The Cameras

If there’s one thing that people were waiting for with the iPad 2, it’s the inclusion of cameras. CPU and GPU performance improvements with the iPad 2 are dramatic, but it’s the cameras that will drive both existing and new iPad customers to the device. For being probably the single most notable difference between the iPad 2 and its predecessor, the camera execution and experience on the iPad 2 is actually surprisingly bad. 

I could pretty much sum up the iPad 2 cameras with one word: mediocre. The interface, the physical placement of the rear camera, and finally actual quality all leave room for considerable improvement. If you want a video overview of the entire iPad 2 camera situation, check out our video review

The front facing camera is actually about where it should be, in fact. VGA is standard fare for iOS devices because right now FaceTime is just 320x240 from iDevices. My issue isn’t with the front facing camera, it’s the back camera that really under-delivers, and for that reason the iPad 2 feels like it’s a device saddled with two front-facing cameras. The fact that they’re better than nothing (e.g. iPad 1) is small consolation for how seriously underwhelming the rear camera is. 

Both cameras are identical to what comes in the iPod Touch 4th generation, a device that starts at $229. At $499, it doesn’t seem like a completely unreasonable thing to expect cameras that are at least somewhat better. 

Let’s start with the camera user interface. At first glance, it’s the exact same as the camera interface on the iPhone and iPod Touch. Capture button in the center, a link to the photo application with thumbnail of the last captured photo in the bottom left, a digital zoom slider after a tap, and a switch between video and still at right. Up in the top right is the switch-front-back camera button as well. The iPad has no HDR options, and obviously no LED flash options either. Tapping on the preview exposes for the tapped region, but since the rear camera is fixed focus, focus doesn’t change. 

What’s really annoying about this interface is that it rotates.

I’ve spent every second since first picking up the iPad 2 wondering what possessed Apple’s UI designers to make this decision, asking myself what possible benefits this choice could have. The only possible one is that this is an equalizer for left-handed users, but then why not simply make an option in settings to change the location of the bar from the left to the right side? 

The problem with keeping the capture/switch bar at the bottom of each orientation is that it puts the capture button in the absolute worst possible place.

At each orientation, the capture button is dead center at the bottom. The result is that to tap capture, you need to either stretch your thumb all the way to reach it, or remove your hand and tap with the index finger.

 

Both of those result in a much less stable grip position and add to shake. Moreover, it’s a downright fatiguing position to have to hold the iPad in for any length of time. It’s somewhat annoying in portrait, but downright frustrating in landscape.

Putting the capture button here is painful. Were it left closest to the home button like it is on smaller iDevices, the capture button would be right near where the thumb naturally rests. Tap it with your thumb, and boom, no problem. Maybe a transparent button would also make sense.

The other problem with the capture interface is that if you have relatively large palms or tightly grip the iPad 2 to brace it and reduce shake, you run the risk of causing an unintended touch on the lower right or left corners. Numerous times, I went to hit capture and found that nothing happened. When that occurred, generally it was because I was touching the bottom left or right with my palm inadvertently. Touch filtering or heck, maybe some of that multitouch wizardry would go a long way here, Apple. 

The final problem is with placement of the actual camera. Because of its position in the extreme top left (viewed from the back), the only viable way to hold the iPad 2 for landscape capture is with the home button on the right side. Hold it naturally with the button on the left side, and you'll end up blocking the camera with your hand like this:

The image preview in still mode is cropped to 4:3 and upscaled to XGA. The native resolution of the rear camera is 1280x720 (16:9). To get to 960x720 (4:3) Apple simply cuts off 160 pixels on the left and right. The fact that the image preview in still capture mode is upscaled to the full size of the iPad 2 display accentuates its underwhelming and noisy quality dramatically. It doesn’t look awesome. The front facing VGA camera blown up to XGA is even less impressive. 

The only positive side effect of all this is that image capture is insanely quick. You can literally mash the capture button on both the front and rear cameras and capture essentially as fast as you can tap. No doubt some of that is the A5's impressive speed gains, but the other part of it is just the low resolution of those two cameras.

 

 

HDMI Mirroring & Charging Video and Still Quality Analysis
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  • JarredWalton - Sunday, March 20, 2011 - link

    Considering the source (ARMflix), you need to take that video with a huge grain of salt. It looks like they're running some Linux variant on the two systems (maybe Chromium?), and while the build may be the same, that doesn't mean it's optimized equally well for Atom vs. A9.

    Single-core Atom at 1.6GHz vs. dual-core A9 at 500MHz surfing the web is fine and all, but when we discuss Atom being faster than A9 we're talking about raw performance potential. A properly optimized web browser and OS experience with high-speed Internet should be good on just about any modern platform. Throw in some video playback as well, give us something more than a script of web pages in a browser, etc.

    Now, none of this means ARM's A9 is bad, but to show that it's as fast as Atom when browsing some web pages is potentially meaningless. What we really need to know is what one platform can do well that the other can't handle properly. Where does A9 fall flat? Where does Atom stumble?

