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Feature: impressions of the Apple iPad 2 - Continued
Filterstorm

We've yet to find an exceptional app for adjusting pictures on the iPad. Photogene is okay, while Filterstorm and the new Filterstorm Pro are perhaps the best of the bunch. Overall, though, this app category suffers from cluttered interfaces, confusing ways of working, an emphasis on arty (or ugly) filter effects and slow performance.

filterstorm.jpg
Faster Faster: Filterstorm 2.6.2 (Photo in screenshot by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

The table below shows that Filterstorm takes full advantage of the iPad 2's increased processing power. That said, an intensive task such as exporting a photo with noise reduction applied is still incredibly slow on the iPad 2, even when exporting at only about 6MP (3072 pixels wide is Filterstorm 2.6.2's maximum output resolution).

In all of the more full-featured image editors we've tried on the iPad and iPad 2, the experience is similar: applying adjustments and exporting/saving photos is a test of patience, even without the use of heavy duty filters like noise reduction.

filterstorm_table.jpg

What the table doesn't show is how the iPad 2's additional RAM increases the stability of both Filterstorm and Photogene (especially Photogene, which we've found to be crashy on the original iPad even when all other apps have been cleared from the multitasking bar). Also, Filterstorm Pro (and soon, Filterstorm also) can export photos from most digital SLR cameras at up to full resolution, but only on the iPad 2.

Stability, and the option to save pictures at a higher resolution, are perhaps the best reasons to opt for an iPad 2 over an original iPad as the platform for an image adjustment app. Plus, if you need to adjust and send two or three pictures on deadline, the iPad 2 will enable you to do that faster.

Even on the iPad 2, however, speed of operation is still a significant barrier to productive, efficient image editing, which means it's far wiser to switch to a laptop if you often have to make basic tweaks to more than two or three photos in the field. We don't see that changing until the iPad platform becomes more powerful and image adjustment apps get smarter.

Photosmith

A new app for sorting, rating, captioning and keywording of pictures on the go, and then later syncing those pictures and metadata to Adobe Photoshop Lightroom on a Mac or Windows computer, Photosmith is an ambitious undertaking that soaks up every bit of processing power and RAM it can get.

The table below lists the time it took to complete the operations listed.

photosmith_table.jpg

It took a whole lot of words to compare ShutterSnitch's performance on the original iPad and iPad 2, in part because the app runs so similarly on both the 2010 and 2011 iterations of Apple's tablet. Fewer words are needed to sum up Photosmith on the two devices. While there's little to distinguish one from the other when sending pictures through the air or along a USB cable, in every other respect the iPad 2 is the noticeably better performer.

The numbers in the first three entries in the table hint at this, but they don't tell the story of how Photosmith feels on the original iPad vs the iPad 2. From adding new pictures to scrolling through large collections to dragging and dropping from one collection to another, the app is faster, smoother, more responsive and just plain old more fun to use on the iPad 2. Photosmith is a good app that's on its way to being a great app, and the iPad 2 really helps bring it to life.

If you're looking for an excuse to upgrade from the original iPad to an iPad 2, Photosmith is it.

PiRAWnha

PiRAWnha and PhotoRAW are the only iOS apps we know of that can actually convert the RAW data within a RAW file to a JPEG or other finished file format. Of the two, PiRAWnha is the one that purports to be a full-on RAW converter, with controls for white balance, software exposure compensation, noise reduction and the like.

As the test below shows, the iPad 2 shortens PiRAWnha's RAW conversion times considerably. But, the overall experience of using the app is still disastrously slow.

pirawnha_table.jpg

For example, to import a single D7000 NEF into PiRAWnha 2.0 on an iPad 2 takes about 17 seconds, while each exposure or white balance settings change requires 9-11 seconds of processing time before you can preview the effect of the change. (This is with the app set to Regular, its fastest-performing preview option.)

