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Review: iPad 2 is not revolutionary, but it is great

The iPad 2 is picture perfecti- or nearly so.

The iPad 2 is a picture of perfection - or nearly so.

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Updated: April 22, 2011 10:08PM



The iPad 2 is a solid, highly-progressive update and it’s only going to disappoint one kind of consumer: someone who was hoping that Apple would somehow completely redefine the greatest new tech product of 2010 in its second incarnation.

Naw. All of the 2011 iPad’s improvements and new features are answers to the question “What would the first iPad have been like if its engineers had been given another year to work on it?” They’d certainly have tried to make it faster and sleeker, and they’d have figured out how to stick a camera or two in there. Done, done, and done.

(Their in-house case also wouldn’t have been a chintzy-looking plastic sleeve, either. Done.)

The iPad 2 is the same iPad. It’s just better in every conceivable way.

After a week with the iPad 2, I’ve come to realize that Apple’s true revolutionary change has been conceptual. The first iPad wasn’t just a new product ... it was a whole new category of computer. I think in 2010, Apple instinctively understood that with something this different on their hands, they couldn’t go for broke. They could only lay out their cards and imply the iPad’s many strengths and then they’d have to stand back and watch what happened. After all of their efforts, they could only hope that consumers and developers figured out what the iPad was on their own. Only then could Apple make their next move, based on those reactions.

It all could have gone very badly. If Apple had sold the iPad explicitly as an ebook reader, the first complaint would have been “Why does this cost twice as much as a Kindle?” If they had gone the other way and suggested that the iPad was a substitute for your notebook, then any sensible consumer would have pointed out that while the iPad 1 was far more affordable than the cheapest MacBook, $500-$875 could buy any of a number of powerful, name-brand Windows notebooks.

Selling 15,000,000 iPads in nine months must have filled Apple with a certain degree of confidence that the world had truly gotten the point.

The public got it: the iPad was no mere accessory to a desktop and while it certainly earned best-in-class honors as a reader, media player, and document-viewer, there was no need to limit one’s perceptions of the device. The iPad was, and is, truly an entire new class of computer. Many of you were around for the transition from text to graphical user interfaces. Some of you were even around when the world shifted from mainframes to personal computers. Well, congratulations: you’ve lived to see your third revolution in computing.

The original iPad was the lap that the race cars take around the track just to heat up the tires. The iPad 2 is where Apple starts driving aggressively. Last year, Apple implied that the iPad might be able to replace your notebook. This year, Apple seems to be saying that the iPad 2 could replace ... notebooks.

Well, maybe they’re not behaving quite that aggressively. Apple does make a lot of money off of those MacBooks, after all. But the power of the iPad 2 and Apple’s concurrent release of two new built-in-house iPad apps for desktop-grade music composition and movie editing — creative tasks that no previous mobile device has been capable of doing, even poorly — makes it quite clear to me that Apple wants you to ask yourself a rather profound question:

Did you really need a notebook in the first place? Or did you buy it just because at way back in the Pre-iPad Era, a notebook was the only mobile device available that could handle such a wide variety of tasks?

(If you happen to have read this next to an oak-paneled room where you can sink into a leather club chair with a brandy and a cigar and spend a few hours in thoughtful contemplation, I invite you to walk in there to do so right now. It’s that kind of question. I’ll wait here.)

One thing that’s immediately clear: such a question would never even occur to me if the subject were any of the other iPad-like tablets due to be released in 2011. If Apple’s message to consumers is “Consider an iPad as your next computer,” their message to the competition is “We think it’s so adorable that you believe you’ve got anything that can possibly compete with this.”

“Thinner. Lighter. Faster. FaceTime. Smart Covers. 10-hour battery.” That’s the tagline you’ll find on Apple’s site. Let’s run through ‘em one by one.

Thinner, Lighter

Yes. It is indeed much, much thinner than the original iPad – by a third. But no number and no side-by-side photo can communicate this fact as strongly as the simple act of picking the iPad 2 up. If it were any thinner, you would instinctively roll it up and stick it in your back pocket, like a comic book.

