The rumours about the iPad 2 have always tended to focus on whether it will have a higher resolution (Retina) display, or more than one camera! We have of course also talked about faster chips, and more memory in a next generation iPad. But not about what that might mean.
At the end of the day Apple’s focus is always about producing the best product for its users that allows them to be able to do as many tasks on their chosen gadget in the most focused and fluid way. iPhones, iPads and Macs will always be about being the most versatile device for enjoying, sharing and creating media. Be that videos, music, photos, or writing code, letters and emails. However, it has been clear to most of us that Apple is warming more and more to the idea of games as entertainment on their devices.
Yesterday Apple caught a few of us out in more than one way. First up, Steve Jobs made a very welcome appearance on stage (back briefly from medical leave) to announce the next generation iPad. He said he simply couldn’t miss this event! And now we all know why!
Secondly, instead of a fairly small feature bump of the current iPad (as many of us had expected), Apple went on the offensive against its competition and produced a device which is aggressively one step ahead of anything that their closest rivals are due to launch as ‘iPad Killers‘ this year.
It seems almost certain that the iPad 2 (as Steve hinted himself with his “2011 is the year of the iPad 2” comment) is the new iPad to see us through all of 2011. It is truly lighter, thinner and much faster than the current iPad. And when one considers what is most likely inside Apple’s second generation tablet (other than a huge battery) it is certainly more than up to the task of taking us into 2012.
We certainly expected Apple to upgrade the GPU inside the iPad with this latest iteration. The biggest technical headache for developers writing apps which are graphically complex, like games, has always been how fast the GPU can draw stuff on Apple’s increasingly high resolution screens. By comparison, in terms of processing power the CPU even in the first gen. iPhone is still very capable even today – surprisingly so in fact.
Despite that it seems likely that Apple might have felt it needed to respond to rival tablets due out this year that promised dual core processors as a panacea to all ills. Ironically, so far, all of those dual core tablets seem to be having problems providing a user experience which can challenge iOS on the original iPad even.
Apple’s ARM SoC’s are simply very refined versions of those that most other manufacturers license. The focus for Apple being on performance tempered with low power usage and tight integration with iOS, to give optimal battery life. Because of this there were some doubts as to whether Apple had actually been able to pull off developing their own (dual core) Apple A5 processor in time for such an early production run of the iPad 2. If you remember, we reported Apple had started production of the iPad 2 in January. Because of that many of us expected to see a sort of Apple A4(point)5 SoC in a minor “speed bump” update to the iPad early in the year. Perhaps to be followed by a more serious, second update at the end of this year – when the Apple A5 would have already gone into the iPhone 5. Not all of that has been turned on its head a bit!
However, Apple seems to be much further ahead of the game than some of even the most optimistic of us had expected. The last news I had personally heard about the Apple A5 was that Apple had only got test silicon at the very end of last year. Surely not early enough to push it out in early 2011, and test it with iOS effectively, I had thought. But I had thought wrong.
Getting precise details from Apple on what is inside their mobile devices is hard. Even for developers. Until iFixit and their friends with million dollar labs pull an Apple A5 from an iPad2 apart, or programmers get their hands on devices and can start peeking and poking around inside them, we will not know for sure exactly what makes the heart beat in Apple’s latest tablet.
It seems very likely though, that the Apple A5 in the iPad 2 doesn’t just sport a specialised dual core CPU based on the ARM Cortex A9, but also an incredibly powerful mobile GPU from Imagination Technologies; the PowerVR SGX543. That particular model of GPU is also available as a dual core version. And when one does the maths related to pixel fill rate (how fast a GPU can draw dots on the screen) on Apple’s existing SGX535 in the current iPad and iPhone 4, and compare it to the “up to 9 times faster” GPU Apple claim is inside the Apple A5 of the iPad 2, then it seems likely that we have something which might resemble a dual core GPU in there too.
