“It Screams”

iPad Product Shot from Apple's Website

It’s powered by our own silicon. The 1GHz Apple A4 chip. It screams.

Not sure if that was Scott Forstall or Steve Jobs (Engadget’s live blog left that out). I’m assuming this is some kind of ARM license using PA Semi power management. Hell, I’m a software guy.

0.5″ thick, 1.5lb, 9.7″ screen, runs iPhone apps at native or double resolution without rewriting, 10h battery life (as in playing video!), one month of standby time (!!).

SDK out today. (I wonder how long it will take Unity iPhone to support it?)


$499! Not often does Apple blow my expectations on price (at least, in a good way). And I assume from the lack of earnings guidance that their margins on this are just fine.

Some more tech specs: 802.11b/g/n (in case you were wondering); no SD card slot (sigh — the black lozenge you see in some product shots is the volume control); battery is 25Wh*, 1024×768 screen resolution; the WiFi model appears to lack GPS; VoiceOver screen reader is listed under accessibility;

Note: * I can’t find similar stats on the iPhone’s batteries, but for comparison my 15″ Macbook Pro’s battery, which is fairly new, has a capacity of around 55Wh. This makes the 10h playback figure plausible. After all, the motherboard for this thing is probably not much bigger than the iPhone’s, so there’s a lot of space for battery in that case.

Some back of envelope calculations: my 15″ Macbook Pro — pre unibody — has a 60Wh (when new) battery and an 85W power adapter, which is a ratio of 4/5 and realistically yields 2.5h of usage (Ars Technica’s review showed a bit over 3h in real-world tests, but I tend to be harder core than most users, e.g. I run 3d modeling and rendering software and do a lot of compiling — both spin the hard disk much more than web surfing and editing text); the iPad has a 25Wh battery and a 10W power adapter, which is a ratio of 5/2. Divide 5/2 by 4/5 and you get 3.125. Multiply that by 2.5 and you get roughly 8h of usage. If all I’m doing is playing video from my hard disk (vs. a DVD) or the web I’d say the MacBook Pro would get 3.5-4h pretty easily, which multiplied by 2.5 gives you well over 10h. So I’m guesstimating 7-8h will be the “realistic” usage figure, and 10h will be doable if you’re just watching video. It should be noted that Apple has not been wildly unrealistic in quoted battery life in the past, and many reviewers found the unibody notebooks outperformed Apple’s claims. Time will tell of course, since there’s no freaking way I’m not buying one of these puppies.

Apple’s stock is down (edit: whoops, now it’s up), which means this is almost certainly a home run. The last time the share market endorsed an Apple product launch this way it was the iPod.

Apple's iPad features thoughtful design, as usual
Apple's iPad features thoughtful design, as usual

My takeaway points:

  • The only ugly thing — the home screen screenshots. Those icons are just way too far apart.
  • The large bezel is going to be useful when holding it, unlike the iPhone which is small enough to hold by its sides.
  • Portrait mode for keyboard actually makes sense given the tendency of developers to festoon everything with toolbars.
  • This is a bookreader we can love. Anyone who thinks transmissive screens don’t work for reading presumably doesn’t spent most of their day coding on a computer and surfing the web. It’s a matter of what you’re used to, and I’ll take a full-color backlit display with no refresh lag over e-Ink any day.
  • It has a physical keyboard option. Apple can so learn from past mistakes.
  • It runs iWork, and it runs it well. Give me Coda and I can basically live on this sucker — for me, this may kill the notebook computer. Viva la desktop!
  • What do we know about the A4? Dual core?
  • By number of games available, iPhone/iPod Touch is the biggest gaming platform in the world. It’s also ahead of the Wii and DS in terms of critically acclaimed games (go check!) It’s possibly number one in terms of number of units in use too — but a lot of iPhones and iPods aren’t used for gaming (Correction: a little research shows that Apple had sold around 34M iPhones as of 2009 Q4; as of 2009 Q1 they had sold 37M iPhones + iPod Touches, of which 17.4M were iPhones; since the ratio of iPod Touches to iPhones appears to be – if anything – increasing, we can guesstimate the total platform size to be at least 70M (37/17.4 x 34 is roughly 72); Nintendo’s total worldwide sales of DSx as of 2009 Q4 were 113M, so the DS is still in front in total sales, although iPod + iPhone has outsold the DS since they were launched), while Nintendo had sold By introducing the newfangled concept of backwards compatibility into the game platform market, Apple has given Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft much food for thought.
  • iWork apps will be for sale individually in the App Store. I suspect Apple might want to set some precedents for pricing here — pricing them insanely low will suck air out of the market for more expensive non-enterprise third-party apps. (Edit: they’re going to be $10 each, which seems like a nice balance, and fits right in with the more serious iPhone apps out there.)
  • I wonder if one reason for making this an iPhone OS device and not a Mac OS X device is that iPhone still has a shot in the enterprise, while the Mac will never get very far.

