A Review: iPad 3rd Generation for Academics

First, for all of you anxiously awaiting this review, sorry it was late.  Second, this is not going to be a review about the New iPad as a whole.  There are plenty of other reviews that do that trick better than I ever could .  This review is about the New iPad as a tool for the academic and specifically how it differs from the iPad 2 in respect to academic use.  So without further ado.

Plus! Retina Display.  Yes, with Apple’s–obvious–continued support of multi-touch gestures, the pinch-pull zoom  and tap-to-zoom features continue to make it possible to zoom in and read the penny-pinching4 point fonts found in some reference works.  However, as I’ve already complained, pinch-pull and tap-to-zoom cause you to lose your place in the body of the text in order to read the footnotes.  The iPad 3’s (anachronistic slip) Retina display does address this issue handily–so long as the .pdf file you are reading from is sufficiently high-resolution to begin with.  As detailed here in less geeky detail, the last step of my book scanning workflow halves the size of the finished .pdf files by lowering the dpi from the original .tif scan’s 600 to the final .jpeg version’s 300.  While 300 dots per inch is still greater than the 246 dots per inch the New iPad can display without zooming, the jpeg compression process leaves the images less than sharp.  Now, don’t get me wrong, itsy-bitsy footnotes are still readable on the New iPad in a way that would not be possible on the iPad 1 or 2, but I’m thinking my “low quality 300 dpi” .pdf versions might morph to a 450 dpi level in order better take advantage of the new display.

The more significant–and unexpected–benefit of the new display is faster reading with less eye-strain.  Now, I don’t have the time to do a scientific study, but my perception is that the sharper display on the New iPad does indeed allow one to read faster.  If this sounds like a bunch of wild-eyed Apple fanboy-ism consider this article comparing reading speed between a printed page, Kindle, and an original iPad/iPad 2.  Now, already in the 1980s researchers theorized that higher resolution screens promoted faster character recognition as noted here.  So, the Retina display’s resolution is designed to surpass the level of resolution necessary for individual pixels to be visible meaning that an image of a page on the iPad New is of the same quality as the orginal page from which is was scanned.  My–purely anecdotal–findings have supported, if not necessarily confirmed speedier reading on the new iPad verses my iPad 2.  A related to the issue of resolution  is eye-strain.  As this article notes–however abstrusely–that a key factor in eye-strain is “visual sophistication” i.e. resolution.  Newsprint or cheap paperbacks actually provide a “lower resolution” image than that shown on the third gen iPad.  Normal reading rules apply, 1) take reading breaks periodically, and 2) look away from your screen to focus on objects closer and farther away to avoid strain, but the iPad’s display is no longer inferior–less visually sophisticated–than paper and ink anymore.

Plus! Faster Processing and More Ram.  My original iPad had a tendency to crash when loading and processing large books in iAnnotate.  After an exchange of many emails, the concensious was that the 256mb RAM in the original iPad just weren’t up to processing large .pdf files.  When the iPad 2 became available I could suddenly load books without crossing my fingers that the program was going to crash when the processing got heated–likely due to the bump from 256 to 512mb of RAM.  However, when thumbing through pages on the iPad 2 there were still long moments spent waiting for individual pages to become visible.  (Imagine waiting for web pages to load on a dial-up internet connection: checkerboard rectangles are gradually filled in with images.)  Now, the ipad 2 was fast enough that the only time this phenomena became annoying was when one was furiously flipping through pages trying to find a distant chapter.  This was a necessary evil right?

On the iPad New pages load in so fast that even when flipping through many, many pages one after another the text becomes visible even before the page-scroll settles.  No, its still not as good as being able to fan the pages of a book grab any page instantaneously, but its more than sufficiently fast for any user.  The New iPad’s quad-core graphics processor and 1GB of RAM obviously do more than allow for “Xbox and Playstation level gaming.” Now, not everyone will be working with massive pdf files, but my guess is that I’m not the only academic who does.  The bump in performance in the New iPad is a real bonus for users working with large digital libraries.

