The Apple iPad: Lightning Strikes Cupertino Again

4/6/10Follow @wroush

How do you sell 300,000 of anything on the first day it’s in stores? By convincing people that it’s going to be even cooler than the last incredible thing you built. Steve Jobs and his crew pulled that off with the iPad, which has been breaking the sales records set by the iPhone in 2007. Now all of us brand-new iPad owners have to decide whether we’re still convinced.

I’ve spent three solid days with my iPad, including one work day, and I’m still a believer. For sheer whiz-bang amazement, this machine (which I’m using right now to type this review) definitely represents the best $499 I’ve ever spent on a computer. It has its flaws and weaknesses, which I will gladly enumerate in a moment. But I think it has to be acknowledged up front that the hype about the iPad was largely justified; that the device is useful in a genuinely new way, and represents the beginning of the end of the mouse-and-keyboard era of personal computing; that for Apple, lightning can strike five times (IIe, Mac, iPod, iPhone, iPad); that if there were a Nobel Prize for product engineering, Jobs would be on his way to Stockholm.

Apple iPadThere, I said it. I laid my fanboy credentials bare. Now let’s talk about the real question, which is, should you get one? Assuming that you’re in the market for a computer, and you aren’t one of those early adopter alpha geeks like me who has to get an iPad just to maintain his street cred, what compelling advantages does the product have over similarly priced machines—which, at the moment, means netbooks and low-end laptops?

I think that is the operative question. I don’t see much point in the debate, taken up by Jobs himself in his January 27 iPad debut speech, about whether there is room for a “third category” of devices between netbooks and laptops. Yes, the iPad belongs to a new category, but average computer buyers don’t care about categories: they just need to get stuff done, and between projects they want to be entertained. What’s important is whether the iPad helps with those things, and does so better than an equivalently priced netbook or laptop. I believe that it does, and that it will only get better over time.

Work

For all the talk about the iPad being a media consumption device, it is also a pretty good information management device. The built-in apps, such as Mail and Calendar, take the tasks knowledge workers do all day long and make them more fun. I am already very fond of the Mail app, which, like most iPad apps, resembles its iPhone counterpart but has many improvements that take advantage of the iPad’s larger screen. In landscape mode, for example, Mail lists incoming messages in the left pane and shows the full text of those messages in the right pane.

There’s nothing revolutionary about panes—until you realize that this arrangement, together with multitouch, lets you plow through your inbox and deal with each message with two-handed efficiency. With your right hand, you can hit the Folder button, while with your left you can flick through the list of folders and stow the message in the appropriate place. You don’t have to keep moving your cursor back and forth (there is no cursor!) and you don’t have to pop back and forth between screens, the way you do on the iPhone. It’s ingenious.

Apple has also improved the Calendar and Contacts apps to make them resemble old-fashioned File-o-fax pages. While I’m not generally a fan of gratuitous imitation—there is no reason an e-book page needs to look like a print page, for example—it actually helps in this case, as it’s now easier to flip between days or weeks on your calendar and get an overall sense of how your commitments are stacking up.

There are a hundred examples like these—little situations and tasks that Apple was forced to rethink to make them work on the iPhone, and that it has now refined and improved for the larger screen of the iPad. One of these is typing. I was extremely skeptical, after watching Steve Jobs’ keynote talk on the iPad in January, that it would be as easy to use the device’s keyboard as Jobs made it look. I was wrong. The onscreen keyboard works great for old-fashioned 10-finger touch typing, as long as the device is in landscape orientation. (In portrait orientation, the keyboard is too cramped for that and you have to go back to hunt-and-peck.)

Yesterday I used my iPad to take notes on a phone interview. I type really fast—fast enough to capture a speaker’s words verbatim. And the iPad keyboard didn’t miss a beat. There were more typos than usual, but I had no trouble deciphering my notes later. My only complaint in this department is about the placement of the quote-mark and apostrophe keys. They’re in the shift screen, in the same spot as the M and the comma. For touch typists, this makes no sense and is a real time-waster. Fortunately, given that the keyboard exists entirely in software, it’s the kind of thing that should be easy to fix.