(Aside: it’s so significantly slimmer that I can, at last, fit an iPad into the back pocket of my 5.11 Tactical Pants, the Official Trousers of Major League Tech Punditry. This alone makes the iPad 2 worth my upgrade.)

It’s also a shade lighter. Both of these elements underscore one of the iPad 1’s subtle but important design elements: the device is supposed to be nothing more than a display frame for your apps. When you make the device thinner and lighter, its physical presence in your hands becomes even less noticeable and thus, the iPad’s whole basic concept becomes even stronger.

1) Apple, it’s a terrific step forward in design and a small step forward in usability.

2) Apple, you have much to be proud of.

3) Now please, Apple — please — don’t make it any thinner than this.

After a week of use, I sense that a third of an inch is about as thin as an iPad can get before a user might pine for a tablet with a little more junk in the trunk. The iPad 2 is comfortable and satisfying to hold, but it feels like it’s hovering just above the safety margin. Holding it and reading at certain angles, I wished that it filled my hand a little more or that the back were a little “grippier” (though this was completely negated when I attached the Smart Cover; read on).

This sensation might be partly due to the fact that the edges of the iPad 2 are rolled to a thin edge instead milled into a flat band, as with the iPad 1. I’m not a fan of that idea. The design conceit, while appealing, means that the openings for the iPad 2’s two main ports (the dock connector and the headphone jack) have to be slightly elongated. On an iPad 1, your headphones and your docking cable sit flush with the device’s frame. On the iPad 2, part of the plug’s “shoulder” floats in midair. It doesn’t affect performance one bit but it forces you to be a bit more careful when plugging anything in.

Also, when I’ve got a thick cable plugged into the display adapter and I’m holding the iPad, I instinctively want to support the cable with my fingers. I worry that there isn’t as much mechanical contact preventing the weight of the cable from snapping something inside. Only time — and future posts to support message boards — will show whether those worries are founded.

The iPad 2’s power and volume switches had to be mounted at a slight angle, too, which takes a bit of getting used to.

The other price of the iPad 2’s new design seems to be the quality of its built-in speaker. It’s still remarkable that sound this rich can emanate from such a tiny speaker port on the edge of a point-34-inch thin device. But whereas the iPad 1’s built-in speaker is delightful, with a surprising amount of dimension and bass, the iPad 2’s speaker is just Good.

I urge you to download some Diana Damrau tracks and listen for yourself.

(Not so much to repeat my side-by-side comparison ... just on general principle. Man, that lady can sing.)

While I’m on the subject of the overall hardware: the iPad 2’s display has the same specs as the original’s. It’s hard to tell if it’s any better. It seems brighter, and the colors seem a little warmer ... but you have to bear in mind that I’m comparing it to an iPad 1 that I’ve used every day for nearly a year, now.

Faster

There’s no question: this is no nominal speed bump. The difference in speed between the iPad 1 and the iPad 2 is what happens between the point when the driver says “What does this button marked ‘Afterburners’ do?” and the point where the car impacted high up on the side of a cliff 300 yards off of the highway.

Apple says that the iPad 2’s new dual-core A5 CPU and graphics processor deliver twice the raw system performance and nine times the graphics speed of the first iPad. iFixit.com’s fastidious teardown of the iPad 2 hardware reveals that the new model has twice the application memory of its predecessor (which should help out with multitasking).

The best and fairest comparative benchmark that came to my mind was AutoStitch, a panorama app. It’s an iPhone-only app, which should remove any question that the code has been in any way optimized for the iPad 2’s hardware. And it works on a blend of math and graphics, just like damned-near anything you run on the iPad. I had the app align and assemble 36 source images into a finished panorama on each machine, after a cold reboot.

The original iPad took three minutes and twenty five seconds. The iPad 2 finished in ... fifty two seconds.

Yowtch. It was such a dramatic result that I re-ran the test with a smaller set. The iPad 2 still outpaced its predecessor by a factor of more than two-and-a-half.

