Gizmodo’s Review of the iPad and iPhone 4

As we brace for this week’s deluge, I thought I’d provide two samples—from Gizmodo no less—in contrast to my complaints from last week. Despite sharing a similar format and tone, both are among my favorite gadget reviews. What I like in particular is the way (which most reviews tend to do in reverse) both Chen and Lam use the experience of living with these devices as the method by which we might extract value and meaning from them; Is there space in our lives for the iPad? How do you—why should you—redefine the already ubiquitous experience of owning an iPhone?1

Neither article is perfect (at times too coy and proud of it) but they do point towards an alternative discussion of consumer technology I can’t recall seeing elsewhere since. The only writer exploring in a similar manner whose name comes to mind is Shawn Blanc. The difference is that where Blanc’s voice is technical and definitive, Lam and Chen’s are ambiguous but honest. It’s too bad these reviews remain a distant anomaly in Gizmodo’s mired rear view mirror.2

  1. In hindsight, the reviews complete each other. I’d wager the way Chen talks about the iPhone 4 is the way we could approach this year’s reviews of the fourth generation of the iPad. The numerology isn’t the point here, but rather the transition from the merely ubiquitous to the utterly ubiquitous. 

  2. Knowing full well the futility, I remain curious about what shape a Gizmodo sans Gawker would have taken. The double edged sword to Gizmodo’s identity has always been it’s willingness to risk being contrarian—if not even rebellious—in a space that discourages it. While that risk sometimes materialized into the aforementioned reviews, it’s also been responsible for theft, glamorizing theft, contrarianism for contrarianism’s sake, and hiring Jesus Diaz. My pet theory states that by removing Gawker’s appetite for exploiting sensationalism, Gizmodo’s risk taking would amount to more than repeated embarrassment. 


The iPad as the right kind of camera

Neven Mrgan, on the iPad 3 and photography:

Any iPad with any lens may be just too physically awkward to make a good camera. But, there’s something to be said for a device that can shoot and then immediately process shots and footage. The iPad is too big to shoot with; the iPhone is too small to edit on.

If Mrgan’s comments seem to echo the general attitudes towards the iPad camera, I’d like to suggest that our critique of the iPad as a lousy device for capturing images stems from the wrong perspective; that while an iPad may indeed be a terrible replacement for a consumer point and shoot camera, it may in fact be an ideal choice for certain kinds of photographers.

Mission Beach - June 2009

Of the many cameras I’ve had the luxury of owning, my favourite by far was the Mamiya RB67. A sturdy, mechanical camera from a bygone era, the RB67 is a workhorse professional camera that, amongst its many other qualities, created stunning images thanks to its superb optics and use of larger medium format film. But perhaps my favourite feature of my RB67 was its large, waist lever viewfinder that was invaluable when composing some of my favourite landscape images. Compared to most eye-level viewfinders, using my “RB’s” viewfinder was a much more comfortable, even contemplative, photographing experience. To be sure, the RB67 wasn’t an ideal camera for every photographer. Its considerable heft and relatively slow shutter mechanism certainly wasn’t ideal for capturing an elusive moment or carrying around all day in the streets. But for landscape and portrait photographers, where images are often carefully staged and envisioned, the practicality of the RB67 and its large viewfinder can’t be understated. This is why digital landscape photographers are so keen on using the increasingly large LCD displays that can be used to capture imageson most modern digital SLRs.

All this to say that my experience with my RB67 colours my perception of the iPad as a camera differently than most. Where people picture someone awkwardly holding out an iPad at arm’s length trying to keep up with their frolicking children in frame, I imagine instead standing at the end of long beach with my iPad mounted to tripod, feet wet from the tide, watching the life of the ocean unfold before me on a large, clear -and hopefully retina, display. Even if the iPad 3 might never be as practical a camera as the iPhone, I still believe it could be a better camera than its smaller sibling in specific situations and for certain types of photographers. If the new iPad’s optics are similar to the iPhone 4S, as Mrgan suggests in his post, I’d have no hesitation recommending it - or future iterations, to many photographers not only as an image editing device but as an image creating device as well. It won’t be for everyone and it’ll be a long while - if ever, before the pictures it produces reach the quality of medium format film (for displays and small print sizes, that probably doesn’t matter much anyways), but I can’t imagine I’m the only landscape photographer having used a medium or large format system that isn’t excited - or least intrigued, by the prospect of using an iPad with a Retina Display and a quality image sensor as a camera you’d use much in the same way as a Mamiya RB67 or Hasselblad. Combined with the countless software possibilities to be explored on iOS and the App Store, I don’t see why the iPad couldn’t succeed as a camera if only we focus a little more on its strengths as a camera, rather than its more obvious weaknesses.

