Is the Apple iPad a Tool for Serious Photographers?
First off, let me get something out of the way. As of the writing of this article, early Feb 2010, very few people (myself included) have actually seen the iPad in person much less gotten to spend time testing it out. So this article, like most current iPad articles, is a combination of previously released information, past examples, educated guesses and wild opinionated speculation. If that sort of thing doesn’t work for you, don’t read the article. Anyone who reads this paragraph and then complains that the article was written by someone who hasn’t yet even touched an iPad will be mocked until my throat is sore and forced to use a Kodak “disc” camera for the rest of their photographic life.
Seriously though, yes, we all know that most everything written about the iPad is no better than informed speculation at this point. The is doubly true when talking about it’s usefulness for a very specific demographic of users like photographers. We’ll all know more about the iPad in another couple of months. Until then, consider this a preview article as a starting point for discussion of what would or would not be useful in a device like the iPad for photographers.
So what is the iPad anyway?
In case you have been living under a rock for the past few weeks, here’s the short version from our friend Wikipedia.
The iPad is a tablet computer developed by Apple Inc. Similar in function to an iPod Touch with four times the display area, it will allow multi-touch interaction with print, video, photos, and audio; connect to the Internet via Wi-Fi and, on certain models, 3G; and will run apps designed specifically for the iPad as well as most iPhone OS apps. The device will have an LED-backlit 9.7-inch (25 cm) color IPS LCD display and use a virtual keyboard for text input. The iPad was announced on January 27, 2010, and pending FCC approval, is to be released in March 2010 (WiFi-only models) and April 2010 (WiFi + 3G models).
And from Apple itself:
Apple today introduced iPad, a revolutionary device for browsing the web, reading and sending email, enjoying photos, watching videos, listening to music, playing games, reading e-books and much more. iPad’s responsive high-resolution Multi-Touch display lets users physically interact with applications and content. iPad is just 0.5 inches thick and weighs just 1.5 pounds, thinner and lighter than any laptop or netbook. iPad includes 12 new innovative apps designed especially for the iPad, and will run almost all of the over 140,000 apps in the App Store. iPad will be available in late March starting at the breakthrough price of just $499.
Well, let’s get over this hurdle right away as it seems to consume people as much as any other feature or drawback of the damn thing. Yes, iPad is a stupid name. Yes, MAD TV did a sketch a few years ago about a “high tech” feminine hygiene product called the iPad. Yes, 90% of the English speaking world said to themselves “Why did they name it that?” when they first saw the announcement. But what’s done is done. Given some time, the jokes will fade and the name will just be another name that is only laughed at by people too young to have gotten the joke the first time around. Think Bevis and Butthead types, even the South Park kids would have gotten tired of the joke after the first 50 times. Look, if we can live in a world with Anusol, Vagisil, the Nintendo Wii, and prescription Aciphex (pronounced as “ass-effects”), I think we can get over the iPad. Apple kind of backed itself into a corner with the whole i-whatever thing. But that’s the way the ball bounced. We all laughed as every new i-something product came out, but every one of them has sold and sold fantastically well. So of course Apple keeps doing what has been so successful for them, why change what works?
Besides, if generations of Australians can enjoy a tasty Golden Gaytime, is iPad really that bad? Yes, of course it is. But don’t worry Apple fanboys, cheer yourself up with this “classic” Golden Gaytime TV commercial. Hilarious!
What would a photographer use a “tablet” type product for?
The most obvious use for a tablet computer like the iPad for a photographer would be as a portable storage device. You download your cards while traveling or out on a photo job and you have a backup that actually allows you to view the images on a decent screen rather than the tiny LCD’s that many portable storage solutions have. In addition, as an actual computer, the tablet also would have the advantage of allowing a photographer to do some image sorting or editing and even email images to editors or friends/family via wifi or cell data connections. A tablet would be lighter than virtually any other mobile computing device, save for smartphones, and would probably be physically smaller as well. All together this would make a admirable traveling companion for the traveling digital photographer. You would be taking the best parts of smartphones and laptop computers to create a new sort of hybrid device.
