Apple iPad Delivers on Entertainment, but Lacks Productivity Punch
At a Glance
Apple iPad Tablet Computer
Apple looks set to shake up casual computing with a tablet that offers clever design and ease of use. But that streamlined approach may also be the iPad's weakness.
The Apple iPad ushers in the era of tablet computing, with a slate-style handheld that looks nothing like a typical computer. in fact, the iPad is more reminiscent of an oversize iPhone than a laptop. But because the iPad's screen is three times larger than that of the iPhone/iPod Touch, you'll be tempted to use the iPad for activities you wouldn't consider doing with an iPhone. Innovative apps and content optimized for the spacious, high-resolution touchscreen make the iPad a treat to use. Nevertheless, the iPad's other limitations make it hard to recommend as a replacement for (rather than as a complement to) the devices you may be carrying around today.
Apple plans to offer six variants of the iPad, starting with the three Wi-Fi models available now: a 16GB model ($499), a 32GB model ($599), and 64GB model ($699). In late April, Apple will ship three additional models that tack on 3G capability, for an extra $130 each. The 3G models will also have a GPS chip inside.
Setting Up iPad
Power up the iPad, and it immediately prompts you to connect to iTunes. I had iTunes open already; and it immediately recognized the iPad and ushered me through a series of screens to register my iPad and set up my iTunes Store Account.
Setup did have some hiccups, starting with the fact that iTunes erroneously thought that I had previously synced an iPad with this computer, listing a last synced date of 6/18/2009; evidently, it mistook my new iPad for an iPhone (I had synced my current iPhone to the computer just the day before). As such, during setup it offered me options to set up as a new iPad or to restore from the backup of either my first iPhone (a former iPhone 3GS) or my current iPhone 3GS.
I chose to set up as a new iPad. From there I got to name the device and choose how to sync it. I opted to sync songs and videos to my iPad automatically (so iTunes will sync the iPad to mirror my iTunes music library and playlists), and to add photos from my Pictures folder automatically. Finally, I selected to sync apps to the iPad automatically; consequently, the iPad performed an initial sync, during which iTunes a slew of iPad apps that I had predownloaded to the device.
I hadn't anticipated that iTunes would pick up all of the settings from my previous iSomething devices--for instance, the folders I'd selected for my iPhone, the apps I'd selected for my iPhone, and the music and videos I'd already selected for my iPhone. After an hour of app downloading, I interrupted the transfers to get music, video, and photos on there, too.
The usable capacity of the 64GB model shows as 59.17GB. On the primary sync screen, you can choose to sync iTunes automatically when the iPad is connected, to sync only checked songs and videos, to prefer standard-definition videos (an option that's not clearly explained), to convert higher-bit-rate songs to 128 kbps AAC, to manage music and videos manually (another unclear option), and to password-encrypt the iPad backup. Click the Universal Access button to bring up audiovisual aids, such as voice over and zoom, white-on-black text display, speak auto-text, and mono audio.
File handling is a compartmentalized, frustrating experience. You have to associate files with a specific app at the bottom of the Apps tab; there, under File Sharing, you'll see which apps support files, and then you can associate files with those specific apps. Unfortunately, when you click an app, you get no indication of what file types it supports. And oddly, whenever I added a file to an app's queue, the iPad would begin syncing, without my pressing Apply.
During installation, iTunes for Windows crashed twice while trying to convert my chosen 1600 photos, but eventually I got the iPad set up. I should note that four colleagues set up iPads without incident on both Mac and PC platforms, though they had far less content to contend with.
Because it shares an underlying operating system with the iPhone and the iPod Touch, the iPad immediately feels familiar. The main menu mimics that of the current iPhone OS, with four icons across and four rows down, plus Safari, Mail, Photos, and iPod icons in a row at the bottom (you can select to display up to six icons). Icons have the same characteristics as those on the iPhone; they include Calendar, Contacts, Notes, Maps, YouTube, iTunes, App Store, and Settings. One new item is a dedicated icon for Videos--a logical addition, given the device's roomy screen.
