Face-off: 1979 Apple Graphics Tablet vs. 2010 Apple iPad

Side by side, 30-year-old technology struts its stuff against today's state-of-the-art tablet computer. Take a look.

Apple's Tablet: An Evolution

Apple's release of the iPad was the culmination of fans' long wait for a tablet. But in 1979, an earlier generation of Apple users used a different kind of Apple tablet. The Apple Graphics Tablet was designed by Summagraphics and sold by Apple Computer for the Apple II. This tablet was not a standalone computing device like the iPad, but was an input device for creating images on the Apple II, and predated the Apple II's mouse by six years.

Apple II fan Tony Diaz showed an Apple Graphics Tablet at the recent KansasFest annual convention for diehard Apple II users. He and Computerworld's Ken Gagne compared and contrasted Apple's tablet products.

First Look: Apple Graphics Tablet and iPad

The Apple Graphics Tablet (left) was released in 1979 and cost $650. It must be connected to an Apple II to use, and can be used to draw images at a resolution of 280 by 192 pixels. The Apple iPad (right) shipped in 2010 in six models ranging from $499 to $829. Equipped with a 1-GHz A4 system-on-a-chip and a 16GB, 32GB or 64GB flash drive, it syncs with any Macintosh or Windows machine via iTunes and runs thousands of iOS applications. Its resolution is 1024 by 768 pixels on a 9.7-inch LED-backlit glossy widescreen display.

Out of the Box

The graphics tablet was originally packaged with an interface card, a stylus, cables, a plastic overlay, a manual and software on a 5.25-inch floppy disk.

The iPad comes with a USB cable; a power adapter; an information card that shows some iPad basics such as where the switches are; a pamphlet of legal information, including the usual warnings about stupid things not to do with your iPad; and a page of white Apple stickers. Since the iPad requires a separate computer to configure, iTunes is not provided with the iPad.

Sizing Up the Tablets

The Apple Graphics Tablet measures 15.5 by 15.5 by 1 inch and weighs six pounds -- bulky compared to the svelte iPad's 9.56 by 7.47 by 0.53 inch and 1.5 pounds. There were no official products with which to decorate the graphics tablet, whereas the iPad's bezel can sport one of any number of external skins.

A Contrast in Touch Interfaces

KansasFest attendee Loren Damewood demonstrates each device's touch interface. The graphics tablet uses a stylus tethered to the interface card. A plastic overlay segments the tablet, much like graph paper does, to assist in drawing and to label specific functions.

The iPad's capacitive touch screen neither requires nor supports peripherals, but it responds to multiple points of contact through the use of multifinger gestures.

Comparing Menus

The overlay for the Apple Graphics Tablet provides a top row of function buttons that you can press with the stylus to issue software commands while drawing. Switching from straight lines to empty frames to solid boxes, changing colors and saving your work can be done with a simple tap.

On the iPad's home screen, a user-configurable row of application icons stays in the Dock at the bottom of the screen, offering a similar consistency for commands. Once a specific app is launched, these icons disappear, reappearing only when the hardware Home key is pressed.

Contrasting Connectivity

The Apple Graphics Tablet requires the included expansion card to be installed in the Apple II. The tablet and the stylus then each connect to the card.

The iPad uses a standard USB cable to connect to a Mac or Windows machine and then syncs with iTunes 9.1 or later. For Internet access, some iPad models can use AT&T's 3G cellular service; all models are equipped with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

Startup Screens

The Apple Graphics Tablet's software boots into this welcome screen. The iPad's start-up screen can be configured to any one of several default or custom displays; the pictured rain theme is included with the iPad.

The Setup Process

Before you can use the graphics tablet for the first time, it must be calibrated using the included software. Misconfiguration would skew the correlation between the user's gestures and the resulting on-screen image. The tablet's software saves the configuration to disk, so you need to recalibrate if the overlay shifts -- a possibiliy, since the overlay is simply taped into place using regular office tape.

As for configuring the iPad, each app has its own settings and a variety of general options determine basic functions such as wireless networking, background displays, language, date, and time.

Graphics Capabilities

The Apple Graphics Tablet relays to the computer remarkably accurate representations of the user's drawings. The magazine name, circuit diagram and Apple logo shown above were hand-drawn using the Apple Graphics Tablet and stylus.

The iPad removes the gulf inherent to graphics tablets, which require you to draw on one surface to make an image appear on a separate screen. The iPad's drawing surface and screen are one. Although its multitouch interface accepts finger-painting, it also needs an app such as the free Draw.

Check out the Documentation

The Apple Graphics Tablet has a 123-page manual roughly the same size as the iPad's display. The iPad's "manual" is little more than a postcard-size information sheet; more instructions are available online. With touchscreen gadgets far more commonplace today, the iPad's intuitive interface requires little explanation; few users will miss the paper manual.

Thanks to Mark Frischknecht and Computerworld's Ken Mingis for the loaned hardware.

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