A tale of two tablets - Part 1

Fri Oct 28, 2022

A lot of people were excited about the new iPads coming this month. As usual, the wild rumours had some people pumped. But what we got didn’t quite live up to the hype. In fact, it set a new low bar. Let’s dive into it.

It’s been twelve years since Steve Jobs first introduced the iPad. It was a dream come true at the time. Before 2010, touch-screen tablets only existed in Star Trek.

Everybody wanted one. Initial sales were so high, many thought the laptop’s days were numbered and a new age of touch-screen computing had begun. Over the next three years, the iPad got thinner, lighter, and even more powerful, culminating in the first iPad Air in 2013 - a beautiful, sleek tablet that was so good, I could resist no longer and picked one up for myself.

Ten years on, and I still use that iPad Air every day. Even though it is an adequate YouTube machine, it is frustratingly slow and outdated. So, I decided that this will be the year that I upgrade. The fact that I’ve been happy with the first-gen iPad Air for this long is a testament to how good it is. But it is also an indication that iPads never quite took off as computers. And by “computers”, I mean productivity machines that you do “work” on.

This tension is a common theme among tech enthusiasts, and if you’re one of those, you’ve no doubt come across this question before: Why is the iPad’s software holding back such powerful hardware?

Well, I’m not really interested in answering that question.

I’ve long come to accept what the iPad is. It’s fun and casual. You relax in bed with it. Like a phone, it’s easy to pick up and instantly look something up. But unlike a phone, the big screen let’s you spend a few minutes on a noncommittal mobile game without squinting. It’s great for family FaceTime calls. It’s perfect for watching short videos.

The iPad has never had multi-user accounts. It’s a personal, intimate device and without the burdensome association of “work”, it’s a device you can simply enjoy using in your free time. I think that last point is an important one - nobody thinks of their work laptops fondly, but people love their iPads.

The problem is that Americans are obsessed with productivity. And all those hardcore geeks who work on computers everyday look at the iPad with a jealous gaze. They don’t want the fun and carefree iPad - they want a workhorse. They have cried, and cried, and cried to Apple - a loud minority asking for better multi-tasking, better file management, an iPad that runs macOS and desktop-class apps, and so on.

So, in 2015, Apple tried to appease them with the iPad Pro. It didn’t work.

It wasn’t that Apple couldn’t slap macOS on an iPad, because of course they could - easily. It’s that Apple is a very different company than say, Microsoft, who were more than willing to put Windows on a tablet, despite the UI being all wrong for touch input.

The fundamental reason it didn’t work is that Steve’s core values on Apple “being at the intersection of technology and liberal arts” is deeply embedded into Apple’s design philosophy. So, while the iPad Pro came with a nicer screen and better cameras, it also came with the Apple Pencil. It became clear then that the “Pro” in iPad Pro referred to professional artists and illustrators - not coders and mid-level managers. Those guys have always had the Mac - why should they have the iPad as well?

Anyway, to make a long story short (or is it too late to keep it short?), that’s why I think the question over whether the iPad’s software is holding back the hardware is a moot point. Apple should focus on keeping creatives happy and give up on trying to make the iPad appealing to power users. They just make a mess of it anyway because, as I said, they’re not that kind of company. The poorly-received Stage Manager is a prime example of this.

Continuing on with the story of the iPad Pro: In 2018, Apple re-designed the Pro with the now-familiar squared-off chassis and slimmer bezels with no home button and USB-C. It was - and still is - expensive, but represented the bleeding edge. Since then, the same design has trickled down to the iPad Air (and now the new 10th-gen iPad).

Fast forward to 2022. Apple’s usual pattern has been to introduce a major re-design every four years. So, many were expecting something new and exciting for the iPad Pro at the October “event”. But, it didn’t happen. The only new additions were an upgrade to the M2 chip and a new “hover effect” for the Apple Pencil.

In a footnote in his review, Gruber speculates that the unchanged design “might be a downwind effect of COVID — work from home, greatly reduced travel between California and China, and the global supply chain congestion”. That’s a sound conjecture, especially considering that the product roadmap is usually determined two or three years in advance. As much as we want to move on from COVID, we’re only now feeling the full effect of the pandemic on Apple’s hardware development and production.

