Take Two Tablets, Call Me in the Morning

Against all previous precedent I’d like to present a product review.

This is not a paid review. It’s not even a particularly competent review. But if you’re at all interested in what might possess an otherwise sane person to buy into a ridiculous and expensive electronics fad and then live with it for six months, read on.

Background

Apple’s revolutionarily derivative iTunes revolutionized the way people hand over their money for stuff. By linking stuff with stuff, credit card numbers flowed like water from an open spigot. The symphony orchestras, 8-tracks and old Victrolas of the prior century gave way to a slew of new handheld gizmo-based music devices. Coupled with the cultural sea-change represented by the Internet, this digital shift became the perfect storm for rewriting the rules for how we live, work and interact with clichés.

Peer-sharing networks with cute names showed common users that music could be stolen with ease, and the race was on to find the perfect delivery mechanism for the spoils; once it was found it was copied, streamlined and made profitable by Apple.

The Cupertino-based former underdog tech giant innovated the music player by steps, innovating up some kind of click-a-ma-jig wheel for streamlined access to content and innovating on a larger and larger screen for more complex functions. Then one day an iPod had sex with a smartphone and the mobile revolution was thusly kicked up a notch. Finally, it was reckoned that user zeal for playing with these new kinds of toys might grow were the toys themselves somewhat larger.

The brainchild of this thinking is Steve Jobs’ commandment tablet, claimed at the time of this writing as the most rapidly adopted technological doodad in history: the iPad.

Wait, what?

 

The iPad* is a solid-state computer-like device with a curved metal back and flat glass front, approximately the size of a hardcover book, but thinner. The front is sensitive to the touch of human skin, save for a narrow bezel for handling around the edges. The minimalist design incorporates a minimum of minimal additions to the exterior: volume controls, a headphone anus, speaker grille, and so on.

In its factory default configuration the iPad is a book, a moviola and a Walkman, a web browser and e-mail client, a GPS-enabled map, a Dictaphone, a notebook and a day-planner.

Via apps purchased from Apple’s App Store my unit has also become a sketching canvas, a word processor, a piano, a gaming console, a wireless file server, a radio and a newspaper.

By using Skype or a similar VoIP system the iPad can be bent to telephony, but there is no way to send or receive text messages like other mobile devices.

There is no obvious “top” or “bottom” to the screen — the display re-orients automatically to accommodate the user’s position. As sold the iPad offered a small physical switch on the side for locking the orientation to the user’s preference, but in subsequent operating system updates this functionality was moved to a somewhat less convenient software-based button. The physical switch now mutes notifications and apps but not music or movies, with no option to alter the switch’s function. Because that’s what Steve Jobs decided was best for you.

The iPad is a parasitic device that requires a host PC for set-up and upgrades. It is connected to the host by a non-standard Apple-exclusive USB-like cable, and interacts only with Apple’s own iTunes application running under either Mac OS X or Windows (or via WINE in Linux if you are a “hacker”).

The iPad is not a replacement for a PC, nor it is a replacement for a modern telephone.

It is a replacement for the Newton.

Okay, but why?

 

Interacting with mobile devices was hitherto a clumsy process. Fat-finger syndrome and butt-dialing were just the tip of the iceberg, for as smartphone functions became more complex their primitive interfaces –- overburdened and teenie-weenie — forced the user to drill down through layers of nested menus with tragically engineer-oriented labels navigated by physical buttons the size of lamb teats.

All that changed when Steve Jobs personally invented the idea of multi-touch, and then applied it to a mobile interface using the power of love. In exchange, he was forced to give his pancreas to Lucifer.

While it is true that the iPad is essentially an inflated and crippled iPhone, this fails to convey the much ballyhooed “magic.” The magic is really just the magic of multi-touch, but it feels different because it’s big. In this case a simple change of scale has a radical effect on the user experience. There is room for two hands, room to see and touch simultaneously, room to read without scrolling.

The iPad is very much like an interactive, full-colour, animated book. If you travelled back in time with it, you could easily convince people that you were their new god.

Operation of the device is entirely silent. The lion’s share of the iPad’s slightly-too-heavy three quarters of a kilogram weight comes from its twin internal batteries. Due to the minimalistic device’s minimal power requirements, these phat-ass batteries can sustain operation for days at a time.

In summary, the iPad offers the same computer-like experience as the iPhone except that its superior screen real estate makes using it for more complex functions much easier and more pleasant – drawing and painting, reading an article, watching a movie, playing a game: all without squinting over a tiny screen. The instant-on nature of the solid state memory and the long battery life mean the user spends less time managing the hardware and more time making use of it.

The iPad is mobile computing made elegant. If slightly heavy.

The Walled Garden

Software for the iPad comes through only one source: the Apple App Store.

