iPad impressions

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iPad and Apple Bluetooth KeyboardI've now had the iPad my wife and kids gave me for my birthday for a little under two weeks—long enough to give you some early impressions. Rather than a review or a comprehensive pros-and-cons list, I'll simply note some of the things that surprised me about this device once I actually got it in my hands:

  • Battery life. Holy cow, I've never seen a gadget like this last so long on a charge. I've repeatedly used it for hours on end, to the point where my iPhone would normally be well into the red zone near depletion, and figuring I'd need to plug the iPad in—and then noticed that the battery was still as high as 72% charge. I likely get better-than-average battery life because I don't watch a lot of movies on it, and have the Wi-Fi–only model without the extra electricity-sucking 3G modem or GPS. Still, Apple's claimed 10-hour battery life actually seems conservative, in my estimation, and I've been able to leave the iPad for several days without a charge, and still have it ready to go.

  • Typing. No matter what some might claim, the onscreen keyboard sucks for typing anything of any length, especially if it involves numbers or punctuation, and especially HTML as I like to type for this blog here, with all its angle brackets, slashes, and quotation marks. It's actually worse than the iPhone's onscreen equivalent, because the iPad's screen keys are so much bigger and thus slower for my fingers to move between. I find I'm often typing letters in the bottom row of keys by accident when I mean to hit the space bar, for instance, and I have to position my hands in an exaggerated claw-like pose (like a concert pianist) to avoid triggering mistaken keypresses with other parts of my fingers and palms. So my first accessory purchase, made today (with one of my birthday gift cards—thanks!), is not a case, but a Bluetooth keyboard, which I'm using to write this post. Aah, much better. On the plus side, however, the screen keys are nearly silent, so I can at least type short stuff if I'm awake late, and not disturb my wife sleeping beside me.

  • Safari. Apple's advertising promises all the world's websites on the iPad. Well, sort of. There's the well-publicized lack of Flash support, but I can't stand most Flash-based sites anyway, so that doesn't stress me out much. But there are other peculiar incompatibilities, such as the embedded font issue I described earlier (now partially fixed, by the way, likely by Google's font team), and a problem where pasting text into my Movable Type blog editing window doesn't work properly. Both work fine on the desktop version of Safari. There are more, but it's obvious that mobile Safari and its desktop equivalent are close cousins rather than near-identical siblings. That means web developers will have to test with Yet Another Browser (probably more than that, since I'm not sure the iPad and iPhone/iPod Touch versions of Safari behave the same either). That's kind of a pain.

  • Portrait and landscape. Until I started using the iPad, I'd forgotten how much I liked reading web pages, emails, and documents in portrait (vertical) orientation, something I did a lot with my old rotating Radius Pivot CRT monitor in the '90s and early 2000s. (The iPad has a higher screen resolution than that bulky Radius beast did, by the way.) But the ease with which you can flip the iPad around means it's easy to change from one orientation to another depending on what you're looking at or doing at any moment. There's also no wrong way: the display will reorient whichever way you twist it, even 180° upside down. Fortunately there's also a hardware orientation lock switch for when you don't want that to happen. (If someone takes an iPad to the International Space Station, they'll be using that a lot, I guess.)

  • Heat and weight. As our summer temperatures reached 30° C and higher this week, I appreciated that the iPad doesn't seem to heat up with regular use, not as much as my iPhone and certainly nothing like the baking underside of my MacBook. Again, not playing movies, running Flash, or having 3G or GPS surely helps, but so does having no hard drive, not multitasking much, and using Apple's power-efficient A4 processor. However, the iPad is also surprisingly heavy for its size. Nothing like a MacBook, but since you hold the iPad upright, rather than resting it on your lap, it can get tiring on your wrists and arms.

  • Books and magazines. Its weight affects the iPad's usefulness for reading longer-form, traditionally offline material, such as books and magazines. I have an Amazon Kindle too, and while nearly any document looks much prettier on the iPad's full-colour backlit screen, the Kindle is so much lighter that it's far easier to read for extended periods. (Notice that both ebook readers like the Kindle and tablets like the iPad don't prop up quite the way books do either, so while they might be lighter than a thick dead-tree slab of Tolstoy, the electronic readers still require more active holding.) The iPad's great screen means that complex colour layouts—particularly magazines with lots of artwork or photography—look far better than on the Kindle. But the Kindle's low-power greyscale electronic ink display is far less strain on my eyes for reading long swaths of text, like a regular book. Still, the Kindle app for the iPad is very nice too—I'd rather browse and buy books on the iPad, then read them on the Kindle. On the iPad, Apple's iBooks app is very good for reading PDF files, and other apps such as the Zinio reader do a decent job with some mainstream magazines. The iPad certainly gives you more choices.

