The Death of Consumer Reports

I was thinking of writing my own blog post on this, but Kate MacKenzie has done an excellent job here at PixoBebo.com. It exemplifies my perception of Consumer Reports as an anachronistic throwback to the days when print media reviewed dishwashers, for a much less technically savvy public.

Over the years as they tried to rate and review computers I’d often find myself snickering at some of the silliness in their reviews. It got completely ridiculous during the infamous “Antennae-Gate” where CR just blasted the iPhone 4 for essentially having an issue that was common to pretty much every internal antennae mobile phone on the market. Apparently they felt that Apple should somehow defy the physics of attenuation, but what was really appalling was how the issue was blatantly present in phones they recommended. Ultimately it made no difference to the success of the iPhone 4, few people paid attention, but it did help a class action law suit against Apple succeed, which amounts to $15 if you have an iPhone 4 and you’re interested.

Great job CR. You made a great deal of money for a law firm, and protected the public at large. You should be proud.

So now they’re at it again with the iPad and their “OMG the iPad is hotter than the previous model” hysteria. This time fortunately people are catching on as MacKenzie describes in, “The Sad End: How Apple And Facts Killed Consumer Reports.

Evolution vs. Revoluiton

Under the reign of Steve Jobs, Apple would create a great deal of media glitz surrounding product announcements. Steve Jobs was unsurpassed at providing the magic of those product announcements. Steve had that certain something, a presence that made people giddy. Steve could announce evolutions and make the audience feel like they were revolutions. His was a combination of talent and honed skill.

Apple continues to make a big deal out of evolutions. Unfortunately the expectation has been set that every announcement will be a revolution, and without the great wielder of the reality distortion field, people are seeing the announcements for what they are. Updates!

There is nothing wrong with updates. There is nothing wrong with evolution. It’s the way things are supposed to work. The problem is, with the wild rumor mill, the constant attention from the media, and the expectations set by a past series of revolutions, people are disappointed, even with darn good evolutions.

The Mac was revolutionary. Every Mac since then has represented an evolution. OS X was a revolutionary product. Every update since then has been an evolution. The iPod was revolutionary. Every update since then has been a evolution. The same is true of the iPhone and the iPad. One could argue that the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch represent branches on the same mobile device evolutionary tree.

Long time users of Apple products understand this, particularly professionals. New users of Apple products haven’t figured it out yet. Moving to Apple was a revolution in and of itself for them. Now they expect that every single product will be a revolution. This isn’t going to happen. It can’t!

Evolution means bigger or smaller, cheaper, more features for the same price, etc. Sometimes it means tradeoffs and compromise. A higher resolution screen might mean faster battery consumption, etc. The point is, evolution doesn’t mean a complete reimagining. Product evolution is the same as biological evolution. It is change across generations. Updates can be looked at as mutations. Sometimes the updates are great and they make the product stronger, more fit. Sometimes they aren’t so great and they need to evolve further or be dropped all together.

One thing Apple is very good at is providing changes that make sense, when they make sense. Apple make look at something like 4G and decide now is not the time for that single evolutionary change or they might look at it and decide that all things considered, 4G makes the overall product better. Other vendors aren’t as good at this as Apple. Some slap together all available technology into a product and say, “Here’s our offering! It has more features than the comparable Apple device!” One can put fins on a Ferrari also, but that doesn’t make it better.

I personally believe Apple also holds back features that they fully intend to integrate at some point. This is a business decision. If you can project great sales on the iPhone 4s without 4G, for example, it’s smarter to hold it for a subsequent generation to add more value to that evolution.

When the iPhone 4s was introduced, people who understood the technology recognized it for what it was, a significant set of evolutionary changes to an already revolutionary product. The original iPhone was the revolution. The 4s was simply a better iPhone.  Much better than any previous iPhone actually. Nonetheless there were many who were so enveloped in the reality distortion field that they were even upset by the fact the product wasn’t named “iPhone 5.” As an associate of mine put it, “This isn’t about technology, this is about fashion. If someone can’t look at my phone and tell I have the newest and greatest just by looking at it, the phone sucks!” I strongly suggested that she’d be happier with an Android device. Lots of fins.

Now here we are again with the new iPad. While most tech people get it, there are those who feel the product isn’t revolutionary. The new iPad has a solid set of upgrades. It is the highest quality iPad one can purchase, and provides the best iPad experience overall. The new iPad coupled with Apple’s ecosystem, is still lightyears ahead of comparable offerings from competitors, and the iPad is likely to remain the tablet of choice for at least 75% of those interested in such a device.