More Addenda

  • “You can use any bluetooth keyboard you want, instead of Apple’s keyboard dock. You could use the case/stand with your existing bluetooth keyboard.” from Ars Technica’s hands on.
  • “You cannot use a bluetooth mouse, however.” (Pity.)
  • “The case itself is some crazy soft rubbery microfiber material that no Apple rep could or would identify.”
  • Another thing that bugs me — the on-screen keyboard doesn’t include numerals and punctuation by default. If I’m willing to press more carefully, can I have a more normal keyboard please? Probably they’ve done the usability-testing and found out the way they’ve done things is actually better.
  • I’m not crazy about iPad as a name, but thinking on it, I do think it’s better than Canvas which might have been too artsy. It makes sense that iBooks is the bookstore, so calling it an iBook wouldn’t work.
  • “iBooks will use the ePUB (sic) standard, a free and open book standard” from MacWorld’s coverage (by the way, MacWorld and Ars Technica pretty much failed abysmally in their live coverage, I ended up following the announcements on Engadget).
  • The Wikipedia entry on the EPUB format already lists the iPad as a platform supporting it. Heh. Web: 1. Books: 0.
  • “Reading a book on an iPad isn’t necessarily going to be that much better — a whole lot better; it will still be in black and white. The Kindle still represents a good vehicle for people who only want an e-reader.” That’s some industry analyst named Gary Purdy quoted in the NYTimes article on the launch. Um — books that are in color (or greyscale, even) will, um, look a whole lot better. I can (I’m guessing) make notes in my textbooks, which is a whole lot better. And of course, it’s not one more damn thing. Once again, it’s reducing the number of things we need to lug around and recharge and sync, not increasing it. Let’s say you’re a total power-user road warrior… The iPad weighs about as much as a spare laptop battery. Would I rather have another 2h on my laptop or another 10h on an iPad? Hmm.
  • Love it, hate it, or despise it: the AT&T data plans offered for the iPad are unmatched by Verizon or T-Mobile (at least right now), so while there’s nothing technically stopping you from using competing plans, you’ll pay through both nostrils for them.
  • My wife just pointed out we can switch over to our Google Voice numbers, and have calls go to work and home, and voicemail go to our email. We don’t need no stinking cell phones.
  • According to John Gruber (via Twitter) “When you connect iPad to your Mac or PC, you get a file system mount point with “shared documents”, for interchange with iPad apps.” So that’s how

Nintendo, et al, be afraid. Be very afraid

In-game screenshot from Chinatown Wars on the iPhone
In-game screenshot from Chinatown Wars on the iPhone. This is from iTunes, but having played the game on my very own iPhone I can testify it looks at least this good.

I’ve been trying to buy a copy of Chinatown Wars for the Nintendo DS for some time (you’ve probably gleaned that I’m a huge GTAIV fan). I just found out it’s been available for the iPhone (for $10) since last week. This underlines the deficiencies of the DS and the strengths of the iPhone as a platform (and, obviously, this extends to the iPad).

  1. I can’t find a copy of Chinatown Wars for the DS anywhere — even though it is the best reviewed game for the DS ever — and I didn’t want to order it online (instant gratification and all that). And, in the end, I don’t tend to use my DS much.
  2. I just got it for $10 vs. considerably more for the DS version ($20 at Walmart, for instance).
  3. I bought the iPhone version in large part because I fully expect it to be upgraded to run on the iPad, and possibly get a price hike (after all, while it’s debatably the best implementation of Chinatown Wars on any platform right now, it won’t even be debatable when it’s running on the iPad.
  4. And yes, it runs jim dandy on my nearly two year old iPhone 3G. Which means it will run better and smoother on the 3GS, let alone an iPad.