    For me, right now, Atom sucks at anything video related. Sorry, but YouTube and Hulu are pretty important tools for me. That also means iOS has some concerns, as it doesn't support Flash at all, and there are enough places where Flash is still used that it creates issues. Luckily, I have plenty of other devices for accessing the web. In the end, I mostly play Angry Birds on my iPod Touch while I'm waiting for someone. :-)
    Reply
  • Wilco1 - Sunday, March 20, 2011 - link

    The article is indeed wrong to suggest that the A9 has only half the performance of an Atom. There are cases where a netbook with a single core Atom might be faster, for example if it runs at a much higher frequency, uses hyperthreading, and has a fast DDR3 memory system. However in terms of raw CPU performance the out-of-order A9 is significantly faster than the in-order Atom. Benchmark results such as CoreMark confirm this, a single core Atom cannot beat an A9 at the same frequency - even with hyperthreading. So it would be good to clarify that netbooks are faster because they use higher frequency CPUs and a faster memory system - as well as a larger battery... Reply
  • somata - Sunday, March 27, 2011 - link

    CoreMark is nearly as meaningless as MIPS. Right now the best cross-platform benchmark we have is Geekbench. It uses portable, multi-threaded, native code to perform real tasks. My experience with Geekbench on the Mac/PC over the years indicates that Geekbench scores correlate pretty well to average application performance (determined by my personal suite of app benchmarks). Of course there will be outliers, but Geekbench does a pretty good job at representing typical code.

    Given that, the fact that a single-core 1.6GHz Atom (with HT) scores about 28% higher than the IPad's dual-core 1GHz A9s in the integer suite leaves me little doubt that the Atom, despite being in-order, has as good or better per-clock performance than the A9s.

    Even the oft-maligned PowerPC G4 totally outclasses the dual A9s, with 43% better integer performance at 1.42GHz... and that's just with a single core competing against two!
    Reply
  • tcool93 - Sunday, March 20, 2011 - link

    Tablets do have their advantages despite what the article claims. For one thing, their battery life far out lives any Netbook or Notebook. They also run a lot cooler, unlike Notebooks and Netbooks, which you can fry an egg on. Maybe they aren't as portable as a phone, but who wants to look at the super tiny print on a phone.

    Tablets don't replace computers, and never will. There are nice to sit in bed with at night and browse the web or read books on, or play a simple game on. Anything that doesn't require a lot of typing.

    Even a 10" tablet screen isn't real big to read text, but its MUCH easier to zoom in on text to read it with tablets. Unlike any Notebook/'Netbook, which its a huge pain to get to zoom in.
    Reply
  • tcool93 - Sunday, March 20, 2011 - link

    I do think the benchmarks shown here do show that there is quite an improvement over the Ipad 1, despite what many seem to claim that there isn't much of an upgrade. Reply
  • secretmanofagent - Sunday, March 20, 2011 - link

    Anand,
    Appreciate the article, and appreciating that you're responding to the readers as well. All three of you said that it didn't integrate into your workflow, and I have a similar problem (which has prevented me from purchasing one). One thing I'm very curious about: What is your opinion on what would have been the Courier concept? Do you feel that is the direction that tablets should have taken, or do you think that Apple's refining as opposed to paradigming is the way to go?
    Reply
  • VivekGowri - Sunday, March 20, 2011 - link

    I still despise Microsoft for killing the Courier project. Honestly, I'd have loved to see the tablet market go that direction - a lot more focused on content creation instead of a very consumption-centric device like the iPad. A $4-500 device running that UI, an ARM processor, and OneNote syncing ability would have sold like hotcakes to students. If only... Reply
  • tipoo - Sunday, March 20, 2011 - link

    Me too, the Courier looked amazing. They cancel that, yet go ahead with something like the Kin? Hard to imagine where their heads are at. Reply
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Monday, March 21, 2011 - link

    While I've seen the Courier video, and it definitely looked impressive, it's tough to say how that would've worked in practice.

    I feel like there are performance limitations that are at work here. Even though a pair of A9s are quick, they are by no means fast enough. I feel like as a result, evolutionary refinement is the only way to go about getting to where we need to be. Along the way Apple (and its competitors) can pick up early adopters to help fund the progress.

    I'm really curious to see which company gets the gaming side of it down. Clearly that's a huge market.

    Take care,
    Anand
    Reply
  • Azethoth - Monday, March 21, 2011 - link

    Gaming side is a good question. Apple will have an advantage there due to limited hardware specs to code to. They are a lot more like a traditional console that way vs Android which will be anything but.

    Are actual game controls like in the psp phone necessary?

    I am also curious what additional UI tech will eventually make it to the pad space:
    * Speech, although it is forever not there yet.
    * 3D maybe if its not a fad (glasses free)
    * Some form of the Kinect maybe to manipulate the 3d stuff and do magical kinect gestures and incantations we haven't dreamed up yet.
    * Haptic as mentioned earlier in the thread.

    Speech could make a pad suitable for hip bloggers like the AnandTech posse.
    Reply

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