One app that doesn't come preinstalled is iBooks, Apple's one-stop shop for reading and shopping for e-books. The first time you access the App Store, you get a prompt asking whether you want to download iBooks. And of course, you can add apps from the Apple App Store.
The 9.7-inch LED-backlit screen uses IPS (in-plane switching) technology to achieve better color and contrast, and Apple identifies as a wide 178-degree range of viewing angles. In my tests, I found that I could view video at an angle, but I was often distracted by severe glare, whether I was outdoors or indoors in an office setting. When I could overcome the glare, the screen looked bright and displayed brilliant, accurate colors. The device's native 1024-by-768-pixel resolution is sufficient for watching high-definition video, though the experience is better when you watch videos stored locally, as opposed to watching streaming video content. The screen is also great for viewing photos and for flicking through content.
The display dominates the device, with a wide black bezel surrounding its oleophobic (oil-resistant) display, designed to minimize fingerprints. Even so, after just an hour of use, the display was covered with smudge marks. The iPad measures just 0.5 inch thick, but I had some difficulty handling it over any extended period. At 1.5 pounds, and with dimensions of 9.6 by 7.5 by 0.5 inches, it was too heavy for me to hold in both hands for very long, let alone in one hand, as sometimes felt natural to do. The weight is a significant consideration if you plan on using the iPad as an e-reader.
Like the iPhone before it, the iPad lacks a physical keyboard--and the built-in on-screen keyboard of the iPad could stand improvement. The unit's physical size meant that my relatively small hands couldn't reach across the expanse of the unit's on-screen vertical keyboard, a problem exacerbated when I turned the unit to horizontal mode. To type on the device, I needed to place it flat on a surface, not a particularly ergonomic arrangement.
The keyboard lacks the iPhone's letter magnification when you press a key, a visual cue that I missed immensely. It also lacks the haptic (vibration) feedback common to Android phones. (You do get a click noise, if you leave the volume on). Though I'm a fairly speedy typist on my iPhone keyboard, I found this keyboard uncomfortable and easy to hit the wrong key on--barely adequate for light typing, and intolerable for anything of length. (Apple will soon have a $69 keyboard dock accessory, however.)
Like the iPhone before it, the iPad has a minimalist design and a smooth, aluminum back. At the bottom of the device are the dock connector and the speaker grille. The sole buttons are the Home button (centrally situated beneath the display), the volume rocker on the side, and a screen lock button above that (instead of a mute button, as found on the iPhone). The volume rocker and the screen lock feel sharp and cheaply made, in contrast to about the rest of the iPad's otherwise premium design.
The iPad connects wirelessly via 802.11a/b/g/n; the 3G versions will have a micro-SIM card for use with any wireless data service. (Though the 3G iPad will support wireless data, it won't support wireless phone or SMS functionality.) The iPad also has Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR, for use with both a Bluetooth keyboard and headphone devices.
The unit contains Apple's 1GHz A4 processor system-in-a-chip. Performance was fairly zippy as I navigated among apps and screens, but data transfers to and from my iPad--connected to the computer via iTunes--felt poky on my main Windows Vista system.
Video performance impressed across multiple apps, including the video player, HTML 5 Web video, and third-party apps like the ABC Player (in horizontal, full-screen mode). Still, I had mixed experience with YouTube videos in both standard definition and high definition (it was unclear whether this was due to a network latency issue or to the iPad YouTube app, though video played more smoothly at a lower resolution on my iPhone 3GS at the same time). For example, when I played the Avatar movie trailer in high def, it stopped playing while it loaded in the background and then caught up. Disney's official HD trailers had the same problem. Once the HD video loaded, it played smoothly; but loading was a bottleneck. More-standard fare, like YouTube content such as Miley Cyrus's "The Climb Official Music Video" (shown in HQ mode) exhibited notable pixelation.
