A month with the new iPad

Apple released its third-generation iPad on March 16th and I purchased mine one day later on the 17th. There were no lines at my local Best Buy when I went to buy the new model. In fact, there were still more than 100 new iPads in stock when I picked up my iPad more than 36 hours after it was released. The store was eerily quiet. It felt nothing like an Apple launch.

Of course we learned just a few days later that a lack of demand was certainly not to blame for the surplus of inventory; after five years, Apple had finally managed to meet demand with a mobile product at launch. The Cupertino, California-based company sold more than 3 million third-generation iPads during the tablet’s first four days of availability, making the new iPad Apple’s second biggest product launch of all time behind the iPhone 4S, which sold more than 4 million units during its debut weekend.

I have never been an iPad user. I took possession of a first-generation iPad out of necessity — I had to know what I would be reporting on for the year to follow — but I rarely touched the tablet unless I had to test a new app or cover something else having to do with Apple’s slate. Light-duty media tablets simply did not appeal to me, and I maintained my indifference toward the category for the two years that followed. I have a drawer full of smartphones with screens that vary in size from 3.5 inches to 5.3 inches, an eReader, a lightweight MacBook Air laptop and a Dell desktop PC. I’m covered.

Even the BlackBerry PlayBook, my one-eyed man in the country of the blind, has sat untouched for several months since I purchased a Nook Touch from Barnes & Noble. While PlayBook OS 2.0 has brought a number of much-needed improvements to the device, reading eBooks was really the only function I could find that I continued to enjoy more on a tablet than on a laptop or smartphone. That experience is infinitely better on the Nook though, and my BlackBerry tablet has been boxed as a result.

So I bought a new iPad, and these are my thoughts after having spent the past month with it.

As was the case when Apple released its first- and second-generation iPads, reviews of the third Apple tablet were overwhelmingly positive. Despite conspiracy theories that run rampant on enthusiast forums and in the comments sections of news sites, this is not because of some elaborate scheme among the media and technology blogs to give Apple positive coverage. No, the truth is far less scintillating and scandalous: Apple makes products people like.

BGR reviewed the iPad in March and Editor-in-chief Jonathan Geller said the only real competition the new iPad has comes from its predecessor, the iPad 2, which is currently available for just $399. While low-end slates like the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet have been well received, I agree that these are not iPad competitors and I conveyed as much in my review of Amazon’s tablet last year. Apple CEO Tim Cook then confirmed the notion this past January, stating on an earnings call that the Kindle Fire had no impact whatsoever on iPad sales.

I am on record numerous times stating that media tablets have no place in my life. My opinion was that tablets, and the iPad specifically, do many things well but nothing as well as as one of several other devices I already own. You can watch videos on an iPad, but I would rather watch on a TV. You can work on an iPad, but I would rather use a notebook or desktop computer. You can quickly maneuver through dozens of gorgeous apps on an iPad, but I have smartphones packed to the brim with great apps. You can read books on the iPad, but I have a Nook Touch that lasts for more than a month on a charge, and is much lighter and more comfortable to hold than the iPad. For everything the iPad does, I already own something that does it better.

This is no longer the case.

Apple’s new tablet isn’t magical, but it certainly is amazing. The hardware is a feat of design and engineering that has no equal in the tablet space. Sleek and smooth, the case on the new iPad is very similar to the previous model, though it is slightly thicker to make room for a massive 11,560 mAh battery and a few other new components. The new dual-core A5X processor with quad-core graphics offers significant performance improvements compared to the iPad 2, which was already impressive, and iOS is as smooth as a modern mobile operating system can be.

But the new iPad won me over due to what essentially boils down to two things: the Retina display and the talent of third-party iOS developers.

Countless adjectives have been used to describe the Retina display on the new iPad. Amazing. Fantastic. Brilliant. Gorgeous. Vivid. Beautiful. Stunning. They’re all accurate.

The 9.7-inch, 2,048 x 1,536-pixel panel on the iPad offers better-than-Blu-ray resolution at a class-leading 264 pixels per inch. The pixel density on Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 is 149 pixels per inch, and while such comparisons are meaningless due to the user’s position relative to a television, a 42-inch HDTV with 1080p resolution offers 52 pixels per inch.