The new iPad isn’t for everyone though. People who appreciate the higher resolution graphics, people who are still using the original iPad, people who want and need 4G, are examples of those who will likely purchase the new iPad. People who are happy with their iPad 2s are far less likely because the new iPad is less of an evolutionary shift from the iPad 2 than it is from the first iPad, and this is how things should be.

So what can Apple do to control the lunacy surrounding every product announcement? One thing is make it clear that these are updates. I believe this is the primary reason the newest iPad is simply called “iPad” and not “iPad 3.” This helps to keep people from expecting huge changes as opposed to rational evolutions.

I also would like to see Apple dispense with the glitzy shows. They produce a great deal of excitement, that is often not warranted. The personality that the cult grew up around is gone. Tim Cook might be a genius and may prove to be a great CEO overtime, but for the moment, the pale imitation of Steve Jobs reminds me of when Michael Eisner started introducing the Sunday night Disney program on ABC. I just kept thinking, “You’re not Walt. You don’t belong there.”

Apple has to become the personality itself. It can no longer revolve around an actual person. Apple should become an amorphous entity that produces magical products on schedule. When those products are ready, there is no need to fly the journalistic faithful to Northern California to lead the cheers. Instead, create more of those great videos and make them even more substantive. Show us more people using products in business and their personal lives. Send statements to developers on the day that the website changes, and let Apple take center on a virtual stage.

I would however find a voice. Preferably younger and preferably female. Think Natalie Morris or someone with a British accent.  The voice should be the voice of Apple. I’m sorry, it’s just not Tim. The parade of middle aged white guys doesn’t appeal to the youth market either.

Finally, only hold those press conferences for the revolutions. That way when Apple sends out those notices to the “journalists,” we know whatever is coming is going to be special, and that we haven’t seen it before. I suspect the next one should be the actual Apple Television.

We are expecting new MacBooks this year. No need to do a show for that, just create beautiful online presentations and videos that we can download and study. Same for any new Macs, OS X, or any existing product really. We know how great they are, and we are capable of analyzing the evolution.

THE NEW IPAD

The newest iPad, referred to by Apple as simply “New iPad” was introduced on March 7, 2012. There is no number in the name. People were expecting the device to be called iPad 3, but apple only refers to it as the new iPad. I suspect this is after observing the ridiculously bizarre reactions of some people when the latest iPhone upgrade, a rather substantial upgrade, was scoffed at by said people because it wasn’t called the “iPhone 5.”

Not all Apple aficionados are intelligent. Some are simply mindless fashionistas. Apple correctly assumes that adding a number to identify a product confuses these people. Just calling it “New” is easier to understand, and Apple is all about easy.

Apple CEO Tim Cook took the stage to introduce the new iPad at the March 7 event. We learned that the new iPad equation is DISPLAY + QUAD CORE GRAPHICS + BATTERY + iSIGHT + 4G. This added up to a very nice set of improvements so there was no doubt that the new iPad would generate excitement. I attempted to order my WiFi only model the moment the presentation was over. The Apple Store seemed to buckle under the demand, but like Atlas on bended knee, it eventually rose and started taking orders.

The first online orders promised a delivery date of March 16, though once again, the supply was not quite able to meet the ever present demand for a new Apple product. The delivery date quickly slipped to March 19 for later orders, and before the day was over online orders sold out. People subsequently began lining up to purchase from the stores as early as March 15. We began receiving notices that iPads had shipped and as promised, the new iPad began arriving in the hands of customers on March 16.

I live in a loft in a secure building in downtown Los Angels. So delivery people aren’t able to come directly to me. They have to deliver to the guard who texts or emails me when there is a delivery. So on March 16th I was watching the FEX EX tracking page and waiting for my text. Needless to say I was disappointed when the FED EX tracking page suddenly said that there was a problem delivering, that the “office was closed.” Apparently he delivered at precisely the moment the guard needed to use the restroom.

Luckily I was able to pick up my iPad at a nearby FED EX depot. It was entertaining as the FED EX people were making fun of all of us “iPad people” who were there because we missed our deliveries. Once I got the iPad home, I poured a glass of wine and began to explore.

