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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The iPad Review

I'm not entirely sure the world needs another iPad review, but since everybody who knows I have one apparently cares about my opinion, here it is.

Short Version

It's a fun device that very few people need but many will want. It has a few annoying quirks, some of which should be fixed in the next version, and it will not do everything a laptop does, but it does some things way better than any other device on the market today.


Given how intense the hype is, it's worth stating the fact that, as a piece of hardware, the iPad is almost entirely unremarkable. Yes it's a beautiful thing, and the screen is possibly the best-looking non-OLED display on the market, but all that is also true of the iPod touch. Because that's all the iPad is: a 10-inch iPod touch. Technically it would have made more sense to call it iPodXL, and a less marketing-savvy company would have done exactly that. Apple, however, knows marketing even better than it knows single-digit market share. So it named its new gadget "iPad" and introduced it as a completely different device: not an iPod, not a laptop, not a NetBook, but a solid slab of magic that will change your life, how people consume media, and the entire computing industry. As if a new name cold possibly turn an old horse into a young racing stallion.

Funny thing: apparently, it can. For the moment, it seems Apple has convinced just about everyone that its new iPodXL is a "game changer" and a "whole new category of mobile device" and "the future of computing", and every developer on earth is trampling his own mother to make it as one of the big fishes in a pond that didn't even exist until last week. This seems insane: people are investing enormous amounts of effort to "make it" in a platform that might itself be a total failure. Well, yes, it is insane, but it is happening, and judging from the apps that are available on day one, it is bound to make the device a success. Apple might have achieved a first in the entire industry: solving the chicken-and-egg problem before the device even came out.

So what can you do with a big iPod? When the iPad was announced, the first use I thought of was as a stylish way to present my portfolio. It is indeed absolutely awesome for that purpose. Photos look crisp and shiny, with great colors and shadow detail. They look better than on any magazine, any fine art paper, any iPhone or laptop or PSP, or in fact anything but a HDR reference monitor, and those aren't cheap nor pocketable. Downside is that the screen is also super-shiny, enough to be used as a mirror when it's turned off, and to make reflections distracting in some (reasonably rare) lighting conditions.

The touchscreen is also super responsive, even better than an iPhone 3GS. Battery life is excellent as reported elsewhere. All in all it's a big next-generation iPod, upgraded in just about every way.

I don't like the on-screen keyboard in portrait mode, but in landscape it is quite good. I took a typing test and scored 46 words per minute, which isn't too bad, but I can type twice as fast on a physical keyboard. Hopefully I'll get better at it with time, but I think there will always be a gap. The tactile feedback of a touch screen keyboard simply isn't as good as that of physical keys.


The most important thing about any hardware platform, however, is the apps it runs. Nobody buys Windows 7 for Windows Mail. They want to run Office, or SoftImage, or XMLSpy. Gamers bought Playstations because they were the only platform to run Final Fantasy 7 and Metal Gear Solid. People buy Mac OS X for iLife and Motion and Aperture. What do apps look like on a big iPod?

I started this review saying the iPad was the ideal digital portfolio. It's true. If you're a photographer whose business depends on convincing people on the spot that you know what you're doing, you need an iPad – or one of the alternatives that, sadly, you can't buy yet. For the rest of the world, the big thing appears to be news.

The NYT Editor's Choice app is awesome. Not just slightly better than the web version, but miles better, even better than the dead trees edition. It combines the tactile pleasure of actually holding a newspaper with the vibrancy of photos on a backlit screen and adds the appeal of video content. It makes the Daily Prophet seem bland and unappealing. Many apps in that vein are also great: AP news, Reuters, BBC News, The Guardian's Eyewitness…

Games are probably a big deal. I don't play casual games much, but the ones I tried were nice. Scrabble is just perfect. So is Air Hockey. Simple, entertaining, fun. Fieldrunners and Plants vs Zombies are excellent ports from the iPod and gain quite a bit from the larger screen. I've also tried Red Alert, and I'm with gizmodo: if I don't see Starcraft for iPad soon, I'm going to bomb Blizzard HQ.

Google maps seems as much of a killer app as it was on the iPhone. There it was a nifty trick, a somewhat convenient way of finding the nearest Starbucks. The larger screen real estate, plus the higher specs and probably quite a bit of optimization work – the iPad version is so fast it feels like SeaDragon – makes you wonder why anyone would ever use a paper map again. It also appears to cache up more data than the iPhone version. While away from WiFi I was pleased to notice that I still had access to most of southern Manhattan.

Mail, iCal, Netnewswire, Twitteriffic all work well and are a significant step up from the iPhone versions. While I almost never read long passages on the iPhone, reading on the iPad is even better than on a desktop PC, so I find myself staying inside the apps a lot more.

I haven't tested iWork much, but I've read about the horrible syncing experience. Obviously Apple needs to do something about this, although it won't be trivial. The main reason iPhone OS is so easy to use is that it completely hides the hierarchical file system – a complex data type that only computer scientists and software developers really ever understood. Users don't forget to save their work because apps don't even bother with "saving" when they can simply bring you back where you were when you relaunch them. Users don't forget where they put their documents because they only have a single place to put them in – the app's "library". It's going to be tough to reconcile this no-filesystem model with multi-app multi-device syncing. However, it's clear that Apple's current model is an awful ugly evil kludge and that it needs to be replaced before people actually start syncing. Personally, I have a lot of experience with hierarchical file systems, so I wholeheartedly vote for a Documents folder on the device and Dropbox support, so that my iPad can automagically access the shared folders all my computers work on. Sadly, something tells me I'm not gonna win this one.

