The New iPad: A Love Story of Infinite Pixels

Rain is falling in Santa Monica, CA. At 5:30 AM my iPhone starts buzzing; ten minutes later I’m out of bed. At 6:30 I’m driving to the Verizon store. I’ve decided to forego the lines at Apple’s landmark store on the 3rd St. Promenade. I like to show up ninety minutes before the doors open for these events. I’m already late. It takes eight minutes to drive there, fourteen to find a parking spot. I duck under the Verizon awning at 7:00 AM.

There is nobody there.

I checked my phone. It indeed is March 16, and the third-generation iPad does go on sale today. I wait.

Tweetbot, Flipboard, Facebook, Sparrow, and Instagram open and close on my phone multiple times. At 7:40 another line-dweller shows up. I attempt to strike up conversation. “Quite the display,” I say gesturing to the noticeable lack of a crowd and lingering on the word “display.” It’s a double entendre. The new iPad features a retina display with 3,201,024 pixels—a million more than the 52-inch “HD” televisions in the Verizon windows. He doesn’t get the joke. I shrug it off and look back at my phone.

A homeless man is yelling at passing cars. “You don’t own me. The LOOORRD does—nobody does! I’m FREEEEE.” He begins to clap and jump while repeating, “Free, Free, Me! Free, Free, Me!” I consider joining him but don’t want to risk losing my spot in line. I’ve never been first in line for an Apple launch. It’s an honor both humorous and depressing.

At 7:56 another guy shows up. He comments on the lack of line. I give him a wide-eyed expression intending to say “I know, right?!” By the way he recoiled, I assume I made my eyes a bit too wide. “I’m not malicious, just tired and haven’t had coffee yet,” I want to say. Instead I ask why he’s interested in the iPad, what he does for a living, etc. He’s an agreeable enough guy who works in textiles. This is his first iPad—his first Apple product even. I tell him I’ve been wasting money on Apple products for years. He asks what I mean by saying “waste.” Too tired to defend my habitual spending to the Cult of Steve, I tell him they are expensive and due to their yearly product cycles they are ever-updating. I think it makes sense to him. He says he feels bad for anyone who bought an iPad 2 yesterday. I nod in agreement. 8:00 AM. The Verizon manager opens the door. We walk in.

30 minutes later, after being helped by a Verizon employee named Horan, I walk out of the store with a new iPad. It’s still raining as I head to the car. Inside, I open up the box and take out the device. It has a noticeable heft to it. On paper it’s only 50 grams heavier than the iPad 2, but the difference is pronounced. It’s also barely thicker than the previous generation, something else that I could feel. These two adjustments are antithetical to Apple’s ethos. Every product iteration they have made has been smaller and lighter than the previous. Every. Single. One. That is until now. And it really bothers me. Something had to give. But Apple has never followed that logic. Why start now?

I remained disgruntled as I powered up the device. When the screen came on, the world came on. I’d read about the technology, and understood the specifications driving the new display. For every one pixel on the iPad 2, there are now four—an engineering feat, to be sure. I know that just because you can fit four pixels in the space of one doesn’t mean it will look good. Signals will get crossed, interfere, cancel out, and blur quality. Remember, this is a touch display. To make the retina display possible, I know Apple uses Super High Aperture (SHA) pixel design. I even know the chemical makeup of the resin used to coat the screen. But knowing all the details and seeing the actual product are two different worlds. Once you look at the Retina display, you can’t go back to a normal one. You will spend the rest of your life searching for another to stare at. I guarantee it.

iPad 2 on left, new iPad on right

I notice the color temperature of the display is more blue-red (like the iPhone 4) compared to the yellow of iPad 2 (similar to the iPhone 4S). I doubt this is something people will take note of. But notes can be made.

I logged into the AppStore and proceeded to download the applications tied to my account. Not all third-party apps are retina-ready at this point. And going between those that are, and are not is a struggle for your eyes. The retina optimized New York Times app looks like a glossy-magazine. The display is structured in such a way, that at casual glance, it is essentially indistinguishable from paper—a paper with a radiant glow. It absolutely blows away e-ink, any Android display, nearly every monitor I’ve seen, and even the iPhone’s retina display. The apps that are not retina-ready look atrocious; they offend the eyes in a way that makes them nearly unusable.

