Apple to the Core

Jul 28, 2011 No Comments by

The Tablet That Cures all Ills by Jonathon Savill

After a year in Kuwait I confess I left my last job with a light heart.  It was so good to pick up a plane ticket home and when I took a last look around my apartment it felt like the scene in Snow White where all the animals clean house amidst peals of joy. But when I had to give back my works iPad suddenly the sky clouded over and it was more like the moment where Bambi loses his mother.  Before I had one I’d never needed an iPad so to reach the point where I couldn’t imagine life without one is ridiculous.

After I had owned the iPad for about a month I found that I was never using my PC at home because Apple’s tablet covered all my entertainment needs. Some sites, such as ebay, actually work better on the iPad and I loved typing onscreen more than using a laptop keyboard. This may be because of a sort of Minority Report feeling but it worked for me. The initial iPad affair lasted a year so I’m an educated purchaser.  But now I have to buy one with my own money.

Choices, choices.  In some arenas the sheer number of choices can be bewildering but in others it can be very simple; black or white; big or small, regular or grande.  There are hundreds of cars but each is either petrol or diesel (or electric and out of juice in the piddling, freezing rain miles from home).  Watches: automatic self-winding or quartz/battery.  Computer: PC or Mac.  Operating system: Windows, Linux or Mac.  Web browser: Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome or Safari.

There were touchscreen PCs before the iPad but they weren’t an iPad.  And then the iPad came and the bandwagon set to rolling.  Now there are dozens of tablet computers out there and there will doubtless soon be hundreds but your first choice – for tablet operating systems (and smartphones) is easy: Google’s Android or Apple.   Well, it seems easy.  It’s one or the other, right?

Samsung Galaxy Tab 7-inch

In the Apple corner all the way from Cupertino, California we have the iPad 2 and in the Android corner from pretty much everywhere else in the cosmos we have the Samsung Galaxy tab, the Motorola Xoom and the Blackberry Playbook (which doesn’t use Android but rather RIM’s own proprietary OS) . Let’s call them the Fab Four. Yes, there are dozens of others but I can’t remember any of them and chances are neither can you. And a leaked memo suggests top brass at RIM, makers of Blackberries, have likened their new Playbook to a Fisher-Price toy.  Maybe Fisher-Price will sue.  HP have launched a new tablet but it has its own Web OS operating system.  At the moment it has ‘only’ 300 apps.  Apart from that and being a tad heavier and thicker it’s virtually a carbon copy of an iPad. And there’s the Nokia/Microsoft marriage that will bear spawn later this year.  Apple has just overtaken Nokia  in terms of smartphone sales. No pressure there, then.

Jonathan Ive and Steve Jobs

It’s a curious face-off: only Apple makes iPads and iPhones and only they use the Apple iOS.  Everyone else who makes a tablet must use their own operating system or Android (which, incidentally, was on the market as a smartphone operating platform well before the iPhone arrived).   It hardly seems like a fair fight.  It’s Apple against the world.  HTC are the principal Apple adversaries in the smartphone handset market but their Flyer tablet didn’t overly impress the blogosphere by comparison with the iPad.  Because Apple have set the standard and virtually created the market, all tablets are judged this way.  In many respects all non-Apple tablets are wannabes, surfing on the coat tails of Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive (Apple’s senior VP of Industrial Design).

Aside from the operating systems, basic difference between the iPad and the other three is size. The iPad has a 9.7-inch screen, the Blackberry has a 7-inch screen, the Xoom has a 10.1 screen and the Samsung comes in two versions:  a 7-inch launched in September 2010 and 10.1-inch that arrived in August 2011.

The biggest snore with the iPad (aside from inadequate internal memory on the cheapest, 16GB version) is that it can’t play Adobe Flash content. Flash enables much of the video content on the web and all those jiggling animated ads that spoil your browsing experience.  And porn.  This is about to change with the introduction of HTML5.  Hyper Text Markup Language is the code that constitutes the unseen, unknown backbone of most websites and much other digitally rendered fluff.  It’s like Esperanto for geeks.  Recently the BBC switched from Flash to HTML for its BBC iPlayer so you can now watch Antiques Roadshow on your iPad, which might be ironic.

Motorola Xoom

The processor chip is the nerve centre of any device – PC, Mac, iPad, whatever – and essentially the Fab Four all have similar processors. The iPad2’s A5 chip runs at the same 1-GHz speed as its predecessor but has two processing cores instead of one so renders graphics nine times faster than the first generation device  The latest Galaxy tab has a 1.0GHz Tegra 2 processor and the Playbook has a 1GHz dual-core ARM Cortex A9-based processor. The bottom line is that they all do what they need to and I have yet to find myself waiting impatiently for any of them to finish.  Mrs Savill knows the feeling.

You can use the Samsung as a phone – albeit a large one. The screen is so clear and the icons so obvious my friend uses it without fishing out his specs. You can’t use the iPad as a phone, although with Face Time you can endure face-to-face chats with other iPad/iPhone users – which might sort-of qualify as phoning. The Blackberry Playbook has built-in wi-fi but can only access 3G by piggybacking off a Blackberry smartphone which is curious and I think off-putting and something the tech press thought was daft.

