Apple hasn’t pushed the new iPad’s specs into the limelight, a trend they’ve run with for all their mobile device offerings. Traditionally, specs were the lifeblood of a PC marketing campaign. That specs on paper were a meaningless comparison is something computer nerds have known about for years (even if they didn’t always admit it), and today comparing specs is mere mental masturbation. Consumers don’t care about which device has a better CPU or which has more RAM, they care instead about the experience a given device offers. “Does it do what I need it to?” is the question they ask themselves.
That said, there’s some merit in noting a device’s specs, if only to compare it to its predecessors. “Will this upgrade be worthwhile”, for example, is a question that specs can help answer.
Horace Dediu compares the new iPad to the 2008 MacBook Air, a device we really wanted to buy back then, but considered its specs too meager in comparison to the MacBook Pro we were using at the time.
The new iPad now exceeds the total display resolution, has similar speed and storage capacity while having twice the battery life of the thinnest laptop of four years ago. It also has very high quality cameras and GPS and cellular network connectivity which have yet to appear on mainstream PCs. It’s still a lot smaller and half the price and has a larger selection of available software titles at prices a fraction of its elder cousin.
The only value that a desktop of 2008 has over a new iPad is the size of the screen and a larger hard drive.
Dediu’s point isn’t that the new iPad is a better computer, but that it’s another step in narrowing the gap between traditional PCs and the iPad. Put another way, consumers are finding the new iPad perfectly capable of handling their daily tasks, just as the 2008 MacBook Air did four years ago. If anything, it puts a lot of emphasis on the idea that implementation is more important than raw specs, and why you really don’t need the latest hardware to be relevent.1
Critics may dismiss this by pointing out how the 2008 MacBook Air was considered under-powered, and how no one in their right mind would buy a 2008 MacBook Air today, but that would miss the point entirely: by re-engineering the software and hardware to be both simple and fast, Apple has created a device that is replacing traditional computers at home. And it’s doing this using the hardware equivalent of a four-year-old notebook computer. The irony is that while we didn’t buy the MacBook Air four years ago because we considered it underpowered, we didn’t think twice about preordering the new iPad. In fact, since the original iPad, we replaced our MacBook Pro for everyday computing tasks.
It’s become a better PC.
Looking back at our initial experiment in 2010 to use the iPad almost excusively for home computing, we see that several things have changed since, which have further cemented our decision, and why we haven’t felt the need to jump back into the notebook game.
When we bought our original iPad, we also bought a Mac Mini to serve as a headless media center. Its chief purpose was not only to serve media to our LCD television, but to serve as a mechanism for getting stuff onto, and off of, our iPad and iPhone. The synchronization process was typically a pain using a headless Mac, and though it became easier with VNC apps, it still wasn’t an ideal solution.
iCloud has mostly changed that. Since we’ve had the ability to back our iOS devices up wirelessly to the cloud, we’ve had almost no need to physically connect our devices to the Mac Mini.2 Our iPhone 4S, for example, has never once been hooked up to the Mac Mini, and we’re better for it.
In truth, we rarely listen to our iTunes library anymore; most of our music listening is via Pandora. Still, it’s nice to have our music library with us, but a requirement for this has always been physical synchonization. Not only is this no longer necessary with the latest versions of iOS, but more importantly, we don’t even need to be home to get at our music collection. iTunes match is a great service that compliments the “basic” iCloud offering, and has allowed us to dismiss our Mac Mini even more.
iCloud and iTunes Match are two big changes that came about more recently, but iOS in general has gotten better. Switching between apps is now faster than it was in 2010, and the two years of application development has enabled a much better workflow than we had when we first adopted the iPad as out primary computer.
No need for the Mac Mini anymore?
Unfortunately, we’re still not at a place where we can totally remove our Mac Mini from our home. Apple TV was another solid blow to our need for a media center, but there remain three reasons we’re still holding onto the Mini.
First is the issue of media acquisition; most of the media we consume can be obtained via our iOS devices, but there are others we still obtain through other channels. While Apple’s video offerings for film and television have expanded significantly over the past couple years, others still require alternative approaches, like being able to grab content from a TiVo hard drive, ripping media from optical disc, or downloading from the internet. As Apple’s offerings continue to expand, the need for consumers to rely on these other distribution channels will lessen, and we hope that television networks and other publishers come to understand this. In most cases, consumers will opt for the easiest method of obtaining what they want, and Apple’s service is sufficiently easy for people to forego most other channels.
Second is iPhoto, which for many of us, makes up a large portion of our media library. The 64GB maximum storage size on the iPad keeps it from being able to store our entire iPhoto library, which could somewhat be alleviated with a more well-built iCloud component for iPhoto. So basically, we’re forced to wait on either an iCloud/iPhoto revision such that our whole iPhoto library is in the cloud, else wait on a larger hard drive option in the next iPad. Hopefully, the former option will be taken up by Apple in the near future.
Third is the issue of app development, and the concept of “eating your own dog food”. There are plenty of code editors available for the iPad, but no way to run custom code on the device.3 You might argue that users can still write HTML apps on the iPad, but again, this is a somewhat limited alternative. We have to think that Apple is at least toying with the idea of an iOS app that could be used to write code for actual compilation and submission to the AppStore, but if they are, no one’s hinted at it. The closest solution we’ve come up with in the meantime is to store code in the cloud (e.g. Dropbox) and use an iOS code editor to access it (e.g. Textastic). We then need VNC or similar app to access our Mac Mini, so we can manipulate the simulator.
Of these three obstacles, the first isn’t a deal-breaker; we wouldn’t be too upset if we had to limit our video consumption to what we can get through iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, etc. The third issue is variable, because we’re only throwing around the idea of doing some hobbyist development at the moment, so we could very well end up either not doing it at all, or doing it in such limited increments that we could just borrow someone else’s computer for brief coding sessions. 4 The second issue is the real deal-breaker here, because our library is too big to fit on our iPad unless we decided to seriously limit what apps are on it too. For many people, this may not be an issue at all, but for those of us with digital photo libraries going back 15 years or so, the obstacle is unsurmountable at the present.
To be clear, these issues may all be moot for the average computer user, as such users are likely not computer savvy enough to obtain media from unconventional sources, don’t have massive photo libraries, nor do any app development. This is why we continue to recommend the iPad to friends and family who we know have comparatively low requirements.
As we plan to take ownership of our new iPad later today, we have little regrets about moving away from traditional PCs. Aforementioned obstacles aside, the experience has been quite a good one, and its enabled us to take our computer places that we would never have lugged our MacBook to. With the iterative improvements to the new iPad, we fully expect the experience to only get better after today.
Obviously, the new iPad’s hardware is cutting edge, but the point here is to emphasize that slower hardware can still make for a great computing device. BeOS ran comparable software, but ran it on less powerful hardware than Windows required. It’s why Be tried pushing BeIA (the mobile version of the OS) before its demise, and it’s that same concept Apple capitalized on with OS X and iOS. ↩
Since iCloud, the only time we hooked our iPad up to the Mac Mini was to get TurboTax 2010 data into TurboTax 2011, a procedure that required iTunes on the OS X. ↩
There’s Codea, but it’s very limited in what it can do. ↩
At home, we have another Mac Mini set up as a desktop, but it’s not our computer, though we could use it on a limited basis if we needed to. ↩