Hands On with the Apple iPad
Our reviewer has some glowing first impressions, but don't try to mistake the new device as a replacement for your PC or Mac.
If you frequent the technology blogospheres, all you’ve likely heard for the last week or two is iPad, iPad, iPad. We managed to spend some time with Apple’s hot-selling new product in a store setting, so here’s our hands-on mini-review.
For as long as the iPad was rumored, its actual name was tossed about as well. While iPad was among the fray, so were the likes of iTablet, iGuide, and iTab. In hindsight, my favorite was iSlate, mainly because it conveys the essence of the industrial design.
From the back, it’s nothing more than a cool, but not cold, slab of aluminum. From the front, it’s a monolith of screen with just enough flush black bezel to help avoid inadvertent screen presses when holding by the edges.
A handful of other features of note are present, including the iPhone-style home button, dock connector, speaker openings, volume, and 3.5mm headphone port, but none grab attention away from the business-end that is the 9.7 inch 1024x768 screen. The screen can be cranked up as bright as you can comfortably view, but the middle setting was perfect for viewing in even the harsh lighting of a large electronics retailer (Best Buy, in this case).
The capacitive touch response will feel familiar to iPhone and iPod Touch owners, while the screen real estate allows for larger and broader swipes of the finger. Typing, however, is a completely different experience. With the increase in screen size, Apple has ditched the old-school typewriter feedback and replaced it with a more traditional color/contrast inversion. Use of the keyboard, with either one hand or two, is spacious and feels about as natural as a touchscreen can (without any haptic feedback, that is). Typing on the iPad is what I imagined when watching futuristic TV and Movies like the new Star Trek or Minority Report.
While hardly an expansive test, I did run through a handful of iPad-specific apps along with those originally developed for the iPhone and iPod touch. Basics like Safari, iPod, iTunes, and App Store are mostly unchanged from the iPhone and iPod Touch, but appropriately scaled for the new screen.
iPad-specific apps are obviously where this new device will shine. Either entertainment, productivity, or optimized web apps that make the most of the iPad’s screen size are extremely enjoyable. Being a very video-oriented person, I spent a good bit of time test-driving streaming apps like those available from Netflix and ABC. The iPad’s screen gives plenty of room to present well-engineered UIs (user interfaces) that make browsing large video libraries quite easy. Even over 802.11g WiFi, Netflix and ABC video streams quite quickly and free of dropouts. Video quality is excellent and I could easily see myself using the iPad extensively for this type of viewing when traveling (as opposed to tiny hotel CRT TVs and expensive pay-per-view).
Productivity apps like Apple’s own iWork suite feel at home on the iPad, but likely won’t be used extensively beyond casual edits or flipping through a few slides of a presentation. While typing on the iPad feels natural, it’s just not capable of touch typing necessary for bulk input. The upcoming keyboard and keyboard+dock accessories may increase the productivity viability of the iPad, but the lack of multitasking is a big hurdle to overcome.
iPhone-oriented apps are right at home on the iPad as well, but are notably limited by their native resolution. When running an iPhone app, like the Madden 2010 app I did some testing with, you’re given the choice of running at native resolution, or scaling by 2x to fill the screen. Scaling up to fit the screen means a big hit to fine detail and can bring out edge blocking, but the biggest disappointment is in menu interfaces.
While I can understand graphics simply being stretched to fit, menu structures using iPhone native interface attributes should scale much more cleanly. Instead, flick-through menus and toggles looks just as stretched and blocky as on-screen graphics and video.
What iPhone apps lack in scalability, they do make up for in abundance. While the whole “app for that” campaign feels a little played out at this point, it’s still true. If there’s a task you have in mind, you can probably find an app to help tackle it. If it’s not a native iPad app yet, you can still get the job done with the iPhone version.
Given the iPad’s form factor, it’s clear Apple will be gunning for e-readers like the Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook. Having spent time with all three, the iPad reading experience is a completely different one. While the Kindle and Nook do a great job of mimicking the feel of paper with their E-Ink displays, the iPad tries much less to emulate a book and instead embraces its back-lit color screen.
Instead of pretending to be paper, the iPad presents reading material much more like text on a computer screen. Text feels crisper because of the increased contrast of a backlit screen, and occasional illustrations are rendered in full-resolution color. While hardcore paper book readers and purists may not be impressed, I appreciate this approach. I grew up on a mix of comic books and sci-fi paperbacks, so I love the vivid display and can’t wait to see how digital comics translate.
While the iPad may be gunning for the Kindle, Amazon will likely sell plenty of books to iPad owners thanks to its updated Kindle app, which takes full advantage of the new device’s expanded capabilities. Thankfully Apple is open to alternative e-reader apps, unlike other apps that crossover with the device’s native functionality.
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While far from an in-depth review, my limited time with the iPad has given me an overall glowing impression of the device. That said, anyone considering making a purchase needs to keep expectations in check. This isn’t a PC (or a Mac) and it’s not going to replace one. Instead, it’s much more likely to do everything you thought your iPod Touch or iPhone might do, but a lot better. Casual web browsing, news, low-key gaming, and video are bound to be the iPad’s strong point. You’re not going to pound out a thesis or run multi-source pivot tables, and even with a keyboard add-on, this is still a casual device. While the iPad is a sliver of the size of most laptops, and only has a sliver of the power and total functionality, the piece that it takes on it does so with exceeding grace and usability.