On the other hand, the 10th-gen iPad got that nice redesign, which brings a modern look. But it has other compromises that left many iPad enthusiasts confused or even downright rankled.

A slightly worse display and chip compared to the iPad Air seems about right, given it’s supposed to be the “base” iPad. But what everybody is crying about is that the 10th-gen iPad only supports the first-gen Apple Pencil, and then only with a hideous lightening-to-USB-C dongle.

But to me, this makes sense. Apple wants to push professional artists who use the Apple Pencil daily to the Pro line. What they thought was more important to base-model customers (primarily students, I’d guess) was a nicer FaceTime experience. So, they re-positioned the selfie camera to a landscape orientation instead of using that space for the magnetic charging that the Apple Pencil 2 requires. They couldn’t do both without some serious re-engineering.

That choice will be debated for a while to come, but, as someone who doesn’t care that much about the Apple Pencil, I’m okay with it. What bothers me far more is the price increase. In Canada, the base iPad now costs a hefty $600 (up from $429). Wow.

Maybe in two years, this iPad will be priced more appropriately, but right now… it isn’t. But is the iPad Air worth $200 more? Hmmm, it’s time to upgrade my iPad and I’ve got a decision to make. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this tale to find out what it is (coming next month as usual).

In the meantime, I’ve been enjoying another Apple accessory that I’ve recently added to the ecosystem. I had an unused Best Buy gift card lying around, so I figured what the hell, and picked up the second-gen AirPods Pro that everybody is raving about. I got a free six-month Apple Music trial with it, so I cancelled my YouTube Music subscription (which I wasn’t in love with). In the end, I’m actually coming out ahead.

I’m not going to pretend I can properly review these. For a detailed video review, my man Kenneth is underrated and deserves more views.

The short version is that, for such small buds, they sound really good and the ANC is incredible. The new H2 chip is doing a lot of heavy lifting using algorithms to make these sound like a choir of angels and to eliminate the sound of my microwave.

I am disappointed with the device switching though. Switching audio between my iPhone and Apple Watch just doesn’t work. The audio slows down like an unplugged record player before stopping completely. I’ve tried a few things, but haven’t figured out how to fix it yet. Fortunately, I can still control iPhone audio with my Apple Watch, but the whole audio-switching experience is hardly as seamless as I was expecting. First World problem, I know.

In general, the second-gen AirPods Pro just ooze high quality all round, and they’re undoubtedly the nicest earbuds I’ve ever owned. I wouldn’t pay full price for them though - there is a lot of healthy competition in the earbud space these days and you can get 80% of the same audio experience a lot cheaper elsewhere.

Apple Music is polished and I actually like the emphasis on human curation rather than relying solely on algorithms. Spatial audio (Dolby Atmos) may not blow away non-audiophiles, but is icing on the cake for new releases that are properly mixed with surround sound in mind. I’ll see how the next six months goes before deciding which music subscription to stick with, but I like what I’m hearing so far.

Speaking of subscriptions, for many years Amazon has begged me to sign up with Amazon Prime and I’ve always refused. You have to admire their persistence though because they finally offered me something I couldn’t refuse: A Lord of the Rings show.

The most expensive TV show ever made, The Rings of Power is fantastic. It looks stunning in 4K Dolby Vision. Production values match and exceed the Peter Jackson movies. I can’t say the writing is as good, but it’s impossible to write at Tolkien’s level, so they were doomed to fail on that front from the start. I can forgive the mediocre writing though because it’s just so great to be in Middle Earth again.

As a rule of thumb, I don’t spend more than $20 a month on TV subscriptions, so I’ve started doing the juggling act of subscribing and unsubscribing to bounce between services. I’ve just finished up my one-year free trial of Disney Plus. I had a delightful year catching up on all the Star Wars and Marvel shows, but everything good must come to an end.

I’ve also burned through the must-watch shows in my Netflix queue, but I’m done for a while. Netflix charges over 20 bucks a month for 4K, which is too much to set and forget. Their new plan with ads is cheap enough to keep as a holding pattern so the kids can still watch their shows (no ads on kids profiles fortunately).

There are a few really good shows on Amazon Prime Video now, so I’ll sub for a while after The Rings of Power until switching again, but I’m not making the mistake of trapping myself in the ecosystem - that’s how they get you.

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