The iPad has been called all sorts of things in its short one week life and to a certain degree I find that most of the descriptors are correct no matter which direction a particular commentator or reviewer is aiming from. In a short preamble, after a stressful and very non-normal week I find that Apple’s iPad does indeed open a window into the future that shows great promise for what computing will be years from now. The combination of hardware design and performance sets a bench mark that others will have to live up to. If you think, as I do, that the iPad is the next step towards a future of computing where the device becomes irrelevant when compared to what you’re doing with it, then Apple has moved the ball closer to a goal line that will always be moving as fast or faster than innovation can catch up. Is it magical and revolutionary? It has already become a cliche to say it is more evolutionary than revolutionary but I’ll jump on that cliche with everyone else.
So, as I launch into this review (and a further series of posts about the iPad) keep two things in mind. First, it is still very early in the game for the iPad to be crowned as anything other than a great first start in what we may or may not see as a wave of Tablet/Slate devices to come. It is also early in my usage of the device. Second, I believe we won’t really know how successful or not the iPad will be until later this year after app developers really get a handle on creating apps for the device. What we have now is akin to moving into a new neighborhood or town. You see lots of flashy new things and places to discover, but it isn’t until you’ve walked the streets for awhile that you discover the real secrets of your new locale.
There’s no question a lot of effort went into the design of the hardware. It is a pretty device. The screen is gorgeous, but that comes at a glossy price as you can often view yourself starring in any video you’re watching. Steve Jobs loves glossy screens and he doesn’t like buttons. You’ve only got a few hardware controls to deal with including a volume rocker, a switch to lock the screen orientation in place, the on/off switch, and the home button. The same is true of ports. You’ve got one for the docking connector and one for headphones, which in a very silly move are not included with the device. Much as been made about the lack of a USB port or SD card slot, but for a device that doesn’t offer a conventional file system I’m not sure a USB port makes much sense. I’m guessing that’s why Apple is selling its own proprietary accessory for importing photos from a camera.
The iPad feels great in your hand, but after using it for awhile the 1.5lb weight begins to register as just a tad too heavy. By comparison, last night I went back to my Kindle 2 for some eBook reading and enjoyed the lighter weight of that device very much. But in the end the Kindle is just an eBook reader. The overall width and height of the iPad also feels right in the early going, but combined with the UI this is going to become a very personal decision factor as to whether some think it is too big or just right. In portrait mode the device feels just about right to me. In landscape mode it feels a little too big at times.
Regardless of its size, the iPad feels much more fragile than I would have thought. I’m not sure if it is or it isn’t, and I don’t want to experiment to find out. It begs for a case of some kind before you willy nilly plop it in a bag and head off to adventures unknown. I find myself being very careful as to how and where I set it down compared to how I’ve tossed other mobile devices into a bag or onto a sofa or chair. This brings up a point I often wonder about. Companies, especially Apple, go to great lengths and great expense focusing on design. When we all see a beautiful device we get hot and bothered and the gadget lust begins. But when you have to obscure that beautiful design with a case or cover it often strikes me as a potential waste of resources after so heavily investing in the aesthetics. It’s like wearing that sexy new shirt or blouse and covering it up with a sweater on a windy day. Sure the collar looks nice, but the rest of the garment is hidden away.
If there is one thing that surprised everybody about the iPad it is the long battery life. C’mon admit it. When you started seeing those early main stream media reviews coming out on the night of April 1 proclaiming over 10 hours of battery life, didn’t it make you think it was an April Fools Day joke? Apple under promised and over delivered it seems here, and maybe one of the revolutionary changes that the iPad heralds will be the end of ridiculous battery life claims. Although I wouldn’t hold my breath. Regardless, Apple has set the benchmark for Tablets/slate battery life at around 10 hours. Everyone else will have to measure up or be found lacking. I have to say that the freedom of knowing I can go all day and into the night on the iPad without a charge is a huge plus for me. In a week’s worth of usage, I’ve never dipped below 35% during a single day with no tweaks and WiFi and Bluetooth constantly turned on.