Evernote on the iPadA word about word processing. I bought Apple’s $9.99 Pages app, and I’m using it to type this article now. I’m pretty impressed. Apple has stripped away 98 percent of the crud that has accumulated over the years in the desktop versions of word processing programs and has left only the stuff you really need, like the ability to change fonts or styles, reformat the page, and drop in graphics. When you’re done with a document you can convert it to Microsoft Word format (which is what we use around the Xconomy offices) and e-mail it to yourself in one step.

Apple is calling the iPad version of Pages the best word processor ever written for a mobile device; I’d go farther and say it sets a standard of simplicity that even desktop software should emulate. Its main weakness, and it’s one common to all text-centric iPhone and iPad apps, is the clunky way Apple has implemented text selection, copying, and pasting. What was a two-step operation with a mouse (highlight a word or phrase, right-click to cut or copy it) is now a four-step process on a multitouch screen (highlight a word, tell the app you want to select it, drag the little nobs to take in neighboring words, then choose cut, copy, or paste). And in the Safari Web browser, where people do an increasing amount of text processing (ever heard of Google Docs?), I’ve found that the cut-and-paste tools are difficult to invoke and often wholly unresponsive. (More stuff for Apple to fix.)

In the “work” category, I should also mention some of the more advanced tools for information gathering and management that are available for the iPad. There’s Safari, of course, which—setting aside the cut-and-paste issue—is blazingly fast and makes Web pages look gorgeous. But I’m also excited about the Evernote app (pictured above), which has been completely redesigned for the iPad. Evernote is a Silicon Valley startup that makes a cross-platform system (available for Mac, Windows, the Web, the iPhone, and other devices) for saving digital information of all sorts. I’m a longtime user and fan, and reviewed the service back in July 2008.

The iPad version has all the same functions as the others, like the ability to create and edit notes, but what’s really lovely about it is the way it uses the iPad’s big, pretty screen to let you sort and explore your existing notes. I tend to be much better at collecting information in Evernote than I am at going back and evaluating it and deciding what to do about it. The iPad version makes that task so engaging that I’ll finally have an incentive to go back and weed out all those chicken recipes (I went vegetarian a while back) and figure out just why I thought it was so important to save that article about Peruvian folk music.

One work-related feature that’s conspicuously missing from the iPad is multitasking—the ability to open multiple programs at once, and have some running in the background while others are active on the screen. There are good reasons to hope that Apple will add this feature at some point in the future (and that future could come sooner than we think; Apple has scheduled a press event to talk about version 4.0 of the iPhone operating system, which is the system the iPad uses, for this Thursday). But after using the iPad for a few days, I have made a discovery. If your processor is fast enough, you don’t need multitasking. The A4 processor inside the iPad is so fast that you can close one app and open another in the same amount of time it would take you to switch from one active application into another. So I think this criticism will fade away over time.

Play

As useful as the iPad is for productivity-oriented tasks, let’s be honest: people aren’t going to buy it just so they can use it at the office. I started my review with that stuff because I wanted to emphasize the machine’s bona fides as an office workhorse, for the benefit of anyone considering it as a laptop replacement. But where the iPad really shines is in applications that are more visual or interactive—namely, games, video, music, reading, and what I’ll call information grazing.

I don’t have space here to describe every cool entertainment application for the iPad—there are already thousands. Videos like iTunes movie or TV episode downloads or YouTube shorts obviously look great on the iPad. I’ve been enjoying the Netflix app, which allows Netflix subscribers to view the service’s “Watch Instantly” movies and TV episodes on demand. (One more validation of my decision to can my cable TV subscription.) The broadcast networks are busy converting their content from Flash format (which Apple’s mobile devices can’t show) to a format called H.264 (which they can), and I have no doubt that by this summer or fall almost every popular video source on the Web, such as Hulu or Boxee, will have iPad-friendly options.

The Elements -- the iPad appIn iPod mode, if you’re just listening to music, the iPad is overkill. Apple hasn’t gotten around to introducing the multimedia-enhanced albums that people were gossiping about last year, which would really make sense on the iPad. But for browsing other types of audio information, the iPad is a wonder. For now I’ll just mention the NPR iPad app, which is a full blown news site in addition to being an extremely useful guide to the network’s recent on-the-air coverage, and the iPad version of Pandora’s app, which supplements your favorite tunes with a ton of new background information about the artists.

