by G S Srinivas
The screen and design: That’s really all that there is to the new iPad. The new Retina display, the same seamless industrial design we have come to expect from Apple products, and most importantly, the very embodiment of what Apple sees as as the future of computing.
When Apple first introduced the iPod Touch with the (then) new high resolution screen two years ago, I quickly bought one. I remember holding it in my hand for that first time: a small, dense cuboid of precisely engineered steel and glass, alluring in its black finish. I named it TMA 1, after the strange black cuboid found on the moon in 2001: A Space Odessey. I was frankly blown away by the incredible detail that this new screen could display.
The new iPad is a similar highly engineered black cuboid, only larger, and I naturally named mine TMA -2, the larger black cuboid found orbiting Saturn. And oh my god, it’s full of stars.
Getting used to the new high-resolution, high-density screen on the new iPad is an experience by itself. At first, you are mildly surprised; this screen does feel pleasant. Then, you feel skeptical, and wonder if this high-resolution screen is really all that it’s made out to be. But then try using your usual computer – in my case, a five year old MacBook – for something, and prepare to be amazed that a computer display could be this bad. That’s what the new iPad does to you: it raises the bar so high that using any other display will always seem jarring and rough, compelling you to return to the delectable smoothness of the Retina display.
Text – properly rendered – is a delight to read on the new iPad. Only a handful of apps have been updated to support the quadrupled display, but text stands out in most apps as the operating system is smart enough to handle the text separately. Naturally, all Apple apps that ship with the device are Retina-ready, and are packed with delightful eye candy. Controls in iTunes are exquisitely detailed. The Contacts and Calendar apps sport aged leather. And the linen background Apple seems so addicted to, looks uncannily realistic.
Photos really pop out of the screen on the new iPad. Given that most cameras – especially Digital SLRs – have native resolutions larger than even the iPad can display, looking at my photos on the new iPad was a visual delight. You see detail you never knew existed.
Apple has been pushing the envelope on industrial design for the last decade with the Mac, then the iPhone, and now the iPad. To many people, the fact that Apple’s products are well-designed is a comment met with derision, as though design is a seductive process to make something staid pretty, a layer of superfluous veneer on an already functional product.
Apple has spent the last decade committed to the idea that design isn’t the way something looks, it’s the way something works. The process of design in the iPad thus goes all the way from the superficial to the fundamental.
From the outside, it’s a big, black display, with (in my case) a black bezel that you can hold on to. The back is stark and unadorned – save for the mandatory Apple logo. There are no stickers on the device – a telling statement when most computers (and cameras) even today are sold with stickers on them advertising their features. Everything on the outside is engineered to near perfection: the lock button and the volume rocker are a delight to use, with perfectly natural tactile feedback when pressed, as seen also on the iPhone.
And that’s it. That’s all the design the user ever sees of the device. Most of the design, of course, is inside the iPad; in the way a massive 42.5 Watt-Hour battery has been squeezed into a case this thin, in the obsessive cramming of components into tiny spaces within the device, and in the very design of the System-on-a-Chip that powers the entire device.
But the user doesn’t see any of that (unless you peruse iFixit’s excellent tear down of the device) because the user doesn’t have to. All the user sees is the app on his display, responding to his every touch.
In some sense, that’s what the iPad is all about – and that’s why the exterior design of the device is so minimalist. The iPad isn’t about itself: it’s about what’s in it.
The iPad is often widely criticised for being a consumer’s device. I’m in the business of creating things, and I don’t think I spend more time creating than consuming. People are consumers, and people really need something that lets them consume – lots. Secondly, it so happens that the myth that the iPad is a consumer’s device is exactly that: false. The iPad (and the iPhone before it) redefines what it is to be a computer, and has pushed the boundaries on what can be created electronically – not just on a tablet PC.
It’s got a screen you can’t stop looking at, every physical characteristic has been optimised, every pixel has been tweaked till it’s perfect. It’s the embodiment of the next big idea: that the way we think about computing is going to change. The only question is when the rest of the market follows the iPad’s lead.
In Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of 2001: A Space Odessey, astronauts are seen with a device not unlike the iPad to communicate with their (admittedly neurotic) computer, read messages from Earth, and watch TV. It’s not often that reality lags science fiction by only ten years.
Srinivas is a neuroscientist at Yale who blogs at srinivas.gs.
Dec 20, 2014