Graphics designed for the iPad--in particular, graphic novels from IDW and Marvel--and the realistic, fluid page movements in iBooks looked stunning; so did games designed for iPad, and high-resolution photos. But the iPad's attempts to scale iPhone apps to fit its larger screen fell short. Text and graphics in these apps looked blurry and were filled with artifacts; the effect was much like what you get when you try to view standard-definition video on a high-def screen.
Another oddity: The iPad has a single speaker, at the bottom of the unit--not a great arrangement if you want to lean it on your lap, since that action will obstruct the speaker. Though the iPad's speaker sounds better than the ones on, say, the iPhone or the iPod Touch, that's not saying much. Audio lacked bass and depth; and the lack of a stereo option feels was disappointing.
Another hardware omissionis the absence of a camera, which means that you can't use the unit for videoconferencing. There's no multitasking either, though that's rumored to be coming in a software update. And you don't get any storage space; if you want to view images from a camera, you're only recourse is to buy the $30 SD Card dock adapter or the $30 USB port adapter. Unfortunately, neither of these options allow you to use the iPad in a way that mimics a more versatile netbook. Also, the device's inability to accept a USB flash memory drive and to access any of an array of file types is unfortunate and hampers its ability to compete with less expensive, slightly bulkier, but more full-featured netbooks.
A final notable omission is Apple's lack of Adobe Flash support, which means that the user can't view content from as-is services like Hulu and the full YouTube catalog on the iPad. Though some sites are switching to HTML 5, the iPad's lack of the far more common Flash format is disappointing.
Application Deep Dive
The iPad runs iPhone OS 3.2. Its friendly, easy-to-use, interface gives the iPad an built-in audience. But in my hands-on testing, the OS itself didn't always translate well from the smaller iPhone. True, navigating by touch on the large screen is apleasure--and superior to, say, the joystick-based navigation of the comparable-size, nontouch Amazon Kindle DX screen. But images, icons, and text didn't look as crisp as I'd expected them to. Still, in most respects, Apple did a good job of optimizing its built-in core apps for the iPad's screen.
As a photo viewer, the iPad shines. Photos looked superb on the iPad's display, and you can use all of the familiar multitouch gestures (such as flick and pinch to zoom) found on the iPhone's photo app. The iPad's ample screen showcases images well and permits you to preview images easily.
The iPad's photo application is superior to the iPhone's, too, with on-the-fly slideshow creation, complete with transitions. Simply choose from among five transitions, pick the music you'd like to add (if any), and you're off. I don't see the iPad replacing inexpensive digital photo frames, but I can envision an iPad doubling as a photo frame as it stands upright in its dock. To set the iPad to photo frame mode, simply wake it from sleep (by pressing the Home button), and then click an icon at the right of the screen to start a photo slideshow.
Another convenience: The photo app gives you different ways of viewing the images (including sorting by places, people, events, and a mini-thumbnail bar at the bottom of the screen to jump quickly to other photos in the album). Unfortunately, the sorting capabilities work only if you usie iPhoto to characterize people or events, or to tag places--so people who use other imaging applications for the PC or the Mac can't take advantage of those features. Some of my photos that were tagged with GPS info by the capture device (such as my iPhone 3GS) displayed that information; but for some reason not all of my iPhone 3GS photos showed in that view.
The photo app is fine for viewing images, but it falls short elsewhere. You can't view videos that are mixed into a photo folder, for example. And though you can view an image, e-mail it, turn it into wallpaper, or copy it, you can't move it to another folder or can you view the file name.
The e-mail app has also been cleverly redesigned to take advantage of the spacious screen. For example, in landscape mode, the e-mail app shows recent messages and a search bar at the left. The selected message appears on the right--an approach that isn't viable on the iPhone's smaller screen.
