Steve Jobs calls it 'magical' and 'revolutionary.' Skeptics call it pointless. Apple fans call it anything ranging from 'zOMG!!1!' to 'my preciousssss.' AT&T probably calls it the network killer.
Apple calls it the iPad.
Let's get one thing straight, here. This is (or will be) an iPad review. I will be reviewing my own iPad, bought with my own money. Most importantly for you the reader to know, I am an acknowledged Apple fanboi. Some have called me an Apple whore, probably with good cause. While I've always been ambivalent about the company, I love their products. Not unreservedly, but I do and have ever since my first Apple //+, back in the day.
With that in mind, let me turn to the actual meat of the review.
What is it?
This is an important question. When you read a product review, you will almost always
evaluate the information you get in relation to other products of rough equivalency. Moreover, generally, you know what a product is meant to do by the type of product it is. 'Car
' tells you that it is supposed to, at base, transport at least two humans across the road network. 'Sports car' means it is supposed to do so in a particular manner, with particular emphases ('whee' over 'ooh, trunk space!').
The iPad is, in one sense, something familiar. But in other senses, it is not. Apple is not creating a brand new type of product, here. They almost never do that. Even the iPod was not the first portable MP3 player on the market. They are, however, attempting to define the market for this type of product. This is something that they do do.
Okay, Custy, that's nice, but what the hell is it?
Sorry. The iPad isn't a tablet computer, although it looks like one. It's not an iPhone or iPod Touch, although it's got almost the same feature set save for screen size. What it is is a portable information appliance.
That word, appliance, is key. It's not a computer. It's an appliance.
The appliance is built out of computers, just like, say, a DVD player is built out of embedded computers. But what it does is not the same thing as a general-purpose computer. The iPad is meant to give the user a window to the internet and to electronic media content - one portable enough and with enough endurance to make it worth always having with you.
Technically, the iPad is an ARM-based computing device. It consists, externally, of an approximately 10-inch color LCD touchscreen, with just enough of a case around it to hold a big battery pack and the various bits of electronics and radios that let it do its job. It weighs around a pound and a half (or three-quarters of a kilogram).
The first release of the iPad (all that there has been thus far) is available in two models, and each model is available in three variants. The models are distinguished by their connectivity; there is a 'WiFi-only' model and a '3G' model. The former, as may be imagined, communicates only over WiFi, whereas the latter can communicate over WiFi or over a GSM 3G (HSPDA?) cellular data network. In the U.S., it is designed to work with AT&T's network, just like the iPhone. Each model is available in three 'sizes,' defined by their internal storage capacity: 16, 32 or 64 GB of internal flash storage. None of the models accepts external storage such as memory cards or USB drives (with some narrow exceptions for importing photographs using optional peripherals).
Note that the 3G version also comes with built-in GPS, whereas the WiFi version does not.
What is it good for?
This is the defining question. Whether or not this product has a market and a point depends on what you can do with it. This makes it a bit difficult to review at this point in time, for one important reason.
Like a general-purpose computer in the hands of an average consumer, this product is intended to run application software. Apple ships it with a few minimal pieces of functionality, but really, what one can and will do with it will depend a great deal on the ingenuity and skill of the developers busily writing code for it. There are a great number of applications available now, but most of them are ports of either general-purpose computer applications (such as Apple's own iWork suite) or of iPhone and handheld software applications. The real question of 'what this thing can do' hasn't yet been answered in a truly innovative way. That's something that Apple is taking on faith - that someone will come up with a brand new set of things to do with a computing device that aren't practical on the other options - general purpose computer or handheld.
Even if these notional wizards don't turn up soon or at all, though, there are things you can do with it right now - things that are (in my opinion) worth the price of entry.
Apple ships the iPad with a few basic pieces of software. These include a Calendar application and a Contacts application (both of which can sync to central services like MobileMe, Microsoft Exchange or Google over the air). It ships with an email application which is an expanded version of the one on the iPhone. It has an iPod application and a new separate 'Video' application for handling media. There is an iTunes application for purchasing media, a YouTube app, a note taker, a Google Maps app, a photo viewer, and mobile Safari for web browsing. You can add apps to your heart's (and wallet's) content using the built in App Store, directly over WiFi or 3G; Apple offers a free e-book reader and store application via the App Store, making this essentially part of the base package.