In addition, the “touch” based interface of tablet computers brings up intriguing possibilities for photo album or portfolio presentation. No, of course I’m not saying that people are going to think that spending $500 for something they use as a glorified digital frame is a good idea. I’m thinking more of wedding photographers presenting samples to prospective clients. Weddings are about emotion and memories, and there’s nothing particularly intimate about curling up with a laptop to look at someone’s sample images. Which is why most wedding photographers I know still use printed albums to present images to prospective clients at face to face meetings. the bride and groom and can cuddle up with an album and think of themselves doing the same thing in 50 years with their own album. A laptop, flatscreen, or projector showing images just can’t create the same experience. But the possibility is there for something like a well designed (in form and function) tablet computer to give people the same experience. It’s just my opinion, but I have a feeling that the tactile interface could give users a larger sense of interacting with what they are viewing rather than just having something presented to them.
How does the iPad appear to meet these needs for photographers?
Let’s break this down into a couple different chunks and see what we can come up with.
By all accounts, the iPad’s 9.7" 1024 × 768 display is one of the nicest on a mobile device thus far. It uses LED backlit LCD with something called “In Plane Switching” (IPS) rather than the twisted nematic (TN) LCDs that are found in laptops and consumer devices. Just because I can, I’ll bore you with the details. The basic story is that IPS LCDs have their crystals arranged so their motion is parallel to the panel rather than perpendicular to it as with the TN LCDs. The end result is a much wider viewing angle, up to 180 degrees compared to the 110-120 degrees of the TN screens, and much brighter color. LCD TVs have always used IPS technology, but we are just now starting to see them show up in other devices. It is a fairly common thread among the articles written by those who were at the Apple iPad announcement that the display was simply outstanding. There are many other complaints to be made about the iPad, but the display doesn’t seem to be one of them.
In addition, the fact that Apple decided to use a 4:3 aspect ratio rather than a 16×9 ratio may have raised eyebrows in the tech world. But for photographers, it is a nice feature. Very few of us are shooting images in the 16:9 format. So there is a lot of wasted screen space when displaying 3:2, 4:3. or 1:1 images on a 16:9 screen. If you have ever seen a 16:9 digital photo frame, you know what I mean. So the 4:3 screen will allow our images to be displayed larger and look better. Given how long it took me to find a 4:3 digital frame for my grandmother this Christmas, you could say I am pleased with Apple’s choice. (hint, here are two from Kodak and Pandigital).
However, there are some display issues we don’t have answers for. The largest of which is if there will be any way to calibrate the iPad’s display. My iPhone’s display is accurate enough for everyday use. But I don’t think that people who are highly critical of how their work is displayed will be satisfied with that sort of thing. Will apple give us any way to adjust, or at the very least profile, the iPad display?
The “touch” aspect of the iPad display is said to be exactly like a larger version of using an iPod Touch or an iPhone. So if you like using them, you should like this even more, if you don’t, then it will annoy you. But at the end of the day it should leave the door open to the opportunities listed above for presentation and interaction of digital images. I think this has the unexpected opportunity to be a real sleeper of a bonus for photographers who buy an iPad. For many of us, interacting with digital images on a computer screen just hasn’t had the intimacy of a photo album. The iPad might be a game changer in that respect, able to bridge the gap between old and new in the same way that the Kindle has started to do for reading books.
The rest of the hardware
Apple designs stylish products, there is really no debating that fact. Personal opinions aside, one has to admit that they put a lot of effort into making their products look as good on the outside as they want them to operate on the inside. So the iPad has some style to it and, for whatever value you put on that, wins some points because of it. Sure, what’s a pretty plate with nothing on it? But still, given two equal things, I would prefer the better looking one, wouldn’t you?
The iPad’s memory is flash based. This is nice because they can be smaller, access memory faster, be less prone to damage from physical knocks, and use less power than a physical disk drive. However, even though it’s prices have dropped and capacity has risen, flash memory is still no match for a physical drive. However, ignoring all of that, the larger issue for photographers is that 16-64GB simply isn’t enough to be useful as a portable storage device for high volume shooters.
The only input/output port on the iPad (aside from a headphone jack) is the standard iPod/iPhone style 30 pin connector at the bottom. There is no USB or memory card reader built in. The memory card reader I could take or leave, but the USB port is an odd omission. What Apple is offering is something called a “Camera Connection Kit” that will retail for $30 and includes two adapters to fit the iPad’s 30-pin connector. One is a USB adapter and one is a SD card adapter. Sorry compact flash fans, you are out of luck. The Camera Connection Kit is described by Apple in these words:
The Camera Connection Kit gives you two ways to import photos and videos from a digital camera. The Camera Connector lets you import your photos and videos to iPad using the camera’s USB cable. Or you can use the SD Card Reader to import photos and videos directly from the camera’s SD card.