Clearly, any iPad app will see an immediate and dramatic performance boost on the iPad 2. Even greater things are possible when an app is retooled for the new hardware. At least two iPad 2-enhanced game updates have already arrived. Real Racing 2 HD, my fave racing game, works on iPads of both eras but the iPad 2 edition has smooth antialiasing and never drops frames ... even when I’m aggressively channeling my Inner Stig. The most noticeable improvement in Infinity Blade, a blades-and-butchery 3D action-adventure, is that all of the texture maps have been built in much higher detail. Armor and shields now have painted highlights and more realistic patternwork.

Even when you’re not trading paint or sword blows, you’ll notice that pretty much everything is markedly faster on an iPad 2. My iPad 1 started making me feel ... impatient.

(What about benchmarks between the iPad 2 and the Motorola Xoom, the best Android tablet on the market today? I can only convey the subjective opinion that the iPad 2 feels much faster. But that’s meaningless; I could be reacting to something as simple as the responsiveness of the iOS touch interface compared to Android’s. As soon as I see a benchmark that seems even remotely credible, I’ll try it.)

FaceTime (and cameras)

If you were expecting the new iPad to include a camera as nice as the one on the iPhone 4 — which is among the best phone cameras you can get — you will be very, very disappointed. The iPad 2 doesn’t take photos ... it takes HD video still grabs, essentially. And not very good ones, at that. Snap a photo with the Camera app and a highly-compressed 960x720 JPEG will land in the iPad’s Camera Roll. Compare and contrast this with the Xoom, which shoots perfectly fine smartphone-quality 5-megapixel images.

The iPad 2’s front-facing element is a no-surprises 640x480 VGA camera.

“The camera sucks” is a valid complaint. But it merits a couple of footnotes. First, though the Xoom’s camera is yards better than the iPad 2’s, it’s still not close to the best cameras you’d find in a $200-$300 smartphone.

Mostly, though, I have to take into consideration Apple’s intentions. They’ve never boasted of the iPad 2’s prowess as a still or even as an HD video camera. Crimeny, they didn’t even modify the iPhone’s Camera app. And when Apple fails to do the single most obvious thing to improve the usability of an app — namely: move the shutter button to a spot on the screen where you have at least a 40% chance of hitting it intentionally, without dropping your $500 toy — that tells you all you need to know about how seriously the company is taking something.

Also: I asked the iPad 2’s product manager that direct question and he gave me the direct answer. The iPad 2’s cameras were designed specifically for FaceTime (and by extension, all other video chat apps).

Fair enough. I imagine that the camera will also play well with augmented reality apps and games, particularly given that the iPad 2 has a built-in Wii-style gyroscope.

FaceTime works a treat. I’ve yet to encounter a tablet that makes any sense to me as a camera, but when you’re videoconferencing, the big screen turns skeptics like me into converts. The screen is big enough to let you see the dimples on your 5-year-old’s face, and the beads of sweat rolling down the temples of the parts distributor who’s offering a shoddy explanation of why your job sites aren’t getting their supplies on schedule. So for both the personal and business parts of videoconferencing, the iPad 2 cameras are an overall Win.

Smart Covers

The iPad 2 Smart Cover is emblematic of what makes Apple a great technology company. I kind of want to hide one in my jacket pocket every time a tech company is giving me my first briefing on a new tablet, and bring it out at a decisive moment.

“Halt,” I would say, unrolling the Smart Cover and holding it before me like a talisman to ward off evil. “Did you put as much thought into your entire tablet as Apple put into this deceptively simple screen cover?”

The company representative would stammer that yes, of course they did.

I am a kind man.

Which is why I would offer this representative the chance to reconsider my question, and think about how embarrassing it would be if I tested their device for two weeks and in the end, was spurred to ask that same question in the first sentence of my review, and then spend 1600 words meticulously and painfully explaining my finding: that clearly, no, they did not.

I suspect that five out of seven companies would thank me for my kindness and then we’d spend the rest of the hour we booked eating off of the conference room’s catering cart and playing Scrabble on my iPad.

The iPad 2’s Smart Cover is a rare example of a concept that’s been executed in damned-near flawless fashion. It is indeed a cover that protects the iPad 2’s screen from scratches (and, to a lesser extent, from bumps). Like the original iPad cover and like hundreds of iPad covers that have been released since, it also can prop the device upright into a comfortable viewing/reading angle or elevate it into a comfortable flat typing angle.