The Calendar app benefits greatly from the iPad's display. Calendar entries are more readable, and the day and weekly views look terrific, with more detail visible onscreen, and easier navigation to other days in a month. You can easily switch among different calendars for your household, or view a list of your events for a given month. Regrettably, however, you can't print it natively, nor can you e-mail entries to yourself or to others.
The highly visual iPod library looks very different on the iPad. You can easily see your library options (music, podcasts, audiobooks, purchased, and playlists) in a pane at left, and then see the content of each in a pane at right. The playback varies slightly from the iPod app on the iPhone: Here, the playback buttons are in the upper right corner, rather than at the bottom of the device.
The ability to edit playlists on the fly is a welcome addition, and it's extremely easy thanks to the extra screen real estate. You can play music in the background as you move around the devices, too; playback will end only if you activate a second app that requires audio.
Video playback takes advantage of the larger screen, too. Content can be segmented as TV Shows, Movies, or Music Videos. You click the thumbnail art to enter the content. The type of content determines how the iPad handles it: A music video will show a thumbnail, and information about the video (dimensions, size, length, release date, and codecs, for example), while a TV show displays the whole series under that header. For example, all episodes from Star Trek: The Original Series, Season 2, or NCIS, Season 7, will appear under that single header. The menu visuals look outstanding; and playback is solid, with few artifacts visible in the iTunes content I viewed. In landscape mode, 4:3 content fills the screen and has top/bottom black bars in vertical mode; it looks great.
The iPad as an E-Reader
Apple has been touting the iPad as an e-reader, but I have my doubts. Granted, Apple has perfected the retail digital download model with its iTunes store, and the company may succeed in enticing consumers to shop for digital books, too. Also to its advantage, the iPad is the only platform so far (other than a full-blown computer) that supports multiple e-book readers and stores, opening the door wide for variety and innovation.
But how well does the iPad--with its glossy, glary screen and slightly heavier weight--perform as an e-reader? Here, the iPad stumbles big time. Though I loved how easily I could turn pages with a light touch to the side of the book, my hands grew tired of holding the iPad after a few minutes. In addition, the screen's glare tired my eyes, and it was further marred by a slight but noticeable flicker in the background. Furthermore, if you adjust the brightness in iBooks (to ease the potential eyestrain), the brightness settings for the entire iPad change as well. Another glitch: The auto-brightness feature in settings appeared ineffective at launch.
The iPad does simplify shopping for books via iBooks, but you're limited to looking at those books on the iPad. Browsing your library full of books--as represented visually by colorful book covers--is easy, too. The iBooks app, in horizontal mode, lets you have two pages on the display at once. It even tries to mimic the experience of reading a book, right down to the visuals of additional pages on the left and right, and the darker area in the center, where the gutter between pages would be. I could easily scroll along the bottom of a book to jump to a specific page, with no significant delay when doing so. And I liked how the iPad showed the page number, the total page count, and niceties such as the number of pages remaining in the chapter.
Another plus: The iPad supports a variety of e-reader apps. If an app can be created, it can be used here. Amazon and Barnes & Noble are among the many sources of e-reader apps; and newspaper publishers are using the iPad as a bona fide multimedia publishing platform. The trouble is, if you buy a book from Amazon, for example, you can read it only in Amazon's Kindle app. So if you start buying books from different sources, you'll soon lose track of which book lives where.
The iPad's excellent visuals make it ideal for displaying illustrated books or graphic novels and comics. Comics and graphic novels, in particular, looked compelling, based on the IDW and Marvel apps I tried.
The Bottom Line
With the iPad, Apple is first to market with a tablet that may have mass appeal for viewing entertainment content--movies, TV shows, games, and the like. But delve a bit deeper, and the iPad feels like a first-generation device--complete with new-product hiccups--largely behaves like an iPhone (or iPod Touch) on steroids. Its lack of file-level control means that the iPad can't replace a laptop or netbook for core productivity activities. Nor is it a great candidate to be your primary e-reader. It's a great device for playing video and games, and for viewing photos, though--and for some consumers, that may be enough.
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