Opinion | It’s Time for Apple to Move the iPad’s Front Camera as Competition Moves Ahead

GALAXY TAB S8 Credit: Samsung
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Although there was a time when the placement of the front camera on the iPad might have made some sense, over the past few years it’s become somewhat of an anachronism as many folks use their iPads like a laptop.

When Apple first introduced the iPad in 2010, it was clearly intended to be used in portrait orientation. From the design to the marketing, it was clear that Apple saw it as more of a digital notebook and e-reader. The Dock Connector and Lightning Connector were always positioned on the bottom short edge, and of course, the camera was right up top — which was precisely where you’d want it for one-on-one FaceTime calls.

Whatever Steve Jobs’ original intent for the iPad was, however, it’s clear that many Apple customers have had an entirely different idea in mind. As keyboards, cases, and other accessories emerged, the iPad became more fixed in landscape orientation in most people’s minds.

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App developers also focused on providing the best user experiences when operating in landscape orientation — a layout that often made much more sense for everything from media to productivity apps. Cases that included third-party stands almost always propped the iPad up on its side, since of course that’s the way most folks wanted to use it, especially when watching video.

In fact, even Apple’s own Magic Keyboard made no allowances at all for using the iPad Pro (and, later, the iPad Air) in portrait mode. The Smart Connector and magnetic attachments were intended to fit the iPad in one orientation only — landscape.

Yet, despite this, Apple has stubbornly kept the front-facing camera in the same place — a post that awkwardly puts it to the left of the screen when using the iPad with a keyboard. The result is that a person using an iPad on the other end of a FaceTime or Zoom call frequently appears to be looking away from the screen. Meanwhile, Apple’s competitors seem to get it.

The Competition

At today’s Galaxy Unpacked event, Samsung showed off its new Galaxy Tab S8 Ultra that adds a new dual 12MP camera system — and even embraces a MacBook-esque notch to house them — and places those cameras exactly where they should be on a premium tablet: the long edge.

This is a tablet that’s clearly designed to be used in landscape orientation. Not only is the camera right where most folks would expect it to be, but Samsung’s connectors are also on the long edge.

Further, with a 14.6-inch Super AMOLED display, 5G and Wi-Fi 6E support, and an 11,200 mAh battery with super-fast 45W charging, this is clearly a tablet that’s designed to give the iPad Pro a run for its money. Of course, you still have to be willing to embrace Android over iPadOS, but that’s not going to dissuade some people from thinking that the grass may be greener on the other side of the fence.

To be clear, Samsung has clearly adopted some features that Apple already brought to the iPad last year, such as its own version of Centre Stage — although it seems to need two cameras to pull it off. Samsung’s name for it — “Auto Framing” — is also a bit less clever, but it’s still descriptive.

Whatever else can be said about the new Galaxy Tab S8 Ultra, it’s clear that it gets one thing right — it puts the front camera where it’s supposed to be.

Apple May Be Working On It

To be fair, we did hear a report last fall from well-known leaker Dylandkt (who recently seems to have vanished from Twitter), suggesting that Apple was working on “horizontal camera placement and a horizontally placed Apple logo on the back.” The goal is to “make landscape mode the default,” at least for the iPad Pro.

It’s possible this could come as soon as the next model, although neither Dylandkt nor anyone else has been able to offer concrete insights beyond the report that Apple is working on it.

It’s not the first time that we’ve seen Apple toying with this idea. Over the years, we’ve seen some iPad concepts and prototypes with Dual Dock connectors, suggesting that Apple at one time considered allowing the iPad to be docked and charged in either orientation. None of these ever saw the light of day, however.

More recently, though, Apple has made one small concession to users of its Magic Keyboard. Last year, iPadOS 14.5 switched the boot screen so that the Apple Logo appears in the “proper” landscape orientation when starting the iPad up with a Magic Keyboard or Smart Keyboard attached.

Notably, the landscape logo only appears when an Apple keyboard is linked to the Smart Connector; otherwise, it still shows up in portrait orientation.

On the surface, that’s a relatively small change, but it does show that Apple is paying attention to the user experience for folks who use the iPad as a laptop replacement.

However, that’s also something that’s pretty easy to do in software. By comparison, moving the camera could be a much bigger deal, possibly requiring some major internal design changes. For one thing, the space where the camera would need to end up on the iPad Pro and iPad Air is currently occupied by the magnetic charging dock for the Apple Pencil. It’s not likely that Apple will be able to find enough room to keep both those in that spot, so tradeoffs will need to be made.

Still, we think it’s time for Apple to make that call. There are several other places the Apple Pencil can charge without having any major user impact, but the camera position makes for a poor experience of using an iPad Pro for video conferencing.

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