Apple could have knocked that idea off in just a couple of hours and then taken a long lunch. Ah, but if they had, I wouldn’t have spent 300 words just now merely building up the point where I explain the reasons why this basic cover is so ginchy-keen:

It subtracts nothing from the iPad 2’s portability, holdability, or style. The iPad 2 plus its cover is still thinner than the original iPad. It clicks onto the device via a set of ingenious magnetic hinges. When it’s closed, it’s barely more than a layer of polyurethane ($39) or leather ($69) on top of your screen. When you open it, it swings freely around to the back of the iPad, like the cover of a magazine, and disappears in your hand.

This is the reason why, over the past year, I’ve rejected every iPad 1 cover but one (Scosche’s FoldIO). None of them were worth the trouble. All of them turned my iPad, this outrageously cool device, into just another chunky slab of dull technology peeking out through a round window in a vinyl box.

It’s easy to put on and take off. The cover’s hinge sticks to the iPad via a row of magnets of opposing polarity. Draw the hinge anywhere near the device and another set of magnets embedded in the iPad itself will grab the cover and align it perfectly. You can put the cover on improperly, but you have to truly work at it.

And once it’s on, it stays on until you pull it off. The only times in the past week that the Smart Cover came off unintentionally was when I was jamming things into my notebook bag and (harmlessly) sheared it away. Of course it clicked right back on again.

It only ever enhances your use of the iPad. It never becomes a pain in the butt. More magnets inside the cover hold it into its “easel” shape and prevent your iPad from flopping flat. It does take you a little while to figure out how to roll it properly but it’s a quick lesson.

The placement of the foldable pleats in this cover were undoubtedly the result of considerable research. In addition to clicking into the two easel shapes, magnets will keep the cover folded half-flat, which is how you’d be holding it if you were holding it upright and shooting video.

But my favorite deployment — one which I’m surprised Apple hasn’t highlighted — is a simple accordion fold. This produces a thick handgrip on the “spine” of the iPad that increases its comfort by ...

(Hang on ... I’m just going to run a benchmark ...)

Wow! By a whopping 193,281.28 percent. That’s an impressive eight digit number that I trust closes the argument for good.

Anyway, with the Smart Cover accordioned and your fingers wrapped around what amounts to the rolled spine of the iPad “book,” you can sit or lie down and read comfortably forever. The Kindle is still a much lighter ebook reader ... but now it sure isn’t more comfortable to hold than the iPad.

Apple Decided To Go For A Victory Lap. When you open the cover — even partway — the iPad wakes up. You don’t even need to slide the unlock switch. Blink, it’s awake and ready to go before you’ve even finished peeling the cover away. Close the cover and it goes back to sleep.

Apple didn’t need to add this feature. And yet they had to make a lot of changes to the iPad 2 hardware to make it work. Try it sometime. Grab a magnet off the fridge and hold it against the 3 o’clock position on the iPad’s screen bezel. That’s the position of the magnetic sensor. Tap ... it goes to sleep. Lift ... it wakes. Cool.

The fact that the iPad 2 needed to be designed from Day One with a Smart Cover in mind from Day One says a lot about Apple. Either they have a very healthy interest in getting things just right, or they were just very, very embarrassed by how cheap the original black iPad cover looked and felt.

I can see evidence supporting either conclusion.

10-Hour Battery

...

Okay, I actually have nothing clever to say here. Despite the iPad 2’s being much thinner, a hair lighter, and having two processors instead of one, you can expect to get the same battery life from it as its predecessor. My (extrapolated) tests point to about 6-7 hours per charge in heavy Hessian Aggression usage (brightness and volume all the way up, WiFi in use throughout, video playback and background tasks bullying the CPU), nine to eleven in ordinary use, and somewhere above twelve if you’re conservative.

That covers all of the elements of Apple’s catchy marketing slogan. A few other features and add-ons didn’t make the slogan, so I’ll just slap them in here:

New Display Options

Apple also released a new iPad display adapter that lets you plug an iPad into any HDTV with an HDMI port. The $39 Digital AV Adapter twins the HDMI connector with a daisy-chained dock connector, which allows you to charge and sync the iPad while it’s driving video.

