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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  • vol7ron - Sunday, March 20, 2011 - link

    Smoking the magic of realism, that's the point this device needs to hit. You can take that back to your IPS gods.

    I didn't say it was feasible to happen right away, but that's where it needs to be for the low-end devices. The upper-end of the spectrum should land in around $450.

    BTW, you misunderstand R&D and cost procurement. Just because these devices have a hefty starting price does not mean the cost of materials is even 1/1000 of that price. Whether the service providers are eating the price, or not, it all comes down to the fact that these devices do have a large mark-up. I think you need to consider the cost of an iPod Touch to the iPhone if you need a simpler way to compare - the 3G modem doesn't cost $300 lol and the Touch still had a high mark-up.

    "when the competition with a 2 decade head start still hasn’t been able to compete on price" ... no one has had a 2-decade head start. Technology (manufacturing and supply chain) and costs have both shifted over the last 20 years to make things more affordable. You come at this with an emotional response of "that can't happen", when I say it can and it will. Be care about being shortsighted it will come back to bite you one way or another.
    Reply
  • name99 - Sunday, March 20, 2011 - link

    Look, if you want a crappy cheap computer, go out and buy one. They make $50 computers (none of that extravagant $100 OLPC nonsense) for India powered by 6502s.

    But at the end of the day you are being disingenuous. You don't ACTUALLY want a $250 PC --- you can get something like that today if you buy a second hand Eee on eBay. What you want is an actual iPad, not something with a tenth of the functionality, but at $250.
    Good luck with that.

    And spare us this "eventually". If you're not content with a $250 eBay Eee now, buy the time the $250 iPad equivalent comes around, the real iPad 5 will be quadcore, 2GiB of RAM and a retina display screen, and you STILL won't find the cheap equivalent an acceptable choice, not when there's a real device at $600 that is so much better.
    Reply
  • medi01 - Monday, March 21, 2011 - link

    "Competition" has such devices for as low as about 100$, go google. They don't come with IPS panel or good battery, but how much do those parts cost?

    Competitors like Samsung do not have any reason to lower prices, as they are competing for different customers anyway. Not to mention, people perceive cheaper devices to be inferior.
    Reply
  • medi01 - Monday, March 21, 2011 - link

    PS
    There are NETBOOKS (from Acer, Lenovo or pretty much anyone) with multi-touch screens for below 300$.
    Reply
  • michael2k - Monday, March 21, 2011 - link

    They also weigh 2 to 3 times as much and have half or less the battery life. Reply
  • sean.crees - Monday, March 21, 2011 - link

    I still am amazed when people complain about the iPad being too expensive. I remember a little over a year ago everyone expected it to have a starting price of $999. It debuted at half that, and people still complain it's too much.

    It's now a year later, and even Apple's competitors cannot make a device that is competitive with a $499 starting price point or less.

    Here is where i see the iPad fitting in. The console and notebook have effectively replaced my PC. Everything i used to do on a PC i now do on either my notebook or my PS3. You're always going to have a cellphone. The tablet then does what you used to use a notebook for 10 years ago.

    You end up with a cell phone, a tablet, a notebook and if you want to game, a console.

    I don't know if a tablet will ever replace a notebook, maybe for some who can't afford all 3 and have to choose between a tablet and a notebook and don't need the productivity and power you gain with a notebook. Like how a TV is just for media consumption, a tablet is the same but you carry it around with you.
    Reply
  • Mishera - Tuesday, March 22, 2011 - link

    People complain about the device being too expensive because for what it is capable of doing, and compared to other devices it is overpriced. For Apple the price makes perfect sense for what they portray as a luxury device. It starts with enough room to drop the price (which they did sort of) and to be able to introduce another smaller ipad at some point in the future without cutting into their sails of macs. That's probably why they went with their keyboard choice.

    I thought about buying one but came to the conclusion that it simply was far to expensive to justify, especially since all I needed was an ereader, and later a new laptop. But I ended up getting on for Christmas so I wasn't complaining. Turns out the iPad is for EXACTLY what Steve said it was for. This is essentially a couch companion. This takes care of all my computer need when I'm at home and don't have to do work. But that's about all it's good for since it's too big to feasible carry around and doesn't replace your laptop.

    I still stand by my belief that the ipad is overpriced though much more attractive at $400. I think tablets will be very important in the future, it's just that they are far away and apple right now is only interested in making consumer devices while everyone else follows them. But right now everyone seems happy with just a new toy..
    Reply
  • george1924 - Saturday, March 19, 2011 - link

    DSC_2328.jpg and DSC_2364.jpg Reply
  • george1924 - Saturday, March 19, 2011 - link

    Great in-depth review though! Still can't get excited about tablets very much yet. I've had fun playing around with them, but don't think I could justify it along with a laptop, desktop, etc... Reply
  • MonkeyPaw - Saturday, March 19, 2011 - link

    Yeah, and the problem with playing with them at the store is that they always look really gross. I was messing with a tablet at a store today, and immediately washed my hands afterwards. I'm not a huge germ-a-phobe, but when I guy blows his nose, then approaches the electronics, I just start getting uneasy. I guess the screen just shows what's on all the mice and keyboards there, too. :p Reply

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