Looks

The new iPad looks exactly the same as the previous iPad. It’s approximately one millimeter thicker. If they’re turned off it’s difficult to tell them apart without extremely close examination. This changes however, once you turn them on.

With the new iPad what’s important is what’s packed inside, and Apple hasn’t disappointed. Once again they’ve provided us with a significant evolution of an already revolutionary product. It is a more substantial leap over the iPad 2 than the iPad 2 was over the original. Using it I find the whole is definitely greater than the sum of the upgrades. The most difficult part of writing about this new iPad is that I’m running out of superlatives.

The Display

The first thing I noticed was the outstanding new screen. So much had been said about the new screen, I was almost expecting to get a sense of spiritual euphoria when I saw it. At first glance however, I didn’t see the difference. My appreciation for the new screen came as I began to notice the subtle differences.

The subtlety is in the fact that it’s not what I saw, but what I didn’t see. What is gone is the minute jagged edges in text that we’ve learned to ignore. The blur of anti-aliasing is gone. As you’re reading the crisp quality of text will stand out. The striking clarity of print alone is an unexpectedly pleasing experience. It’s as if the text has been hand painted in smooth strokes as opposed to being formed by pixels. The constant comparison is to printed text, like on the page of a book. This comparison is not an exaggeration.

If you read a page of text with the New iPad then immediately look at the same text on the older iPad 2, the iPad 2’s screen will look slightly blurry. In fact, if you read a page of text and look at the same page on your brand new 27” iMac, the iMac screen will look blurry in comparison.

No one will be able to adequately describe the difference and you won’t be able to see it looking at comparison photos on an existing computer screen. You will need to go into an Apple store and look at the two screens side by side.

The best photos of the difference I’ve found are [ HERE ].

I wear reading glasses, particularly after staring at a screen all day long. When I look at my blog on both the new iPad and the iPad 2, the text is crystal clear on the new iPad, and looking at the older device, I see a weird fuzz around letters that I had previously been unaware of.

Seriously, I cannot do justice to this in words. You cannot recognize the difference until you sit down and see it with your own eyes. Anyone who says there is no difference is wrong, has an ulterior motive for saying so, or is no more observant than a 5 year old jar of Vaseline. Reading iBooks, Kindle books, even freaking e-mail on the new iPad is a pleasure with the new display.

Retina Display” is Apple marketing speak. It is human targeted branding for technology that shrinks pixels and squeezes so many, i.e. packs them so densely into a small space that the human eye is incapable of discerning individual pixels. The display has 263 pixels per diagonal inch. 4 times more pixels than the iPad 2.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that you couldn’t discern individual pixels before, so what’s the big deal? Trust me. You could see the pixels before, but your brain, preferring to see smooth organic curves, causes you to ignore the jagged pixels hanging off text. Again, when you see the new iPad side by side with the iPad 2, you’ll understand.

The iPad and iPad 2 have a screen resolution of 1024 x 768. The new Retina Display has a screen resolution of 2048 x 1536, exactly double the resolution of its ancestors. Presumably Apple did this so that previous iPad applications would scale up to the new resolution with no modification. Even iPhone apps that looked jagged and sloppy when pixel doubled on the iPad 2, look very smooth and clear on the new iPad.

The resolution of the new iPad is higher than the resolution of my 17” MacBook Pro. The new iPad has a million more pixels than an HDTV. Hopefully app developers will start tweaking their applications to take advantage of the new resolution. As I write this I’m seeing lots of updates.

You can find a list of cool apps that have already been updated here at TechCrunch in an article by MG Siegler: [ HERE  ]

As of this writing I’ve tried the [ ABC Player, Flipboard, Barefoot World Atlas and Twitter and they all look fantastic. Barefoot World Atlas is very fun.

Sharper text isn’t the only thing you’ll notice with the new screen. Colors are brighter, and more vibrant. High resolution photos are beautiful, much more realistic. There are times, when looking at really high resolution images squeezed down to fit into the iPad’s screen that it’s like looking through a window.

New A5X Chip

I know what you’re thinking now. That’s a helluva lot more pixels than the older iPads. Is this iPad much slower when drawing images? Short answer: No. Not in the least. In order to drive the 3 million plus pixels of the new iPad, Apple upgraded the A5 processor with quad-core graphics. So even with 4 times the pixels of the previous iPads, the speed of the new iPad is still as snappy as ever. Even more so in some cases.  In my personal speed tests, the new iPad was just as fast as the iPad 2, occasionally faster. Some people (think teenagers making youtube videos or bloggers for Gawker media) will consider this a failure. The engineering feat here is that the speed was maintained while driving the greatly enhanced display. The power of the new chip is most evident in 3D Graphics. When benchmarked against the Asus Transformer Prime tablet built on the Nvidia Tegra 3, the iPad’s A5X processor thoroughly trounced the “Transformer Prime.” Optimus will be bummed out.