I am hearing that these two pieces are based on the iPod camera adapters and so it is probably unlikely to expect that you could use the USB adapter to, for example, hook the iPad up to a printer. But then again, this is all speculation. Nobody even knows if a third party app could re-purpose the adapters for something like that. Why did Apple leave out the USB? There are lots of conspiracy laced ideas on the web, but no real answers. The end result however is that if you have USB peripherals (printers, scanners, card readers, USB-to-ethernet adapters, etc), don’t expect them to work on the iPad until you are given information that suggests otherwise.
Unlike the iPhone, there is no built in camera thus far on the iPad. As I sit and type this, the internet is rife with rumors that the iPad frame has a cutout space that perfectly fits the camera built into various other Apple products and images of Steve Jobs at the iPad announcement look like there MIGHT be a camera in the one he was using (or it might be a smudge). But thus far, there is nothing official. Apple didn’t say word one about a camera at the announcement event. Besides, this should be a non-issue for photographers. The cameras that get put into these sorts of devices get better every year. But they are still light years away from being useful for a serious photographer. Put it this way, I use my iPhone camera to take photos of price tags of items I see at the hardware store so I don’t have to waste a bag so I can write down the bin number for the two screws I am buying. Handy to have, but not high quality.
The iPad isn’t a phone, but it does offer the option to have a cellular based data connection via AT&T’s 3G cell network. Of course this comes at a price, $130 extra up front and $15-30/mo for the service. Aside from the obvious advantage of having access to your email where ever you have cell service, this could be really useful for photographers who work the “art fair” circuit (or any other “print-sale” type situations). I have seen a prototype for a device that would let you use your iPhone to accept credit cards. I can only imagine that the iPad will have more of the same created for it. Combining the album display aspects of the tablet design with the ability to make a sale from the same device could open some interesting doors for professional photographers.
The OS, processor, and applications
The A4 processor in the iPad is the the first processor made in-house for Apple. What does that mean to you and me? Probably nothing, perhaps a lot. But what is important is that every hands on report about the iPad I have read has said some version of "this thing is really fast. The whole user experience is supposed to be very quick. Scrolling, zooming, launching programs etc are all supposed to be virtually instant. Something you cannot say for either the iPhone or just about any laptop in existence. Now of course, “loads instantly” and ’takes forever to launch a program" are all matters of opinion for the most part, depending on how much patience you have. But I think that it is fair to say that the iPad should be a fairly snappy device in terms of speed.
Part of that speed comes from the fact that the iPad runs essentially (or perhaps exactly) the same operating system as the iPhone. An OS that is a lot less complex (or bloated, depending on your opinion) than Windows or Mac OSX. This has advantages, as it will instantly be able to run most every application in the Apple iTunes app store aside from those that require an actual phone. It has also proven very stable. I personally have only reset my iphone a handful of times in the three years that I have been using one. But using the iPhone OS also comes with some serious drawbacks. There is no multitasking in the iPhone OS. You can’t have one window open to your web browser while am image processing program runs in the background. You get to pick one or the other. This may create serious limitations for people thinking that the iPad is going to be a “laptop replacement”. Chances are good that the workflow required on the iPad is going to be far too frustrating for many people for them to be able to get work done that they would have done on a larger laptop.
Also, the only programs that can run on the iPhone OS are ones that Apple has approved and made available through the iTunes app store. This is good in that the worst of the buggy programs tend to be weeded out prior to release, again making the overall user experience more stable. But it also means that if Apple doesn’t like your idea, you aren’t going to be able to sell your fancy program to iPhone users. Now, that having been said, there are a lot of interesting photo programs out there that have been released for the iPhone. Sure, most of them are aimed at the “photo effects” crowd (black & white with color isolation, HDR, “face melting”, etc). But even Adobe has released an iPhone app that allows basic cropping, adjustments, sharpening, and so on. Of course, most, if not all, of those applications are primarily meant to operate on the 2MP images that are generated by the iPhone’s internal camera. As far as I know, there are few iPhone programs designed for DSLR images and none that allow manipulation or processing of RAW images. However, with the larger screen size and more powerful processor of the iPad, one can imagine that programmers will have a lot more opportunity to create image processing and manipulation apps that could serve the serious photographer. But again, none of this has happened yet and there is no guarantee that it will. So anyone who buys an iPad with the expectation that they will be able to process RAW D7 files into JPEGs and email them to the home office had better be a gambler. Because the house might just take all your cash.
