I received my iPad directly from Apple in early June and have been living with it since. I mean that phrase more completely than is usual with something of a technical nature: this device really has become part of my life, far more quickly and completely than I expected. The iPad is more than the sum of its parts: not exactly “magical”, but truly something new that goes beyond the mere technical details that describe it. And yet not all is well in this wondrous future into which this little booklet-sized computer has ushered me.
Explaining the Magic
Touch screen interface, wireless connectivity (3G and WiFi in my case), high resolution video, 32 GB of storage, thin and light, blah blah blah: these are all features that have been done before. Tablets and netbooks with all these basic functions and more have been around for at least the last two or three years. And yet the iPad is completely different. The challenge is trying to explain exactly why, when the raw data itself isn’t sufficient.
It is important to note that this problem of defining why a particular device is “better” is common to pretty much all of the Apple products. But I’d say the difficulty is magnified with the iPad- even some long-time Apple fans don’t get it. You will surely have heard the “it’s just a big iPhone, but without the phone!” phrase, and in terms of basic features that is a true statement. And yet the iPad is far more usable then Apples iconic telecommunications device for the things that were the “fringe” of what the iPhone was originally designed for. The iPhone is a device optimized for communication that also runs apps, browses the web, watches the video, and plays games. The iPad is entirely optimized for those “secondary” functions- apps, web browsing, video, and games are a far more complete experience just because of the form factor. I could easily see having both an iPhone and an iPad and, in fact, my day to day use of the iPad makes the thought of owning an iPhone more attractive.
A netbook can perform those secondary functions, within similar dimensions and weight, and in some cases less expensively than an iPad. Many of these devices are replete with functionality that the iPad lacks: keyboards, obviously, but also expandable memory, video interfaces, and so on. But netbooks are small displays with small keyboards attached: an iPad is a big display that can act as a keyboard in a pinch. The entire user interface is optimized for the lack of a keyboard, and it works so seamlessly and intuitively that, after a week or to, I was pointlessly trying to use touch gestures on my laptop screen. Since I hold the iPad in my hands, there is none of the awkwardness of reaching for a distant touch screen. The display reacts to how I hold it, changing orientation and reorganizing the user interface efficiently. The lack of a keyboard is barely noticeable, although I will comment on that further later. And the lack of all those extra interfaces and so on is only relevant if you need them, the tradeoff being a device that works well without odd behaviour or failure originating from foreign devices.
Tablets have been around for years, and have the same touch (or in some case stylus) interface that dominates the iPad. Unfortunately, tablet computers are largely the domain of highly specialized business and industrial users with little or no targeting of the consumer market. They are expensive (thousands versus hundreds of dollars), bulky (four or five pounds being common), and often burdened by the need to support custom developed Windows applications. And there lies a further issue: most tablets run a “tweaked” version of Windows which, no matter how hard Microsoft tries, often feels like a square peg hammered into a round hole. The very thing that makes Windows appealing, specifically its vast library of existing software, defeats any attempt at consistency or elegance in the way those applications work. The touch UI becomes a frustrating obstacle in the way of using applications that were never intended to be used without a keyboard and mouse.
Most netbooks and tablet devices run Windows, which as I mentioned previously grants them access to a vast ecosystem of software. Free programs, share ware, commercial software: millions of programs mean that any task you might want to perform can be matched to dozens of programs of vastly different qualities and prices. This includes, unfortunately, vast herds of over-priced and under-performing software, unstable or outright broken freeware, and cesspits full of trojan and virus laden “warez”.
The iPad, on the other hand, only grants one practical source of software- the AppStore. Apple’s AppStore is tightly managed, a “DisneyLand” of computer applications where only those blessed by the hopefully benevolent caretaker. Everything basically works, the apps are all required to support the touch interface consistently, prices are generally low (zero to a handful of dollars), and viruses/trojans thus far non-existent. The AppStore contains a great quantity of what could be called “useless” software, the fart apps coming quickly to mind, but “useless” is different from broken or dangerous. Selecting programs in the AppStore often feels a bit like dining at one of those restaurants that serves “sampler” meals. Lots of little tidbits, easily paid for and largely enjoyable, with sufficient choice to keep things interesting.
The iPad in my Life
My expectations for the iPad were pretty limited. The key functionality I was wanting was mobile web browsing, and beyond that I had some hope that someone might finally do justice to the “about the size of a pad of paper” form factor. I was curious more than anything, and I buy a lot of technology purely to satisfy my curiosity. Sometimes this works out (MacBook, Apple TV, Shaw DVR), and sometimes it doesn’t (Irex Illiad, Apple Newton, iPaq… ), but I generally figure I get my money’s worth in terms of education.
The iPad is a superlative, almost “magical” (sorry) web browsing experience. Checking out my favourite websites, reading my RSS feeds, checking my email: all of these things work very close to flawlessly. I have found the touch gestures and general ergonomics of using the device to be incredibly intuitive The singular weakness for consuming the web on the iPad is the lack of Flash support. Interestingly, instead of getting frustrated or angry with my iPad, I’ve found that I have stopped visiting websites that use Flash exclusively, and nothing that I’ve given up has felt all that terribly important. I really would rather that that iPad supported Flash technologies, and I really wish Apple and Steve Jobs would get over their anti-competitive hatred (topic for another post…), but even so I find that I like the iPad enough that I’m willing to forgive this weakness.
I was surprised to find just how much I enjoy reading on the iPad, particular since I generally find eInk far easier on my eyes versus “emissive” technologies like the iPad’s glowing display. I’ve downloaded and read eight or nine books, probably several thousand pages, on the iPad thus far, and I can’t say that I’ve experienced any of the eye strain I expected. However, it is important to note that most of my reading has been either indoors or in situations where I’ve been able to find some shade. The iPad’s display is extremely reflective and is far less useful for reading in bright sunlight than an eInk device.