I’ve used many mobile devices and have used even more extra batteries, charging devices, and system tweaks to eek out longer battery life. By and large I’ve often been pleased with the result, but with the iPad that’s a care or concern that just doesn’t exist. I’m not busy budgeting and searching for extra batteries and charging devices like I typically am at this point with a new device. I hate to say this to HP and any others, but promising 5 hours of battery life just isn’t going to cut it in the future. Apple is leading the pack on battery life with the iPad (and will quickly have to begin seriously addressing those concerns on its other hardware) and will for some time to come. If increased battery life is the biggest “revolution” that Apple brings to the table with the iPad, it is a “revolution” worth going to the barricades for. That said, we’ll see how that “around 10 hours” fares in a few weeks once iPads with 3G radios start getting in users’ hands.
The only thing that might keep anyone from marveling at the speedy performance of the iPad is their connectivity choice. Interacting with the iPad is fast and breezy. If you used any of the early UMPCs or other touch devices (past and some current) you’ll marvel at the fluidity of the performance. Because the iPad is very much, but not solely, a web device built for browsing, that performance can bog down a bit depending on how you are connecting to the Internet. At my home where I’ve got an 802.11n router everything is as I think it should be. At my office where I have a 802.11g router and more than a few folks accessing it, connectivity can go up and down. At the hospital last weekend there were periods of fast access and painfully slow periods. Using a Sprint MiFi card, it all depends on the connection to Sprint. I say all of that because not only should you be aware of it when you are using Safari or Mail, but so many of the apps also access the web as well and what kind of pipe you’re using certainly affects performance of those apps.
That said, moving from one app to another is graceful and speedy and well, just plain effortless. Turning the device on is as close to “Instant On” as I’ve found for a device that isn’t a phone, and even beats some of those. I’ve not once felt like I’m waiting for the device, except when the Internet connection has been slower than I’d like.
The WiFi issue that some are experiencing that require you to re-enter a password, pops up in my office but no where else I’ve used the device. That leads me to believe that it is a router compatibility issue.
The Multi-Touch UI
It works very, very well. Let’s just say that. Although, (and I explain this in the InkShow) it took me a bit to wrap my head and hands around it, the Multi-Touch UI implementation is excellently done. I have certainly not tried every multi-touch or touch device on the market, but this is far and away the best implementation of touch on a device larger than a phone that I’ve experienced. I’m not a big gamer so I don’t know if that will hold true for some of the more control heavy games that will appear on the iPad, but for how I use the device it just feels like I’ve always expected multi-touch (or just touch for that matter) to work. The thought behind the multi-touch UI combined with the device engineering really pays off when you hold the device in landscape mode and are able to manipulate an app with just your thumbs without your hands leaving the bezel on either side of the device.
Combined with the speedy performance the UI makes this device a joy to use. That joy is not to be undercut or discounted. I’ve used and reviewed many a touch device and after working with them for a time I’ve become comfortable with the compromises I have to make in order to operate my hands (and my brain) in concert with the device. The iPad required some getting used to as well, but once I did, I realized there are very few compromises I’m making in the way I did so with other devices. I think the many reviews and reporting of young children using iPads that are popping up around the web are a testament to how naturally this all weaves together. Watching my Mom flick through photo albums is another testament to the same thing.
Something that strikes me as, well, old fashioned, is the icon layout on the home screen(s). Not being able to configure the layout spacing of the icons seems both limiting and wasteful on this larger screen as compared to the iPhone or iPod Touch. At least you can add more than four items to the Springboard or dock at the bottom of the screen. In addition I continually find it disconcerting that app icons are in different locations depending on screen orientation. My muscle memory wants to find them safely tucked in the same place instead of in different positions when I rotate the screen.