OmniGraffle is a gem. As long as there isn't too much text, diagramming is easier with multi-touch than on a traditional computer. I hope OmniFocus comes out soon, because I use it all the time and running iPhone apps on the iPad is completely unsatisfying. Drawing apps like SketchBook and Adobe Ideas in general are a real joy, even for someone like me, who can't draw a sheep to save his life. I can't wait for some version of Aperture to come along.

Many reviewers see this as only a content-consumption device. At the moment I would almost agree – all the "creative" apps are flawed or incomplete – but I think that's mostly because designing an interface for something like a twitter client is much easier than for a Photoshop clone, and most developers still don't have access to the physical device, nor any experience designing apps for anything remotely similar to it. I'm pretty sure in the medium term we'll see great creative apps appear on the iPad.

Oh, and of course the big iPod happen to be a really good iPod. I watched the Daily Show while eating on the plane back. In comparison, the inflight entertainment system looked like something out of the 1950's.

Little Gripes

While it's a very good device overall, a few annoyances really scream "Version 1". There's the aforementioned file syncing. There's the lousy iBooks application, full of useless kitschy fake-wooden-bookshelves and gratuitous, time-consuming animations. The Kindle app is way better. There's the useless requirement that you sync the iPad with iTunes before ever using it.

The stupid dock is especially infuriating. It doesn't fit the iPad unless you remove the cover, which is difficult because of the really snug fit. Since the cover is so good that I never use the iPad without it, this makes the dock utterly useless. Even taking that aside, the Dock only has one 30-pin connector, so you have to choose between the AC adapter and the USB cable for iTunes sync. Since on USB the iPad only charges very slowly (on a MacBookPro) or not at all (everywhere else I tried), and it can't sync wirelessly, you can't simply dump the iPad on the dock and forget about it until the next morning, like you'd do with any other iPod. You have to wait for the sync to finish and then switch cables.

None of these are deal-breakers, but they could be solved with only a little thought, for example by using a special cord on the AC adapter with a USB plug at the end for syncing while you recharge. It is aggravating that the device was allowed to reach the market with such obvious quirks, especially for a product whose only selling point is superlative user experience.

But… it's a closed platform!

Isn't the iPad a closed platform? Isn't buying it condoning proprietary software and locked down hardware even though open alternatives exist? Isn't Apple an evil corporation bent on taking over the world?

YES! Of course it is. Apple wants its revenge from the battle it lost in the 90's, it wants to become the Microsoft of mobile computing and the Google of mobile advertising. It will do anything it can, within the confines of the law and what its users will tolerate, to dominate the markets in which it participates. There is nothing unusual or surprising about this: corporations usually grow or die, especially in highly competitive fields. The only unusual thing about Apple's Plan for World Domination is how surprisingly successful it's been over the last few years.

So Apple is locking out Adobe, patent-trolling Android, and screwing developers who use compatibility frameworks. Big deal. Google's "Don't be evil" statement is nothing more than a saying, and Adobe's revenue model isn't built on open standards. I don't always like Apple's policies, but I really can't get too worked up about them either.

As long as developers continue to work on the platform (and with nearly 200,000 applications on the iTunes Store that certainly seems to be the case) this closed approach has almost no downside for the end user. (Apple's claim that it has significant upside is debatable.) The iPad, anyway, isn't any more closed than a PSP or a Nintendo DS, and nobody's complaining about them.

Is this the future of computing?

Many fans say that, and I always wonder what they actually mean by "this".

All the world's computers are not going to be replaced by iPads overnight. If anything, you'd then lack a copy of iTunes to initialize the next iPad sold. So if "this" is the future of computing, "this" can't possibly be "this particular device as it is now."

Clearly multitouch interfaces will play a big role in the future. When Aperture came out, I thought the Light Table feature would be really great if only it didn't suck so bad – and indeed, like most Aperture users, I've barely ever created a Light Table album. The problem is that it's a great photo organizing concept that sadly doesn't work at all with a keyboard and mouse interface. When full-sized Macs get multitouch screens it'll likely become a lot more popular.

If "this" means intermediate devices between smartphones and full-fledged computers, then, well, yeah, I think such devices will become more popular in the future, but they've always been used to some extent – PocketPCs, Palm Pilots, Psions EPOC devices, and lately Netbooks have their shares of fans. Many things in the iPad remind me of the Psion Series 5, one of the best designs ever in my opinion. This thirteen-year old device had an app-centric UI, a well-hidden filesystem, did mostly without Load/Saves and allowed working for 15h on text documents away from AC power. Nearly ten years ago I did all my note-taking in college on a 5mx, the only device at that time, and for a good long while afterwards, with the combination of ergonomy and battery life to make this possible. Now I would likely use an iPad. I am sure many people will.

Should I buy an iPad?

I don't care. Luckily, there are a couple flowcharts online to help you.

Seriously though, it's a tough question, because unlike with the iPod or the iPhone, there is no clear narrative of what this thing is actually for. It's not a laptop replacement, or at least, it can't replace my laptop, although this guy seems happy. It's kind of a kindle replacement, although a kindle might be better if you do most of your reading in bright sunlight or away from AC power for days on end. Some people will buy it as a gaming machine. Others as a news reader. Others as a digital portfolio.

It really is a blank canvas, which is its main strength. It's entirely plausible that popular apps six months from now will be unlike anything we've ever seen. Right now, the iPad is not perfect, and nobody really needs it. Many will like it, though, and in the near future innovative applications will undoubtedly come out for it and similar devices. For computing, these are very interesting times indeed.

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