FAQ: What we now know about the iPad

After the blood-in-the-water, Tiger-shark-like frenzy leading up to the unveiling of Apple's new tablet this week, it's understandable that you might feel, well, a tad underwhelmed. Even the Apple rumor mill can't peg every nut and bolt, so there's always something that was touted by the gossip but didn't show up in the real deal.

No, the iPad -- a name that has struck some as offensive -- doesn't make popcorn. It won't recharge by setting it in a sunny spot. It won't even run Flash, for cryin' out loud.

What will it do? What's inside? And most important, what's it going to cost?

Surprisingly, there were some surprises yesterday when Apple CEO Steve Jobs -- still looking thin but no longer gaunt -- showed off the iPad, beginning with its price, which was lower than most had predicted.

To get going, we've answered some of the first round of questions about what Jobs called "magical" and "revolutionary," but which a lot of pundits called much more mundane.

How much will it cost? $499 at the bottom, $829 at the top, with four more configurations in between.

Here's the deal: The iPad comes in two models -- one with Wi-Fi connectivity only, the second with both Wi-Fi and 3G. For each model, there are three configurations based on the amount of flash RAM storage.

The Wi-Fi-only models costs $499, $599 and $699 for the 16GB, 32GB and 64GB configurations, respectively. Add $130 to each of those prices for the Wi-Fi-plus-3G model and you get $629, $729 and $829.

Some experts have said the $130 surcharge for 3G is "ridiculous," noting that a 3G chip set adds less than $10 to the materials cost of the iPad. Other hardware in the model, such as GPS, would add a few more dollars.

When can I get one? Apple is saying "late March" for the WiFi-only model, "late April" for the Wi-Fi/3G iPad. And no, you can't order one yet.

The company isn't taking preorders at the moment. Instead, Apple is only accepting names and e-mail addresses, which it will use to notify customers when the online store is ready to take credit card numbers.

I've heard some say the iPad is fast. What's that about? The tablet is powered by what CEO Steve Jobs called an "Apple A4" processor, which he also acknowledged was Apple-designed. Jobs didn't come out and say it, but everyone is assuming that the chip was created by P.A. Semi, the Santa Clara, Calif., boutique microprocessor design company Apple acquired in 2008.

The Apple A4, said Aaron Vronko, CEO of Rapid Repair, a firm that services Apple's mobile hardware, is actually a "system-on-a-chip" that almost certainly includes the a single-core ARM Cortex-A9 processor running at 1 GHz. According to Vronko, that means the iPad is on average 85%-to-90% faster than the iPhone 3GS at executing code and in some instances may be twice as fast.

How big is the thing? Can I hold it in one hand? The 9.7-in. screen sets the format of the iPad, which by Apple's measurements is 9.6-in. high by 7.5-in. wide by 0.5-in. deep.

Since the iPad weighs in at 1.5 lb., several of the reporters and bloggers who got some hands-on time with it said they thought it was too heavy to hold long in one hand. In comparison, Amazon's Kindle is a 10.2-oz. device, and the larger Kindle DX, which has a screen the same size as the iPad's, weighs 1.2 lb.

"That's too much to hold up to your face while holding a strap when you're riding the subway," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst at Technology Business Research.

"You notice the heft as soon as you pick it up," chimed in Computerworld blogger Seth Weintraub, who had the iPad in his hands Wednesday. "It feels like you've ripped the top off a MacBook Pro and added some thickness to it."

How big is the screen? Apple stuck in a 9.7-in. LCD display with LED backlighting that uses IPS (in-plane switching) technology. The latter provides wider viewing angles and was also used in the revamped iMacs that debuted last October.

The iPad's screen resolution is 1024-by-768 pixels, and to many people's surprise, that's the standard television 4:3 aspect ratio (the width-to-height ratio), not the nearly-default widescreen format of 16:9 or 16:10 used in notebooks and computer displays today. Apple's new iMacs, for instance, offer a display with a 16:9 aspect ratio, while the company's MacBook notebooks use a 16:10 aspect ratio.

The lack of a widescreen-style display has some pundits ticking off the omission as one of the reasons why the iPad won't sell, or one of the reasons why they won't buy it. The 4:3 ratio has, in fact, made it on a number of "X Things That Suck About the iPad" posts.

