Rumors spread on Monday that Apple was adding support for 128GB storage in iPhones and iPads, and leaked retail information suggested that a 128GB iPad was just around the corner. The reaction to news of the rumor was both visceral and mixed—some users who regularly bump against the existing 64GB storage limit welcomed the notion that Apple would increase the capacity of its mobile devices, while others largely considered 128GB to be overkill for something that isn't a "real PC."
But just one day later, Apple announced it would indeed start shipping a 128GB iPad starting next week, on February 5. As rumored, the device will cost $799 for a Wi-Fi model or $929 for a Wi-Fi + Cellular model with LTE networking compatibility. The pricing falls right in line with Apple's existing pricing structure; entry-level models have 16GB of storage and start at $499 and $629 respectively, with each doubling of storage capacity adding an extra $100 to the price.
The readers react
Some viewed the news as a positive. "Between some large games, iOS Garageband, and some computer development tutorial videos I loaded into VLC, I ran out of room quickly [on my 64GB iPad]," Ars reader spittingangels wrote.
"People like to carry around their music library and have all the flexibility of the iPad. This is excellent news," reader maars added.
Detractors weren't as kind. "Thousand dollar iPads. loooool," wrote Ars reader Q1DM6.
"Overkill, in my opinion," Eóin Fay, a student at the University of Ottawa, told me via Google+. "There are very few people out there who would truly find a use for this much portable space. Everything is moving toward streaming."
It's true that music and video consumption is moving to streaming services such as Netflix and Spotify, and files can be easily stored in the cloud on Dropbox or the like. So in offering a relatively expensive tablet with such a large amount of storage, has Apple lost its collective marbles? Or is it addressing a legitimate consumer desire for tablets that can, as Apple believes, replace their existing desktop or laptop computer for some significant majority of their needs?
Only the market can truly answer that question, but so far Apple seems to think the demand is there.
Tablets are replacing PCs whether we like it or not
For one, Apple believes iPads are cannibalizing sales of its own Macs, and CEO Tim Cook is just fine with that.
"I think cannibalization is a huge opportunity for us," Cook said during Apple's fiscal first quarter conference call. "Our base philosophy is to never fear cannibalization. If we do, somebody else will just cannibalize it. We never fear it. We know iPhone has cannibalized some iPod business, we know iPad has cannibalized some Macs, and that doesn't worry us."
But iPads are also believed to be cannibalizing sales of Windows PCs as well.
"With more than 120 million iPads sold, it's clear that customers around the world love their iPads, and everyday they are finding more great reasons to work, learn, and play on their iPads rather than their old PCs," Apple SVP of Worldwide Marketing, Phil Schiller, said in a statement on Tuesday.
It's hard to say with certainty if Cook and Schiller are right, but raw numbers can give us some indication that the idea isn't crazy. Look at the green line in the graph below; iPads started outselling Macs after just two quarters on the market. In its latest fiscal quarter, Apple sold just over 4 million Macs. In contrast, it sold over five times as many iPads—almost 23 million. Compare that with the world's number one PC maker, HP, which sold just 14.6 million PCs in the same period.
In fact, PC sales have been declining for the last several quarters, with market research firm Gartner recording a 4.9 percent decline in the most recent quarter ending in December. The reason for that continued decline, according to Gartner, is that consumers are increasingly using tablets to do the things they might have done with a PC even a year or two ago.
"Tablets have dramatically changed the device landscape for PCs," Gartner Principle Analyst Mikako Kitagawa said. "Whereas once we imagined a world in which individual users would have both a PC and a tablet as personal devices, we increasingly suspect that most individuals will shift consumption activity to a personal tablet, and perform creative and administrative tasks on a shared PC."
So if consumers are increasingly using tablets over PCs, it's no surprise that some of them are filling the somewhat limited storage capacity with ever-larger music libraries, TV shows, movies, photos, and apps—games in particular can quickly eat up space on a mobile device with high-resolution "retina"-ready graphics.
"I like having my data local when possible," Ars reader FreeFire wrote. "I have a 32GB iPhone now, and I've had to clear space on it more than once. Videos, pictures, and music make it easy to use space. My daughter's 16GB iPad is constantly at the limit."
It also appears that professionals are likewise supplementing or replacing PCs with iPads. Musicians can record multi-track audio, add effects, and mix it down to a finished stereo track. Photographers can upload images from DSLRs and edit them using the iPad's touchscreen. Videographers can shoot or import video and create rough cuts using a mobile version of Avid. Even engineers can access "often large and highly detailed" AutoCAD files using the AutoCAD WS app for iPad.
Ultrabooks for one and all?
But with prices getting awfully close to Ultrabook territory, there are those who certainly feel that buying something like a MacBook Air makes more sense for the Apple-inclined. A top-end iPad with 128GB of storage and LTE costs $929, whereas an 11-inch MacBook Air with a 128GB SSD, a much faster processor, and a built-in keyboard will cost $1,099.
"For that much, [you] might as well get a real ultra notebook which is far more functional and flexible,"said Ars reader foofoo22.
Even with similar storage, though, the two devices aren't necessarily equivalents. It's true that the MacBook Air has both a physical keyboard and built-in trackpad for input, and it can use alternate keyboards, mice, and graphics tablets. Its CPU and graphics are more powerful than those in an iPad. It can be expanded with a wide variety of USB and Thunderbolt peripherals. It can also use all the traditional software we associate with "real PCs," like Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, and more.
But the iPad has some unique advantages over a MacBook Air or other Ultrabook PC. For one, the iPad comes with a built-in 5MP still camera capable of shooting 1080p video. It (optionally) has built-in 3G and 4G wireless networking, for getting things done when you're out of range of a convenient Wi-Fi network. It has a large touchscreen, which works in ways that traditional computers don't—including while standing. It is lighter in weight and easier to carry. And its battery will consistently last 10 hours or more, while even the most miserly 11-inch MacBook Air user can only dream of expecting half that much runtime away from an AC outlet.
"Since the MacBook Air is not a tablet, and a tablet is not a MacBook Air, I don't necessarily see them as alternatives," Ars reader Janne noted. "And the way you use the two devices is totally different."
So yes, a 128GB iPad might be an expensive luxury for users that are already satisfied with an existing desktop or mobile PC, or it may be "overkill" for those who largely rely on cloud services to access their favorite content. Still, users who prefer to keep content local could certainly use the extra space. And those who rely on an iPad as a professional tool—for whatever reason–can likely justify the added cost of extra storage over lower-end models.
We expect that as prices for NAND storage come down, higher capacity devices will become the norm in the near future. But that's then and this is now. Today, we wonder just how much demand is out there for 128GB iPads, so tell us your thoughts in our latest poll: