   TopRight
TopUnder
Transparent
iPad's Identity Crisis and Apple's A4 CPU Showstopper
Transparent
Date: Jan 28, 2010
Section:Mobile
Author: Shawn Oliver
Transparent
Our Take: Does The iPad Deliver On The Hype?
As you've no doubt heard by now, Apple launched a new mobile computing device and it's within a product category that is all-new territory for the traditionally tight-lipped company. It's a bit of an odd choice for a company that revels in innovation, and after today's announcement, we're left with more questions than answers on whether or not it can truly deliver in the way that Apple CEO, Steve Jobs thinks it can. The iPad simply isn't as revolutionary as the iPhone and iPod, and that alone is at least initially limiting the general perception of the product. For better or worse, Apple has worked itself into a corner where people simply expect each and every new product release to change that product category for the better; to revolutionize things in a way that no other company has done so far.

On almost every front, the iPad doesn't do that. It doesn't revolutionize, and it doesn't change the way we personally feel about mobile computing. Apple's approach was to find a device that could be reasonably retrofitted into a lifestyle as a "third device" between the smartphone (preferably the iPhone, if you're Apple) and the notebook (preferably a MacBook or MacBook Pro, if you're Apple). There are a few problems with that approach. First, Jobs himself thinks that netbooks "aren't good at anything." He said as much in his January 27th keynote for the world to hear. Netbooks are arguably that "third device" between someone's phone and someone's main computer, and when you really look critically at the situation, netbooks are actually far more capable than the iPad in its existing form.


Left: NVIDIA Tegra 2-based tablet playing 1080p Video at CES - Right:  Asus Eee PC Netbook

And in this corner, the Netbook and Tablet World Challenger - The iPad:
Let's think about it. Netbooks can be had for as little as $200 if you play your cards right, with most priced at or around $299. Either way, that's $200 less than the base iPad, which only ships with 16GB of storage compared to the 160GB+ hard drives in netbooks. Netbooks can also play back Flash video content, while the iPad cannot. Like it or not, Flash is still a huge part of the web, and it plays a vital role in being able to enjoy the "whole" Internet. Apple's making a huge mistake by promising a "great browsing experience" while at the same time not letting users view Flash-based pages or Flash encoded video content. Furthermore, you can basically install any application your heart desires on a Windows 7-based netbook. Try installing anything on an iPad. You can't. If it's not in the App Store, you can't install it on the iPad, and as great as the App Store is for the iPhone and iPod touch, we can't say we enjoy being limited to these mini apps on what should be a full-blown tablet PC.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Users can't remove the battery of the iPad, so you're forced to recharge when it dies rather than swapping a new battery pack in. There's no physical keyboard and no proper file system, so actually handling e-mail in a "real world" working scenario is impossible. For instance, you can't easily create a PDF from a web page printout, save to your desktop, and send as an attachment to four people in your address book. To us, that is very basic, core functionality that has to be included if you're selling a device as a "computer." Maybe Apple is just selling the iPad as a toy, but if you watched Steve Jobs' keynote today, you'd know he was aiming far higher with this device.


It's a Jungle Out There for The iPad eReader -
Then there's the glossy display. While pretty, this panel is going to be much more limited outdoors. The reflections will be so significant that actually working/reading will be limited to shady areas. What makes the Kindle (and similar e-readers) great for reading is that they are viewable in any lighting conditions, even outdoors where many go to read. If Apple was hoping to make a device that was half e-reader, half computer, it has slipped up again by introducing a compromise that really hinders the iPad's ability to be used completely as a reader. What's interesting is that Apple clearly has the reading public in mind. It announced content deals with at least five publishing firms, and it even introduced an iBook store where users can go to buy books. But how can Apple reasonably expect people to enjoy these books everywhere if the sun will wash out the iPad's glossy panel?