If you’ve hooked the Digital AV Adapter up to an older iPad, it works the same way as the VGA Adapter. Any iPad app that’s been specifically written to support the adapter can use the attached TV as an external display.

Ah! But the iPad 2 supports a new video mirroring feature with any display adapter. Everything you do on the iPad happens on the external screen, too ... and the frame rate is fast enough even for gaming. When you rotate the the iPad from portrait to landscape mode, the change is reflected on the big screen. When you’re running Keynote or any other dual-screen app, the screens enter into dual-display mode.

Isn’t that interesting? At first, video mirroring seems like a no-brainer feature.

(“Then why isn’t it available for the original iPad, too?” you ask. Apple says that it requires the sort of additional processor horsepower that’s exclusive to the iPad 2.)

But I wonder about the implications of this. Obviously, it’s a boon to educators, whether they’re teaching the Table of the Elements to middle-schoolers or giving a live demonstration of Windows 7 network administration via an iOS VNC client over VPN to a conference room full of IT trainees.

I couldn’t help myself. I liberated a 24-inch VGA display from my Windows machine, plugged in the iPad 2, plopped my Bluetooth keyboard down in front of it, and slid the iPad closeby.

And what do you know: I had a perfectly acceptable desktop computer.

I was able to write and work easily on the big display, using the iPad essentially as a giant touchscreen. The setup wouldn’t stack up against my MacBook (or a Windows notebook in its performance range) but if I went into a Best Buy with just $600 to spend on a computer, an iPad 2 in the role of “desktop computer that turns into an ultraportable and a kick-butt ebook reader” would be a workable option ... for certain limited definitions of the term “desktop computer.”

Then I moved from the office into the living room. I sacrificed the cable to my Slingbox for the greater good of playing Real Racing 2 HD from my sofa on the biggest 1080p screen in the house. It worked great.

Rewind: the iPad has been upgraded with absurdly high-performance graphics, a Wii-style gyroscope, and video-out to HDMI TVs and projectors. Is Apple encouraging casual gamers like me to think “Why spend $300 on an Xbox, when you could just spend all of that money on a boatload of iPad 2-optimized games?”

Hmm.

The other new twist is the enhancement to Apple’s AirPlay video-over-WiFi system that arrived with iOS 4.3. Now, any app or any website you view on the iPad can support the playback of its audio and video through another AirPlay-compatible device on your network. It’s simpler than mirroring. You’re on the sofa, catching up on news blogs, there’s an embedded Vimeo or YouTube video, you tap a button and in a few seconds it’s up on your 50-inch HDTV (the one that’s got the Apple TV).

GarageBand and iMovie

These two $5 apps have to be addressed within a review of the iPad 2 because they help to clarify Apple’s intentions about its $500 tablet computer. GarageBand, particularly, isn’t just an app for creating music. In this context, it’s an expression of gut-level, unchecked aggression.

When iMovie was released for the iPhone last summer, for example, it didn’t stray far from what you’d expect a smartphone video editing app to be. It was very, very good, but it was engineered from a “Let’s just do the best we can under the limitations of a handheld device” perspective.

There’s none of that attitude with GarageBand. None. If a company funded a project to create a great music editor for any computer, they could be proud of this result. Intrinsically, GarageBand doesn’t feel like a stripped-down version of anything; instead, it feels like the streamlined tool you’d get if Apple removed everything from the desktop edition that sometimes makes it seem irksome and complicated.

GarageBand lets you record and mix up to eight tracks of audio. The first tipoff that Apple has serious ambitions for GarageBand: you can record with a wide array of “real” performing and recording devices. Even just through the iPad Camera Connection Kit’s USB adapter I was able to record from any USB microphone (including the pricey Heil PR-40 studio mic I use for home broadcasting, via an XLR to USB adapter), plus my M-Audio USB keyboard controller. Third-party adapters allow you to plug your guitar directly into the iPad, where it’ll encounter a bank of virtual amps and effects pedals.