One Window, One App
I’m also struggling with the “one window, one app” approach that Apple has moved from the iPhone to the iPad. Let there be no doubt, Apple distinctly wants things this way. Obviously only one app is open at a time, but there are times when I’d love to be able to make an app window smaller to get to something else. I know that is conventional thinking but i find myself in that conventional mindset more than than i imagined I would the longer I use the device. This of course would involve multi-tasking and that’s another topic. Due to the speed of the OS it is pretty easy to open and close apps, but there are times when that just doesn’t feel quite right. The “one window, one app” approach works fine on the iPhone or iPod Touch, but after awhile it does bother me a bit on the larger screen of the iPad.
The OS and the Apple Ecosystem
If there is one area where the iPad screams “generation one device” it is the OS architecture. More specifically, it has to do with getting data off and onto the device. As already stated there is no conventional file system. In and of itself that may not be a problem if all you are doing is using the device to consume media and the Internet. But Apple seems determined to position this as a content creation device as evidenced by the substantial re-working of its iWorks suite of apps for the iPad. However to move any documents you create off of the device involves steps that make you feel like you’ve fallen through a wormhole and landed back in the days of swapping floppies. The same holds true for bringing documents to the iPad as well. It is cumbersome at best and an experience diminishing FAIL at worst. The fact that you can’t create a Pages document on the iPad and work with that same document and not a copy of it on another device without jumping through considerable hoops just makes no sense.
It makes it seem like Apple just hasn’t figured out cloud computing and is conceding this turf to the likes of Google and Microsoft. Apple’s woes with MobileMe are well chronicled and the iWork.com web interface doesn’t even come close to solving this issue beyond sharing a document with a friend or colleague. Had Apple not invested so heavily in the iWorks Suite for the iPad I would have said they were leaving this kind of thing to 3rd party app developers. And there will probably be 3rd party solutions down the road that make this go away. But Apple set the pace with the iWorks Suite, will probably be lapped pretty quickly on this front. Sure there are ways to move content back and forth with email and through iTunes, but this just doesn’t match up to the sophistication of everything else regarding the iPad experience and I think that’s the key. Everything else about the iPad experience is effortless and makes the computer disappear. Transferring documents within Apple’s own tent pole suite of apps brings the computer back in a way I don’t think anyone intends. Eventually this has to become an OS feature. Apple needs to address this and, in my opinion, before it addresses any other advances for the iPad.
Having no conventional file system is also puzzling when it comes to putting photos on the device. Last weekend I took a number of photos to show my mother while she was in the hospital. In order to get them onto the iPad, I had to first transfer them to my MacBook Pro, create an album in iPhoto and then sync that over to the iPad. Too many steps. I can’t think that creaky process exists solely so that Apple can sell an $29 dollar photo import accessory. But I guess Apple still loves that all roads must pass through iTunes. But we’re quickly moving away from that kind of experience elsewhere and Apple has to play catch up here if it wants to truly stay ahead of the pack.
Another intriguing thing to me is that in Apple’s three big ecosystem apps (iTunes, App Store, and iBooks) only the App Store uses Coverflow. Given that Coverflow has been ever present for some time now, I find it odd that on the first large screen touch device that it isn’t present in iTunes and in the iPod App. I cant fathom the rationale there. I’m also disappointed that you can’t use touch to swipe through days, weeks, and months in the Calendar app. That just seems like a no brainer to me and I’m puzzled that functionality doesn’t exist.