Finally, Apple doesn’t support Adobe Flash in it’s iPhone OS based devices. If you think you are going to use the iPad to show work to your clients, and then decide suddenly that you want to show them a slideshow or video from your website, you are out of luck if that content is displayed via flash. Apple claims that Flash is buggy and a resource hog (which is true). People mad about the exclusion claim that Apple just doesn’t want to hurt app store game sales by opening the platform to other flash-based online games (also probably true). In either case, don’t expect this situation to change any time soon. Apple really seems to dislike flash.
Other non-photography things to consider
Apple is claiming 10 hours of battery life for the iPad, based on a comment by Steve Jobs about watching a movie while crossing the Pacific. If true, that is outstanding battery life. Like all of the iPod and iPhone products, you can’t remove the iPad’s battery. This means that you can’t bring along a spare if you are going to be away from AC power for a long time. Will this matter to you with a device that claims 10 hours of battery life? Perhaps not. I haven’t ever been bothered by the battery life on my iPhone, but it really depends on how you use your devices.
Not only does the iPad have no camera for taking pictures of things, it has no camera for videoconferencing. Something that is virtually standard on every laptop and netbook these days. Now, in all honesty I think this is a feature that people make way too much fuss about. I think most people aren’t using video chat in their daily life, and those who are probably already have another device to do it with. I work for a tech company and have never once had a teleconference that required me to have a camera. The only time I use video chat is to show my son off to his grandparents. Whoopee! Of course, your life might be different than mine. But as I said, I think this is one of those things that people complain too much about compared to it’s overall importance.
Because the screen isn’t 16:9, you are going to have black bars a the top and bottom of your screen if you are watching a movie in 16:9. Just like when we all had tube TVs a few years ago. So while I see this as a bonus for photographers, as I described above, you might see it as a drawback if you plan to watch a lot of movies.
The iPad has a “soft” keyboard. This means that the keyboard is displayed on screen and accepts input based on the device’s touch screen functionality. Early reports are that the soft keyboard is easy to use. But a soft keyboard is never going to be the same as a “real” keyboard. If you think this might be an issue for you, you should be sure to test it out before you spend your hard earned cash. I haven’t used one, but I would say that I can’t imagine it being any worse than trying to type accurately on my netbook’s tiny cramped keyboard. Do be aware though, because the iPad’s keyboard appears on-screen, you lose screen real estate whenever you are typing. That means that you are going to see a lot less of your document at any one time than you are used to. It is a problem that I find frustrating on my iPhone from time to time.
There is no HDMI output on the iPad. Puzzling because the processor power would seem to be enough to support such a thing. But the device is limited to outputting (through an as-yet unannounced dongle no doubt) 480p standard definition video. So if you were hoping to download that pirated copy of the newest Hollywood DVD onto your iPad and take it over to play on your buddy’s 57" plasma home theater, you are going to be disappointed. But will it matter to the rest of us? I have to be honest is wondering if it will. We’ve all got DVD players and XBOXs and even laptops that can output HDTV video. Do we really need one more device that does so?
Apple has announced that it will be opening an iTunes for selling books with the idea that the iPad will function as an e-reader. While it doesn’t have the nice “easy on the eyes” e-ink display of the Kindle or Sony readers. It is hard to argue that the iPad isn’t a far more full featured device for not a whole lot more money. In addition, during the iPad announcement event, Steve Jobs showed an example of a newspaper (the New York Times) formatted for the iPad. The example looked far more like a real newspaper layout than any online version I have yet seen of a major paper. Both are interesting developments that have been called everything from hogwash to the savior of print media as we know it. It’s hard to say what the reality of the situation is. All I know is that the recording industry owes Steve Jobs a huge “thank you” iTunes and the iPod. If that is any example, literature fans could see some very exciting things come out of the introduction of this device.
