The New iPad’s Achilles Heel

I was in junior high school when I first heard about someone rupturing an Achilles tendon. After I learned what it meant I remembering saying to myself “Boy, that is absolutely the last thing I ever want to have happen to me.” Little did I know that thought was a portent of the future.

In June of 2006 I went down like a ton of bricks on a basketball court with an Achilles tear of epic proportions. “Spaghetti” was the term used by my doctor.  It is a 6-month ordeal experience one does not forget, and I now often observe analogies to it in other things, most recently “The New iPad.”

The new iPad, or iPad 3, features Apple’s Retina display – crisp, vibrant, and beautiful, brought about by a doubling of the screen’s resolution by jamming in four times as many pixels. Ostensibly this should be nothing but a plus for the iPad 3, but in certain use cases, the Retina display is really an Achilles heel in Trojan Horse clothing.

While Apple upped the ante on the display resolution and threw in a quad-core GPU to handle it, the new iPad’s A5X CPU is basically the same dual core processor running at the same speed as last year’s iPad 2. And herein lies the Achilles heel. Depending on the app you’re using and how it was written, performance may actually be poorer on the new iPad.

Apps that require heavy CPU (vs. GPU) power to render images, such as PDF-based applications and others that use methods like [CALayer renderInContext:], are now faced with making their calculations over 4 times as many pixels without any additional processing power. To the user, this reveals itself as sluggish performance, including noticeable lag when turning pages in apps like NextPage that display image-ladden PDFs. So we end up with a better display, but with potentially poorer performance.  The very popular Instapaper by Marco Arment was one such notable victim.

In several ways, this conundrum is much like an torn Achilles tendon for both iPad 3 owners and app developers alike:

  1. It is inconvenient. An achilles ordeal includes explaining to your wife what happened, dragging your injured self to a doctor, followed by surgery, 90 days in multiple casts, learning how to get on/off the toilet using only one leg, months on crutches and wearing a high-fashion boot, weeks of physical therapy, and then eventually learning to walk again.  I was inconvenienced, to say the least.

iPad 3 purchasers are expecting a good experience, but depending on the app, which may have worked just fine on iPad 2, they are possibly now getting subpar performance. On the developer side, iPad developers have been ambushed with a problem they were not expecting, and quite frankly don’t have the time or inclination to handle.  Clearly, inconvenience all around.

  1. It is painful. The actual rupturing of an achilles tendon turns out to be the least painful part of the process. Recovering from the surgery has it’s own amped up round of pain, and that comes with good medication, but nothing beats the first post-op procedure. Initially after surgery, my foot was cast in a downward pointing position, much like a ballerina. After the tendon healed (90 days in my case), they cut off that cast, taking some of my skin with it, and then straightened the foot to a normal position. This requires the stretching of a mended, but never-before-streteched tendon that doesn’t want to be stretched, sending one into a realm of pain that may not quite approximate childbirth, but has to be darn close.

App developers who have to deal with iPad 3 rendering sluggishness may not have any low-pain solutions available either. In my own case, I was able to quickly pivot by rendering PDF pages to UIImages instead of directly to the screen. Others have not been so lucky, and have had to resort to schemes whereby they render new content in memory on a separate thread while the user is viewing the current on-screen content. Remembering that upgrades in the iOS and Mac App Store are free, developers aren’t going to get paid to fix this. A nice bit of insult added to the pain of injury.

  1. It takes time. If you behave and do exactly as your doctor and physical therapist say, you can make a full recovery from an achilles injury, and I did. In 6 months I was walking normally, and in 12 months I could play sports again, though I thought it wise to retire from basketball. I had no interest in further refining my one-legged bathroom or driving skills. So too, depending on the app, it may be a long time before iPad 3 owners see the performance of their favorite-now-sluggish app get better. Eventually we will see an iPad with quad-core CPUs, and eventually app developers are likely to fix their performance issues on the new iPad. But in either case, it is going to take some time.

The new iPad’s screen is certainly sweet, but if you’re an iPad 2 owner, you may just want to hang on to it for another year. With the recent drop in price, it’s clearly the best overall “price performer” in the lineup until we learn about the specs of “the next iPad” (or “the newer iPad”, or “the 2013 iPad”, or whatever).

Have you noticed any app sluggishness on iPad 3?

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5 thoughts on “The New iPad’s Achilles Heel

  1. Nicely explained, never though of the iPad 3 problems as rapture Achilles tendon, excellent analogy.

  2. Oh heck yeah, I have noticed it. I had faster page rendering in iBooks on my iPad 1. Steve jobs passes, and Apple stops testing their products thoroughly enough. The reason I bought the new IPad was so I could load books faster. Now I can load them faster, I just have to wait seconds after each page flip to read. Thanks a lot apple!

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