Finally, one thing that’s crossed my mind if Mrgan’s predictions of an improved camera and more powerful image editing software pan out: How will Apple illustrate those points in - assuming they create any, promotional images and videos. It wouldn’t be a stretch to think that Apple would want to show iPad 3 users going through the whole process of image production solely on the iPad. iPhone and iPad commercials often relay on the emotional power of friends and family to demonstrate their technology, so I wonder how they’d portray people taking images with the iPad, especially given the awkward nature of using it for candid photography most frequently found in images of family vacations and the like. The iPad 2 cameras had previously only been shown in ads as FaceTime enablers, if only because the iPad 2 camera was too shitty for anything else. Supposing the iPad 3 has a camera equal to the iPhone 4S and exclusive and powerful editing software, it’ll be interesting to see how they demonstrate and emphasize that through their advertisements.

On the Fascination with the iPad’s PC-Ness

Since the iPad’s announcement, its equivalence to the PC has been in question. Two years later, it seems this particular debate is far from settled. The topic has resurfaced recently in light of Apple’s wild success with the device, prompting many to wonder how to interpret one computing device’s accomplishments in the face of an industry that seems to be in free fall. Yet for all the yes it is, no it isn’t arguments revolving around the iPad’s PC-ness, no one has elucidated the reason why the iPad must be categorized one way or the other. Or why it even matters. 1

The obsession with the PC2 moniker itself is interesting, so much its definition is open to interpretation. Is a PC strictly defined as a Personal Computer? Computers have been steadily becoming more and more personal since the term was coined that the only thing we mightn’t call PCs are the numerous server farms powering corporations and our favourite web services. Neither are we defining PC as the distinction between Justin Long and John Hodgeman.3 And it’d be nearly impossible to draw a line at the distinction of what is or isn’t a PC based on it’s internal components, its operating system, or whether it has a physical keyboard or not. Eric Grevstad describes this slippery slope:

But is everything with a chip in it a PC? Surely not, or we’re embracing embedded systems and appliances that have one or two applications at most. A digital camera isn’t a PC any more than a digital picture frame is, even though it may offer simple in-camera image editing.

What people are likely trying to define is whether the iPad is as productive as its PC counterparts, where “PC” in this instance is verbiage for a desktop or laptop. Which reveals the “is it a PC?” debate for what it truly is: the “content consumption vs creation” debate in another candy wrapper.4 Grevstad thinks the answer lies in the anecdotal experiment of watching people use iPads:

But of all the iPads (and infrequent Android tablets) I see day to day, virtually none are running those [productivity] apps. People are using tablets for e-reading, Web surfing, and movie viewing. And—at least for now, at least if you focus on real-world usage patterns—I say Canalys is wrong to count tablets as PCs.

Apparently, it seems Grevstad has never5 seen the real-world usage of PCs in person outside of the workplace, since it’d be safe to assume most people are using PCs at home to browse the web, update their Facebook accounts, and torrent a screener of The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo. Otherwise known as consuming. Nevertheless, it would be as easy to name examples of people using iPads in a variety of productive ways. Which brings us back to square one.

Perhaps we want to measure whether the iPad is as capable as a PC. If the iPad can do every task a PC can accomplish, then perhaps indeed it could be considered one. And while it would be a simple argument to prove the iPad isn’t a PC (say, you can’t program and build an iOS application on an iOS device), it’s a stretch to claim that all PCs themselves are all equally capable. If no one is using the iPad for serious professional film editing, neither is anyone using a netbook or consumer desktop with integrated graphics. Once again, it’s impossible to draw a line based on capabilities alone.

In some ways, it’s curious why anyone would want to equate an iPad to a PC in the first place. Chuck Skoda establishes good reasons why an iPad is actually quite different from whatever we call a PC. The debate frames the iPad’s inability to be a PC an inferiority, while in actuality it is those very differences that make it more desirable. Couldn’t you attribute the iPad’s success to the fact that it eschews old computer interaction paradigms, that it facilitates content consumption enjoyment, or that it feels infinitely more personal than any PC before it? If anything, doesn’t the iPad demonstrate a market demand for something that isn’t only post-PC, but something un-PC? If so, why are tech writers trying to prove the iPad is something it so clearly isn’t?

Ok so who’s right?