Blackberry Playbook

The new iPad 3 is rumoured to be emerging in September 2011 or April 2012. Put your money on the April release because Apple seems to like a one-year product cycle.  Apple never quite delivers what the technorati expects but we are fairly certain of some of the features coming on the iPad 3 such as a ‘Retina’ screen. This feature is already on the iPhone 4. Essentially the display is very dense at 326 dots per inch – so it looks like a magazine page and is very easy to read – I can see this without glasses for a much longer than my ageing peepers would normally allow. Which makes me feel less decrepit.  Which is nice.  Here’s a twist though – the screens for the iPad are made by Samsung and there are rumours they may bring out a tablet with this display before Apple does. Imagine!  Those pesky Koreans.

So far then, what we’re looking at as market leaders are two 7-inch screen tablets, one 9.7-inch and two 10.1-inch. They have broadly similar specifications and are roughly the same price.  The basic iPad2 is £399 up to £599 for the top model and virtually all competing tablets worth having are somewhere in between.  They have either Android or Apple operating systems and you may like one or the other better.

Anyone who owns one of these devices or a smartphone that runs Apple’s  OS or Android will know, however, that the current deal breaker, aside from design appeal, is the apps (applications).  Apple’s App Store is a joy.  On payday I’d shuffle through to buy an app I didn’t need but the tiny bit of money I spent felt like a treat.  The average owner has over fifty apps and I completely understand why.  If you’ve been residing in an Outer Mongolian yurt for the past five years (come to think of it, even that’s no excuse) you might not be aware of these wondrous little slivers of software that can be downloaded from the App Store or the Android Market – often for less than £1, or even nothing.  The whole app frenzy is a story in itself and highlighting even a few of them here would be like walking three paces from Kathmandu and suggesting you now had an idea what it might be like to climb Everest.  These are links to the iPad App Store and Android Market if you’re curious.  Be warned, though, there are over 90,000 apps for iPad and over 400,000 apps for iPhone in Apple’s store.  That’s a lot of browsing.

At the last Apple seminar Steve Jobs announced the iCloud. “We are going to move the digital hub, the center of your digital life, into the cloud” he said. The iCloud is a free service that removes the device as the primary storage of information and lets you sync all your devices (iPhone, iPad, Macbook) and access the same information seamlessly.  All your files, photos, videos, games and the rest reside in cyberspace, not on your device.  One of the guesses about the iPad 3 is that it would allow connection of an external hard drive but the iCloud largely eradicates the need for that.

There’s nothing new about Cloud computing and it does cleave to the tech-biz mantra: ‘Access anything; store nothing,’ but personal storage solutions are so powerful and affordable now (you can get a 2 Terabyte plug-in supplementary drive for your PC for around £60) there’s no need for the iCloud if you spend your life chained to a desktop PC/Mac.  If you’re always on the move it’s a different story, although it can’t be long before you can get 2TB of info onto an SD card the size of a postage stamp.  The iCloud might give you pause, though, before taking phone snaps of your man veg or other such smut.  That cloud of digital gas could get quite gamey.

Recently Apple also announced it would be making domestic televisions. The possibilities are endless.  The Apple television will directly access the Internet so you will be able to pause programmes to get emails. And your iPhone/iPad will act as a TV remote control.  If it hasn’t already, your TV will become the visual interface to the Web and all its coming wonders.  Confusingly, a product called  Apple TV already exists but that is a box that plugs into your regular TV so you can stream TV and movies purchased from the iTunes store.  And if Apple is already in the sack with Samsung for their iPad screens it makes sense for them to discover the joy of telly.

Occasionally Apple makes mistakes. They have just brought out a new version of their Final Cut Pro editing software which is not backwards compatible, thus outraging the editing community and sending many across to the Adobe alternative. It has also been suggested that when Apple struck deals with phone carriers they made them so restrictive and expensive that sensible people were forced to buy into Android because Apple were too expensive.  The perceived high value of Apple products has other ramifications: Recently in China someone discovered three fake Apple Stores. Even the people working in them thought they were working for Apple. In June a Chinese teenager sold one of his kidneys to fund the purchase of an iPad 2.

I don’t pine every day but when I pick up my son’s iPad I remember how totally cool it is.  I will definitely buy the iPad 3 when it comes out.  By that time the combination of retina screen, IOS5, iCloud and an Apple TV will put the iPad firmly at the hub of my digital universe. And the other tablets? You’ll be able to pile up the unsold ones so you can climb up and buy the Apple product.




About the author

Jonathon Savill has written for most of the major magazines in the UK and many in the USA. He writes about travel and adventure and has a love of gadgets and watches. After many years working for the BBC he became used to multi media and he is currently working as a television producer in Dubai, specialising in aerial filming from helicopters. He has worked in over sixty countries including two trips to the Geographic North Pole. He also went around the word in eight days for the Daily Telegraph. He loves sailing and he plans one day to sail from Cartagena to Florida via Cuba. He is fascinated by the convergence of new media and social media but is constantly puzzled by how arcane most of the information on them is.