Apple iPad: a short-term hands-on review
Note from Josh: No, it’s not a photo specific device. But a lot of people have been asking me what I think of the iPad since they knew I had purchased one. So I decided to write this up.
So the Apple iPad is finally here. After over two months of hype and speculation, accusations and arguments, debate and worship, the thing has finally shipped and is in the hands of the early adopters. Well, sort of anyway. If you are one of the ones who chose to buy the 3G version, you are still waiting for that ship notice email from Apple (and will keep waiting for another couple of weeks).
But for those who chose the Wi-Fi only version, the worlds first mainstream successful tablet computer has arrived. How can I say successful when the iPad has only been out a week? Well, with 450,000 units sold in that week, I think we can say that it’s pretty successful. At the very least it’s going to be more successful than any other consumer tablet computer thus far. To be fair though, there haven’t been many of them. Anyhow, as I previously stated I would do, I ordered a wi-fi iPad to arrive on the first day they were released. After being asked by a number of photo.net members what my impressions of the thing were, I decided to write a short-term hands-on review.
Good stuff about the iPad
Here are some things that I was impressed with:
The iPad is a snappy performer. There is virtually no startup time, you just press the button and slide your finger across the screen to unlock it and the iPad is ready to use. Opening programs is much faster than doing the same thing on the iPhone as is switching between horizontal and vertical orientation. There are none of the random pauses and long load times that smartphone users have always had to live with. Websites open quickly and long pages display as fast as if you were reading them on your home computer. Overall Apple has done a great job with their homegrown A4 processor.
The iPad’s screen is really something to see. Bright and sharp with rich colors, both photos and video look great on the device. Its 1024 × 768 resolution may not sound like much in this day and age of external monitors with resolutions of 3840 × 2400. But the fact is that for whatever reason, the screen on the ipad looks wonderful. I have yet to talk to anyone who thought it was lacking in that department. The multi-touch interface has scaled up well from the iPhone/iPad devices. In fact, given the larger real-estate, you would have to say that the concept of multi-touch works even better on the larger form factor as you have more room to scroll, swipe, pinch, draw, etc. If I were a photographer who needed to have a portable digital portfolio, I can’t think of a better device than the iPad. Between its “looky here” new gadget factor, finger swipe navigation, and great looking screen, what could be better for getting an art director, bride, or editor’s attention?
In his initial presentation, Steve Jobs claimed a 10 hour battery life for the iPad. Unlike most other battery life claims in the electronics industry, I think Apple was underestimating the iPad’s numbers. While I haven’t done any scientific testing myself, every review that has done that testing seems to come out with at least 10 hours as the actual battery life, and often it’s somewhat more. Now, Apple could have been giving itself wiggle room knowing that the 3G version would use more power than the wifi. But the fact remains that battery life on the iPad is impressive. Of course, it had better be, because you can’t replace the battery yourself. If your battery craps out, it’s $99 out of your pocket to Apple for a replacement. Though they do apparently give you a whole new (refurbished?) iPad rather than just replacing your battery.
Screen Rotation Lock
Hallelujah we have made it to the mountain top! Well no, not really. But this feels like a much bigger deal than it really is to anyone who has tried to use their iPhone or iPad Touch to read in bed, curled up on the couch, or in any other position where the device is not exactly straight up and down. There was simply no way to keep the device from switching screen orientation if it thought that it should. It was frustrating and limited the usefulness of those devices. The iPad’s physical screen rotation lock is just the answer. Now no matter how contorted you are in your favorite chair, you and you alone can decide in which orientation you want the device to display content.
This may seem like a small thing, but the speaker on the iPad is actually pretty good. Apple has a lot of strengths. But like all companies, it has its weaknesses as well. I have never been able to figure out why they can’t make a decent set of built in speakers for any of their devices. But the iPad speaker, while nothing that audiophiles would write home about, is plenty loud enough to watch videos or listen to a podcast in most situations. While I think that most people watching videos or listening to music on the iPad will be doing so via headphones, it’s nice to know that at least the option is there to use the speaker and actually hear something.
Newspapers and Magazines
Now, I have to admit, I’m a newspaper junkie. I subscribe to 2-3 daily newspapers and read them cover to cover. Oddly enough I very much dislike reading those same stories on my computer. Perhaps it is because of the environment in which I like to read the newspaper (at the kitchen counter or on the couch) or perhaps it is because of the cluttered ugly design that most newspaper websites have. But reading the news on my desktop or laptop has never been satisfying or enjoyable for me. Sure, I use news websites for information gathering and breaking updates. But for the simple enjoyable ritual of reading the paper in the morning while eating a bagel and drinking my coffee, the computer has never done it for me. I prefer the real thing. I feel much the same way about magazines, though the difference with them is that at least the concept of a “web magazine” has been moving in some new directions in recent years. with Flash based layouts such as the one used by This is Fly magazine and others.