The answer to this debate is immaterial, having nothing to do with the iPad itself and everything to do with legitimizing and justifying its existence ourselves, whatever side of the coin we happen to fall on. No one seriously disputes that the iPad isn’t a computer in some form, from which point it becomes moot whether it’s equivalent to notebook or a desktop tower: both arrive at similar results and similar experiences. The difference is only in implementation. So what’s to gain in proving it can be as useful as a notebook or that it is more useful than a smartphone beyond self-satisfaction?6 Is the twisted logic that if we can somehow prove the iPad is a PC, and PCs are generally accepted as practical tools in modern society, that the iPad must then be more than the luxury item some claim it is? Problem is, this argument only works as a riposte to detractors who make the iPad out to be a toy. It is sufficiently clear to any reasonable person that the iPad can be practical in the modern world, if only by mere virtue of its popularity. But if you’re repeatedly engaging in such convoluted justifications for your own sake, then perhaps you didn’t need it in the first place.7

And what if you oppose the iPad’s PC-ness? Perhaps you’re simply scared of the inevitable sea change computing is undergoing. You want to believe in the the PC’s continued relevance, that’s its implementation methods are still valuable and needed. Acknowledging the iPad as a peer to the PC would be admitting defeat. Maybe you’re scared of losing the status conferred by understanding the complexity of desktop operating systems and computers with removable parts.8

Or maybe at its essence, the whole debate is another example of the sports fan, “I’m right your wrong” mentality the tech community is often prone of expressing. Sides are picked, allegiances are made, and the fires of rivalry are stoked.

But is the iPad reeeaaally a PC?

Shawn Blanc makes the best effort to sort through the naysaying to understand what it is that is actually driving this forum on the iPad’s PC-ness. He describes the cause…

There will come a time when the majority of consumers who are in the market for a new personal computer will consider (and buy) an iPad or other tablet rather than a laptop or desktop computer. And when that time comes, the debate about the iPad being a PC or not will be over.

The market will decide that the iPad is a PC by buying them instead of laptops and desktops.

And effect…

The fact that: (a) such a young device could be such a smashing success; and that (b) it could disrupt the decades-old PC market, are both interesting topics for discussion. And that discussion is manifesting itself as: “is the iPad a PC or not?”

In the end, Shawn comes around to a similar conclusion as the one I’m presenting: that the discussion says more about us than it does the iPad.

It seems that those arguing against the iPad being called a PC are really trying to make their own point that, for them, an iPad could not replace their PC. When they say the iPad is not a PC what they mean is that either: (a) there’s no way I would or could give up my PC and use an iPad instead; or (b) the iPad is not yet a PC, but it probably will be soon.

His focus is on those arguing against the iPad’s PC-ness, but similar points could be raised for people arguing for it: that they’ve simply arrived to early at the party and aren’t ready to admit they still do need their PCs.

The answer Blanc arrives to is as such: that what we are attempting to determine through this debate is the precise moment in time when our primary computing paradigms shift from those proposed by traditional PCs to those from modern, touch based systems like the iPad. Denying that the iPad is a PC becomes an attempt to delay that moment, to push it back to some later date, in the hope it may never come. Meanwhile, those claiming it is a PC have simply acknowledged that the shift is occurring as we speak.

So in the end, even if there is no definite answer, we may be able to come to some understanding as to why we are so eager to discuss the iPad’s PC-ness. One thing is for sure: the arrival of the iPad has and will continue to simultaneously massage the ego of some while unquestionably deflating those of others.9 Which ego you end up as is all a matter of your ability to deal with future-shock.

  1. Except maybe for analysts. Determining whether the iPad is a PC or not changes whether their reports can claim “skyrocketing PC sales” or “PC market free fall”. I suppose the distinction matters is you’re trying to defend investments in HP and Dell stocks. 

  2. The debate to define post-PC is even more absurd. Can someone please define post-personal? What comes after personal? 

  3. In which case the iPad is unequivocally not a PC. 

  4. Presumably to fool those who’ve already tuned out of that debate. 

  5. Grevstad’s example of productivity apps? The laudable DataViz’s Documents To Go, which still thinks Palm and S60 are platforms. 

  6. Something I’ve personally been unable able to justify, resulting in returning both my iPad purchases shortly after owning them. 

  7. See 6. above. 

  8. Which would go a long way towards explaining why every argument against the iPad being a PC is the lack of some form of complexity only a small or particular group of people care about. 

  9. Persons and corporations alike. 

Dave Winer Dislikes Mobile Web Design

Dave Winer, complaining about Google’s mobile search results page:

Designers really need to hear the following, loud and clear: The iPad browser is fully capable. It doesn’t need you to treat it differently.

Spend 30 seconds with an iPad and you’ll notice that, in fact, it should be treated differently: you interact with it by touch, it can display graphics in different orientations, it has geolocation capabilities and many more attributes than a desktop browser has access to. Why shouldn’t designers build websites taking advantage of these differences?

What Winer could have said is that mobile web design should be as information rich as on the desktop. What he’s complaining about, and the Google example is a bad one in my opinion, is mobile web design that dumbs a site down into a few touch button with large text that isn’t useful to users. That is a problem, especially if websites redirect iPad users to mobile websites intended for smartphones. However, Winer’s solution is as incorrect and shortsighted.