Tell Me About Your Childhood -
The bottom line is this: the iPad has an identity crisis. It's not quite a serious e-reader, and it's not quite a serious tablet PC. It's probably great at handling multimedia, but it's not nearly portable enough to be considered a portable media player. It's great for tabletop use, but it can't multitask, so you're left with a machine that's seriously limited in what can do well. It's also inherently limited by whatever applications are delivered in the App Store; users can't just customize this to their liking by installing whatever software they want. For $499 (and up, if you want more than 16GB of storage and/or AT&T 3G capabilities), the iPad is tough to take seriously without a serious operating system built-in. This is merely an enlarged iPod touch at the end of the day, with the only gleam of hope coming from the CPU within. The 1GHz Apple A4 is technically a brand new introduction into the processor space, and it's one of the most overshadowed parts of today's introduction. We're highly interested in the A4 and what it can potentially do for Apple's mobile computing line-up in general, so stick with us for that analysis in the pages ahead...


Transparent
Nuts And Bolts: The Hardware Analysis
From a nuts and bolts perspective, the iPad isn't quite as amazing as Steve Jobs said it was during this week's presentation, though it is impressive on some levels. Hardware-wise, it's one of the more interesting devices we have seen in recent years. Apple has always proven their ability to innovate on the design front, so we're not at all surprised here. The iPad is far and away the most aesthetically stunning tablet/slate we have ever seen. Of course, most tablets and slates died out soon after the tech burst a few years ago, but still, it's one fine piece of machinery and there definitely has been a resurgence in this product category lately.

The overall form factor won't be foreign to anyone who has laid eyes on an iPod or iPhone. In fact, it actually looks like a blown-up iPod touch. There's just a single "Home" button at the bottom and a larger-than-expected bezel around the glossy display. Apple intentionally designed this product to be immediately familiar to anyone who has owned or even played with an iPhone or iPod touch. Apple has shown its love for simplicity, so the keyboard-less, single Home button approach is--again--not shocking.


Size Matters (yes, it had to be said) -
Let's break down the specifications. From the top, the entire device measures 0.5" thick and weighs 1.5lbs. To put this in perspective, the similarly sized Kindle DX weighs 1.2lbs., so it's not too much heavier than existing e-readers with larger displays. 1.5lbs. still isn't what we would consider "lightweight" for an e-reader though we suspect Apple wanted to make this device feel solid and hefty in the hand.  Frankly, a $499 product that felt like a cheap, plastic toy obviously wouldn't go over well. We also suspect the battery--which lasts for an amazing 10 hours even playing video--added to this. Personally, we like the design. It's simple, clean and looks like it fits in Apple's lineup. The only problem is that it's not truly portable--but let us qualify that statement. A MacBook Air weighs only 3lbs. and is only 0.76" thick at its thickest spot. Sure, it's much, much more expensive, but it's also a far more capable machine. In fact, the MacBook Air is a real computer with a real operating system, unlike the iPhone OS-equipped iPad. The biggest issue here is that the iPad is too large to fit in a cargo pocket (like a smartphone or portable media player), but it's not capable enough to warrant lugging around like a notebook. If we're going to carry around something that requires a separate bag, we want it to have a real desktop and real multitasking capabilities.

The Eyes Have It; iPad Made For The Shade -

The display is a 9.7" LED-backlit panel with Multi-Touch and an industry-standard 1024x768 resolution. There's nothing remarkably wrong with this setup, but a few points annoy us. We should start by saying that Apple's Multi-Touch implementation is nothing short of first-class. We have no doubts that breezing around the OS here with your fingers will be a delightful experience, much like it already is on the iPhone and iPod touch. That said, a 4:3 display in a widescreen aspect world doesn't make much sense. This device was clearly made for multimedia viewing, and as it stands, users will be dealing with huge black bars and tiny strips of movie footage when watching cinema-bound flicks. We understand that a 16:9 tablet wouldn't be exactly functional from a design standpoint, but selling a 4:3 screen on a multimedia device seems a bit counter-intuitive. The screen is also glossy, which certainly hurts its chances as a real Kindle competitor. And we aren't the only ones noticing. Amazon's stock closed up on the day after Apple's announcement, signaling that even Wall Street doesn't think that the iPad has a chance of knocking Amazon from their top spot in the e-book market. Glossy panels are generally quick to wash out in outdoor use, and the reflections can be extremely annoying when trying to focus on small lines of text. Glossy panels are pretty in the store, but in real-world outdoor use, they definitely aren't ideal.

