Is the iPad 2 Right for Your Small Business?

by Gerry Blackwell

The iPad 2 is a solid, if incremental, step forward. However, as you consider your mobile options, don't expect it to be a game-changer.

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iPad Smart Covers

Apple's iPad 2 had a hard act to follow. How do you improve on a product that sold 15 million units worldwide in less than a year?

In its usual hyperbolic marketing style, Apple tried to make the case that this was a revolutionary upgrade. It isn't.

The Big iPad Improvements

Yes, the cameras -- a 720p HD-capable rear-facing cam and a disappointingly low-resolution (VGA) front-facing camera to enable video conferencing - were welcome additions for iPad 2. Ditto for the upgraded 1 GHz Apple A5 dual-core processor, which replaces the iPad 1's 1GHz single-core A4 chip. But what else could Apple do? These were defensive moves made to catch the iPad up with its Android (and other) competition.

And in the case of the front-facing camera, it didn't really even do that, since the best of the competition - the Motorola Xoom and BlackBerry PlayBook, for example - have higher-resolution, more capable cameras for conferencing.

iPad 2 Cosmetics

Shaving a few millimeters off the thickness and a few ounces off the weight, making slight changes to the shape of the thing, offering a white accented model were the cosmetic changes. Don't get us wrong, though. It's not as if Apple is in danger of losing market share because it blew it with the iPad 2.

This is still a hugely attractive product. Given that it's priced pretty much the same as the iPad 1 when it first appeared, it's good value, too. And the new hardware features do make it more capable as a business tool.

Even the cosmetic changes are welcome in a device that some business people will carry with them everywhere. The iPad 2 is a mere 0.34 in. thick (8.8 mm), making it slightly easier to hold in one hand than the iPad 1, and the Wi-Fi model weighs 1.33 lbs (601 g), down from 1.6 lbs.

More Hardware Changes

There are a couple of less-heralded internal changes, too. The presence of a gyroscope, absent from the iPad 1, but a feature of the iPhone 4, probably means less to business users than consumers. In conjunction with the 3-axis accelerometer, the gyroscope improves accuracy of motion sensing. It will mainly enable the iPad 2 to run games that rely on motion sensing, but could also be used to enhance accuracy of mapping apps.

The iPad 2 Wi-Fi + 3G models also have better cellular functionality. Where the iPad 1 offered an EDGE (GSM) plus triband HSPA radio, the iPad 2 features EDGE plus quadband HSPA, or CDMA / EV-DO Rev. A. The CDMA / EV-DO radio simply allows the iPad 2 to work on older segments of Verizon's network, but the quadband HSPA capability means iPad 2s will work on broadband wireless networks in more places, including overseas.

But the really big and important hardware changes are the addition of the cameras and the faster -- Apple says nine times faster -- processor.

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iPad Videoconferencing With Skype

While the specs for the front-facing camera appear to give competitors such as the Motorola Xoom with its higher-res camera an advantage, you could argue that you don't need more than VGA resolution anyway.

You'll likely only ever use the iPad 2 for videoconferencing while mobile. Whether you're connecting over a 3G network or public Wi-Fi network, the connection probably isn't going to support very high-resolution video.

We tested the camera with two VoIP-based videoconferencing apps: Skype and Fuze Box Inc.'s Fuze Meeting app. In two-way video calls on Skype's peer-to-peer network, using a Wi-Fi link to a cable modem Internet connection, audio quality was okay, but not as good as audio-only calls on the iPad 1. There was very noticeable latency (delay) and jitter (break up and clipping).

Video was more challenging, partly because Skype does not yet have an app optimized for the iPad's larger screen. You can either view it at iPhone screen size or magnify it two times, which degrades graphic -- and video -- quality.

Still, sometimes the video was surprisingly okay, if a little blocky-looking and pixelated, and never full motion.

With proper lighting and the iPad mounted in some kind of stand so the picture doesn't weave all over as the person holding it shifts about, you could participate in a more formal videoconference using this device. It would be a distinct improvement over using a smartphone.