If it takes four tweaks of the exposure slider to get the picture right, then nearly 45 seconds of processing time will have been gobbled up on just this one adjustment. So, to open a 16MP-range RAW photo, fine tune the exposure and white balance and add some sharpening can easily use up three minutes a picture. And that's before starting the conversion, which takes as long as you see in the table.

Performance like this is one heck of an advertisement for a laptop. Case in point: to open, adjust and convert a single D7000 NEF in Adobe Photoshop CS5's Camera Raw on a MacBook Air 11 inch requires perhaps 15-20 seconds from start to finish, including the time it takes to move the sliders. Settings can be tweaked in nearly real time, even on Apple's least powerful Mac, while the actual conversion is completed in less than seven seconds, and faster still with sharpening and noise reduction turned off.

PiRAWnha 2.0 will convert at full resolution on the iPad 2 but not on the original iPad, so that's an advantage the iPad 2 brings. But, the only time we'd run PiRAWnha to convert a RAW file is in an emergency, regardless of which iPad we're talking about. The app runs too slowly to make anything else practical.

PhotoRAW hasn't really been on our radar, because of the limited control it offers over the RAW conversion; the app's lack of white balance correction has been a deal breaker. It's worth spending a moment talking about PhotoRAW, however, since it takes a different approach than PiRAWnha to the problem of providing both a measure of control over RAW conversion parameters and usable app performance.

By doing a full resolution conversion as the RAW file is first imported, it puts the performance pinch up front. To open a D7000 NEF in PhotoRaw 2.0.3, for example, takes a long time: 1:08 on an iPad 2. After that, however, the three adjustent sliders it provides - exposure, contrast and brightness - respond in real time. Then, saving a finished JPEG completes in a respectable 9.1 seconds.

Unfortunately, PhotoRAW lacks a way to change white balance, as mentioned, and there is a slight disconnect between the tone and colour of the adjusted preview and the final JPEG. And while it's exceptionally slow overall, PhotoRAW at least demonstrates it's possible to build a RAW converter for the iPad 2 that isn't laggy at previewing adjustments.

The undercover iPad 2

Apple's Smart Cover for the iPad 2 has generated almost as much attention as the iPad 2 itself, for good reason: it's a clever design that works exactly as Apple says. It aligns properly and clings tightly to the front, reliably triggers the iPad 2's screen lock/unlock sensor and adds very little bulk. Problem is, it provides no protection for the sides and back of the device and will sometimes (not often, but sometimes) come loose when the iPad 2 is put into or pulled out of a camera bag.

The Smart Cover, either by itself or perhaps at all, isn't the iPad 2 protection we want.

This is lousy news, since  it has meant wading into the sea of aftermarket cases floating around the Internet, trying to determine whether one meets our list of criteria. The ideal location photographer's case for the iPad 2 would combine the protection, three-position flexibility and build quality of Apple's iPad Case for the original iPad, but with the magnetic screen lock/unlock feature of the Smart Cover. A bit more stability in the upright position than the iPad Case offers would be good too, and the thinner and lighter it is, the better (without sacrificing its protective qualities).

For a time, we carried the two iPad 2s we have here at Little Guy Media in two of Apple's iPad Cases. Not before customizing them though: with a little magnetic tape on the inside of the top flap, they were Smart enough to trigger the screen lock/unlock too.

This was only a stopgap measure, though, and not even a particularly good one, as the iPad 2 sloshes around inside the iPad Case. This move was born out of desperation, since at the time of the iPad 2's release in March, and for weeks after, there was almost nothing in the way of third party cases that was (a) shipping and (b) not junk.

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Cover Up: The Apple Smart Cover, left, and the Apple iPad Case, right. The iPad Case has magnetic tape along the edge of the top flap and an iPad 2 inside. Click photos to enlarge (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

There's a lot more to choose from now.

For instance, the Candy Convertible iPad 2 Case from Hard Candy is, at first glance, the aftermarket twin of Apple's iPad Case, except it's made for the iPad 2. But, the case covers the iPad 2's ambient light sensor, the stitching and overall build quality is no match for Apple's iPad Case and it lacks the necessary magnets to trigger the iPad 2's screen lock/unlock function.