Storage For The Masses? -
Onto capacity. Apple will sell three iPad models (each of which will have a 3G and non-3G flavor). You can get 16GB, 32GB or 64GB of flash storage, and that's it. No SD expansion slots, no internal hard drive slot for you to upgrade. Even the most basic netbooks on the market have 120GB hard drives, and while they don't usually have SSDs, we're guessing by the netbook sales figures that most users just don't care. They'll happily take more room over a boost in speed, and we can't say we blame them. Of course, 64GB is plenty of room when you don't have a full-scale operating system to play with. 64GB of apps and music will be fine for most, but if Apple ever decides to allow OS X on this thing, those capacity points will need simply need to increase.


Highly Connected, Capable, AT&T Limited  -
Wireless connectivity? Check. Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR and 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi are included on all models, so you'll be able to use your Bluetooth keyboard as well as your home router to get this device working overtime. Unfortunately, Apple didn't include Intel's new WiDi technology, which is something that would've definitely pushed it over the edge in terms of innovation. The iPad would serve a much greater purpose with a suitable video-output solution. There's a VGA dongle you can buy separately, but that's too cumbersome to deal with in many situations. If this could automatically beam images to one's display without wires, we could actually see using this as a living room iTunes/movie player. Consider it an opportunity missed.

For around $129 more, Apple will allow you to buy any of the three iPad models with AT&T 3G wireless. The good news is that none of them are tied to a contract; you can buy data on a monthly, as-needed basis. The bad news is that data pricing is steep, and it's is inexplicably still tied to AT&T. Users can get 250MB per month for $14.99 (rather high!), while "unlimited" (which likely means 5GB) will cost $29.99 per month. If the iPad had a full operating system, the $29.99 plan wouldn't sound bad; as it stands, you won't be able to take full advantage given the limits of iPhone OS. Also, AT&T has proven to be a bad partner for Apple. Despite both companies claiming that "most users" are happy with the iPhone/AT&T deal, there are a small but vocal minority that are turning the masses off of AT&T. True or not, AT&T is taking a lot of heat for iPhone failures in large cities.  How does Apple expect AT&T to handle the iPad 3G load when it can't even handle the iPhone load in major cities like New York and San Francisco?



Accesorize It, But The Apple Way Of Course...and Bring Your Checkbook -
Other, less featured but key components include an accelerometer, digital compass and Assisted GPS (aGPS), with the latter only available on the 3G/Wi-Fi models. The accelerometer enables the device to be used in any direction, and early reports suggest that the "flipping" from one orientation to another is extremely swift and clean. This also allows the device to be tilted for gameplay usage. The compass is similar to the one in the iPhone 3GS; while cute, not too many people are going to bust out their iPad to use a compass. That's what Google Maps are for. Speaking of, the Assisted GPS option is great to have, but again, how practical is this? Are people really doing to whip out a nearly-10" device while walking down the street in an attempt to locate a nearby shop? Why not just use the mapping software on your existing smartphone, or better still, a portable GPS unit that's probably already stuck to your car's windsheild? The iPad just feels entirely too big to be used as a mapping device, particularly on crowded sidewalks in major cities.  That said, in the coffee shop or restaurant, if you have it in your bag and your bag is with you, it's perhaps a much larger, easier to read view of the area perhaps.

