Gargling With The Apple Kool-Aid

“Honey, why are we watching this in low-def?”

This is the persistent lament in my house when I walk into the living room and see what to my eyes is the mortal sin of running standard-definition TV channels on 60 inches of Sony 1080i sharpness. Just as I have shown my wife repeatedly how to juggle the five remotes in order to run a DVD (“I will never be able to watch a movie on my own again, will I?” she says), I need to show her every evening how easy it is to pop from the familiar low-end channel numbers she has known for years on her old cable box to the HD versions on the upper end of the 999-channel guide.

“Huh? How can you tell it isn’t high-def?” she asks -- but I am pretty sure she is just screwing with me.

I figured it was better not to try to show her the difference between the iPad of old and the new one I have been playing with all weekend. Why set myself up for frustration?

But truth be told, I am starting to wonder if a lot of reviewers simply have younger, sharper eyes than I do. Or if the taste for Apple-branded Kool-Aid has become too delectable for gadget reporters needing something over which to gush.

To be sure, the doubling of resolution on the new iPad is welcome and fun. Running Infinity Blade II or iBooks will show you pretty much what the on stage demos suggested -- great graphics, pin-sharp, richly colored. Text feels more focused in iBooks and The New York Times app. I am still struggling to find instances where I find the promise of enhanced color saturation all that evident.

But honestly, high resolution is hardly revelatory at this point in media. And the bump here is visible but not game-changing. The touch interface and nicely detailed iPad display always had us at hello, anyway. We were already in love. This is a nice makeover that gets us to the point where text rendering feels more print-like -- where the games edge closer to console quality.

Don’t get me wrong. All of this is good. I rented a film in iTunes that was incredibly sharp. At these resolution levels and with the shadow detail the display renders, the film image has that dimensional pop of HDTV. But the iPad has been so close to this point all along that this new model really is iterative. And at some point, just basic decorum dictates that we need to stop following the magician’s lead and not look and gasp where The Amazing Apple-ini wants us to look. How many of us caught ourselves staring back and forth between an upgraded icon and an old fuzzy one to detect the difference? Oh, how did we ever live in an unfocused world?

LTE speed is also welcome, but probably premature for most consumers at this point. In the three years I owned the original iPad, my use cases rarely made me miss embedded cellular. Even when I had a 3G model, its availability never liberated me to use the device in a wider variety of places. The burden of an additional data plan, even on a month-to-month basis, pretty much dissuaded me from expecting ubiquitous connectivity from my iPad. After all, I still had an iPhone that was always connected and had many of the same apps.

Which is not to say that we will not get to the point where always-connected tablets are presumed. But in my mind the major impediments now are the carrier data plans themselves. Until users can buy into pools of data that can be shared among all their remote devices, I suspect most of us simply will reserve tablet use for WiFi zones.

The geeky gushing over the Retina Display reminds me a bit of the final stages of hardware wars on the PC platform. I remember reviewing tons of 3D graphics cards back in the day that dazzled with their ability to render super-detailed game and CAD programs at astonishing resolutions on the desktop. Remember framerate counts and CPU clock rates? That is when upgrading your PC every few years really meant something. The difference was palpable and glorious. You really could do more, faster. At some point in the mid-2000s, however, diminishing returns set in. The hardware increases simply were too incremental to see or feel anymore, expect for the geeky hardcore who still ran benchmarks. Remember benchmarks?

I think Apple itself already knows all too well that the hardware race maxes out at some point soon. Thus, we see them focus wisely on things like iCloud, integration of operations across devices, interface, etc.

When it comes to mobile hardware, we have many generations of dazzle still ahead of us, and some hardware advances that really will change the game. At some point we will see transparent tablet devices that will make augmented reality a mind-blowing way of interfacing with the world. On-board projectors will turn the tablet or cell phone into a device that allows you to share any video or image on a wall and lets you use any flat surface as a virtual keyboard. And there are countless kinds of sensors -- not the least of which is NFC, that will redefine devices.

Doubling the pixels and adding connectivity I can’t afford? Okay, fine. Good to have. Let’s not mistake these model tweaks for the stuff that really helps us think differently. The new iPad moves the ball forward in all the ways the platform already has -- console-like gaming, portable HDTV, content you seem to fall into.

Tags: mobile
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1 comment about "Gargling With The Apple Kool-Aid".
  1. Nicholas Fiekowsky from (personal opinion) , March 20, 2012 at 8:26 p.m.
    Steve, My wife got sold on HD channels via cooking shows. She's an outstanding cook. She could see the benefit of the extra detail - how items really look when properly prepared, how finely vegetables were chopped... Same thing for "Housewives" series. How tacky is that dress? How nice is the jewelry... I would simply ask her if I could flip to the HD version of the show. She knows I care about visual and audio fidelity, is willing to indulge me at no cost. She eventually got hooked on the image quality since there were no relationship points involved. Harmony remote has been a mixed blessing. It's good that she pushes one button to choreograph any activity. It's bad that the control sequences outrun her patience. She puts the remote down before they complete, then gets as frustrated as any techno-spouse that better always seems to mean more complicated and failure-prone. Oh. Breaking that correlation is the secret behind Apple's popularity. Though she hasn't used our AppleTV yet since you get there through the Harmony. The sound of no hands clicking...