Not only that, but rumours out of Korea seem to suggest that the Apple A5 has at least 512MB of RAM, and faster RAM to boot. All of which means that the Apple A5 and the iPad 2 is everything we could have hoped for from Apple this time around – and more. Multitasking is going to be much snappier with that extra RAM. Games can also be more ambitious with more post processing effects, and clever shaders. Bottom line : The amount of horsepower on tap in both the CPU and GPU portions of the Apple A5 SoC is going to give a lot of users and developers a permanently big smile.
It is also worth noting that Apple planned the timing of their iPad 2 launch so that it coincided with the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco. Right around the time that a lot of gamers, and a lot of important mobile gaming companies were in town. That wasn’t by accident.
So what does this all add up to mean?
Well one facet of all this is that Apple has seriously embraced mobile gaming. Sure the iPad 2 does lots of cool stuff, like Facetime, iMovie, making music with cool virtual instruments. And real time special effects on people’s faces and environments using Photo Booth. It even takes photos, and plays back movies. But on top of all that it is now capable of pushing the amount of pixels that serious games require.
Around the time of the launch of the iPad we did discuss here at Touch Reviews how the iPad would be a game changer for games. And this is starting to come good today… ( As a side note to this article it is also worth imagining what an AppleTV, with a gaming control and an Apple A5 inside it might mean for home gaming too).
Sony have just announced a dedicated handheld gaming console, an update the beleaguered PSP, which Sony claims will have performance “close to that of the PS3”.
Nintendo have also just pushed out their own next gen. mobile console. The 3DS; which as its name suggests allows 3D gaming. The hook being that it doesn’t need glasses to do so.
And Apple have responded. The Apple A5 makes the iPad 2 easily equal to the second generation PSP from Sony, and also able to produce graphics of a quality close to that of the PS3.
Nintendo and Sony undoubtedly both have great new products. But Sony’s is not out yet, and is part of a dieing breed; the dedicated gaming console. And Nintendo’s 3DS, as well as having similar issues to deal with as it is pretty much just a game console too, is not capable of visuals any where near as good as the PSP2 or the iPad 2, but falls back on a 3D gimmick to gloss over that.
It is more and more noticeable that the majority of gamers on the move (those that make them, those that write about them, as well as those that consume them) are using smart phones or Apple’s iPad to get their gaming fix. Logically, when faced with the option of either having some games on your iPad or your iPhone (which you most likely have with you anyway for other reasons during the day). Or the other option of carrying an extra dedicated battery hungry gaming device. It seems that more and more people are sticking with the one multi-purpose device.
A device which has access to a library of games which don’t on average cost $40 or $50, like Sony’s or Nintendo’s.
Up until recently there was an argument to be made for gaming content on mobile devices like smart-phones being lacklustre, or not being up to the high quality of dedicated gaming devices. Well with the advent of the iPad 2, not just the first, but also the second of those arguments have finally been laid to rest.
In the iPad 2, and later this year with the iPhone 5, we can expect gaming to take that next leap in mobile. And more than likely the Sony PSP and the Nintendo 3DS will be the last of their kind.
Apple have remained tight lipped about the exact tech specs of the iPad 2. But if the Apple A5 does sport a dual core SGX543 GPU then we can expect graphics far closer to desktop quality than ever before – except it will be in our hands.
And alongside that we can also most likely expect some developments in iOS 5 which harness some of the more sexy features of the Apple A5’s GPU. Most notably OpenCL capabilities, which can be used to do intensive processing tasks on the GPU alongside the CPU – which can be employed for complex software features like facial analysis, speech processing, and motion controls similar to that of the Microsoft Kinect – except using the cameras and raw processing power of just your iPad 2!
With all that processing horsepower on tap, and a GPU which can handle very complex composted displays including live video and 3D graphics, bundled with location awareness, and motion awareness with the accuracy of a gyro, then we can also expect to see Augmented Reality as well as Mobile Gaming take leaps and bounds in 2011.
So if you are on the fence about picking up an iPad 2, because the iPad 3 might be just around the corner. Fear not. This is the iPad 2 and the iPad 3 – as far as 2011 is concerned.
And anyway, how can you not want to have a tablet that has a smart cover! That has to be one of the coolest ways to splurge an extra few tens of dollars on the world’s favourite gadget!
What is your favourite feature about the iPad 2? Let us know in the comments…