Let me offer you the following, for an attempt to answer the question of what it's good for. On a typical day (last Saturday) I spent part of the day in the house and part of the day wandering about my neighborhood. The iPad stayed with me all day. Here's what I used it for that day.
- I watched two episodes of Doctor Who, streamed from my home Mac server over WiFi.
- I surfed the web for perhaps half an hour or forty-five minutes all told.
- I read 85 pages of an ebook.
- I played a game for half an hour (Harbor Master HD).
- I got my mail several times, and wrote five emails.
- I kept an eye on Twitter and tweeted several times.
- I listened to music for about an hour while reading.
- I monitored a continuous integration server at work (CruiseControl) to ensure it was functioning, using Safari, for an hour or so after a change was made.
- I watched two Looney Tunes.
- I watched an episode of Mythbusters, streamed from Netflix.
What's it like to use?
It's almost scarily natural. At no time did I need to spend more than perhaps ten seconds determining how to do any of the above tasks, and most of those ten seconds were spent locating the proper application icon. The device itself, physically, is (to me) quite attractive. It is an extremely clean design. There are a grand total of five physical controls - the 'Home' button, power button and volume rocker buttons familiar from the iPhone and iPod Touch, and a small switch next to the volume buttons which controls the screen rotation lock - when it is on, the screen will ignore any change in the device's orientation and remain in one mode (landscape or portrait). This is incredibly useful, especially for reading, and I have wished for this on the phone for years.
If I had a problem with the form factor, it's that it is somewhat hard to grip, somewhat fragile, and a bit heavy for one-hand use. The first two could be solved by finding and using an appropriate case - I've ordered one from Marware, but it hasn't arrived yet. What worries me is that the thing represents a big chunk of my money (I bought the high-end one, of course) and all it would take is one sweaty-palmed attempt at a grab to lose it onto the ground, probably fatally. Unlike the iPhone, which I have dropped several times, I have no confidence that this device would survive a plunge to the pavement or even the floor. It's just too much glass and too much weight.
Note, however, that this doesn't keep me from carrying it everywhere. I just tend to keep it in a padded shoulder bag unless I'm actively using it.
The touch screen, which is multi-touch, is crisp, readable and responsive. Unfortunately, it also immediately becomes a sea of smudged fingermarks. I don't think the iPad has the 'oleophobic resin' coating that the new iPhone screen does - probably because it makes the screen slightly slipperier, and the iPad is already a bit difficult to hold if you're not cradling it.
As for its form factor in relation to the task, though - it's great. I've used it to read, watch video, and websurf while lying in bed, sitting on my sofa, siting in a crowded subway train, sitting at my desk, and sitting in the park in bright sunlight. The screen is a bit difficult to see in bright direct sun - this is an LCD, not a e-ink screen, after all - but that's a tradeoff I'm comfortable making.
What are its strong and weak points?
That's pretty easy. This is one of those devices that science fiction promised me the first time a pretty yeoman handed Captain Kirk
a log slate to sign, and re-promised to me in endless sci-fi movies and TV shows since. It's finally here, and it pretty much does everything the one Captain Picard
used to use. In fact, it does more, because rather than just the Enterprise computer on the other end, it has the Internet. It is a good size - big enough to read normally on or watch a movie without squinting, but small enough to slip into a small bag, and noticeably lighter than even my Macbook Air
The best thing about it as a 'use all day' device, though, is the battery life - something my computers and even my iPhone can't match. After the list of tasks above, which took me through all of Saturday, I went to bed and plugged it back into the charger. It still had over 70% of its battery remaining, despite three hours of streamed video and all the rest of it.