Finally, the one complaint that is hardest to quantify and yet is the most prevalent on the web, is that the iPad isn’t a laptop replacement. Rumors had been flying around for so long about Apple coming out with a tablet computer that the expectations had risen to outlandish levels. Then when Apple came out with something that didn’t measure up to those expectations, the blogosphere exploded with angry nerds yelling about how Steve Jobs was the devil. However, there is no denying that the iPad isn’t a laptop replacement. If you are looking to do everything on it that you can do one your Dell Inspirion or Apple Macbook Pro, you are going to be sorely disappointed. The future may well bring us something along the lines of what the peanut gallery was hoping for. But in 2010 it isn’t going to come from Apple and it would likely cost much more than $500. Fast, good, cheap, pick two.
What’s the bottom line Josh?
Can there be a “bottom line” about a product that none of us have seen yet? Well we’ve gone this far, we might as well go further.
The iPad is very intriguing as a tool for photographers. The touch screen, the size, the battery life, the tactile interaction with your images and so on. The potential is there, you can see it. But while it’s a nice vision of the future, it’s still just “potential”. For the tasks that most serious photographers would want to do on a device like this, the iPad can’t deliver. The storage is too small, the input/output options are limited, there is no proper image processing software yet, and even if there were software, we don’t know if the device will be robust enough to handle the large files (RAW included) that are generated by today’s DSLRs. Some of the outstanding questions about the iPad will be answered in the coming weeks/months. But some are simply a result of design choices or limitations of present technology.
So I would have a hard time suggesting to photographers that they run out and buy an iPad solely because they want to use it as a portable storage and image processing device. Sure, you may be able to do some of that with the iPad. But you are far more likely to be better served by spending that same money on a high end netbook (if size/weight is an issue) or a low end laptop (if performance is more important than size). Neither are going to replace the power of a desktop or a high end laptop, but they will allow the traveling photographer to get a lot of work done, store a lot of images, and spend the least amount of cash. A tablet style computer may be the future “perfect tool” for photographers. But for right now, the iPad isn’t that tool. Perhaps version 2.0 or 3.0. Remember, neither the iPod or the iPhone were that amazing when they were first released. So if you are an Apple fan, take heart that history has proven that Jobs and his cohorts know what they are doing. And if you are an Apple hater, you might not want to shout too loud about how stupid this new device is. The net has a way of coming back and biting you in the ass when your predictions of massive failure can be found 5 years down the road. The smart money says that this might not be a hit it its first itineration. But down the road we may see something special.
It is my opinion that Apple designed the iPad to be a simple, dependable, easy to use, lightweight, compact device with long battery life, a high end display, and a simple touch interface. They weren’t aiming at the tech geeks as much as they were aiming at the moms (or dads) who want to follow dinner recipes while cooking at the stove. Or the technophobe who doesn’t want to worry about having to install drivers or remove viruses or why their computer seems to get slower and slower as the months go by. Or even perhaps the tech-nerd like me who has a household with two laptops (Apple), two desktops (Apple and Windows), a Mac Mini computer, a Windows netbook and an iphone. I’m just looking for something I can check in on photo.net with from the couch in the evenings without unhooking my laptop from my office and perching it on the couch arm (or forcing myself to use the UI nightmare that is a netbook keyboard and screen). Something I can throw into the messenger bag when biking to the brewpub for beers with the boys so we can settle trivia or sports arguments. And maybe, just maybe, something that can start the newspaper and magazine industry down the road to a future where I can read a digital version of my favorite print media that makes me feel like I’m reading that print media.
Sure there are drawbacks. The lack of Adobe Flash support is frustrating, particularly for the casual internet user who is going to wonder why their fancy new toy won’t let them play the games or watch the videos that their normal computer will. I’m still not excited about the lack of input/output options. even if you are just going to put your family photos on there or print out something from email, it seems strange to have a device that is geared towards people who want a simple computer and internet device, but who then have to jump through networking hoops to get information on there. Still, I’m reserving full judgment on that until I use the device (and the camera connection kit) myself.
So yes, I can see how the iPad might miss the mark for some people. My own personal opinion? In all honesty, I tell you this right now, I will be ordering one the first day they are available. But that is only because I have a specific set of uses for the device that I feel it will fill perfectly and that aren’t met by the other options available. And I have to admit that those are personal reasons and not photographic ones. Unless you are a someone who runs a giant website and needs to be connected to the web and/or in front of a computer the majority of the day, your situation is likely to be different. I will very likely explore the possibilities of the iPad as a photography tool as far as albums or even portable storage. But if that were the only reason I wanted it, I would never be able to justify buying it. Not on my income anyway.
Still, I can’t wait for the end of March.
Original text ©2010 Josh Root.