Reading newspaper content on the iPad has been an aspect where it has really shined for me. Every day I have owned it I have used the (currently free) New York Times, Wall St Journal and even the USA Today apps. There is something wonderful about the tablet form factor and the finger swipe/tap/pinch interface that makes me feel much more like I’m reading an actual newspaper. Of course it is not exactly the same, but it is much more of a bridge between the print and electronic world than I have seen before. The magazine situation is similar, though the varying delivery concepts of publishers makes things slightly annoying. One magazine will have one feature and navigation method, and another will have something completely different. A particular downfall for the magazines is text size, some of them allow zooming and some just don’t seem to care. While the same can be said for the newspaper apps, they are far more similar to each other than the magazine apps are and given their black-text white-page design, the text issue is less of a problem. Both kinds of media are starting to take advantage of video and other “rich” media in their iPad layouts. This is a very interesting melding of the old and new and unlike most mashups, tends to give the best of both worlds.
Pricing is all over the board. Right now the newspaper apps are free, though all have said they will begin charging at some point. But at what price and for what content remains to be seen. At the moment, the Wall St Journal is the only one that has announced a subscription plan. They think that people are going to pay $16 a month for the iPad version of the paper. Which is laughable when you consider that a combined subscription to the print home delivery and website version of the WSJ is $11 a month. Magazines range from a few dollars less than cover price up to exactly the same as their print counterparts, generally $3-6. At the moment there doesn’t seem to be any subscription discount as would be typical with magazines.
Where you use it
While many of us are accustomed to having a cell phone, even a larger smartphone, in our pockets all of the time, few of us go as far as to carry our laptops all through the house with us. The iPad changes that. Here’s a list of the places just in my house that I have used my iPad in the past 24 hours:
- kitchen counter
- dining room table
- walking around calming down a baby
- as…er….“bathroom” reading
- in bed
- my office desk
- the backyard
The iPad ends up being much more like a book or magazine than a computer. It is simply not a problem to use it just about anywhere you happen to be. It starts up instantly and there are no cords or cables or mice required to make it work. It really unhooks the Internet and digital media from the tethers of a traditional computer and also from the limitations of smartphones and their tiny screens. Though I decided that I didn’t need the option myself, this will become even more true when the 3G version of the iPad is released later this month.
It’s hard to deny that the iPad is a fun toy to play with. I’ve let any number of people try mine out, it’s still new enough to get plenty of “Oh, is that a…” attention at a coffee shop or the local brewpub (otherwise known as my ‘office away from home’). Virtually every person who has tried it out has said some version of “I have to admit, that’s pretty cool”. Now, some of them followed that up with “I’m going to have to look at getting one” and some followed it up with “Still, I would never buy one”. But there was little avoiding that the form factor, the swipe/tap/pinch way of interacting with content, the quality of the screen and the overall user experience struck most everyone as being pretty interesting and fun.
Bad stuff about the iPad
Here’s some stuff that I was less than impressed with:
Let me say this first, most all of these ergonomics problems are not limited to the iPad. They are inherent with the “tablet computer” form factor and will likely exist in some fashion with any tablet from any manufacturer. That said, the ergonomics of the iPad leave something to be desired. While the best way to read the ipad may be curled up in a chair or on the couch, the best way to type on the device is with it sitting flat in front of you on a table or counter. It is very difficult to balance it on your knees or lap at the proper angle to actually use the keyboard for anything but hunt and peck typing. Similarly, while the iPad’s form factor encourages us to use it all sorts of places, its interface can make it difficult to do so, particularly while standing or walking. Due to its size, it is virtually impossible to hold it in two hands and thumb-type as with a smartphone. Then again, trying to prop it in one hand and type with the other is frustrating if you are trying to do more than just enter search terms into google or input a URL.
To be fair, many of these complaints exist in related forms for laptops (big & heavy) or smartphones (tiny & cramped). Have you ever tried to walk around your house holding a laptop in one hand and typing with the other? It’s not any better than doing the same with an iPad. But then again, the laptop company isn’t telling us that we can use the laptop in that fashion. Apple tells us that the iPad can and will go anywhere with us. Due to that fact, I feel that the ergonomic challenges of the iPad are something that should be taken into account prior to purchasing for many people. It is something that I myself am willing to work around, but not everyone will want to.
