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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  • VivekGowri - Saturday, March 19, 2011 - link

    I think it's $799, but I agree, it's too high. The equivalent iPad, at $729, is also way up there - really the only iPad that makes much sense as far as value goes is the base 16GB WiFi. I think the Xoom is probably going to have it's price cut by at least $100, if not $200, before it actually gets anywhere - ASUS took the right tack by putting it's lowest end Honeycomb tablet at $399. Reply
  • KoolAidMan1 - Saturday, March 19, 2011 - link

    Where the iPad really works for me is as a travel device and in the living room. The iPad is just much nicer to use with in-flight wifi. Small, no cable management, and the battery will outlast a LAX-JFK roundtrip. My laptop lives in the overhead storage bin.

    You mentioned that the iPad has replaced the ThinkPad in airports, and I think that is spot-on. It is just so much more convenient and manageable to use compared to a laptop. I've left the laptop at home twice and I didn't miss it much, aside from not being able to play Starcraft 2 when I'm on the road. :)

    The "sharing" aspect of the device has great advantages in a work environment, especially when you want to go over PDFs with a group of people. No need to crowd around or turn a laptop, just pass around the iPad.

    As for the living room and bedroom, self explanatory. Not being tethered to the home office in order to fire off email is nice. Ditto using it as a universal remote in the living room.

    It is a luxury device and a supplement, absolutely, but a damn good one.
    Reply
  • nickdoc - Sunday, March 20, 2011 - link

    Finally a sensible person. We are definitely on the same page. Reply
  • kevith - Sunday, March 20, 2011 - link

    "You're absolutely right" almost always really means: "I totally agree..." :-) Reply
  • relentlessfocus - Saturday, March 19, 2011 - link

    As always a real insight into the hardware. I'd like to make an observation about generalising from your own inability to find something that tablets add to your PC./smartphone mix to the larger sphere of buyers. Indeed most are not crazy and overly rich.

    My friends have a 2 year old child. I have no doubt that eventually she'll be reacting with laptops and desktops but my oh my how much my friends talk about the 3 of them with the iPad. Not an Anandtech thing... fine. A real life use. I think so.

    Jake Humphrys is the lead for BBC's Formula 1 coverage here in the UK. While talking live in the pits with his co-commentators he now holds an iPad cupped in his hand that he gracefully reads from and then puts to his side as he gets live update info from his directors as the show is broadcast. OK, its not an Anandtech thing but its a real life use for a tablet that you wouldn't do with a netbook or notebook.

    It's being used by coaching staff in sports and by doctors making their rounds in hospitals. It's used by major corporations for field workers running in house bespoke apps for catalogues and inventory and real time pricing etc. It's used by estate agents in the field with their clients and its used in trendy clothing shops like All Saints to display the entire store catalog for customers to browse. I could without a doubt put together 100 real life uses that "did figure out a use for it" distinctive from what you might do with a netbook or laptop or even desktop.

    Your reviews set the gold standard in so many ways but in this one way its a shame you brought such a limited perspective to the usefulness of touch tablets in the world at large. I understand that people who do certain kinds of work really do find that a touch tablet device may not be useful, indeed you may not own a pickup truck or headphone amplifier. But the slant of your article and some of the comments above implies a great generality than I think can be justified.
    Reply
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Saturday, March 19, 2011 - link

    First of all, thank you for your kind words - I really do appreciate them.

    I don't doubt that there are specific uses for a tablet that a notebook cannot do as well. I mentioned one of these in the review - simply passing around the iPad for others to look at, information sharing, it's a lot easier to do this than with a clunky notebook.

    My point about the usefulness is that it's currently not powerful enough, flexible enough and ergonomic enough to completely replace a notebook. I'm not saying it won't get there, but I don't believe it's there today. The iPad 2 is a great device, but it's an augment to existing computing devices - and for some users that's tough to integrate into their existing workflow.

    If you can find a fit that makes sense however, it's a great device.

    Take care,
    Anand
    Reply
  • Azethoth - Sunday, March 20, 2011 - link

    Good article. However I do not think the point of tablets and smartphones are to replace netbooks. I think their point is to compete on apps. If they can do something critical to someone better than another form factor then they win a sale. I think it will turn out there are more apps that are tablet appropriate than netbook appropriate.

    Unless there are more interface revolutions I just do not think there can be a 100% intersection between netbook and tablet utility. So while netbooks will remain better at the things a lot of people complain about not being able to do on a tablet, tablets will eat their lunch market share wise because of the many more things they do good enough or perfectly.
    Reply
  • Fontanka - Sunday, March 20, 2011 - link

    "Workflow ", "Use", "Users","Usefulness".........

    That's not what most of the 15 million purchasers (and counting) are thinking about....they want to communicate, be entertained and diverted when NOT WORKING. The iPad delivers.

    Fontanka
    Reply
  • WaltFrench - Sunday, March 20, 2011 - link

    @Anand, let me second the kind words of @relentlessfocus.

    And also his point: a tablet and a notebook are largely incommensurable.

    Lightweight, sub $1000 notebooks with 11-hour battery life, compressed learning times and near-instant app startup don't exist.

    Likewise, notebooks don't have anywhere near the touchscreen's I/O capabilities, which you call out as great in iMovie and GarageBand. (I'd add the iOS app I use for writing Chinese as part of my studies, and the painting app used by high profile artists to create New Yorker covers.) Then, there's a new mix of software appropriate to mobile life, including the many “specialized” apps @relentlessfocus offered.

    I get that, by definition, our current workflows can't be optimized on a tablet. (Mine, with multiple screens on the desktop, and a bigscreen laptop, would be horrible. Why would I even think to try?) These things are "technical disruptors," "creative destructors," "inventor's dilemmas," however you want to characterize them. They enable new usage modes at the same time that they're not as good, or downright awful, for the old ones. They serve new customers better than the old; this is all old hat ever since Shiva got incorporated into the pantheon.

    But thanks for such a complete review, for those of us who happen to be dabbling in devices that enable new functions, new activities.
    Reply
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Sunday, March 20, 2011 - link

    I believe we're actually in agreement here. The tablet is a disruptive form factor and a disruptive device. In the article I state that I believe there's a glorious future for tablets, however I believe we're still at an early point in the evolution. Since we're operating on a faster-than-moore'slaw-curve here, you're looking at a 12 month product cycle with these things. As such I believe a cautious approach to investment is better, especially given the price points we're talking about.

    By all means, if you have the money to spend and have a genuine use for it - the iPad 2 is a great device. I'm genuinely giving the iPad 2 another chance, I really wanted to use the iPad 1 I just found myself carrying it and a notebook wherever I went.

    For example, I'm traveling now for CTIA but I brought the MacBook Air. I'd much prefer reading comments on the iPad 2, but I like responding to them on the Air. I don't really know what the right solution is to that problem. It can't be to have one device for reading web pages and another device for contributing to web sites? I believe there's still a lot of work to be done here, that's all I'm saying - not that the iPad or the tablet are doomed.

    Take care,
    Anand
    Reply

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