The e-book functionality is very promising. It's not 'excellent' because the e-book reader app itself lacks some functionality - but I'm not too worried, because that's simply a software update to fix it. You have several options for e-books, by the way - if you don't want to use Apple's e-book reader and store, there are several book reader applications available in the store including Amazon's Kindle app. The Kindle app works well, and handles 'WhisperSync' just like the Kindle device - it maintains your book availability and place markers across all your Kindle platforms.
The Apple e-book reader has excellent reading functionality. Page turns are swift, unobtrusive and pleasant (tap left or right sides to turn the page back or forward respectively). It's not easy to accidentally turn a page, no matter how you hold the iPad. Fonts are adjustable, it handles footnote/endnoting well, and you can adjust the screen brightness directly from the reader mode - in fact, you can make the screen almost entirely dark, which is wonderful when you're reading in a dark room at night.
However, where Apple falls down is (predictably) in their media management. Books are managed using iTunes software on your desktop computer. You can look at your library either in a list mode or in a 'virtual bookshelf' mode that looks like it was stolen directly from delicio.us library. However, the ordering of the books in bookshelf view is taken from the order in which they were imported into iTunes or bought from Apple - and you can't change the sort order. You can move individual books around on the shelf the same way you move application icons on the iPhone or the iPad main screen - but that's it. When you have 300+ books, that's pretty damn useless.
There also appears to be no support for any form of metadata which tells you what order books should be in. There's no hierarchy in the library, so you can't have separate folders or shelves for authors, genres, series, etc. You also can't tell, if you have ten books in a series, what order you should read them in - other than to manually drag them into that order in the 'bookshelf' view.
iTunes is another pain in the ass. Apparently, the way it handles books is to treat them as 'albums' - the author is the artist, and it clumsily maps a bunch of the rest of the book data into fields originally used to manage music. What this means practically is that unlike video, which is all neatly segregated into a 'Movies' folder in your iTunes library, your books are scattered through the library on disk interspersed with your music. (Update: A recent iTunes update on the Mac has segregated the iTunes library into folders by media type, including 'Books.')
So, in short, reading a book on the iPad is a pleasure, and works just as I expected. I can (and have) read for several hours at a stretch without noticeable eyestrain or discomfort. Managing my library, however, is still suboptimal. I'm confident it will improve - it feels strongly like using the first generation or three of iTunes to handle music. As the userbase gets its hands on the tools and provides feedback, eventually, things will get better.
Oh yeah, and the killer app for this thing? As far as I'm concerned, the fact that I am never more than three seconds from watching any of a couple hundred Looney Tunes right there, right then - why, welcome to the future.
Some miscellaneous info
As I said, I have the 3G model. If WiFi isn't available, my iPad will attempt to use AT&T's 3G network for data transfer. In order for that to work, you need to sign up for a data plan from AT&T. There are two options at present. For a monthly charge of $15 or so, you can get a maximum of 250 MB of data traffic. It will warn you when 20%, 10% and none of your allocation are remaining to you. For $30, you can get unlimited data. The good part of this is that neither option requires a term contract; both are month-to-month. You can change your plan or cancel and renew at any time, with no penalty fees. If you are going to go over the 250 MB limit, you can up your plan to unlimited for that (and the next) month, then drop it back down if your bandwidth use drops.
Note that like all Apple i-thingy products, the iPad must be activated before it can be used. In other words, you have to plug it into a real computer which is running iTunes, and which is associated with an iTunes account. Although Apple Store personnel will generally happily activate it for you in the store using one of their computers, remember to have this done if you don't have a machine at home to plug it into (or if you want to use it before you get there!).
Famously, Apple has decided that Adobe Flash will not be allowed on this device. This has caused Adobe and others to scream about 'censorship' and 'anticompetitive practices' and commentators to decry the iPad as cutting off a huge portion of the content available on the web. Well, I have to say, I haven't run into the infamous jigsaw puzzle icon denoting a flash app I can't use - at least not yet. I've been using YouTube and Google Video - no problems. I have followed a couple dozen 'SLYT' or other video links from Safari, all without problems. Do I wish I could play Flash games? Well, I haven't yet - I've dealt with any such urge by seeking out free games in the App Store - but I could see that annoying some people. Do I consider it a real limitation of the platform? Um, duh, no. Not at all. Of course, I use Macs, so watching Flash crash my 'real' computer has been a long-standing habit.
