Bending Over Backwards

Walt Mossberg has a 500-word section on “Drawbacks” in his review today of the iPad 2. The whole thing is a crock, an example of trying to be fair/balanced/objective by bending over backwards to find negative things to say about the device. No one is arguing that the iPad 2 is beyond criticism. But almost nothing in Mossberg’s list of drawbacks is valid.

Its cameras take mediocre still photos and Apple won’t even reveal their megapixel ratings. The company says they were designed for video, not still photography. They did capture decent video in my tests, including high-definition video from the rear camera and video good enough from the front camera for satisfying video calling. But, for a company known for quality, which bundles a new still-photo app with the device, the cameras are disappointing.

It’s true that the image quality is mediocre, at best, and it’s fair and makes sense to lead with that as the first drawback. But regarding the lack of megapixel specs from Apple — Mossberg has an iPad 2. All he needs to do is snap a picture, transfer it to his Mac, look at the size, then multiply the width by height. These are not secrets.

Also, the battery life, while very good, isn’t as strong as I found it to be on the first iPad. In my tough battery test, where I played full-length movies until the battery died, with the screen brightness at about 75% and both Wi-Fi and cellular radios running, the iPad 2 just barely exceeded Apple’s claimed battery life, dying after 10 hours and nine minutes. That’s 2.5 hours better than the Xoom did on the same test, but more than an hour less than I got from the original iPad, which clocked in at 11 hours, 28 minutes.

So Mossberg’s second “downside” is that battery life for movie playback — with the brightness set 25 percent higher than Apple’s factory default — exceeds Apple’s stated 10 hours by nine minutes. Apple says you can play video for 10 hours, Mossberg gets 10 hours and nine minutes, and it’s a downside?

You can argue that it should be a “downside” because he got over 11 hours on the same test with an original iPad, but none of the other reviewers seem to be seeing a 10 percent drop in battery life for video playback between the original and new iPads. I saw nearly identical results between the two. Josh Topolsky at Engadget saw better battery life from the iPad 2 than the original.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a review where a product that exceeds the manufacturer’s stated specs for battery life gets dinged for battery life.

Another drawback I encountered was that the new, more tapered design makes it harder to plug cables and accessories — including the charging cable — into the main port on the bottom of the device, because it is now angled.

I thought it was a little hard to plug in a cable the first time. Not because of the angle, but because the iPad 2’s 30-pin port seemed a bit too tight. Subsequent plug-ins were much easier, though. In the grand competitive landscape of today’s tablet market, this is a major drawback of the iPad 2?

Despite being slimmer and lighter, the iPad 2 still has roughly the same length and width as the original, so it can’t compete with the Amazon Kindle, or the smaller seven-inch tablets, if you’re trying to juggle it while standing in a crowded subway.


Now we get to the good stuff:

Finally, there are two big omissions, one old and one new. The old one is that, like Apple’s prior phones and tablets, the shiny new iPad 2 still won’t play Adobe’s Flash video in its built-in Web browser. This is a deliberate decision by Apple, and puts its devices at a disadvantage for some users when compared with Android tablets, which can play Flash, or say they will soon, albeit not always well.

So the Xoom doesn’t play Flash but promises to eventually, the Galaxy Tab does but often not well, and the iPad 2’s lack of Flash is a disadvantage? No mention that there are clearly trade-offs in play. Like that Flash Player might have some sort of effect on battery life. Or that the lack of Flash on the iPad is an impetus that motivates developers to write native iPad apps.

The other omission has to do with cellular data. The iPad 2 can’t use, or be upgraded to use, the new, faster 4G cellular-data networks being rolled out.

Apple says this is because the chips needed to do this are too immature, draining battery life. But the Xoom promises to be upgradeable to 4G later this year, though I have no idea how that upgrade might affect its battery life or monthly fees.

There is no evidence that Apple’s explanation is wrong, and plenty of circumstantial evidence that they’re right (like, say, the fact that the Xoom, which Motorola promised to ship with 4G, was shipped without it), but accordingly to Mossberg, the lack of 4G is a drawback.

The iPad 2 is a real thing that you can go buy in a store tomorrow. What is Mossberg comparing the iPad to? An imaginary tablet, available today, that does have Flash Player and 4G networking, on which neither technology has an adverse effect on battery life? Why not list the lack of a quad-core processor, instead of the iPad 2’s actual dual-core one, as a drawback, too?

Mossberg’s entire review is only 1,500 words; measured by the word, a full third of what he has to say about it are these “drawbacks”. By contrast, his 1,200-word review of the Motorola Xoom — a tablet nearly everyone, including Mossberg, agrees is inferior to the iPad 2 — contains one 62-word paragraph of “downsides”.

Stating the plain truth, that the iPad 2 has no serious competition as a mainstream consumer device, doesn’t make you biased. It makes you accurate.