The iPad is great for reading e-books. I haven’t decided yet whether it beats my Kindle at that task; I’m sure I’ll have plenty more to say about that in future articles. For now I will just observe that both the Kindle iPad app and Apple’s new iBook app work well and are very attractive. What’s even more exciting about the iPad is its potential to help book and magazine publishers rethink their genres. I downloaded an amazing app called “The Elements” that points toward what will be possible. It’s the digital companion to the coffee table book of the same name, by Theodore Gray, and it’s filled with stunning, interactive 360-degree images of samples of all of the elements, from hydrogen to Ununoctium. With a flick of your finger, you can set each image in the book spinning like a top. (You have to see it to understand.) If you want to dig deeper, you can access Wolfram Alpha’s scientific knowledge base about each element directly from the book. While there is as much novelty value here as true educational value, it makes the science fun, and isn’t that the point of a good science book? (“The Elements” is the most expensive app I’ve ever purchased, at $14.99, but if you think of it as an interactive book, rather than an app, it doesn’t seem like so much.)

Details

It’s easy to get lost in all of the iPad’s great software and content, but the device is also a physical machine, a thing that you have to hold onto and carry around. I can’t close a review of the iPad without sharing my impressions on a few of the hardware details.

Ergonomics. I won’t mince words: The iPad is surprisingly heavy. It’s so heavy that no one is going to want to hold it in one hand for very long. I’m sure Apple did what it could to hold the device’s weight down, but when you put together a big slab of glass, a big chunk of aluminum, and a big battery, you wind up with something that weighs 1.5 pounds. That’s noticeably heavier than a hardcover book or a Kindle reading device, and it can wear out your fingers pretty fast.

In practical terms, this means that if you intend to use the iPad for any length of time, you have to find a perch for it. I’ve been putting mine on the padded lap table that I bought years ago for my laptop. That works pretty well, except that I wind up bending my neck to stare down at the gadget. Don’t be surprised if reports start to surface over the next few weeks about “iPad neck” and “iPad pinky.”

Battery life. It’s long. So long that it’s a non-issue. After a full day of use, my iPad still has 25 percent of its juice left. You just need to charge it overnight, and you’re good to go. One warning, though: this thing takes a lot longer to charge up than an iPhone. In my tests it took about three hours to go from a 10 percent charge to 100 percent.

Wi-Fi versus 3G. The 3G version of the iPad won’t be out until late April. I’ve already ordered one, because the device is far less useful when it’s offline, and I know I will want to use it in places where there will be no guarantee of finding a Wi-Fi network. I’m also a map lover—someone called me a “cartogeek” this week—and I really want GPS capability, which is missing from the Wi-Fi iPads. But my guess is that most people will use their iPads either at home or at the office, where they will have network access, and that they’ll be happy with the Wi-Fi-only version.

So save yourself $129, not to mention the AT&T data charges, and go get one of the existing models. Unless, of course, you are so patient that you can wait for the next version of the iPad—which will undoubtedly be cheaper and lighter and even faster and may have a few of the features, such as a camera, that Apple left out of the first version. I won’t think any less of you if you wait. In fact, I will sort of envy you. It’s a hard life, being an alpha geek.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • http://www.bealoud.com BeAloud

    How many hammocks will be sold in the US this quarter? I bet at least a hundred thousand, thanks to the iPad’s ergonomics flaws.

  • Manny_NEUGrad

    Cancel my cable TV subscription? Really? Sounds a bit presumptuous to assume that consumers will not need cable providers to satisfy the bandwidth needed for the big flat screen TV’s.

    Yes, MSO’s and telco’s are converting format to H.264, but it does not offer hi-res bandwidth needed for say, live sporting events. Let not also ignore the many technical, legal, copyright, distribution, and advertising hurdles.

    In short, broadcasters and cable companies are not just going to give the content away for free. Especially since your broadband is most likely provided by video operators.

    The industry is adapting to a more subscription-based, pay for “high” quality content approach to video over IP, rather than the grainy, low-quality content that exists on Youtube.

    Even Hulu hasn’t been profitable until recently while content providers have yet to realize revenue from IPTV websites. The current model is not sustainable.

    Consumers still desire to watch first-run shows and live events in the comforts of their living rooms without the hiccups of jitter and delay.

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