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iPad Review 750

This weekend saw the delivery of iPads into hundreds of thousands of filthy hands. I managed to get my hands on a 32GB unit and put it through its paces for a battery charge and a half, and wanted to take a few minutes to share some notes with you. But if you don't care to read the whole review, let me give you a hint: I am typing this review on my laptop.

The packaging is minimal and sleek. Almost nothing comes inside the box: just a cable, power cube and some minuscule documentation that nobody will read. The iPad itself arrived fully charged. It is usable out of the box without any syncing, but I chose almost immediately to pair it with my laptop just to get all my apps and data on it. This syncing process took forever. It's kind of amazing how long it takes to sync 20 or so gigs of movies and mp3s. This isn't unique to the iPad of course, but I never really noticed it on the phone since I don't sync video there.

The UI and functionality is pretty much as expected: It's a big iPhone. There are some minor differences (like being able to drag different numbers of items to the sticky footer menu). The new calendar application is nice. But the star is the mail client. Reading mail on my iPhone has been the "Last Resort," but the speed and clean layout and usability of the iPad mail app makes me prefer it to my desktop. I need a faster way to mark spam, but that's not necessarily the end of the world. Writing mail on the iPad is a different story. More on that below.

The new photo app is decent, but if you have a large number of albums and events it gets tough to find specific stuff quickly. I can't figure out why the iPhone and now the iPad don't make use of folders. Their mac equivalents both let you create nicely nested hierarchies of albums or playlists, but those both get lost on their little cousins where screen real estate is even MORE important. The video app seems to do strange things with thumbnails: it seemed to want to give videos the same thumbnail icon if they share an "Album." This means navigating my home movies category is lame because all 15 or so videos have the same thumbnail. It shouldn't be that way.

My iPad has no 3G, therefore it has no GPS. But applications were constantly asking me for permission to use my location. This seems like an oversight: if you don't have a location sensor, don't ask! Even the built-in Map app asked me for information that it could not possibly have.

Finally, time to test Safari: I tested out Slashdot first, and it renders pretty well. There are a couple of minor layout glitches and a few trickier functionality problems. The problems are mostly the same as the iPhone, but having the larger screen makes it a lot more obvious. I'll probably get some tickets into the system this week to clean up these bugs.

When I started browsing the net at large I noticed a few interesting problems: The first is that a lot of websites are serving iPhone pages to the iPad. So you get a number of ridiculously minimalistic pages on the big bright screen. It's laughably annoying to see these teeny tiny menus. Most sites seem fine, but I was surprised at the number of mainstream sites that thought I needed this. The lack of Flash is MUCH more noticeable than I thought it would be. The good news is that YouTube seems to embed cleanly and in-place, so a lot of video oriented websites still work fine. But the lack of Flash hurts. Apple has made their position known on the subject, so I'm not expecting anything to change. The lack of a real scroll bar make sites that make use of frames for navigation not really work properly. At the end of the day, I was surprised at the number of sites that actually had SOME problem with them. Most worked fine, but when something fails, I noticed more than I do on the iPhone. I think this is simply a user expectation thing: on my phone I expect things NOT to work and am happy when they do. On the iPad I expect things to work as well as they do in Safari in my desktop, and am irritated when they don't.

I tried out a good number of apps. The NetFlix app is really nice, but it doesn't let me rate selections using their little star system. Since I'm OCD about that, this bugs me. Epicurious is a fantastically elegant little recipe system that really shines on the system. ABCs app works but meh. The Weather Channel has a nice little app, and several of my old favorites have ports that make at least some use of the big screen. I suspect it'll be a few months before we really see what the unit has to offer since many of the most popular apps haven't been ported yet. I'm thinking Facebook and even the Apple Remote are very overdue. But hey, the old versions work, they just look like crap.

Let me talk about User Accounts. An iPhone doesn't have them, which is fine because one phone sits in one person's pocket. But your laptop is passed around, and the user account system on a Mac is necessary in any place where you want multiple people sharing a computer with any regularity. The iPad needs it: since this machine wants to be seen in a public place and be handed around, my wife shouldn't have to keep logging out of Gmail and Facebook. And I shouldn't have to leave my iPad on the coffee table signed into my mail. And I shouldn't have to sign out every time I put it down, leaving a brick on the table unusable by guests.

Finally let me talk about the device itself. It's heavy. I mean, surprisingly heavy. The specs say that it is 1.5lbs, which sounded very light on paper. For the first few minutes, I liked the heft; I felt that I was holding a solid, well-crafted item in my hands. But then I started trying to figuring out ways to type. I wrote a number of emails of moderate length and slowly realized that I just don't like typing on this thing. It's fine for URLs and names and passwords and a sentence here and there. But to actually sit down and write a thousand-word review well, there's just no way. I tried many different angles, but in order to hold it in your lap and type, you sorta need to prop it against your belly. Holding it up one handed made my arm kinda tired fairly quickly: unless I'm willing to squish my thumb against the center of the screen. When I do this, the center of gravity shifts and it's much more comfortable to hold, but there's a giant thumb blocking my screen, making it impossible to type. You can cradle it in your arm and type one-handed. That seems like the only way to use it while standing. But I just don't see myself writing anything lengthy. After a day of heavy usage, I felt a little sore. The size and shape is nearly perfect. But all that screen and battery sure feels heavy when it's spread out like this.

But I'll tell you what I like: Having a casual PC at arm's length for a quick lookup of something. Working within the screen size of the iPhone often makes simple internet tasks unwieldy, but provided whatever you need doesn't use Flash, this is a great little web browser. Fast and pretty.

Since the announcement of the iPad, I've wondered what its role could be. My first big question was whether it be a complete replacement PC for "Grandma." Like many of you, I'm occasionally called upon to do little tech support tasks on PCs that do very little, and I was hoping that this might be the solution. After just one day I know this is not going to work for them. The difficulty of using the keyboard. The missing Flash. And the lack of video camera for chatting with the grandkids make this device simply not ready for them.

My other big question is how much of a replacement PC it could be for a power user. Now I can work around Flash and rarely need a camera, but what is clear to me is that a huge percentage of my screen time is spent staring at iChat. While I don't usually need a camera or microphone, my iChat is connected to 4 different networks, and I simply can't do my job without the steady stream of co-worker notes and bot notifications that I rely on. I've yet to find an app that lives in the background and is capable of connecting to the 4 distinct networks that I use. (AIM, SSL'd Jabber and Non-SSL'd Jabber)

I'm not expecting a WoW client or anything, but Chat? Seriously, Apple: You're on iPhone 3.something-or-other and you can't give us a chat client? I can only hope that the end of the exclusive AT&T era means that Apple will no longer be tied to some secret back room deal that forced iPhones to try to shove users to the crap SMS network to pad a telco profit margin despite the fact that our devices are living on a Wi-Fi network.

So, what does Apple need to fix?

  • Lose several ounces. PLEASE.
  • Video Camera
  • iChat
  • User switching (or at least an Anonymous mode)

I used it for a day and a half and think that it will be an excellent couch companion PC. I'm also certain that on planes, long car rides, and vacations it will be a great little machine. The battery life is pretty dang amazing. But this is a 1.0 piece of hardware running 3.0 software. The size/shape is great. The speed is wonderful. And 2 years of Moore's law might make this a device to be reckoned with if Apple sells enough of them to continue heavy development on the software and hardware. This version isn't a replacement PC for anyone yet, but future versions might be. You probably want to save your cash until then.

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iPad Review

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