To get a feel for the device, I opened iBooks. I started reading Quiet by Susan Cain a couple days earlier on the iPad 2. I love the portability of the device but couldn’t stand reading on the device for too long. I got headaches and my eyeballs would resent me for hours after from the strain. On the new iPad, I cruised through a chapter. No fatigue. No pain.

I’m still sitting in my car. The two hour parking limit is almost up. As I drive home thoughts about computing paradigms run through my head. Everything that occurs on the iPad is visual. If the reading experience is bad, the whole experience is bad. The retina display is the centerpiece of experience.

iPad 2 on left, new iPad on right

Back home, I open up Safari. I enjoyed the 21 Mbps downstream on LTE, but connect to wifi to conserve data. I fire up Safari and start going through my morning reads. There has been some argument that the display is too good. Not just because it makes everything look pixelated in comparison, but because so much of the content we consume isn’t made with high pixel-density in mind. I visited the Airspace on the iPad and all the images that look great on a ‘normal’ computer looked poor on the device. We optimize our images so we can serve them up quickly and effectively without hogging bandwidth. To make things look amazing on the new iPad, we will need to increase image sizes, or selectively serve content—send high-res images to new iPads, low-res images to anything running Windows 95, etc. The third option is for somebody to create a new, better image compression protocol. If it’s not done in the next five years, I’ll start working on it myself.

I make some mental notes of images to improve. Remembering I missed the Community episode from the night before, I open the Hulu+ app. It’s not optimized for the retina display so many of the icons look just awful. It runs without a hiccup. During the episode, I noticed how great the audio sounds from the single speaker on the device. I wish it was stereo, but I’m impressed nonetheless.

All of a sudden I remember that the new iPad has a redesigned camera on it. It’s that forgettable and almost that useless. I take some images with it. And, am not too impressed. I switch to video mode. The 1080p quality is great. But to get a capture you still have to look like a buffoon holding the iPad like a camera.

Of course the new iPad doesn’t only have a new display. It’s a 4G LTE device with quad-core graphics, massive amounts of battery life and a 5 megapixel iSight camera that can record 1080p video. Those features are nice, but the iPad itself is ostensibly just a display. The display is the only way you interact with content. Even the smallest change in display can affect the use of the entire device. Until today, I honestly preferred reading on my iPhone over my iPad 2. The pocket-portability argument aside, it simply felt better. It felt like it was closer to reading off paper. The quad-core graphics make this same experience possible on the new iPad and that’s really all that matters. The 1 GB of RAM also enables the experience. So does the massive battery configuration. But they aren’t selling points. The display creates the experience, and Apple sells experiences in their products (just watch their ads).

I consider doing some research for my review. I check Twitter for any launch day updates. A source says you can activate a Verizon iPad 3 by putting an AT&T micro-sim in it. I took the sim out of my iPhone (on AT&T), put it into my new iPad, adjust a few settings and it connects. Pleased, I relish this for a moment. There is no unified plan between data on an iPhone and iPad. This is a good starting point. It’s also most definitely against the terms of both my AT&T and Verizon contracts.

It seems clear that If you don’t like what you see, you won’t come back. That applies to a lot of things in life but definitely to the new iPad. Yes, you can still pick out pixels. Yes, there is no radical body redesign to differentiate it from the last model. Yes, it’s just called “iPad.” If you can’t tell the difference between the retina display and the one on the iPad 2, save yourself the money because the other upgrades are ancillary and not worth it alone. The user interface runs smoother, but not smooth enough to justify the cost to upgrade alone. LTE is a wonderful treat, but essentially just an over-glorified hotspot (on Verizon). The true potential of this iPad will be realized over the coming weeks as developers take advantage of it’s absolutely ridiculous display.

I cringe while I continue to go through non-updated apps. Any vector generated components are fine (body text, mostly), but the icons and images continue to look trashy. I think about how much more bloated this is likely to make the web. Then I think about how tired my wrist is. That extra 50 grams on the iPad 2 makes a difference over time. I put the device down and walk around the room, get a glass of orange juice, sit back down.

