Deconfusinator: New iPad's Hot Mess

New iPad's sales are on fire. The new iPad's not. Here's what's fueling the flames of criticism of Apple's latest device.

Consumer Reports says it has a problem with the new iPad: It gets hot. The Internet is awash with the news, with discussions and even infrared scans of the toasty device in action. There are jokes, disparaging anit-Apple statements, and even suggestions Apple's messed up the design of the iPad. But here's why we might soon look back on this yammering and laugh. Toastier devices are likely just part of the future of mobile computing.


"The new iPad can run significantly hotter than the iPad 2 when running an action game," Consumer Reports notes. Using a thermal imaging camera, the testers found it could reach as high as 116 degrees Fahrenheit (46.7 Celsius) when running Infinity Blade II. The investigation followed "numerous compaints now cropping up about how hot the new iPad can get while doing processor intensive tasks such as gaming or downloads." The test was run with the device propped on a smart cover, and the game running continuously for 45 minutes. The team also noted that when the game was running, with the charger plugged in, the iPad's battery continued to drain.

Then near the end, the report states: "When it was at its hottest, it felt very warm but not especially uncomfortable if held for a brief period," and, "It charged normally, however, when we weren't running a game." These lines have opened up Consumer Reports to some heat of its own from those accusing it of making much ado about nothing and burying the real story beneath sensational headlines. The publication has now added a new FAQ titled, "iPad Heat: How Hot Is Too Hot." In this post Consumer Reports notes the heat isn't a safety concern, and that they've previously measured laptops heating over 120 degrees Fahrenheit (48.9 Celsius) and concluded that this could damage skin in prolonged exposures.

Even after a long time running a very graphically intensive game the iPad didn't heat even to uncomfortable levels at its hottest point. The rest of the iPad's back also didn't get as hot as this part. You're also unlikely to perform this kind of action often on the iPad, right now at least—continuous gaming with a very high-complexity app just isn't a typical iPad use. The iPad is also held in your hands in many use cases, including many games which utilize motion sensing. You may think this means you're exposing your hands to the potential hotspots—but it also means that, unlike a large flat laptop sitting on your thighs or on a desk, there's much more air passing over it to dissipate any heat.

It's possible that the device could get hotter still if it's pushed hard on a hot day. On the other hand, Apple has built a thermal shutdown system into its iDevices, to protect both the device and its user if things get too hot—if you leave your iPhone on a hot car dashboard on a sunny day you may have encountered it.


What Makes The New iPad Hotter?

It's a more robust device than its predecessors, with much better specifications crammed into very nearly the same space as the iPad 2. It has a similar dual-core CPU but a quad-core graphics unit, and as the Gizmodo image below reveals, more power is flowing to this slice of silicon, delivering the impressive graphics that the new iPad is being admired for (and which set the bar for probably every comparable tablet for the next several years). The new screen is also lit with many more LEDs than before, so it's brighter.

Transistors and other electronics generate heat, thanks to the implacable laws of physics: Push more electricity through them as you ask them to process complicated 3-D graphics for an hour and they'll inevitably heat up. That's why your desktop PC is crammed with air-circulating fans. But fans eat electricity, and that's bad in a mobile device, so the iPad and other tablets rely on passive heating—the case and screen of the tablet is basically a heat sink. Tablet designers, including Apple, know this, and they'll have conducted their own extensive tests to work out if, in normal use, the heat generated is within acceptable limits for the user (so they avoid expensive McDonald's-esque lawsuits) and so it doesn't hurt the electronics.

And when you charge the lithium battery in any modern device it generates more heat. It's unavoidable, because when you charge these batteries you're pushing in more watts of power in a shorter window than when you suck power back out if it—that's why you can charge your device just for an hour or so and get four or five hours use. This may have resulted in some of the extra heat CR experienced.

As for the battery drain issue, that's kind of inevitable too due to the balance of the design of the device and its charger: You can't push too much power into the battery too fast lest you damage it or generate too much heat, or need a beefier charging unit. This is something you've probably encountered when using dedicated in-car GPS units. They work fine on battery alone, but you have to keep them plugged in for extended periods because they draw as much and perhaps more power than they suck in from their power supply.

The Future

iPad heating is inevitable. Power generation and thermodynamics says so. But so does demand: We as consumers do expect our tablets to be ever more powerful, and rightly so—they seem likely to replace our laptops and desktop PCs soon enough, and we need this power to run the kind of useful apps for fun, social connections and business that we're all getting used to. But more power in the same space means more heat, and the iPad for 2012 even has less empty space inside it than the iPad 2 due to its much bigger battery (needed to give it a useful working time).

It's going to be a problem for Apple, for Samsung, for anyone putting out a high-spec tablet PC, and it means we'll see a number of innovative solutions arrive soon enough. Solutions like device chassis made from ceramics or incredible compound materials designed to spread and dissipate heat over a large areas. Innovations in processor tech that generate less heat. Better battery systems that don't warm up as much, and so on.

Heat may also signify the end, or at least the radical overhaul, of something unexpected: The USB charger unit and the iPod connector cable. USB can only deliver a certain amount of power (USB 3.0 more than USB 2.0, agreed) and that's why your iPad charges not at all or really slowly when plugged into a laptop and more swiftly when connected to its own charger. The iPod connector cable is part of this issue, and it may have come to its end—the 30 thin wires insde it probably just can't cope with more power, so it's a good job Apple's been looking at alternatives like a simpler MagSafe connector. And where Apple treads, others follow. 

Now, who brought the marshmallows?

[Image: Flickr users Dave Austria, Alexander Casassovici, Kit Eaton, Gizomodo, and Consumer Reports]

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