The 1024 x 768 resolution display supports video output via a Dock Connector to VGA Adapter, as well as 576p/480p with the Apple Component A/V Cable and 576i/480i with the Apple Composite Cable. It will play back H.264 video at up to 720p (30fps), and it supports AAC, Protected AAC, MP3, Audible, Apple Lossless, AIFF and WAV audio files. Thankfully, it can view Office documents that are e-mailed in, and a 3.5mm headphone jack is provided for audio output. There are built-in speakers for times when headphones aren't an option, and there's a Dock Connector for syncing with existing accessories, your PC and a few new accessories. Finally, there's a Microphone (though voice calling over cellular networks and video chatting aren't supported), and the only other external hardware switches include On/Off, Mute and Volume Up/Down.

The Dock Connector also leads to a few other things here. The iPad Keyboard Dock is definitely the highlighted accessory of the week, as it provides a docking solution and an iPad-centric keyboard to those who wish to use this like a laptop at home. Unfortunately, it has little purpose in the real world. For starters, you can already connect your existing Bluetooth keyboard to this. Second, it's $69 for a keyboard that's designed to work with iPhone OS. You can only do so much with a keyboard in iPhone OS, you know. Then there's the Apple iPad Case, a $39 cover that is extremely spartan, though it does double as an iPad kickstand. We have to imagine that far superior third-party cases will be out soon. One of the more baffling choices here is the lack of a real USB connector. Not even a miniUSB connector is included on the device itself; instead, you're forced to order a $29 Camera Connection Kit which includes two dongles that plug into the Dock Connector; one for USB and one for SD cards. A multimedia device that doesn't natively have a USB or SD port? Forgive us for stating the obvious, but only Apple could get away with this.



The only remaining specification? The 1GHz Apple A4 processor, which we'll highlight on its own in the final page.
Transparent
The Apple A4 CPU and Its Future In Mobile Computing

A few years back, Apple engaged in a rather quiet deal that enabled it to acquire P.A. Semi, which was a relatively unknown technology and engineering firm. To date, nothing has really come of the acquisition, but people have been opining on its significance ever since the transaction was completed. It's impossible to say if the P.A. Semi pickup had anything to do with Apple building a processor in-house for the iPad, but there's a decent chance some of the IP it purchased went into the development of this chip.



Apple describes the silicon that's powering this machine as a "1GHz Apple A4 custom-designed, high-performance, low-power system-on-a-chip." That's a lot of words, but essentially it's a super-low power chip designed to handle basic applications for extended lengths of time. You can tell from the one month standby estimate and the claim of 10 hours of video viewing that this chip isn't an energy hog, and frankly, those figures are astounding. Even the most long-lasting netbooks flicker out after 7 or 8 hours of intense usage, if you're lucky. We don't recall a similar device ever hitting the market with battery claims such as this, and there are really only a few things one can do to increase longevity. There are however many devices that could be coming, based on NVIDIA's competitive Tegra 2 platform that NVIDIA claims will offer 16 hours of HD video playback.  However, those devices aren't here yet and we have to hand it to Apple getting to market first with this class of capability in low power consumption.

Hardware-wise for the iPad, we already know that IPS LCD panels drain batteries fairly hard in mobile devices, as does video playback. The iPad's flash storage (versus traditional hard drives) certainly helps the power equation some, as does the lightweight OS instead of a full-on version of Mac OS X. Still, we have to believe that some of the magic lies in the silicon, and we'd be shocked if Apple didn't leverage that power-saving technology in some of its future devices. Or possibly even non-Apple devices, though that could be a reach.

The A4's Future -
Let's just ponder the possibilities for a moment. The iPad runs on iPhone OS. The iPad uses a 1GHz Apple A4. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to conclude that a next-generation iPhone, which would undoubtedly run iPhone OS, could easily run on a scaled-back version of the A4 chip, if space/heat issues are managed properly. Wouldn't Apple rather design its own chips for the next iPhone rather than relying on another supply chain? We can't say for certain, but considering just how much Jobs enjoys keeping things close to the vest, we bet the answer is "yes." Smartphones have already hit the 1GHz point. Qualcomm's Snapdragon chipset is making waves across the industry, and Toshiba's TG01 (which runs Windows Mobile 6.5) is already widely available in some parts of the globe with a 1GHz CPU. Having such power within a phone certainly makes sense, and given that Apple has already pushed its power plant once on its iPhone 3G when it introduced the iPhone 3GS, one would conclude that Apple is planning to bump the next-gen version as well.

