Ever since I started watching Star Trek TNG I’ve been expecting (okay, hoping) to use the technology similar to that which arrived in my office a week ago, the Apple iPad. Well, the future may be here at last (except for my flying car, of course), but this jury of one is still out on the iPad. It is a device that I really want to love, and yet something holds me back. It is a device that I feel really does have a role to play, but not all niche fillers are runaway hits. I do believe that Apple will sell a ton of them and that they will thrive in the market, and that developers will continue to develop outstanding apps for them. I just don’t know if I’m ready to adopt one formally for my personal use.
What’s the problem? Well...size matters. And, in the case of the iPad, that is both its blessing and its curse. It’s the middle child, the Jan and Peter of Apple’s Brady Bunch of products. It the bizarro world version of Goldilocks’ chair, bed and porridge--just right, and somehow not right at all. It wins by being both more portable than my MacBook (smaller, lighter and easier to carry) and more functional than my iPod Touch (larger, faster, easier to type). And yet, it fails, too, because I don’t see the iPad replacing either of the other two devices in my life. Maybe you can’t quite tell, but I’m having a real love-hate relationship with this product, despite the fact that it is so good in so many ways. Perhaps I need to take a more Zen approach and accept that the iPad way is the Middle Way of technological enlightenment.
Okay, more precisely, the first generation iPad may be the first step on that particular path. It’s not slate-tech nirvana yet. Nevertheless, here are some of my first observations, based on the notes I’ve made to myself during this first week, along with some app reviews to round out the experience.
The standard iPad applications are fully functional and generally benefit from the larger screen size. One minor disappointment, though, is the Mail app. Others have noted this as well, but while I like the hovering mail and folder navigation, I would prefer not to have the last mail message read be the default entry point for the application. Take me to a folder or list view, please. I want to be able to close out of reading my mail messages without exiting the application.
Pages is a beautifully designed and very functional word processing and page layout application. Period. However, text input is still a chore without a physical keyboard (yes, I know a keyboard dock exists, as does Bluetooth, but at that point, give me a laptop!). Typing on the iPad is joy compared to the iPod Touch, since the added real estate benefits not only iPad native apps, but zoomed iPhone apps as well. That said, I desperately miss keyboard navigation keys, keyboard shortcuts, and even the Tab key. Also, a touch screen means no resting your fingers on the home keys.
The New York Times Editor's Choice app and USA Today app offer great digital newspaper reading. The USA Today even includes quick polls that its readers can participate in and the New York Times free edition includes enough headline stories and photos to stay abreast of the latest events. Likewise, the BBC app has a nice mix of both text articles and live streaming audio. And the NPR for iPad application allows you to listen not only to favorite shows, but also broadcasts from your favorite NPR affiliate stations.
TheGuardian Eyewitness application serves up visually rich, beautiful photos that look fantastic on the iPad screen.
The ABC Player is very good and the Netflix media player is at least satisfactory. I had some trouble with playback on the Netflix app, however, and navigating to watch multi-episode series was a bit of a chore. Sometimes the app would just crash back to the iPad main screen, but for the most part things went fine. Some queue management features are not available in the Netflix app, unfortunately, so reordering was a bit of a chore. This app will eventually work out its kinks though. I’m fairly confident of that. If anything, I think NBC and CBS need to get on the ball, or at least push Hulu to the iPad in short order. And while we're at it, Tivo should release a stream player for the iPad as well.
The Marvel Comics app is beautiful. I like the option of reading page-by-page or in the more dramatic panel-by-panel mode. Unfortunately, I don’t see myself as a long-term customer. On the one hand, that comic consumption phase of my life has largely passed, and on the other, the comic world is much bigger than Marvel alone. Plus, how will comic collectors thrive in a world without sharing and trading?