The company has been the target of harsh criticism for its sometimes heavy-handed approach to curating the App Store, including rejecting apps that “replicate” features of Apple software (extant or planned), rejecting media apps that focus on coverage of competitive products (such as Google’s Android platform), and rejecting the works of a noted satirist for fear of causing offense (to an unspecified party or group).

This is a domain in which Apple will have to mature as a company if the iPad is ever to be considered a viable platform for publishing, journalism and media. Freedom of the press is not optional.

The curatorial approach is not without benefits, however. Users need never worry about apps contaminated by viruses, worms, trojans or sexuality. While bugs in software code can and do crop up, for the most part App Store apps are solid or at least passable in terms of performance. Apps function as advertised or they are quickly removed.

Many iPad apps are free and the majority of the rest are very inexpensive, although often slightly more expensive than their iPhone counterparts because software-peddlers know a mark when they see one. In general prices range between one and ten dollars, with 70% of the proceeds going to some lucky developers who successfully navigated the minefield of Apple’s selection policies, both overt and secret.

This makes the iPad — like the iPhone — a veritable Swiss Army knife for geeks. I myself have downloaded about a bazillion free utility apps which are sure to come in handy in the event a select set of fairly unlikely circumstances ever coming to pass someday maybe. I’m ready to be ready for anything.

Some users with a chip on their shoulder about freedom choose to “jailbreak” their iPads, which means using unauthorized third-party software to remove some of the restrictions Apple places on the device for our own good. Jailbroken iPads can install software from sources other than the App Store, including apps of which Apple disapproves. Potential jailbreakers should be aware that some alternative app sources are tainted by scams, PC malware or unrestricted expression. Also, many alternative app sources offer pirate versions of legitimate App Store apps, thus depriving the original developer of payment for their hard work and guessing.

It is unlikely that people who jailbreak their iPads go to Heaven.

Interaction

If you do a lot of flying and need multimedia support for many hours at a stretch, you should get an iPad. If you’re a commercial artist who displays digital portfolio media to clients in person, the iPad is ideal for you. If your fingers are too large to effectively make use of an iPhone-style virtual keyboard, the iPad will be appreciably less frustrating for you. If you’re too lazy to scroll when reading web pages, the iPad will help with this sometimes.

The on-screen keyboard is nearly the size of a physical keyboard that is slightly too small. Writing novels this way is not recommended, though writing e-mails is worlds easier than doing the same on an iPhone. Personally, I opt to use a wireless physical keyboard over Bluetooth if I’m planning to input more than a few paragraphs.

No amount of practice with the on-screen keyboard with change the fact that an extra tap is required** for an apostrophe, making smooth and unbroken sessions of literate input impossible.

Autocorrection functions have improved dramatically nut spill require post-proofing to assure a geranium of Occidental nonsense.

The iPad’s front surface can rapidly become quite boogery. Any touch-based interaction leaves greasy smears covering the device, no matter the user’s state of hygiene. I recommend a microfibre cloth and regular wiping. In fact, even if you don’t own an iPad I recommend regular wiping.

The iPad does not ship with a stylus because Steve Jobs decided nobody needs one. If, like me, you plan to use the device as a sketchpad (a function evidently unimagined by Apple’s highly-paid fungineers) TenOne Design offers the PogoSketch stylus, a short hollow length of metal with a magnet and a nub of non-scratch fabric on the tip which cost $8 before the iPad came out and now costs $15. In contrast to professional art tablets from Wacom, the PogoSketch is an entirely passive device and thus not pressure-sensitive.

Gaming on the iPad is apparently intuitive and fun, as it shuts up my kids instantly.

Performance

It’s peppy. The iPad’s processor has enough mustard to keep up with me while I sketch, no matter how furiously I lay down the strokes.

Video playback (either on the iPad itself or fed out to a television) is flawless and smooth. The tiny speaker on the housing provides a surprisingly clean and loud output. Voice memos recorded with the built-in microphone are very good considering the lack of noise cancellation hardware.

3G reception is poor. While network access is reasonably keen when the cellular signal is strong, in areas with less robust coverage the iPad often drops the connection. Where an iPhone 3G, 3GS or 4 might show weak signal the iPad often sees no signal at all.

The camera leaves a lot to be desired.

Durability

The answer to the question, “How many times can I drop my iPad?” is, unfortunately, “Once.”

Unlike the venerable iPhone 3GS which can be kicked along the floor like a hockey puck without picking up more than a few scratches, the iPad has sufficient weight behind it that even a modest topple can be enough to shatter the glass digitizer. My iPad, for example, was unable to survive a drop from desk-level to a carpeted floor while in a protective case.

The price of replacement parts from Apple is scaled up in proportion to the purchase price of the iPad, so a 64GB 3G+WiFi model costs more to have its glass replaced than a 16GB WiFi-only model. The reason for this is because Apple recognizes a mark when it sees one.

Exact pricing varies by country, but Apple charges between $400 and $500 to service a device damaged by a drop, regardless of its warranty status or AppleCare Protection Plan coverage.

Yes, you read that right.