More than pixel counts, brightness measurements or any other specs on paper, the iPad’s Retina display is an experience. Nothing on a widely available consumer electronics device even comes close to offering the experience afforded by this amazing screen, and it may be some time before anything does. The color reproduction and clarity make staring at the Retina display like looking through a window, but the user has the ability to touch and manipulate the items that exist on the other side.

The iPad’s Retina display creates a new reality that the user holds in the palm of his or her hand — which brings me to apps.

Our world would be a very different place if Steve Jobs and Apple’s top executives had stuck to their original plan and confined third-party developers who wanted to address iOS to the Web. Apple’s mobile devices, and all mobile devices, would be infinitely less useful and a $20 billion industry responsible for creating more than 466,000 jobs to date would not exist.

The things these talented people have created for iOS are simply breathtaking. While fantastic apps exist for Android, Windows Phone, webOS and other platforms, the cream of the crop on these operating systems does not measure up to the look, feel or performance of top iOS apps. And on the third-generation iPad, the gap is significantly greater than it has ever been before.

Even apps from top developers that exist on multiple platforms offer far more attractive and often more enjoyable experiences on iOS, and especially on the iPad. Look at Netflix, Evernote, Hulu Plus, ESPN ScoreCenter, TED, Kobo, Pulse, Adobe Photoshop Touch or any one of a hundred other popular apps. These applications exist for the iPad and for Android tablets, but the difference between performance — and often, the look and feel — on the iPad and on Android devices is painful. There are several root causes of this disparity, but none of them matter even a little bit to the end user. All that matters is the experience.

These differences grow even more vast with the new iPad. Things aren’t just better on the iPad than they are on other tablets, they’re completely different. The impact of this next-level visual element cannot be overstated.

And the best apps the iPad has to offer aren’t just a cut above the rest now, they are jaw-dropping. There is nothing else in the world that lets people take in news and other content like Flipboard. There is nothing widely available to the mass market that lets people sketch and translate ideas onto “paper” like Paper by FiftyThree. Nothing even approaches these experiences. Not on a tablet, not on a smartphone and not on a PC.

This brings me back to the competition. On top of everything else, the third-generation iPad shows us exactly why Apple’s rivals are floundering and will continue to flounder unless they readdress the market from a smarter angle.

Apple’s competition has effectively gotten nowhere with their efforts to profit from the media tablet market Apple created. The first round of Android tablets was a bust because the user experiences these devices afforded were awful. Vendors scrambled to launch tablets similar to the iPad and the smartphone platform on which they based their efforts did not translate well at all to larger devices.

The second round of Android tablets offered a much better user experience, however these devices bring nothing new and desirable to the table where mass-market consumers are concerned. There is no valuable differentiation for average users, only a more complex and sometimes confusing interface, a weaker assortment of applications and a user experience that cannot match the iPad.

We’ve seen a few success stories, but to call them moderate is kind. With just a pair of niche devices as the exception — the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet — Apple sold more iPads during the new model’s debut weekend than most competing tablets will sell in a quarter, half or even a year.

Tablet makers are doing it wrong.

Now, the situation stands to get even worse. Vendors have been unable to create a tablet experience that consumers are willing to get behind en masse, so they now plan to compete not with products but with pricing. Companies have seen the success enjoyed by Amazon’s $199 Kindle Fire, a specialized device, and they now hope to bolster sales by launching cheaper tablets. Samsung’s new Galaxy Tab models are about to hit the market with trimmed price points, and Google itself is said to be readying an own-brand tablet that could cost as little as $149. These devices may or may not perform well in terms of sales, but my concern lies elsewhere.

This path leads only to compromise, certainly not to innovation.

Why am I being so hard on Android tablets and the companies that build them? Is it because I do not believe top vendors like HTC and Samsung can compete with Apple in the tablet space? Is it because I enjoy seeing them fail? Quite the contrary, it’s because I want to see Apple’s competition succeed.

Apple’s new tablet is amazing, and it has proven to me that a tablet can indeed offer real value and utility where smartphones and traditional computers cannot. But the iPad is only one vision of a tablet.

I don’t want to see companies like Samsung and HTC try and fail to replicate Apple’s vision, and I certainly don’t want to see them do it repeatedly. I want to see them create their own unique visions of what a media tablet might be, and I want to see them launch products that are worthy of our attention — not because these new devices are like a cheaper iPad or like an open-source iPad, but because they are well-designed, well-made, useful and unique.

I want a tablet market, not an iPad market.

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