The Speck PixelSkin HD Wrap for iPad 2 looks good and offers a trio of positioning options, plus the build quality is top notch. But, it has no magnets in the cover, and it's thicker than we want.

The Mivizu Sense is the closest we've come so far to a case that meets our key criteria, at least in theory. We ordered one, are using it, and it does provide full protection for the iPad 2, incorporates screen lock/unlock magnets and looks a lot like the Apple iPad Case. But:
  • It doesn't always stay standing up.

  • The top flap, when folded over so that it's pressed against the back, occasionally triggers the iPad 2's lock/unlock sensor from underneath.

  • Fit and build quality are okay but not stellar.

  • It's thicker than it ought to be.

  • It smells. Not nice, like a new car or even a new baseball mitt, but rather like some extra nasty chemicals were used to treat the leather in manufacturing. After five days of airing it out, the case's odor was no longer pungent but even now it's still noticeable.
So the search continues, and these are just three examples of the dozens and dozens of cases we've looked at or bought. Reader Juan A. Pons has put forth the Yoobao Executive as another Apple iPad Case alternative, while Steve Niedorf likes the positioning flexibility of the Marware C.E.O Hybrid. Several photographers wrote to suggest the Splash Vapor, modified to coexist with the Smart Cover (pictures of the modification). Splash is also planning to release the Splash Vapor 2 "by May 20th," says Splash customer service, and is intended to fit a Smart Cover-equipped iPad 2 without modification. The original Splash case will continue to be available.

As of this moment, we're leaning towards a combination of Apple Smart Cover and separate back. Shortly, we'll be giving the XCase Flexible Shield For Apple iPad 2 a look-see, as well as the Splash 2. Both are meant to provide protection for the back and the sides of the iPad 2, and so either could be what we'll settle on.

In other words, we've given up the search for a case that meets all of our criteria and are now looking for something that will be close enough. It probably goes without saying that we'd switch to an iPad 2 version of Apple's iPad Case in a heartbeat. Take the iPad Case, resize it to snugly fit the iPad 2, give it a bit more upright stability and throw in embedded magnets and you'd have our ideal case for schlepping the iPad 2 around from job to job.

Conclusion

It was a little over a year ago that we took delivery of an iPad. Since then it has been a constant companion and an indispensable asset on assignment when used with the right apps and for purposes that play to its strengths. The original iPad was great, and because the iPad 2 is a faster, lighter, skinnier, video-capable variation on the original, the iPad 2 is also great.

After a year of living with the iPad, however, we wanted more than the iPad 2 has delivered. Thin and pretty sells, the iPad 2 is certainly both those things and it's selling at a ferocious pace. But as photographers we'd have preferred they kept the dimensions as they were and and instead focused on adding a USB port and memory card slot, speeding up the Wi-Fi and USB throughput to match a computer, bumping up the RAM to 1GB or more, incorporating a Mini DisplayPort or Thunderbolt connector and developing a proper CompactFlash reader accessory.

Incorporating all of these changes could have made the iPad 2 too expensive or too heavy or cut runtime from 10 hours to five. Incorporating at least one or two of these suggestions, though, would have markedly improved the iPad as a platform for photographers and the developers who create apps for them.

The iPad 2's wider viewing angle screen is a solid upgrade, and what photographer would say no to faster processing. We simply wanted - and expected - the hardware to evolve more than this.

That said, the most important changes need to take place in the iOS itself. Apple's stewardship of the platform has enabled it to flourish, without question. The quality of apps in so many categories in the App Store are a testament to that, as is the general stability of the iPad, iPad 2 and other Apple mobile devices. But, it's time to take down some of the seemingly arbitrary roadblocks that permeate the iOS, ones that have no justification we can divine based on criteria such as device security or even stability. Or, they prevent the informed user from deciding on their preferred balance between functionality and things like battery life.

