Image Courtesy of Apple.

I’ve already expressed my personal disappointment (though not surprise) with Apple’s direction on the iPad, on Create Digital Music. Having gotten that out of my system, however, you can expect remaining iPad coverage on CDM to stick to the facts – and, as always, to track the way people use technology.

On the specs side, though, there’s not much good news to report. Some of the facts remain unclear, so expect more details to emerge over time. Here’s what we know so far:

  • No camera(s). Status: CONFIRMED. The iPad not only lacks the dual-facing cameras some expected, but it doesn’t have even a single camera. That means the Nintendo DSi is a more capable video capture device.
  • No video input capability. Status: CONFIRMED (for now). The only connector on the iPad is a dock connector. It’s possible that someone could make a video capture device or add-on camera. It’s likewise unlikely that you’ll be able to connect your own camera and use live video signal, as you could with a slate or netbook that has a USB port.
  • Limited video output; no (true) HD. Status: CONFIRMED. This one gets tricky. The iPad supports 720p video playback – so long as you’re looking at the screen, and so long as H.264 is the codec. But for output, you’re again limited to the dock connector. Right now, Apple specifies video output thusly: “Support for 1024 x 768 with Dock Connector to VGA adapter; 576p and 480p with Apple Composite A/V Cable, 576i and 480i with Apple Composite A/V Cable.” As this is an output hardware limitation, it’s possible a future accessory could change this, but that’s what the specs say. (The device itself appears capable of output to 720p.) 1024 x 768 ain’t bad, of course, but that leads us to the next limitation:
  • Third-party apps may be unable to output video most likely do have the ability to output video. Status: UNKNOWN. My sources tell me that the current iPhone SDK lacks (official) support for video output from an application. A source I can’t identify believes that the beta of the upcoming SDK, which adds iPad support, still lacks a public API for video output. Update: See note below. I’ve received conflicting reports, but the trend is toward the ability to target external devices. The presence in the SDK is important. The lack of a public API would mean mean that applications might not work across OS releases, and that most likely Apple would block them from being published via iTunes. For visual applications, of course, even if you had the API, you’d still have other questions, like whether output could be mirrored or even used at the same time as an interface. With 1024×768 output, a cheap netbook could easily best the capabilities of the iPad, technically speaking, if you just want to play back video.
  • Will USB device support be possible in the future? Status: UNKNOWN. Apple does offer a USB adapter for its memory card reader, but this still relies on the dock connector, and whether Apple will allow full device access – something not presently in the SDK – would qualify as a rather large “if.” Don’t bet on it, but then, information at this point cannot be considered final.

How does this compare to the competition?

Apple compared the iPad to a netbook – in fact, suggesting an iPad is better than a netbook. However, for visualists, there’s no comparison. Many netbooks offer at least basic high-resolution graphics, and increasingly not only basic video playback and VGA out, but full-HD output. You can buy a full-blown laptop for $500. It’ll be an uglier, less elegant solution, but it will be demonstrably more capable.

Looking at the mobile arena, even the Zune HD offers 720p HDMI output, provided you connect it to an overpriced dock. Unfortunately, if you’re imagining building a live VJ app, you’d better go talk to Microsoft: the company has provided a (slightly limited version of) its XNA developer tools, but they seem unwilling to actually publish applications in any volume.

The Android is comparatively more open than the iPhone, but I can point to some of the same restrictions in the Android developer tools. Android needs device support (which could embrace existing standards rather than reinvent the wheel or introduce weird new dock connectors), and it needs video output. It’ll be interesting to see if Google delivers any of those features now that tablets and slates are running the Android OS and not just phones.

For everything else, of course, there’s Windows and Linux – and Mac OS – and once you get in that category, there’s no comparison.

This is for video output only, and the dream I know at least some visualists had of carrying an iPad to a gig and using it as a video source. As a controller, it’s a whole other ballgame, and this means the ability to use a nearly 10″ multitouch display with applications like TouchOSC, making a $500+ controller. The question there is, will you be able to buy similar alternatives running other operating systems – and how will your options compare? Expect more on that question in coming weeks, unless all of this bores you to tears and you want to get back to your PC / MacBook Pro, in which case, we’ll entertain that, too.


Updated: might a future SDK add video support? Note that at least some of my technical criticisms could be theoretically addressed by an updated SDK. Specifically, the issue of whether third party apps can support video remains unconfirmed, but now multiple sources tell me external display is possible. That leaves some details yet to resolve – like whether you can run the iPad display and external display at the same time, and how much can be on each – but signs are generally positive. (Realize that all of this is covered by Apple’s NDA. I haven’t seen the documentation, myself.)

See also MacRumor’s take on the 3.2 SDK.

The only thing that can be said with any certainty is that this feature would depend on a future SDK, and we won’t know all the specifics until someone buys a device. So, don’t buy a device if this matters – erm, unless you want to buy one and tell the rest of us. (Think the Apple Store will be down with us playing with Xcode on a display model?)

If there is video support, it’ll be limited to VGA, of course, until Apple changes what is possible with the hardware.