This became clearer when we tested the iPad 2 with Fuze, which offers a for-fee cloud-based videoconferencing-plus-web conferencing service. Fuze jumped on the iPad 2 early and came out with a free app that takes advantage of the camera and the iPad's screen.

We set up a test call with Fuze in which there was one other active participant, also using an iPad 2, and one less active participant sitting in front of an HD webcam. At our end, it was running over the same Wi-Fi link and cable modem Internet connection.

As is typical in multi-party video conferences, the video windows for each participant were smaller than full screen most of the time. And like other such services, Fuze adjusts the video quality on the fly to accommodate conditions on the link.

Video was generally better quality than with Skype. Image quality in particular was better -- not as blocky or pixelated.

Initially, we used Fuze's teleconferencing bridge for the audio portion. The idea was to reserve the Internet bandwidth for the video. As a result, the audio was poorly synchronized with the video.

When we hung up the phones and used VoIP on the iPad 2, the synchronization problems went away, the audio quality was adequate - better than Skype - and the video did not noticeably degrade.

Of course, two-way video calling on Skype is a free service. Fuze is priced from $10 a day to $830 a year.

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iPad 2's HD Video

One of the iPad 2's cooler features is that you can switch from front-facing camera to rear-facing camera in mid-conference with a couple of taps, making it easy to switch between showing your own talking head to something of interest in your environment -- a piece of broken machinery, for example, or a new product on display at a trade show.

This is not a unique capability of the iPad 2, though -- most dual-camera mobile devices can do the same.

The 720p video from the iPad 2's rear-facing camera is impressive. It's highly compressed, of course, so nothing like the quality of the best broadcast 720p, but similar in quality to video from compact digital video cams such as the Flip Video products.

One welcome change to the output capabilities of the iPad 2 is that it is now possible to send HD-quality video from the tablet to an HDTV over a wired connection.

You do need the $39 Apple Digital AV Adapter, which plugs into the iPad 2's single connection port and has an HDMI outlet at the other end. And you won't be able to use any old HDMI cable, because the adapter has a mini-HDMI outlet. For consumers, it means they can now more easily download HD video programming from iTunes to their iPads and view it on a big-screen TV. For business users, it means they can carry HD-quality business videos and plug their iPad into an HDTV in any boardroom and show the video in its native quality.

iPad Boasts Dual-Core Power?

We haven't said much yet about the vaunted dual-core processor. Applications do pop onto the screen a little quicker than on the iPad 1, especially noticeable when switching from one open app to another. Web pages display a little faster. These are both welcome improvements. We did not, however, see huge improvements in key compute-intense apps such as streaming high-quality video -- not that there was an awful lot of improvement needed.

The iPad 2 is not a truly multitasking device, and you don't very often use it for compute-intensive applications, so the performance improvements are bound to be mainly incremental - until developers start creating apps that take advantage of the increased power.

Finally, a word about one of the most talked about, and generally praised, new accessories from Apple, the iPad Smart Cover. We're not big fans. It's a thin cover for the screen (it doesn't wrap around) that attaches cleverly using magnets and turns the screen on or off when you open or close it.

Steve Jobs said too many after-market iPad covers and holders spoiled the device's modernist lines and didn't add much value. We're inclined to agree, but don't see this Apple product doing much better.

Plus, the Smart Cover sent with our iPad 2 review unit is plastic (some are leather) and a mid-brown color that may have turned us against the concept.

Bottom Line on the iPad 2

Companies that have made a commitment to the iPad as their tablet platform of choice are now in an interesting position. If they see the value in the undoubted improvements in iPad 2, they can continue spending about the same amount of money and get a better product.

But if they see little value in the improvements, or see little value for certain users, they could opt to buy a refurbished first-generation iPad, direct from Apple or elsewhere, and save money.

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This article was originally published on Wednesday May 18th 2011
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