Responsive with Cat-Like Reflexes -
Early reports from the event show floor indicate that the iPad has one of the smoothest, most responsive interfaces going. Many were enamored by the device's ability to flick from application to application, and we even heard some say that they couldn't get the iPad to lag regardless of what they tried. That speaks volumes. Even the mighty iPhone 3GS can be sluggish under the right circumstances, and as we've seen in our netbook reviews, even those machines can be ground to a halt with intense 1080p videos and first-person shooters. For a mobile computing device to honestly operate "lag-free" -- well, that historically has been a rarity, though NVIDIA again has enabled this platform for the better. Apple's A4 is obviously to thank for the iPad's snappy ways, but we can only hope that the chip is set free from being used in just a single product.

The Future Looks Bright In Steve's Shades -
Imagine if Apple were to really cut the A4 loose. What would the iPad look like then? We can even believe that Apple is pushing out the iPad with iPhone OS in order to just test the boundaries of the one-app-at-a-time approach, and it could then update the device with iPhone OS 4.0 later this year with multitasking enabled. Picture this: a next-gen iPhone powered by the A4, with multitasking enabled courtesy of iPhone OS 4.0. Obviously if that build of the OS would be ported to the iPad, and just like that, it would become entirely more capable. It's not that far-fetched. Apple is on a religious 2-year update cycle with the iPhone line, and that means a new model should be coming this summer. A new OS is almost guaranteed to launch alongside of it, and the culmination of all of this looks like the perfect time to introduce multitasking to its iPhone (and in turn, the iPad). Palm's webOS has had multitasking from day one, and it's about time Apple woke up and realized that it best improve in order to keep pace with one of its most serious competitors.


Future competitors waiting in the wings...

Aside from that, think about what the A4 could do for the tablet industry in general. The UMPC/MID world has struggled to find a decent CPU that could push high-res video, yet be energy efficient. The A4 could very well be a viable answer moving forward. It sounds far-fetched, but in these challenging, changing market dynamics, one can only guess how the A4 will be productized in future Apple efforts. We highly doubt that Apple spent millions of dollars and years of research producing a chip that's only meant for a single product. That just doesn't add up. The A4 could help restart the lagging MID/UMPC sector, and it could provide a second wind to a mobile computing industry that's growing old and tired due to a lack of real innovation.  Apple obviously has significant competition here though in the form of NVIDIA and Intel.  Not to mention, there would have to be a monumental cultural and mindset shift at Apple for this scenario to occur.



Unfortunately, we still can't properly benchmark and test the limits of the A4 while it's trapped within the iPad. We know already that it blazes through iPhone OS, and in the near term, our best hope is that Apple releases iPhone OS 4.0 with multitasking so that we get a good look at how the A4 manages multiple chores at once. If Apple ever releases the A4 to the masses though, watch out. A powerful, energy-efficient chip has plenty of places to go in today's market place: in-car entertainment centers, nettops, netbooks, point-of-sale machines, smartphones, MIDs, UMPCs, smartbooks, heads-up displays, advanced watches, GPS/PND units, tablets, slates, ultraportables...and the list goes on. We never really viewed Apple as a chipmaker before today, but who knows--maybe this iPad thing is just a cover-up for Apple's real intentions. Maybe the iPad is just a trial device to see how the A4 does in the real world. Here's hoping that we really get the see the full potential of the A4 outside of the iPad, as we think that there's plenty of shake-up that needs to be done in the mobile computing space and . You hear that, Mr. Atom?  We know Tegra-Man has been listening, that's for sure.


Content Property of HotHardware.com