I look back over my post from launch day and see if there’s anything I’ve missed. I overlooked graphics in action (read: games). I only have Infinity Blade II tied to my account. I start downloading it and head to for a “top list of essential games for the iPad.” Sure enough they have one. The article starts begins “My God… it’s full of stars!” a nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Approvingly, I read on. Infinity Blade II is the first game listed. Check. Next came Mass Effect: Infiltrator. I haven’t yet picked up the third game in the series and probably won’t for a couple months. I pass over it. Third is Gameloft’s Modern Combat 3. The game is essentially a micro-version of Activisions Call of Duty Modern Warfare games. It’s only 99 cents right now. Some sort of sale. I buy it. I’m terrible at using the virtual joysticks to play the game. My avatar gets ravished by bullets and murdered repeatedly. Fortunately the game looks great. The graphics aren’t any more sophisticated, but it’s not outputting at a resolution higher than an HD television, even higher than most gaming computers will.

I will reiterate, in case you missed it. The display is absolutely out of control. Everything you have ever heard about 1080p and HD television is blown away by the display of a 9.7 inch screen. It’s a meteoric jump in quality that makes the surface of the iPad nearly indistinguishable from paper. It accomplishes this without making sacrifices (except for weight), and manages to throw in a couple extra features as well. My avatar in Modern Combat 3 is blown up by a grenade. I set the iPad down, my wrists tired from holding up the aluminum and glass beast. I wonder if all the advances of the display will be undone by the added heft. I doubt it, but people love to tear Apple apart. I check Twitter. Some blogger is saying if people don’t update their apps for the retina display, people will abandon using them. I doubt there is a room of developers anywhere saying, “We are not going to update our app, and that’s final!” Give them time. People love to throw stones at Apple and its world.

People are going to want to see, touch, and own the device. If someone asked my what they should do, I question how I would respond.

If they’re simply bleeding cash from their ears, they should buy it. They should also buy a massage chair, pet camel, and a Gibson Les Paul guitar to hang on their wall.

If they’ve never owned an iPad or tablet, I’d ask them why not. It’s certainly the best one on the market right now. But a year from now a new iPad will come out, or maybe an Android or Windows tablet will have seized the throne. If they really need another tablet and don’t want to keep waiting, I’d give them the green light.

If they have the original iPad, I’d tell them to trade it in for some cash before upgrading. I’d also point out all of the wonderful things the first generation iPad does better than leading Android tablets.

If they have the iPad 2, and read a whole lot on it, I’d tell them to sell back their device and upgrade. But selling back is the most important part. They made an investment in a device that’s only a year old. Sell it to a friend or get at least $300 for it on Amazon to keep down the cost of the upgrade. Just don’t keep both. Unless you really don’t like giving your tech away.

If you really just love the iPad, you’ll upgrade no matter what I say. Stop reading and go spend your hard-earned money.

I switch back to LTE. 23 Mbps down, 19 up. That’s four and a half times my AT&T connection at home. I think back to dial-up, its clanging connection siren song. 56 Kbps. The LTE connection on my iPad is over 410 times faster. If ten years in the future our connections are 400 times faster again, it won’t matter how large the graphics on an iPad are. But for a 9.7 inch screen, the pixel density race is done. There’s no reason for Apple to make a significantly better display on the iPad. They could bump it up to 300 pixels per inch, but that wouldn’t really make a difference. The new iPad is essentially what the iPad 2 should have been were the technology available at the time. With absolute certainty, the next generation of iPad, as well as iPhone, will be a radical departure from this generation. At least it will have to be in order to succeed. Or people will be trooping to stores that say they buy iPads and sell them to buy whatever product a competitor comes up with that is better.

I open up Instapaper, which has just been updated for the new iPad’s pixel-fest. It has also been updated with new H&FJ typefaces, a personal weakness of mine. I open up an unread article from February about John Fairfax’s death. Halfway through the article, I realize I’m just staring at the display and how well the text is rendered. Distracting. I’m lying on my back holding the iPad overhead with my right hand. My wrist is burning. Bringing the iPad down to my chest, I let out a sigh and grab for my backpack. I pull out the newest issue of Esquire I bought at the airport—for the 15 minute span of technology free time around take-off and landing. The cover story is a piece on Jon Hamm, AMC Mad Men’s Don Draper. I roll onto my stomach, fold the magazine in half, and begin to read.

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