Wi-Fi connectivity problems
For a device that is as tied to the Internet as the iPad is, it was frustrating to see many reports of Wi-Fi connectivity problems cropping up within hours of the device’s release. Users reported that not only was the signal strength and throughput of known good Wi-Fi signals much lower than it should have been, but also that the device randomly dropped signals and tended to “forget” what network it was connected to after being turned off and later turned on again.
Now, I myself had none of these problems. I have a basic Linksys 802.1 “G” router in my house and the iPad has stayed connected to it since they day I brought it home. But there are far too many of these reports out there for it to be a fluke. At least some percentage of iPad users are having trouble. So it that sort of thing frustrates you, you might want to wait and see if Apple can fix the problem before putting your money down.
The iPad screen gets really REALLY disgusting looking after some steady use. Oh you don’t notice the gunk at all while you are using it. But as soon as you turn it off and the screen goes blank, you see a forest of greasy smears and fingerprints. The material that Apple used makes it easy enough to clean off with a wipe of a soft cloth. But man, it’s not the kind of thing you’d want a your mother or a prospective boyfriend/girlfriend to see sitting around. They would be convinced you had some sort of disease that squeezes goo out your fingertips.
A lot was made of this prior to the iPad’s release. But the fact is that lack of support for Adobe Flash is kind of a strange decision for Apple to have made. On the iPhone it seemed like much less of a big deal, you sort of expect the internet not to be perfect when it has to travel in your pocket. But on a device whose sole purpose is to be web connected, lack of Flash is pretty strange. My wife likes the iPad a lot,but until Facebook/Vimeo/Hulu/etc all come out with non-Flash versions of their sites and embeds, she’s not going to want to use one as her everyday Internet device. I think there are a lot of people in that boat. On the other hand, no Flash means you see a lot few annoying Flash-based ads.
Here’s some random stuff that wasn’t really good or bad:
The iPhone 4.0 OS
Just today the 4.0 version of the iPhone operating system was announced at an Apple press event. Available later this summer for iPhone and fall for iPad, the new OS version should, in theory, address a number of the complaints that people have made about the iPad (and iPhone as well). By far the most important in terms of “why can’t I do this” complaints are multitasking ability and a folder structure that will allow files to be moved around as on a regular computer. Other less groundbreaking improvements are the ability to have custom wallpaper and to create"folders" for app icons, among other small improvements.
Aside from the ergonomics issue, the iPad on-screen keyboard is actually not that bad. Landscape mode is much better than vertical for anything resembling touch-typing. In all honesty, in landscape mode typing isn’t any worse than trying to type on the cramped keyboards of many netbooks. One frustrating aspect is that most punctuation is hidden on an “alt” screen. So if you are a heavy user of apostrophes, quotations or parentheses, you are going to be slightly annoyed. However, at least in the case of apostrophes, the iPhone OS’s text correction helps a lot. Typing the word “dont” turns into “don’t” without any extra input from the user.
Given the fact that only a very few people had a real iPad in their hands prior to April 3rd, it is surprising how many applications were ready to download on release day. Sure, there was the iPad SDK with its emulator. But as all programmers know, there is no substitute for actually testing on the hardware you are going to be using. And to be honest, it shows in the early software. There have been a few more bugs than I’m used to, based on my iPhone app buying experience. But I’m chalking that up to people rushing a bit and not waiting for the real McCoy to do their testing. More iPad specific apps are being released every day from the programmers who did wait until they had a unit in their hands and I have no doubt that any bugs in the early apps will be fixed by those programmers as well.
As for running iPhone/iPod apps on the iPad, yes it can be done. But it is really unsatisfying after having used iPad specific apps that take advantage of the larger display. At the moment I’m only using a few reference applications where the display doesn’t make that much of a difference. The rest of the apps will be replaced with iPad versions as soon as they are available.
Where’s my iPad?
Because I use the iPad in so many different place, I have found that I have a tendency to stash it in the weirdest of places if I get interrupted or was just looking up something quickly. Kitchen cabinets, bookshelves, the baby changing table, etc. Too big to put in your pocket when you are done, too small to leave in one place, blessing and a curse I suppose.
Useful for the vision impaired?