For digital books, iBooks and GoodReader are must haves! iBooks takes the prize for a generally faithful reproduction of the book reading experience, minus the smell and feel of paper. Buying books online with iBooks is a snap, and sample chapters of books are also readily available. I’m sold on the idea that the iPad and technical books especially are a match made in heaven. If you are familiar with technical books, you know that they can weigh in at several pounds and 500-1000 pages, with color and text variations to differentiate narrative, code, and other highlights. The iPad’s ePub format presents the books perfectly without the excess weight and with no effort needed to keep the book opened to the desired page while you type out the code. I can’t tell you how often I search for something around my desk to keep pages from flipping on real books. GoodReader expands one’s digital library by allowing you to load up PDF documents to go. Again, the documents look great, even if the faux-book eyecandy of iBooks is missing here. To be fair, the heft of the iPad is considerably more than a Kindle, and a Kindle is much easier to read outside, but for visual reproduction, iPad is great. I’d liken the Kindle to a paperback in terms of portability and the iPad to a good hardcover. You may prefer to take the Kindle to the beach, but I read more at home and in the office, so the iPad works for me.
I really need a cover for this device, something like the Kindle leatherette, but it needs to be thin, fold complete behind the device when open, have a kickstand, and perhaps the tilt-slant support option that Apple's cover has, for typing on a desk or lap.
On the fun and games side of things, the extra screen real estate is a boon to game programmers, and older eyes, and a few of the first-to-store iPad games are quite entertaining. Harbor Master HD is a fun line drawing ship management game. Tap Tap Radiation, a tap-to-the-music game, is much easier for me to play on the larger screen that the Tap Tap Revolution games have been on the iPod Touch. I was really enjoying the match-three game Aurora Feint 3, which uses the tilt sensors to good effect in changing the game, until the in-game offer to BUY more lives popped up as I was about to die during a battle. I understand the need to make money through downloadable content (DLC), but I'm not going to spend a buck to add more lives to my game. My quarter-dropping arcade frustrations are years behind me. By far the most enjoyable game has been Mirror's Edge for iPad. The developers have created a beautiful, easy-to-control, yet challenging side-scroller game. It costs more than I would have liked to spend, but it has been a lot of fun and a good example of where games can go on this platform.
Google-PLEASE enable Google docs editing on iPad. This is the perfect cloud computing device, but you're crippling it.
We know that multitasking is on its way, so that's not even worth criticizing at this point, I feel. The only reason I wanted multitasking was so that I could have a persistent chat application open in the background, or a Twitter feed. Other than that I actually appreciated not being interrupted by push notification while reading a book or watching The IT Crowd on Netflix.
So, at week's end what does it come down to? The iPad is a great device to have on the coffee table, the bedside table, in the car, in the kitchen and, potentially, in another room in the house where reading sometimes occurs. The size, portability, battery life, functionality and purpose are all perfectly aligned for this device to have a home in your home in these areas. I’ve used my laptop, iPod Touch, and even a netbook in all of these locations and I really feel that the iPad wins hands down in these arenas (with the exception that for some tasks that I do in the living room, such as writing this post, my laptop may actually be a better choice). The iPad is a great device for reading, surfing the Internet, watching movies, playing casual games, finding and using recipes, streaming audio, and mapping out a trip. Unfortunately, the iPad will not accompany me to the dentist's and doctor's office, at least not yet, and probably not ever if I do get around to trading in my iPod Touch for an iPhone. Also, the iPad will not soon replace my desktop or laptop for getting "real" work done. I bounce in and out of too many simultaneously open applications as I write and edit, and managing all of that is still easier and faster to do with a keyboard and mouse.
As Apple has done in the past, the iPad will likely reinvigorate the tablet computing market and I'm looking forward to the competition from Android, in particular. For students, the iPad is a great starting point as textbooks go digital, and as more ruggedized incarnations appear I can see this form factor being a great alternative to the back-breaking volumes that K-12 students lug around. It will take some time for all of us to become comfortable and familiar with these devices, but I think it will happen, probably quite rapidly, and probably sooner than the appearance of my flying car.