So, to recap:

  • Apple has introduced the idea of a games platform that’s a real OS that gets upgrades with backwards compatibility, which Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft, et al have conspicuously failed to do despite having ample opportunity. (Indeed, Sony’s new PS3 dropped all backwards compatibility with the PS2.)
  • Developers can make some trivial changes to an iPhone title and it will run at full resolution on an iPad. Or they can do nothing and it will still run at near full-screen size on an iPad. By comparison, the PS2 ran PSX apps no better than a PSX did, back when Sony still paid lip service to backwards compatibility.
  • This goes back to Apple’s underlying business model — they make money on the handle and let everyone else sell blades. Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo have their hands in developers’ pockets, so of course they want you to buy everything over again. Oh yeah, and aside from Nintendo (who are into Apple’s old model of selling overpriced, underpowered hardware) they lose money on those handles. My guess is that Rockstar makes as much or more from a $10 iPhone sale as from a $20 DS sale.
  • The App store may annoy developers of desktop apps who can click “compile” and release their software five minutes later, but it’s blissfully cheap, easy, and pleasant compared to trying to become a (proper) Nintendo, PS3, or XBox 360 developer.
  • The iPad may not be the best games platform in terms of, say, raw graphics capability, but it’s probably Good Enough. I for one would rather have a game console I can carry with me than a more graphically capable one that I have to leave at home. My XBox 360 is currently in the bedroom, which is its third location in the house. Just moving it from one room to another is a pain in the ass, and where-ever it is, I want it somewhere else.
  • Incidentally I believe that if you own an iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad, you can run one license of a game on all three. Sony? Nintendo? Microsoft? My wife and I share an iTunes account and in fact we run one license of some games on both our phones (we’d actually happily pay for the extra copies, but we don’t have to, and in fact there’s no way for us to do so).

Lord of the Dice

Eric Goldberg and Greg Costikyan’s masterpiece is available online. Note that this is not the same as the original version published in Different Worlds (which used any number of any kind of dice) or the later D6 variant proposed by — if I recall correctly — one of the GURPS designers, but a D100-based version.

I’ve been redesigning ForeSight around a single D10 (well, one per player).

Avatar: shame about the typography

I have a theory: the reason the subtitles in Avatar are so unbelievably bad is that the special effects are actually no good, but the subtitles cleverly distract us so much we never realize that everything looks like papier mâché.

If nothing else, James Cameron has demonstrated that with today’s technology you can make any live action movie you damn well please for $200,000,000. I look forward to Consider Phlebas on HBO.

I think the criticisms I’ve read of Avatar (e.g. that it’s morally simplistic, that the aliens are “noble savages”, that virtually all the characters are one-dimensional) are superficially correct but actually bogus. Cameron is trying to make a $200,000,000 movie that earns a profit — if it’s a flop he may not get to do it again (alright he’d have to screw up a second time) — and he needs to introduce a genuinely original SF setting, establish audience expectations and prejudices, and then completely change them not once, but twice. You’re not going to do that with subtlety.

I can think of dozens of things that would make Avatar “better” — but every single one of them would blow it out to six hours or more. And I’m sure Cameron thought of all of them and then cut them all out.

Here are my criticisms of Avatar: the typography is terrible — both the word “AVATAR” in the credits and — more annoyingly — the subtitles. And what is it with the faux Celine Dion song? If you stop watching the movie before the credits roll count yourself lucky. Oh yeah, I didn’t care for the view of Pandora from space or the initial shuttle landing (the contrails were just a bit too perfect), and I think the alien fauna’s skins were sometimes a bit too plastic-looking. (And how come everything on the planet seems to have four eyes — two often vestigial — and six legs except for the The Na’vi?) Seriously, these are tiny, tiny nits — every other SF movie has far greater flaws and almost every one is far less ambitious.

2001 is — aside from being boring — almost flawless, but it makes no sense and has 10 minutes of nonsense at the end. Every Star Wars movie is morally simplistic, has one-dimensional characters, and stuff that makes “noble savages” look like Dostoyevsky — and Lucas never attempts a tiny fraction of what Cameron is doing here.

I’ll need to watch it again (in 3D!) to be sure, but I think it’s the best SF movie ever made. I wish Ridley Scott would give up sword and sandal movies and make Forever War or Metropolis.


Maxwell from Scribblenauts
Maxwell from Scribblenauts

Scribblenauts is the first DS game I’ve been excited about (or bought … or played) in a long time. In fact, the only DS game I’ve actually spent serious time playing up to this point has been Mario. And Mario on the DS the only Mario variant I haven’t finished (which says something — althought what, I’m not sure). Among the games I’ve bought and given up on pretty quickly are FFIV (the Gameboy Advanced version), FFIII, and Elite Beat Agents. (If you ever pondered the fact that Final Fantasy games are essentially bad stories wrapped around a spreadsheet with wonderful cut scenes, playing the Old School games rubs your face in it by leaving out the cut scenes.)

The way I see it, Scribblenauts is a game that uses reasonably modern computer horsepower (the DS is as powerful as mid 90s desktop computer) to handle conceptual space instead of aesthetics or storyline. The graphics are cute but unremarkable (nothing a 1980s computer couldn’t handle with a bit of optimization) and the storyline is non-existent. What the game has is a huge library of “things” each of which has physical and conceptual attributes. E.g. pirates like parrots; hippies become upset if you kill animals; tigers are nastier than lions are nastier than wolves; beavers chew through trees.