How long will the battery last? Apple said 10 hours when viewing video, and a month when the iPad is on standby. Other than that, real-world numbers will have to wait until the tablet ships.

But one thing is certain, said Rapid Repair's Vronko: As an e-book reader, the iPad won't be able to touch the Kindle when it comes to time between charges.

Although Vronko predicted last week that Apple would go with a power-efficient OLED (organic light-emitting diode) display rather than an LCD, he was wrong. "I said OLED or an LCD/e-paper hybrid like the one that Pixel Qi is supposed to have in quantity later this year," said Vronko, "because I thought a standard LCD would chew up too much battery life and hinder the usefulness of the tablet as an e-reader."

Apple was thinking differently, Vronko acknowledged. "They said, 'We're going to LCD and forgo the battery life."

Unlike the reflective display used by the Kindle -- which Amazon says is good for a week of reading between charges, whatever that means -- the iPad's LCD screen will use as much power when displaying a page from Stephen King's Under the Dome as when handling your e-mail or browsing EPSN.com.

That means you should be able to read for about 10 hours before having to plug in the iPad again.

What operating system will the iPad run? A modified version of the iPhone OS labeled as Version 3.2.

By using the iPhone OS, Apple ensures that current iPhone/iPod Touch software runs on the iPad, giving the tablet an instant library of over 140,000 applications. It also means that Apple can add to, rather than have to rework, the multi-touch interface that millions already know how to navigate.

Apple released a beta of the iPhone OS 3.2 software developers kit yesterday, giving most developers their first look at the tools and APIs that can be used on the larger-screen iPad.

What's it going to cost me to use an iPad over 3G? Once you've forked over the $130 extra for the 3G-capable model, you'll have to spring for a data plan, too.

In the U.S., AT&T will offer two plans in April when the 3G iPad launches: a $15-per-month plan that gives you a 250MB allowance, or an unlimited plan that runs $30 per month. Over the course of a year, then, your iPad 3G access will run between $180 and $360, excluding taxes and fees.

Unlike with the iPhone, there's no contract or commitment requirement; AT&T's iPad plans are prepaid, and you can ditch the deal at any time.

The iPad is also "unlocked," which means you can insert a SIM card from another carrier into the tablet. Presumably, that's how most users outside the U.S. will access 3G when the iPad goes on sale in their countries later this year.

One analyst expects that most buyers will opt for the less expensive Wi-Fi-only iPad, not just to save the $130 but because Wi-Fi will be available where they plan to use the tablet. "Some of the 3G models will sell, some people will pay the $130 just to have 3G if they want it later, but most usage models of the tablet are with Wi-Fi ... at home, in the coffee shop, in the classroom," said Gartner analyst Van Baker.

Does the iPad support Flash? Nope.

During Wednesday's rollout, Jobs was browsing on the iPad, and a page came up with a large open space that clearly was where Flash video was to play. The audience twittered, then broke into open laughter.

It's no surprise that the iPad doesn't support Adobe's Flash, since it's running a tweaked iPhone OS -- 3.2, specifically -- and the iPhone notably omits Flash.

Most have put down Apple's Flash-less philosophy to some grudge Jobs holds, although the CEO has claimed that Flash is a processor and battery hog and thus unsuitable for a mobile device.

Brad Arkin, Adobe's director for product security and privacy, dismissed those arguments today. In a tweet, Arkin said: "Upcoming flash player 10.1 will be on 19 of the top 20 smart phones. Handset proc[essor] and mobile network are not issues."

Adrian Ludwig, who works on the Flash team, was more blunt. "It looks like Apple is continuing to impose restrictions on their devices that limit both content publishers and consumers," said Ludwig in an entry on Adobe's Flash platform blog. "Without Flash support, iPad users will not be able to access the full range of Web content, including over 70% of games and 75% of video on the Web."

Where's the camera? That's what lots of people want to know.

The iPad, which earlier in the week was rumored to have as many as two cameras -- one facing the user, the other mounted on the back facing away from the user -- lacks a camera.

For many, that's a deal-breaker. "If there is a build-in-front-camera when they start selling ... it would be THE revolutionary, killer video-chat-device and MY MUST-HAVE reason," said an unidentified commenter on a 9to5Mac blog that asked readers to vote on whether they would buy an iPad.

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

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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