Meh! Larger battery.  The price to pay for the faster processing and the prettier screen is indeed, a larger and heavier battery than takes longer to charge and is even less capable of charging from computer USBs while in use (read more here).  Stories like this and great overheating scandal of 2012! are lightening rods for anti-Apple posturing and yellow technology journalism that suggest that these extraordinarily insignificant issues are somehow going to doom the New iPad, the Apple corporation, and even better still, tarnish the memory of Steve Jobs!  Maniacal Laugh, maniacal laugh!  However, in reality, Apple had no choice but to include a larger battery in order to support the other mechanical upgrades to the iPad.  The iPad gets a bit warmer because it has a faster processor and a huge chemical battery pack built in.  If you take out in the sun for several hours or leave it on the dashboard of your car in California, it will, like any other piece of modern tech, not be happy.  If however you just play a marathon game of Infinity Blade 2, it will become a bit warm–but no warmer than a laptop.

As far as Apple’s deviation from the thinner/lighter mantra is concerned, people would have reacted negatively to a product that depleted its battery faster than the iPad 2 so the big battery is a trade-off and its really not noticeable anyway.  Not one of the iPad’s so far is something that can be held overhead like a paperback book for hours and hours and the iPad 3 is no different.  Frankly, if the trade off for a lighter iPad is a lower, less industrial build quality I would prefer to continue to invest in stands and cases that mitigate the issue altogether.  The iPad is still smaller and lighter than a laptop–even the Macbook Air and Netbooks so it is more convenient for a mobile academic.  The battery life on my iPad 3 runs between 9 and 11 hours or about 2 and a half times longer than my 2009 Macbook Pro and about twice as long as my late 2011 Macbook and that means that it is still a better choice for taking notes, presenting Power Points, and doing audio recordings of lectures than those other devices.

Boo! Storage capacity. So with all this good news, the iPad New can do no wrong, right?  Well… yes and no.  Apple has stuck to its pricing structure through three generations of tablet retail: the 16GB at $499, the 32GB at $599, and the 64GB at $699.  No doubt, for most folks, these sizes are more than sufficient–especially when using iTunes Match service to stream your music from the Cloud rather than carry it around with you.  Those who splurged for the 4G LTE–an additional $130 plus a monthly charge of $25 or more for the service–can stream their music until the bill comes and they realize they’ve been paying $10 a gig to stream Beyonce since the fifteenth of the month.  However, for those of us unwilling or unable to outsource our storage needs, higher storage capacity iPad’s have been on our wishlist since Steve Jobs held aloft the second generation of the device.

Now, it is obvious that if Apple were to have given us a 128GB or 256GB version of the New iPad they would have taken the opportunity to make some money.  The vast majority of iPads sold are the base model 16GB units and it is at that level that Apple’s cost of production and retail price are closest.  At the step up levels Apple increases their profitability significantly–one can buy a 32GB flash memory card for a lot less than one-hundred dollars after all.  Likely, a 128GB iPad would have slotted into the pricing structure at $799 and a 256GB at as high as $999.  So, while I desperately need Apple to release a device with more storage, I likely couldn’t justify spending the cash for such a device–either as a student or as a professor just starting out.

The other solution to this issue would be expandable memory through an SD card slot, but it seems that Apple is pretty stubborn on that point–and for good reason.  Since the 16GB would be the only model that most people would even consider, Apple’s profitable sales of step-up models would fall flat.  While Apple still makes the majority of its money through accessory sales and App purchases, companies seldom give up a revenue stream once they’ve got one.  As an academic I’d be happy to buy a higher capacity unit, if I could afford to do so–and one was available, but the ability to carry my music library on one SD and my library on another and swap them out as needed would have deprived Apple of at least $200.  So, look for higher capacities before SD card slots, but expect to pay dearly for those 128GB devices–when they eventually arrive.



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