Since the iPad’s release we’ve now seen the preview of the iPhone OS 4.0 which has multi-tasking as one of Apple’s Tent Pole new features. That is promised for the iPad in the fall as well. I’ve got a couple of thoughts about multi-tasking on this device and I’ll have to wait and see how his all plays out later this year. In my usage what I’m looking for on the iPad is the ability to use apps like Evernote or Instapaper or Delicious to grab info out of Safari and save it for later. That of course would require those apps running in the background or as a browser plug-in the way they do on a conventional computer. I also use PasteBot as a clipboard repository on both the iPhone and the iPad and it would be great if I didn’t have to quit an app, open Pastebot and then grab the info via copy/paste and then have to re-open the app to paste the info back in. I may be wrong, but from what I’m reading about 4.0 multi-tasking, I’m not sure that this kind of functionality will be present or not. For a web tablet, this seems like a glaring omission to me.
Here’s an example from my workflow. Yesterday we had a production meeting that focused on the first three shows of our next season here at Wayside Theatre. This is a meeting where I lay out my vision for how we are going to approach the plays and start soliciting designer input to the process. Typically in these concept meetings I bring in pictures and images of things that express how I’m feeling about a play visually or tonally. I tried doing this with the iPad and using Pastebot and then Evernote and to serve as a container for those pictures. It worked, but as I was gathering images from a variety of sources I had to go back and forth, back and forth between the apps way to many times. I switched over to my iMac and was able to streamline the process dramatically capturing all of the images I needed in just a short time into Evernote. They were synced over to the iPad for showing and sharing them at the meeting. Now if what I’m after sounds very similar to what we’ve seen in the Microsoft Courier concept demos you’re correct. That said, the iPad strikes me as a device ideal for this kind of work as well, but it will require some sort of multi-tasking for it to work.
Mobility vs Portability
Ben on Carrypad said this: The iPad is portable, but not mobile. I think in my early usage I would have to agree with him. Sure I can tote it around my workplace or my home, but the iPhone changed my definition of mobile somewhat. Basically at this point pulling out my iPhone is almost a thought-free casual act that I do over and over. In my early usage with the iPad, it is something that I consciously have to reach for, and while I may lug it to a meeting here and there, or to a rehearsal, I don’t see myself using it in the same way I do the iPhone. I can see myself taking it on the road and using it along with a Bluetooth keyboard and the dock to get some work done. But that’s different than using it when I’m out and about to check email, or check in on FourSquare or whatever. I also find myself leaving it on my desk quite easily knowing that I have the iPhone with me when I am on the prowl. That may change with time, but for now, I’m in agreement with Ben. This is more of a portable device than a mobile one.
Summing it all up
This isn’t the end of my thoughts on the iPad. I’ve got more to say and broken those thoughts down into what will be several different posts that I’m still working on. The next one is about the iPad from a Tablet PC users perspective. That should be out Tuesday, if all goes well. I’ve tried here to focus on the iPad as a device and in many ways I’m probably only scratching the surface. Similarly the iPad is a scratch in the surface of what I hope will be a very deep experience over the years to come from Apple and all of its competitors. I’m a big believer in this slate form factor now that the technology has come close to catching up to the vision put forth by Bill Gates. I think the iPad is a bold and promising next step on that journey. It is also an important step. It’s not the perfect device yet by any means, but as a generation one device I believe that the iPad is not only a great device to kick start a new era of computing, but it also has set some important benchmarks that will affect all we see hereafter. That’s a 30,000 feet high viewpoint. From down on the ground the iPad is a very attractive, very marketable, and very fun consumer device. It will change more than a few people’s opinions about what a computer is and should be. It may replace eBook readers for some, gaming machines for others, and for some even notebooks or netbooks. For others it will be an excellent companion device. No matter the case, it is a terrific but flawed device that holds great promise. There is much room for others in the market, but as they seem so willingly to do, others will be forced to respond to Apple’s first out the gate iPad. Adam Engst called the iPad experience a Tablua Rasa or blank slate, and in many ways I think he’s correct. Given that you can change the icons that appear in the Springboard of the dock, I think over time when you look at the iPads of different users, what you see in those six slots will tell you how they use this Tablua Rasa. But I think that should be the case with all Tablet/Slates, or at least that’s what those who create them should aim for if they hope to succeed.
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