iPad teardown reveals first-rate design, build

But Apple didn't push the technology envelope, says expert

The iPad is the best-built first-generation mobile device Apple Inc. has ever produced, the owner of an iPod and iPhone repair company said yesterday after disassembling the new tablet.

"I'm impressed," said Aaron Vronko, CEO of Portage, Mich.-based Rapid Repair. "It's the first first-generation device that we've seen from Apple that has great construction." Rapid Repair is a repair shop and do-it-yourself parts supplier for consumer devices, including Apple's iPod and iPhone and Microsoft's Zune.

Vronko posted a step-by-step teardown of the iPad, complete with photos, on the Rapid Repair site on Saturday, just hours after Apple kicked off sales of its new tablet.

"It's still not going to survive a drop, but everything that can be buttoned down, is," said Vronko, referring to the logic board, battery and other components inside the iPad's milled-aluminum casing. "Everything is engineered to fit to the next piece, even the off-the-shelf parts. The batteries are even separated to allow for the [Wi-Fi] antenna to run down the middle."

Vronko also gave Apple a thumbs-up for the iPad's internal design. "Apple had a really clear idea of where they wanted to be with the iPad, and they just hit it on all counts," said Vronko. "It's designed for a specific set of tasks, and for those tasks it's a great device."

Evidence of that was obvious throughout the inside of the iPad, Vronko said, pointing to the battery as an example. "It's a great design. It's really wide, but it's no thicker than the battery in the iPhone 3GS," he said. "That helps dissipate the heat, the No. 1 reason for battery failure. The wider [form] gives it a lot of surface area for heat dissipation. And putting it at the back of the case, between the case and the main board, protects [the electronics]."

Vronko also applauded Apple's use -- or reuse -- of some of the components already proven in the iPhone and the iPod Touch, such as the BlueTooth and Wi-Fi radio parts. "Apple reused a lot of the smaller elements of the iPhone 3GS in the iPad, or the next generation of those parts," he said. Such repurposing also helped Apple keep down the manufacturing cost of the iPad.

"We're talking about the accessory parts here," he cautioned, "not the things that define the device."

Even so, Vronko dinged Apple on some aspects of the iPad. "Nothing here is pushing the envelope," he said. "The LCD is nice, but it's not cutting edge."

Apple could have added several more hours to the iPad's battery life if it had pushed for a more advanced display technology, such as OLED (organic LED), which earlier this year Vronko had predicted Apple would use in its then-still-rumored tablet. Because the display consumes more power than any other iPad component, and its requirements thus define how long an iPad can run between charges, an OLED screen would have extended the tablet's battery life to at least 18 hours, Vronko said.

Apple estimates that the iPad can run for as long as 10 hours before it needs to be recharged, although some reviewers have said they got as many as 12 hours out of a charge.

And Vronko worried that what he found inside the iPad might mean that this first version won't stand up to the competition, or the test of time. "Apple didn't go overboard on what they put inside," he said. "Is this enough hardware for the next 20 months of app development? I don't think it is."

Consumers accustomed to smartphones and cell phones that last two years -- the length of most mobile service contracts, and the typical amount of time between device upgrades -- might be disappointed by the iPad's inability to keep pace with rivals, or even developers.

"After a year, it starts to look shaky for this iPad," Vronko argued. "Remember, there will be lots of other tablet-based hardware [to compete with the iPad] by then."

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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