Or, you can record live instruments through the iPad’s built-in mic and combo headphone/headset jack. Moving on to the world of fakery, GarageBand comes with ... yes, a garage band’s supply of virtual instruments: multiple flavors of bass, guitar, keyboard, and drums.

The fake instruments adapt to your skill level. If you know how to play, you can operate the virtual guitar, bass, keyboard, and drums more or less how you’d play the real McCoys. You can even “bend” notes on the bass and guitar by bending the strings as you play.

(A nice touch: the iPad’s touchscreen can’t register force, but GarageBand couples the touchscreen data with accelerometer data to sense when you’re trying to hit the piano keys or drum heads hard.)

“Smart” instruments are for those players whose hearts are in the right places but whose hands should never be allowed anywhere near anything designed for shaping music. GarageBand pares the guitar, bass, drums, and keyboard down to a bank of dead-simple controls relevant to that instrument. All you really need to provide is the intent; the app will handle the technique.

Editing is a treat. You just define regions of tracks and slide them around by grabbing and dragging them. You messed up a spot on your guitar track and need to overdub from that spot? Just slide the playhead over to the right spot and tap “Record.” Which is what you’d do with your mouse on a desktop app, but it feels so much more organic and natural on the iPad. It shows off the ongoing revolution of the multitouch interface: when you remove the two feet of air that normally separate your fingers from the user interface, you feel as though you’re in more direct control of what you’re building.

Many parts of GarageBand’s interface made me smile. A few made me want to buy somebody on the team a beer. When I needed to trim out some dead air in the middle of a podcast I’d recorded, I moved the playhead to the edit point, double-tapped on that section, and when a row of buttons appeared, I tapped “Split” to separate it. Then I saw a thick downarrow with a scissors icon it, poised above the track and aimed at the right spot.

I dragged it down through the track. Snip. The tool stuck around so I could drag it to the end point and trim off the end bit of dead air, too. Then I just dragged the remainder of the track across the gap.

Flourishes like this fill me with love for Apple’s design ethic. It also redoubles my contempt for all those other companies who fill my hours of software testing with head-shaking Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moments.

(I’m shooting a withering glance in your direction, Mr. or Ms. “Just because it’s a certified ‘With Google’ tablet and it’s running our own web browser on our own operating system and it’s accessing one of our own webapps, why should we bother making sure that Google Reader opens with a tablet-appropriate user interface? It’s just so much easier for us if we give the user a messed-up phone view instead.”)

(No, don’t tell me you’re sorry. Tell me you’re going to fix it.)

I actually find the iPad edition of GarageBand to be far more accessible, fun, and thus useful as a music creation tool than its desktop counterpart.

I can say many of the same things about iMovie, though overall, Apple’s movie editor isn’t quite as ambitious as GarageBand. With iMovie, you can cut and assemble video and audio and photos, enhance them with titles and transitions and additional narration, and bundle it all together into something you can then share or publish to online video sites. But where GarageBand will let you accomplish damned-near anything you can imagine, an iMovie project must start with the question “What can I accomplish given the tools I have at hand?”

To be fair, those tools are wide-ranging and impressive (including audio tweaking and underdubbing) ... and I often run into the same problem with the desktop edition of iMovie.

But iMovie has a truly unfortunate limitation: you can’t just hook up your camera to it and trust that the app will work with whatever you’ve just shot. The iPad has always been able to import pretty much any kind of video file into its Photo library via the Camera Connection Kit. It can even play back many of them. But I imported videos from three different devices and the iPhone 4’s was the only content that iMovie was able to incorporate into a project.

Oh, what a boon iMovie could have been! The iPad is a perfect candidate for “the only device you need to take with you on a trip.” If you’re hoping to shoot, edit, and post video from the road, though ... look before you leap.

Already, though, the power of the iPad 2 is making itself seen on every video publishing service that the app directly supports. CNN aired its first iPad iReport when a commuter spotted a gas main explosion on his morning commute, shot video (with his iPhone 4, naturally), cut it together with narration, maps, and titles, and submitted it ... probably while he was in the drive-through line at the Dunkin Donuts near his office.