Interestingly, I’ve not read a single book using Apple’s on iBook application. Instead, everything I’ve read has been via the Amazon Kindle application for the iPad. The main reason is that I’ve found the books I wanted to read on Amazon for the Kindle more consistently than within Apple’s more constrained selection. I suppose that may change at some point, but frankly I don’t even bother looking in the iBook application any more. I find it interesting that Amazon has managed to capture my patronage even though the iPad is arguably a competitor for their Kindle device.
I have found that the iPad has awakened a new reading interest in me: comics. There are apps for both DC and Marvel comics- actually, it is the same application “under the hood” (comiXology)- and the browsing/buying process is almost too easy. I’ve bought and read over 30 comics thus far, with most of them costing $1.99. I download them and read them when I stop somewhere on my motorbike rides, and they are like chips or peanuts: one is never enough.
Carrying the iPad on my motorcycle rides has become pretty standard for me. I pay the month to month $15 fee to Rogers to get 3G networking and, if I find myself relaxing on a park bench somewhere in the middle of one of my little tours, out comes the iPad. I read my email, check my favourite websites, and read a book or a comic- I can turn my 3G network connection on or off as needed, saving data costs and battery charge. Notably, the iPad uses 3G efficiently in its own right: it will use a working WiFi connection first if it detects it, so I can generally be assured that I’m using the cheapest alternative even if I forget to turn off 3G. Battery life is close to perfect: I usually have 20-30% of a charge when I plug my iPad in at night, assuming I don’t sneak in a charge once or twice during the day. There is easily enough juice for eight or more hours of reading/light browsing, and probably half that for watching video. I imagine I would get better battery performance if I turned off all wireless connectivity, but thus far I haven’t felt a need
The iPad has become my go-to device for 90%+ of what I used to use my MacBook for. It is so convenient to use, so portable, and has such good battery life that I feel uncomfortable when I’m forced to grab my bigger laptop. In fact, I have noticed that I seem to be actively avoiding doing things that the MacBook (and other laptops) currently do better than the iPad. This includes things like editing my blog, managing and editing my photos, and (as I’ve previously noted) watching Flash videos.
Most of these things fall under the category of “content creation”, and unsurprisingly this is the iPad’s current weak point. The lack of a discrete keyboard and mouse makes activities that need both input and a large amount of display real-estate problematic. Don’t get me wrong: it is possible to hook a keyboard up to the iPad, and the touch screen can be used for editing photos or drawing pictures for that matter. But when I’m doing these things, I find I need multi-tasking, and in general a user interface that permits looking at and manipulating multiple things at the same time. Everyone is different, and some might find producing content, particularly sketching and the like, is quite possible on the “one thing at a time” iPad. Thus far, though, it hasn’t worked that way for me. But the odd thing is that, instead of feeling frustrated by this shortcoming of the iPad, I’m more inclined lately to just do without.
“Doing without” has meant that I haven’t wanted to produce blog entries as regularly, and I may even be doing a bit less photography. It isn’t as if I don’t still have the MacBook: its just as accessible as it ever was. But because I don’t use it every day, all those things I used to do with it and which are inconvenient on the iPad slip my mind. The old phrase “out of sight, out of mind” is playing strongly into this. I suspect that, over time, I’ll get into the habit of setting aside some “content creation” time on my laptop, but for now I’m more prone just to read another website, download another book, or post something on Facebook when the urge to create something comes over me.
The iPad definitely has some technical shortcomings. The display is glossy and highly reflective, for one: this means that looking at it in sunlight is essentially impossible, and removing fingerprints is a continuous chore. Yes, the fancy coatings on the display make wiping the smudges off fairly easy, but it doesn’t stop them from appearing in the first place. The device itself isn’t weightless, either: 1.5 pounds, give or take. Lying on your back with it held at a comfortable reading distance is quickly tiring.
Arguably more important than the strict technical shortcomings is the fact that the iPad is a fundamentally “closed” device. Like pretty much all Apple devices, the battery isn’t “user replaceable”, although Apple will replace it for you if you don’t mind giving up the device for a couple of weeks. There are no standard interfaces: no places to install memory cards, no built in USB port, no “video out”. You can overcome some of this with optional “dongles” that permit limited USB connectivity (the “camera connection kit”), but don’t expect to be adding anything like a USB keyboard or printer.
Probably most restrictive of all is the source of software: you can get any software you like, so long as it is available through Apples AppStore. The barriers to entry for getting software on the AppStore aren’t insurmountable (a hundred bucks or so, and sifting through Apple’s rather unpredictable rules for application acceptance), but don’t expect to find the odd and sometimes freaky selection of programs you might encounter on other platforms. The simple fact that there are rules at all will prevent many programs from ever appearing on the platform. Yes, you can “jailbreak” your iPad and thereby access applications outside Apple’s closed ecosystem, but this is not something I’d recommend for an “average” user. Thus far, I haven’t found any reason to jailbreak my iPad myself.
Wrapping it up
The iPad has become a more or less integral part of my life. To my way of thinking, it has opened up an entirely new category of computing device: the touch screen, mobile web/data/content consuming, paper-pad sized platform. It is a certainty that other manufacturers will shortly join iPad in this new sector- it remains to be seen whether they can compete. The iPad isn’t necessarily better than a netbook, for example, but it works better for the purposes I have for such a device than a more flexible device might. I’m somewhat concerned, however, regarding how this new member of my technology stable might be changing my behaviour.