The iPad’s exterior is smooth and curved. It has no handle or grip. It is a mobile device, designed to be carried around, whipped out at second’s notice, and even passed around. In short, an iPad is an expensive accident waiting to happen. Extended insurance covering drops and spills is available from third party providers such as SquareTrade. Such coverage is highly recommended.

I didn’t have $500 so I decided to take my iPad to a couple of Indian guys working out of a narrow storefront downtown who told me on the telephone that they would replace my digitizer within one hour for $200. When I arrived they told me it would cost $300 and take maybe a week. Two weeks later I got my repaired iPad back complete with gouges from the prying tools all along the rim, and several inexplicable subscriptions to premium texting services riding on my cellular data bill. Om.

Ostensibly, having your iPad serviced by yourself or a third party instantly renders your Apple warranty null and void. Because Steve Jobs loves each and every one of us.

Transport

The iPad is so thin that it can pass through an airport imaging scanner without the user being obliged to demonstrate its use, as is often the case with laptops. That’s pretty much the high water mark of convenience offered by the device’s form-factor.

The iPad is too large to sit into any pocket and somewhat too small to get a snug station inside of a briefcase or knapsack. Satchels with pockets of very lucky dimensions may work for toting the device, but I found myself having to resort to buying a specifically iPad-sized very masculine leather-like purse.

I tested several options, knowing that the usefulness of the device would be limited if I couldn’t just whip a pad out of my purse without thinking. That’s the feeling of confidence, freedom and comfort I need.

If I were to redesign the iPad I would include a kickstand of some kind to make it easier to prop the thing up. Apple offers an overpriced case for this purpose which I received free as Apple’s way of apologizing over some other, unrelated slight; I am thankful I didn’t pay for it as it fairly sucked, offering a limp support at two fixed angles that sagged under the slightest touch. The exterior of the Apple sleeve has rough edges and a cheap finish. I wouldn’t recommend cloaking your beautiful device in this cheesy, clumsy sock.

Conclusion

The iPad is a nifty futuristic device that nobody really needs. I adore mine, and once even balanced it on my head while treading water during a rescue at sea in order to assure its survival and the preservation of my sketches.

It has replaced my laptop, but not my home computer or my telephone. I don’t miss Flash.

Enterprise integration will continue to be irritating until Microsoft releases an iPad version of its Office suite. The export functions of Apple’s own Pages word processor are impressively nearly functional for a $10 piece of software, but nearly functional doesn’t really work in business. Preserving text styling properly when moving between formats remains an elusive goal for Pages at the time of this writing.

Certainly, the iPad is the coolest mobile drawing and painting gadget on the market. The battery life is unrivaled. It is a format that really lets Apple’s brilliant implementation of multi-touch shine. The hardware is sleek, beautiful and well-built but inherently delicate due to the large exposure of glass. Any case that doesn’t significantly interfere with operating the device is unlikely to provide meaningful protection in the event of a mishap. Repairs are expensive.

It is an intoxicating and impressive toy.

________________
* For the purposes of this discussion the device used was a first-generation (iProd 1,1) iPad 3G+WiFi with 64GB of storage. Cellular data access in and around Toronto, Canada was provided along with billing errors and surly support staff by Rogers Communications.

** The apostrophe can also be completed with an “upward flick” micro-gesture over the virtual comma key, but can is an important word in that phrase.

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2 Comments

  1. Peg. says:

    I fly a lot, and the iPad still isn’t what I need. Why? Because I give presentations, often right off my laptop. I’ve heard of people setting up nifty ways of using Keynote and changing slides via the iPad communicating with the laptop, but that would mean hauling my laptop and my own projector. Also, my usual in-flight “entertainment” is work, which is sadly tethered to MS Office. Worse, given your review of the infinite dropability, my carpal tunnel system-ridden hands will likely lose track of the smooth surface that I can barely feel. Despite my general gadget lust, the iPad has no allure for me.

    It is a replacement for the Newton. My loud reaction to that line scared my seatmates waiting at gate A15.

  2. Peg,

    Indeed, the iPad remains seriously crippled until it gets a native version of Office, and, to be sure, a built-in picoprojector would be a serious enhancement. As it stands now Keynote’s interpretation of imported PowerPoint decks is somewhat unpredictable, and the iPad’s VGA-out requires carrying a set of adaptors.

    I had two uses in mind when I bought mine: 1) sketching; 2) writing.

    Writing turned out not be too viable. It can happen, but there are too many hoops to jump through, too many minor annoyances and incompatibilities.

    The iPad has the same blind spot for enterprise that all modern Apple products do, and I suspect this is because Steve Jobs doesn’t have a job. I mean, I know he works — he’s a CEO. But he doesn’t work the way most of us do, and he doesn’t interface with an office the way most of us do.

    Basically, I think Jobs doesn’t “get” enterprise because he’s a bit of a bum.

    Yours,
    CBB

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