The Custodian's recommendations
I do have a few. First of all, one that might save you some money! I bought the big version (64 GB of internal storage) but I have realized I probably don't need it. At present, the thing that will most likely fill up your iPad is video, closely followed by music if you have a large collection. While I have a few movies (and, as mentioned, lots of 'toons) in my iPad, most of my movie collection isn't in iTunes but is on a server in my house as various .avi, .mkv and .mp4 files. There are at least two apps (StreamToMe and AirVideo) for the iPad which allow you to stream transcoded video over WiFi to the iPad itself. I bought StreamToMe for $2.99; it comes with a freeware 'server' app that runs on my home Mac server (it's available for Mac and Windows; I'm not sure about Linux). Installing the server app and pointing it at my movie and television folders immediately made all that content available from the iPad, and it streams just peachy when I'm home. So there's no need to put video locally on the iPad. If I was travelling quite a bit, I could see wanting to put a bunch of video on the device for trips - but if it's going to be used mostly around the house, this solution works great for me.
There are a bajillion and a half games available. I'm a big addict of Plants vs. Zombies, and of Flight Control. As a result of the latter, I really really like Harbor Master HD - which is a freeware version of Flight Control.
If you want to show the iPad off, you can't go far wrong with Theodore Gray's Elements, a gorgeous multimedia periodic table; or with Bloomberg's financial news app, or NPR's elegant and functional news and content application.
Should you buy one?
This is a toughie. I have to admit, this thing is a bit expensive for what it does. There are some obvious bits of functionality missing which no doubt will show up in version 2 - specifically, a camera (of any kind), and the compass. Together, those two items allow for a bunch of impressive augmented reality applications on the iPhone 3GS - and those apps won't work on the iPad, either model, at present. If you really want that stuff, you should probably wait until next year when, undoubtedly, there will be a newer version of the iPad. If Apple holds true to form, that second version will likely either be cheaper, or be available for less via contract and subsidy or some such. (HOLD THE PHONE! moosemanmoo informs me that the iPad does indeed have a compass; hit the 'locate' button in maps and it orients. I had tried this, but mine didn't orient until I moved - so I (mistakenly) assumed it was using GPS to determine my direction of travel. Quite possibly there was interference - I was indoors.)
If you like your toys, and if you like having your media and information available to you with minimal interference at all times, or if you often find yourself complaining that science fiction has promised you all kinds of things you've never gotten - then run don't walk. This thing is better than sliced bread with honey and gratuitous sex spread atop it.
But remember - I'm an Apple fanboy.
Like much of Apple's product line, this thing will sell itself when you pick one up. If you can go to an Apple store, pick one up and play with it for ten minutes and still put it down saying "Meh, I don't see the point" - then definitely don't buy it. But if you're like me, you'll have handed them your credit card around minute two, giggling and hugging the box to yourself on the way out the door.
Update: Three Months Later
Not much different as far as the device itself, of course. I just wanted to note my use pattern. I essentially keep my iPad with me most of the day. I haven't lugged my laptop back and forth to work more than twice (used it to give presentations that I *could* have done on the iPad if I'd bothered to buy the VGA adaptor and Keynote). I use it between 2-4 hours a day minimum, depending if I'm commuting (I get in around 2 hrs/day reading on subways and buses). Lazy weekend days it probably gets 5-7 hours of use depending on how many videos I watch.
I still love it. It doesn't do anything that my iPhone and laptop couldn't do - but it does almost all of what they do while being small enough and responsive enough that those functions are now always with me and accessible within seconds, even without a place to sit or surface to hold the laptop. That, in itself, is somewhat life-changing. :-)
That's it. I just wanted to note that the iPad wasn't just a temporary 'Ooo, shiny!' for me. It's become an everyday tool which sees daily use.