  • Syncing and charging. Given Apple's usual laser focus on a product's market position, I was puzzled that the iPad seems to have a mixed opinion of itself: is it an adjunct to your computer or a standalone device? It's not quite powerful or flexible enough to be someone's only computing gadget, at least not for someone who wants to do more than the most bare-bones stuff. Indeed, an iPad won't even work unless it's been synced to a computer running iTunes first, and some tasks like subscribing to new podcasts are only really possible via iTunes on the desktop. But iTunes has evolved so far beyond its original role (and name) as a way to manage music on Macs and sync it with iPods that—while it still works okay—it seems creaky and overextended as a way to interact with Apple's mobile devices today. The list of tasks for iTunes now includes Movies, TV Shows, Podcasts, iTunes U courses, Books and PDFs, Apps, Ringtones, Internet Radio, and iTunes DJ and Genius playlists, as well as CD ripping, audio file conversion, and file sharing for iWork documents. But while the iPad requires iTunes for some things, you can also buy songs, videos, and apps wirelessly on it, and set up email accounts, Twitter and Facebook profiles, and so on, without plugging in. I just wish you could do all your stuff (especially syncing) without requiring a sync cable. (Microsoft's Zune supported wireless sync back in 2006, you know!) Another funny things is that, since all our Macs are pretty old in our house, none of them can provide enough power through USB to charge the iPad up—they'll keep it at its current charge level when plugged it, but actually filling the battery requires using a USB wall-plug adapter like the one the iPad comes with. (Newer Macs and some PCs can supply enough juice via their USB ports too.) So sometimes the iPad wants to be the child of a desktop computer, and sometimes it wants to be its own thing. It's like a teenager.

  • iOS 4 can't come soon enough. Having updated my iPhone to iOS 4 as soon as it became available a few weeks ago, I find that the iPad's remaining at iOS 3.2 until later this year to be frustrating. The improved multitasking and recently-used apps interface, broadened support for background audio streaming, universal email inbox, and especially folders for organizing apps are all things I miss when I fire up the iPad after using my iPhone. So in some ways, for now, the user interface on my year-old iPhone 3GS feels more modern than the brand new iPad. That should change soon enough, and I expect the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad to receive OS updates in a more coordinated manner after that, but for now the iPad is behind.

  • Bigger really is bigger, though not necessarily better. Yes, on first glance an iPad does seem simply like a bigger version of the iPod Touch and iPhone. But sometimes quantitative differences—a bigger housing and screen and more pixels in this case—really do make a qualitative difference too. An iPhone or iPod Touch feels like a pocket-sized computing device for while you're on the go (and maybe when you need to make phone calls). The iPad isn't as likely to be something you'll use waiting in line for coffee or a bus, but for lounging in front of the TV or in bed, or at a restaurant or café, or at a meeting or conference, or (in my case) out in the back yard first thing in the morning, it feels like much less of a production to bring along than a full-size laptop, and a more pleasant and immersive experience than pecking at an iPhone. It's different, and not yet mature, but it's a decidedly good experience, and does feel like the future.

How will the iPad change things? I won't predict or generalize too much, but I could see a specific scenario for our household: instead of replacing one of our aging MacBooks with another, I could see getting a desktop-bound iMac instead (which offers more power and a bigger screen for the same or less money) and using the iPad for lounging around elsewhere in the house. Maybe. We'll have to see how that really works out when the time comes.

4 Comments

Thanks for these notes, curious stuff. I see your point in the last paragraph. It seems portability is the main advantage. As a writing tool it doesn't appear to have much cop though.

Picked up a friends iPad for the first time last week and my very first impression was the weight! I did expect it to be lighter.
Now I want to see what the competition does.

I could certainly see some of the minimalist writing tools (like Scrivener and some of the full-screen composition applications) making their way to the iPad. What's really neat is that the iOS predictive spelling correction often works really well, much better than I've experienced with desktop programs that try to do the same thing.

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