Tech Analysis: Apple iPad • Page 2

Digital Foundry explores a new front in the handheld gaming war.

Those who have spent hands-on time with the iPad are struck by its brilliance in all of those regards. However, bearing in mind the significant price point, there are a substantial number of technical limitations in the iPad that seem like horrific oversights: the lack of a front-facing built-in camera effectively sets back comms-over-IP 10 years to the era of audio-only chat - very weird bearing in mind the ubiquity of both Skype and Apple's own iChat on its own platforms.

Secondly, as unintentionally demonstrated during Jobs' presentation, Apple is still yet to support Flash, making what is supposed to be "the best browsing experience you've ever had" lack key features embedded into many websites, and depriving iPad of the hugely popular games seen in Facebook and elsewhere (perhaps even by design).

Then there's the lack of user-expandable RAM. Buy the base-level iPad and there's no way to add to the onboard memory. Tied closely to this is the bizarre omission of a memory card slot, or even an onboard USB connection. Having spent so long developing a beautiful interface for looking at photos, Apple expects you to copy them to your computer, then presumably sync them via iTunes before you can look at them. Alternatively, you can dip into your pocket to purchase an SD card adaptor (why no multi-card reader?) that also comes with a USB adaptor for a direct camera connection.

Movie playback remains very limited too: there's no support for anything other than .mov, .mp4 and .m4v files. HD support is there, but once again it's limited to Apple's backward implementation of h264. In technical terms that means Main Profile level 3.1 with AAC-LC audio up to 48kHz, with a maximum of 720p at 30 frames per second. Nope, those .avi and .mkv files are not going to work natively and even if you could download a third-party app to play them, iTunes isn't going to let you sync the file across anyway.

It's also worthwhile to remember that the vast majority of TV shows and movies operate in widescreen, while the iPad itself runs with a 9.7" 4:3 display with a resolution of 1024x768. This means no native HD rendering of high-def content. A 720p 16:9 movie will render at 1024x576 onscreen, while a 2.35:1 aspect ratio will only yield a 1024x436 image.

These basic facts mean that the real estate you do have on-screen is going to have a significant amount of space wasted displaying black bars, the alternative being to crop the left and right of the image via zoom-in. Yes, the eBook reader might look a bit strange with a 16:9 aspect ratio to contend with, but Apple itself answered the question fairly nicely with the 3:2 make-up of the iPhone screen. That being the case, reverting to a traditionally shaped display is rather baffling.

If Apple's objective was to drive the netbook phenomenon into irrelevance, it's done a pretty awful job on those counts, as any number of cheaper computers address all those issues more completely.

Of course, some of the iPad's obvious deficiencies can be answered through software upgrades. It's fair to say that the iPhone has evolved massively since its initial launch, and it's in this respect that the final key limitation of the new system should be addressed: multi-tasking.

While many of the iPad's drawbacks probably won't be such an issue to the less technologically aware, the core iPad demographic is going to be used to having instant messaging applications open at the same time as something like Facebook, or even a browser, and the iPad won't be able to do this. It's widely believed that the forthcoming iPhone OS 4.0 incorporates proper multi-tasking, but in a world where reporting Apple rumours is a cottage industry in itself, credible sources to back this up are few and far between.

Of course, problems with the iPad can be fixed with product refreshes and publicity-generating system updates, and it's in this respect that Apple has another colossal advantage over Sony and Nintendo in the gaming fields. We typically expect a games console or handheld to last us for four years or more, but we can expect the iPad to follow the trend set by the iPhone: yearly updates with useful spec boosts, thus ensuring an evolution of the platform and its gaming prowess.

Up until now, technically advanced games development on the latest iPhone has been held back by the older models, as publishers have been slow to accept the 3D boost provided by Open GL ES 2.0, which is exclusive to the 3GS and third-generation Touch. The iPad offers new impetus for the standard, and it's also an example of how products aimed at different markets, but with a clear crossover, can drive the consumer on to buying one product and upgrading another. Thankfully, used Apple gear tends to hold its price remarkably well, making the bitter pill of upgrading easier to swallow.

Games-wise, the potential of an additional revenue stream from iPad could prove irresistible to developers, and there are two possible approaches: games can be designed for iPad then scaled down for the smaller screen. Or alternatively, the third-gen Touch and 3GS can be the lead platform, with additional bling coded in for the iPad SKU. And yes, suddenly that 3GS version of Unreal Engine 3 seems to make a whole lot more sense. It's based on Open GL ES 2.0, so will work on native iPad apps as well as the 3GS.

In the meantime, Apple's decision to open up the handheld market with two - now three - different, but compatible and converging games-capable devices poses interesting questions for Sony and Nintendo with their forthcoming PSP2 and DS2 systems. Apple has already transcended the basic concept of a single SKU handheld games machine with the availability of both iPhone and iPod Touch, while the imminent release of the super-desirable iPad expands the potential appeal of mobile gameplay still further, to a brand new audience Sony and Nintendo would love to reach. Sony in particular must be wondering whether its existing Sony Reader product can survive in a market where iPad is set to dominate.

Short-term, Sony and Nintendo's instincts will surely be to play it safe with traditional handheld-style machines that are as cheap as possible. But we've talked in the past about thepotential specs of the PSP2 and DS2, both HD-capable should the platform holders wish, and both more than capable of competing graphically with the full-on iPad. In the case of Sony's machine especially, the mooted GPU power is staggering for a handheld device: easily in excess of what's been seen on iPad. Whether the platform holders can compete in terms of apps and operating system obviously remains to be seen.

While the smart money is on PSP2 and DS2 adopting the form factor of their predecessors, will the comparative weaknesses seen in the feature-set of the iPad tempt Sony or Nintendo to take it on head-to-head with alternate SKUs of their own? Or could the iPad experiment itself fail, beaten by a combination of cheaper, more mobile devices at one end of the market and superior, undoubtedly cheaper tablets from its competitors?

Only time will tell, but in the meantime, the imminent arrival of iPad certainly adds extra spice to the mobile computer and gaming markets.

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