A Scribblenauts level is simply an arrangement of things in a landscape, a goal (get to the “starite”), and some restrictions (don’t upset the hippies). You simply summon anything you want out of  thin air by naming it (more-or-less — some things have bee deliberately or accidentally omitted from the database — but the variety of things you can pick is amazing).

One of the cleverest aspects of the game is that you’re encouraged to replay levels to find alternate solutions. Every level has at least three distinct solutions — and again the conceptual framework provides a nice implementation of “distinct”. As far as I can tell, there’s a one-to-many relationship between concepts (e.g. ‘long, flexible connector’), concrete implementations (e.g. ‘chain’ vs. ‘rope’), and terms (e.g. ‘candy’ vs. ‘lolly’). A new solution must employ a different concepts rather than different implementations or terms (you do get credited, for example, with coming up with a new word for the same “thing”, but using it to create an alternative solution to a level won’t get you credit for finding a truly new solution).

Similarly clever is the fact that the achievements you are awarded can be conceptual as well — e.g. you get achievements for thinking of variations on a theme, achievements for thinking of entirely new object domains, achievements for avoiding object domains (e.g. weapons). What we have here is a game that’s (generally) non-violent and clever instead of violent and stupid, and addictive and enjoyable for (pretty much) all ages. Thoroughly recommended.

Oh, and black holes are just incredibly handy sometimes.

Post Script

For a rather different take on Scribblenauts here’s Zero Punctuation. (Note that while he rails against it, he seems to have played a heck of  a lot of it.) I have to say that I agree that the movement physics suck dead dogs’ … well let’s not go there, children may be reading. And combining such a broad set of concepts and relationships with an actual plot is a Very Good (and obvious) Idea — but I think that implying it’s not “fun” is harsh (and manifestly untrue).

Oh, and pterodactyls are way better than helicopters.

Post Post Script

And here’s the really sad thing about Nintendo DS games. Even the best ones aren’t that compelling. I played Scribblenauts for about four hours after getting it, and then a couple of hours the next day, and I haven’t turned on the DS since. That makes Scribblenauts (for me) the second most compelling game on the DS after Mario (which is just another Mario game).

Frankly, if you don’t think Zelda is genius incarnate, Nintendo platforms are always disappointing (I gave up on the Wii’s Zelda even faster than the Nintendo 64’s). I gave up trying to find Chinatown Wars for the DS and got it for the iPhone — at least I carry my iPhone around.

Revenge of the NURBS

I recently learned about the existence of MoI (Moment of Inspiration) thanks to discussion on Cheetah 3d’s forums. I’m normally not much interested in Windows-only software, but for MoI I’m willing to make an exception. MoI is for NURBS modeling what Silo is for polygon/subdiv modeling. It doesn’t suck. It’s written by Michael Gibson — who apparently was the original developer of Rhino (the reigning NURBS modeler) — but this time he designed for tablet users (i.e. think single mouse button) from the get go, and the result is nothing less than a 3d doodle pad that just works.

A classic 50's style rocket
A classic 50's style rocket

This is the first model I created with MoI. So this is me learning to use the program. It’s a very simple model, but it’s also a model I’ve never been able to satisfactorily complete in any 3d modeling program ever. Note that I chopped it in half just so I could show off the interior. There’s no shortcuts or compromises. E.g. if I did this using subdiv modeling I wouldn’t have fins with a real airfoil cross-section and sharp edges. Chances are the shape of the fins wouldn’t be quite right either since you just end up pushing edges around until the curve looks “close enough”.

Where the fin meets the fuselage
Where the fin meets the fuselage

And look at the beautiful and precise way the fins join onto the fuselage. (You may notice that the control spline does not match the geometry in this picture — that’s just a consequence of my mesh approximation preferences which can be dialed up as far as you’re willing to live with.)

Cabin interior detail
Cabin interior detail

This is a close-up of the cabin cross-section. I want to show how the window openings are actually modeled. I made all the rotational symmetry five-fold simply because I could.

A little more cross-section detail.
A little more cross-section detail.

I actually took a bit of a shortcut in modeling the interior of the rocket nozzle, but that’s simply because by that point I’d already decided to buy a copy of MoI and I wasn’t going to put more work into the model since I was using a save disabled trial version.

Playing around with MoI has been amazingly liberating. Instead of messing with subdiv for hard edged models because working with NURBS is just too painful, I now have a tool for creating hard edged models (like spaceships) when I want to, and I can use subdiv modeling for what it’s best at — organic stuff. I can’t wait for my license to show up.