Apple might have accidentally produced the ideal field computer for reporters. Whether you’re filing text, audio, or video, you’ve all the tools you need in a tiny slate.

Where All Of This Is Headed

Clearly, GarageBand represents the gold standard of iPad and iOS software. Hence my description of it as a “gut-level act of unchecked aggression.” This is an example of the iPad — Apple — not holding back, of aggressively insisting that the iPad can, and most certainly will be, taken seriously as a new fundamental category in “real” software.

Playing, and soon working, with GarageBand clarified my whole take on the device. This is a real app running on a real computer. It throws elbows against anything available for Windows or Mac desktops. I could be here at home with any number of computers available and I would freely choose to record and edit a podcast on the iPad 2. I’ll accomplish what I set out to do more quickly and with a lot less fuss. Some of the photos of the iPad that accompany this review were edited and posted straight from the iPad ... not to make some sort of point, but because when I put the camera down the iPad was right there and it was perfectly capable of the job.

That is what defines a real computer running real software.

One of the reasons why Apple builds so many high-profile commercial apps in-house is to raise the bar and set a standard. Users and developers are meant to look at GarageBand (or Pages, or Keynote) and think “Ah! So that’s how good this kind of device can be!”

That reaction always works in Apple’s best interests. Developers are spurred to reject their first, dark impulses in interface design (usually it takes the form of a demon whispering “Is there part of the screen you haven’t stuck a button in yet? If not: can you make the existing buttons smaller to make more room?”). It inspires good developers to become great developers. It makes bad apps look even worse, and helps them to sink out of high visibility in the App Store.

And those apps spur consumers to examine competing devices far more critically. Every mall Apple Store, every Best Buy, and every commercial break during every big live televised event hammers the same point home: there are things that an iPad can do that no other tablet is ready to even attempt yet.

That’s why I can’t help but see these apps as a Meaningful Sign. I expect Apple to get even more aggressive in 2011. And not just against the competition: against themselves and their own developers. The tremendous success of the iPad in 2010 demonstrated that they can expect much, much more out of this tablet. And given that few other companies are even suiting up another tablet and getting it out on the field in 2011, let alone shipping something that can play at the NFL level, Apple has at least another year before they’re going to have to respond to direct competition.

I said early on that overall, when I look at the extreme increased power of the iPad 2, its added video features, and its aggressively powerful new apps, I’m left with the impression that Apple wants certain users to consider making their next notebook an iPad instead. I’d never go so far as to say that Apple explicitly would put this forward, nor that an iPad would be a great choice for the majority of notebook buyers.

It’s a credible alternative. If I didn’t own an iPad 1, I would very possibly have bought an ultralight MacBook Air or an affordable ASUS UL30 notebook for travel; I also put iPads on the list of recommended machines when someone asks for buying advice and is describing a user whose needs are fairly tame.

The iPad still has a few basic limitations that prevent anyone from operating it like a standalone computer. Out of the box, it won’t work until it’s been linked to a desktop PC or Mac. After you disconnect, you never need dock it again (you can buy and install apps media and install your own docs via WiFi and 3G) ... until you want to backup the device or install an OS update.

But these are all limitations that could be removed with a new edition of iOS. I think Apple’s started steering the iPad towards that direction.

Apple already uses their MobileMe service to back up and sync all kinds of data between desktops and iPads. It’s also the glue that powers the Find My iPad and remote-wipe/lock services. If their new data center were any larger, a band of plucky spacefaring rebels would be targeting one of its thermal access ports with proton torpedoes. It’s fair to say that if Apple wanted the iPad to function as an independent, untethered mobile computer, they have the resources to make that happen.

While I only suspect that this is the future direction of the iPad, I know that Apple plans to deploy the next great leap at about the same time when everybody else is introducing new tablets that sort of do what the iPad could do in early 2011.

At this rate, Apple has until 2012 — or even early 2013 — to make their big move. Unless some other company reaches into their hat and pulls out the god-damnedest rabbit anyone’s ever seen, Apple has a lock on the tablet category until next year at the very least. The iPad 2 has crushed its enemies, seen the other tablets driven before it, and heard the lamentations of their product managers.

.


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