Given the large screen size and its pinch-zoom ability, I would think that the iPad would be a natural for anyone with impaired vision. Being able to zoom in far enough to read a photo.net forum post with letters as large as 1cm each seems like it would be very nice for some folks. Particularly since, unlike using the “increase text size” function on your browser, zooming on the iPad doesn’t break a website’s formatting or layout.
Apple does keep the gate closed
One of the tech world’s biggest gripes with the iPad/iPhone/iPod, and one that I have literally gotten in a “yeah well f—k you” type of argument with a good friend over, is the fact that Apple has based everything on a “If we don’t approve it, you can’t run it” system. The only place to buy applications for those devices is through Apple’s iTunes app store. If you are a programmer, you have to work with Apple if you want to get your programs on these devices. If what you want to write as a programmer or install as a consumer isn’t something Apple approves of, you are out of luck for the most part (Google “jailbreak iPhone” if you want to learn why I said “for the most part”). The claim, and the reality, is that this keeps people from doing exactly what they want with a device that they paid for and that it stifles innovation and limits what programmers can create.
To an extent, that claim is true. As such, if Apple were the only computer hardware company in the world, I would be standing there next to the anti-Apple naysayers screaming about the issue. But the fact is that we live in a free market economy. There are any number of other hardware providers out there who do not run things the way that Apple does. Buy a netbook or a laptop or any other computer you like if you can’t stand Apple’s way of doing business. Run Windows or Linux or Unix or even OS/2 on there if you want. There’s nobody to stop you and nobody that says you have to give Apple your money.
However, that doesn’t mean the rest of us shouldn’t have the chance to buy these products if we want to. Because one of the main advantages of Apple’s way of doing business is the fact that there are very few problems with these devices (using the iPhone and iPod as examples). There are no viruses, no driver problems, no registry errors, and no blue screens of death. What you lose in freedom, you gain in stability and simplicity. For some of us, that is a great trade off. Particularly in a device that is not, for most people, their main productivity machine. I want my cell phone to be rock solid because having it crash when I am stuck somewhere is a nightmare. If my computer at home crashes, it is an inconvenience. But I can always use my wife’s computer or my neighbor’s or even the one at the library. The ipad is somewhere in between these two examples, but for me, I’ll take the stability and protection of Apple’s system. If you choose not to, I understand perfectly. But don’t rain on my parade or call me a “mindless fanboy” just because my needs are different than yours for a device like this.
What’s the bottom line Josh?
- Is a compact device with great battery life
- Gives you new ways to interact with existing information
- Has a great screen and clean “modern” design looks
- Is a lot less expensive than we expected it would be (given its manufacturer)
- May help to save or at least evolve traditional print media.
- Fits nicely in between a smartphone and a laptop
- Has a lot of potential to become more useful and facinating as more applications are written
- And is the first of what may be a new consumer hardware genre, the tablet.
The iPad is NOT:
- A laptop replacement
- A full fledged computer
- A netbook
- A digital wallet
- Open source
- Cheap (compared to a netbook)
- Without faults
- A “magical and revolutionary device” (at least not yet)
I like the iPad a lot. It’s a device that has already fit well into my digital life. But keep in mind, I’m a guy who works from home running a giant website, I am online all the time. Just like the difference between a professional photographer and someone making snapshots, I have no issue owning different versions of the same tool if they serve different needs. As such, I knew exactly what needs the iPad would meet for me and I knew how I would use it before I ever laid hands on one. Sure, there have been some unexpected bonuses (reading ebooks is great) and some unexpected annoyances (the ergonomics of a tablet computer), but overall it has done exactly what I expected it to.
However, it doesn’t do much that you cannot do with just about any other computer out there. And it really doesn’t do much that a $300 netbook can’t do cheaper (and better in some instances). What the iPad does give you is a new way to interact with the information that is already in the world. Navigating with taps and pinches swipes rather than mouse clicks and scrolls, viewing news in a newspaper format rather than a website format, turning pages of books from the Guttenberg project with finger swipes, or playing a racing game using the whole device as a steering wheel rather than pressing buttons, and doing all of it while curled up on the couch. It’s a device that isn’t perfect, and if you don’t have a compelling reason to have one right now, it might be worth the wait to see what version 2.0 brings (to say nothing of the other forthcoming entries into the tablet computing world). But overall, the iPad is a very interesting start to a whole new class of computing devices that perhaps address the idea of “how do you want to do things” rather than the more typical “what tasks can you do with this”. If so, THAT may be the iPad’s lasting legacy and something that could launch it into the realm of “magical and revolutionary”. But until then, it’s just a pretty cool toy that you can do a lot of neat stuff with.