At the same time, there is support missing for basic features such as colour managed photo display, at least as an option, and more advanced features such as communication and control of a USB-tethered camera. Both capabilities have been in the Mac OS for years, and are just as needed and would be just as useful on the iPad 2. As Apple's tablet transitions from its freshman to its sophomore year, we're ready to see it mature in ways that expand what photographers can accomplish with it.

Here are some examples of iOS restrictions we'd like to see lifted and features we want to see enhanced. To keep this manageable, we've limited the discussion to just the two photography apps we use most often, ShutterSnitch and Photosmith. Apple's iOS has given them a home, but it's also holding them back from reaching their full potential.
  • ShutterSnitch The iOS limits the app from receiving pictures in the background for more than a short time after the user brings another app to the foreground. It should be possible to prepare the email you're going to send to a customer in the foreground while ShutterSnitch is receiving pictures for that customer in the background, but it isn't. Until the iOS permits apps like ShutterSnitch greater multitasking freedom, doing these two things simultaneously won't be possible.

    It's also not possible for ShutterSnitch to display the name of the connected Wi-Fi network - often a key piece of information to a ShutterSnitch user - within the app itself, because third party developers aren't allowed to tap into the private iOS framework that stores this tidbit.

    Speaking of networks, an iOS device also can't kickstart an ad hoc W-Fi network. While the advent of Eye-Fi's Direct Mode in its X2 line of SDHC wireless/memory combo cards partly mitigates the need for this, it's not a panacea. It wasn't designed to enable multiple cameras and their transmitters to send pictures to ShutterSnitch at the same time, nor was it designed to be truly persistent. If an iPad 2 could create its own ad hoc network (without resorting to jailbreaking the device and installing MyWi, that is), these limitations would dissolve away.

    Ad hoc networking is one solution. Another would be to morph the Wi-Fi sharing Personal Hotspot feature of the iPhone 4 into a basic wireless router and DHCP server that works on all iOS devices, even ones that lack a 3G radio. Do that, put it into the iPad and iPad 2 and we'd be ecstatic. Implemented properly, however, an ad hoc network could and probably would be gentler on the battery.

    One more network gripe. In busy Wi-Fi areas it's really useful to be to able to survey the wireless landscape since it helps with the choosing of a clear channel and positioning your own router in that environment. Apps that display nearby Wi-Fi networks along with their signal strength, channel and type (802.11n, etc.), however, are not permitted in the App Store.

  • Photosmith Only the native Photos app is allowed by the iOS to import pictures from a connected camera or card reader. For Photosmith users, this leads to time wasted while you wait for the Photos app to import and build a preview for each photo. It also introduces a needless duplication of effort since as soon as the Photos app is done and Photosmith is launched it has to immediately go about building its own, separate preview. This results in two sets of previews stored in the iPad/iPad 2 for every photo imported.

    It's also not possible for apps such as Photosmith, that interact with pictures imported by the Photos app, to get the filename of those pictures, even though this information is being captured and stored. A file's name is a useful piece of data for an app to have, but since Photosmith can't know it, the pictures it syncs over Wi-Fi to Lightroom get a long numeric name that does not match what the camera set.

    The solution is to cut out the middleman. Give apps the freedom to import pictures directly, bypassing the Photos app, and permit them to extract all the info they need from those pictures, including the filename. At minimum, this would speed up the process of getting pictures into Photosmith, and allow the filenames to more easily travel with the files, for those that want that.

    These changes would make Photosmith a better app, and they'd give apps like ShutterSnitch greater flexibility in where they receive pictures from too.
That's a small sampling of ideas we hope Apple is considering for (near-)future iOS updates and future iPad hardware. In the meantime, we'll continue to enjoy the iPad and iPad 2 for the photography tasks it does do well and try not to bump up against the things that it doesn't.

Revision History
May 5, 2011: Added more details about PhotoRAW plus new iPad case suggestions.
May 8, 2011: Added more iPad case information.
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