See Test [ HERE ]

Battery

This time  I surely know what you’re thinking. 3.1 million pixels? 4 times the number of pixels of the older iPads? A faster processor and quad-core graphics? This must mean battery life has suffered tremendously, right? Short answer: No. Not in the least. The new iPad still delivers 10 hours of battery life. Battery life will vary depending on use, however I can confirm that I used the new iPad for the better part of Saturday and I noticed no difference in battery life. Typically, by the end of the day I’m down to 35% battery remaining. The results were essentially the same on the new iPad. I was down to 30%, but you have to consider I was actually playing with the new iPad much more than I normally would.

This might be compared to hitching a half ton trailer to your car, putting a bigger engine in the car so it continues to go as fast, yet using the exact same amount of fuel over the same distance. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Apple didn’t stop there though.

iSight Camera

The general consensus was that the rear facing camera in the iPad 2 just plain sucked.  It was ok for quick shots here and there, but the cameras in the iPhone 4 and 4s were comparably fantastic. When people asked, “Did Apple do that just so the next iPad could easily have an even better camera?” I would change the subject because I didn’t really have an answer on that one.

The new iPad has a rear facing 5 megapixel iSight Camera that shoots fantastic stills and full 1080p HD video. The front facing camera is still a FaceTime camera capable of VGA-quality photos and video up to 30 frames per second. I wish the front facing camera was also an iSight camera because I want to look good in HD when I’m giving up some FaceTime.

The photos and videos from the iSight camera look great. I would like to have seen an 8 megapixel camera there, but I have a hunch as to why that isn’t there yet. It might be more wishful thinking than anything else, but in my humble opinion, the 10” iPad is an awkward device to use as a camera. If Apple were to introduce a smaller iPad, say in the 7” realm, I.e. an iPad that fits in a jacket pocket… hmmm… now that device might be useful as a day to day camera. Such a device would make more sense for an 8 or 10 megapixel iSight camera. Just a thought. More than likely though, Apple sees the iPhone as their camera device and will continue to put the highest quality cameras there. Here’s some sample video I shot outside my building: [ SAMPLE VIDEO ]

4G LTE

If you’re a highly mobile knowledge worker type, you will be thrilled with the 4G LTE network capabilities of the new iPad, that is unless you’re in an area without 4G LTE. If you are, you can still get the speedy 3G HSPA, HSPA+ and DC-HSDPA speeds. The new iPad supports so many standards it should work almost anywhere. Your results will of course vary due to far more variables than I care to mention here. I’ve seen speeds consistently faster than the average home DSL line. I’ve seen speed (youtube demos) as fast as 20Mb/s on LTE and as low as 3Mb/s on LTE. I’ve read reports of 40Mb/s in San Francisco. Whatever speed you get, using these fast networks will cost you. The new iPad is capable of acting as a mobile hotspot, but chances are, your mobile ISP won’t allow it, unless you pay even more.

Dictation

The new iPad includes the same mobile dictation capabilities found in the iPhone 4S. I love the dictation for text messaging, and when I tested dictating to the notes application on the new iPad, the accuracy was fairly precise. If you’re like me you probably tried older voice recognition software and gave up. You have to try these new incarnations. They are incredible.

To Buy or Not To Buy

The question for many will be do I “need” to upgrade?

“Need” is a highly subjective word.

Once you go down the road of “need” you can apply it to everything. Who “needs” an iPad? Who “needs” an electric can opener? Need is tricky.

In my opinion, the new iPad is a much better iPad than the iPad 2. It is far better than the first iPad. If you are still using the first iPad and you are considering an upgrade, the new iPad is unquestionably a great purchase. If you already have an iPad 2, the decision gets a bit more blurry. The iPad 2 is a fine device and will continue to be so for some time to come. If you’re wallowing in cash though, and you want the latest and greatest, the new iPad will not disappoint.

Throughout the year analysts and pundits droned on about who would deliver an iPad killer. They should have known. Apple has delivered the only tablet on the market better than the iPad 2.