The iPad arrives in Australia tomorrow at 8am, but does it live up to all the hype? Hell, yes!
Of course, it was hyped and ripped before it even had a name, and after it was announced, it was both praised and panned. Apple’s iPad has been the subject of debates about the future of technology and media, and massive speculation about whether people will really want to buy and use it.
Without a doubt, it’s remarkably easy to dump a heap of existential baggage on the iPad. It’s likely that its existence is a direct repudiation of the last 25 years of computer interfaces, an era kicked off by Apple itself. It’s a product in a category — tablet computers — that has been a flop despite nearly a decade of hype.
But before we get into the big, existential questions about the iPad and what it means for life on Earth, it’s probably a good idea to look at what the product actually is: a solid glass-and-metal slab of high technology.
Holding the slab
The iPad may be the most impressive piece of Apple hardware we have ever handled – and that would be a pretty incredible list of hardware.
It weighs a 680g — much heavier than an iPhone, but much lighter than a laptop. The front is almost entirely glass, save a thin aluminum frame at the edge. The back is a gently curved plate of anodized aluminum with a black Apple logo smack in the middle. But you probably know what it looks like by now, especially after Apple has plastered ads for it on every bus stop in town.
The iPad is designed to be held and carried, and indeed it feels like we could tote it wherever we go. It doesn’t feel like the delicate piece of technology to be coddled and cared for, despite its expansive glass screen. Of course, we’ve all seen that it would be a bad idea to blend it, hit it with a baseball bat, or turn it into a skateboard, but for day-to-day use, it feels nice and solid.
The iPad’s touchscreen is 9.7 inches measured diagonally, with a resolution of 1024-by-768 pixels. That’s the traditional 4:3 aspect ratio found on older TV sets, as opposed to the 16:9 ratio favoured by modern HDTVs. The screen resolution is 132 pixels per inch, less than the 163 pixels per inch found on the iPhone, but still nice and crisp.
The iPad’s glass front continues past the screen, creating a bezel three-quarters of an inch wide all the way around. While the bezel looks a bit odd at first, it’s a necessary design feature to place to put your thumbs when you’re holding the iPad, so you can keep a solid grip without interfering with the touchscreen.
We found the iPad’s screen to be extremely bright, with vibrant colour and a broad viewing angle. At certain angles you can also see an array of fingerprints — and boy, does this screen collect them. Fortunately, it’s got the same oil-repellant coating as the screen on the iPhone 3GS: one quick wipe with a sleeve and they’re history.
Now about the size of that screen. When the iPad was announced, one of the common criticisms of the product was that it’s just a bigger version of the iPod touch. That’s true so far as it goes, but we suspect a lot of the people who said it didn’t understand just how vital that increased screen real-estate really is: the iPad has five times as many pixels as the iPhone or iPod touch.
Sure, if the interfaces of iPad apps were just scaled-up versions of iPhone apps (like what you get if you run iPhone-only apps on the iPad), the iPad would be the technological equivalent of one of those oversized novelty checks presented to lottery winners. But what the additional pixels really allow is entirely new, richer, and more complex interactions. On the iPhone, an app like Mail is a series of single screens, with the user constantly burrowing down and then backing up like a confused gopher. (Tap on an account, then the Inbox, then a message, then tap the back button, tap another message, tap the back button three times, tap another account, tap Inbox…) The iPad changes that experience by displaying the body of messages in their own, capacious pane, while your mailboxes and lists of messages fight over a smaller pane or, in portait orientation, a pop-over element.
Beyond the more sophisticated user-interface possibilities, the iPad’s large screen opens the door for new gestures that simply wouldn’t work on a pocketable device. You can put lots of fingers (and, indeed, both hands) on the iPad, to type or to interact with on-screen objects.
This is one of those areas where the whole is more than the sum of its parts, and people who disparage the iPad as merely a hyper-thyroidal iPhone are failing to see the bigger picture.
Specs and speeds
With the iPhone and iPod touch, Apple has been reluctant to talk about processors and speeds, preferring to treat those products as magical black boxes. But we must forgive Apple for crowing a little bit about the processor that powers the iPad, because it was custom-designed by Apple itself. The new A4 processor, running at 1GHz, is a “system on a chip” — in other words, it was built to run the iPad, not chosen from a parts list and adapted to work for the iPad.
Geeky chip talk aside, the iPad flies. It was fast at almost everything we threw at it. The only times we found ourselves waiting were either for content to download over the network or for one of the iWork apps to convert a file into its native file format. Games played smoothly, with gorgeous graphics. There’s no lag when panning and zooming around large images. Any touch-based device stands or falls based on how quickly and smoothly the content on the screen can react to the movement of fingers on that screen. The iPad passes that test masterfully.
Apple hasn’t released details of the battery that’s powering the iPad, but whatever combination of battery and power efficiency is lurking behind that aluminium back, it’s impressive. Apple boasts a 10-hour battery life for the iPad, and we consistently get nine to eleven hours out of it. If you charge the iPad overnight, you can pretty much use it the whole day.
Typing on the iPad
The iPad’s software keyboard is more typeable than we would have ever thought possible. This is not to say that it’s a suitable equivalent for a hardware keyboard — it’s not, and Apple has as much as admitted it by offering a Keyboard Dock as an optional accessory. But with some focus and a little practice, it’s possible to type with both hands at a decent enough pace. The keyboard in landscape mode isn’t quite the size of a real keyboard, but it’s close, and once you’ve got both hands on the keyboard you can really start picking up speed.
The software keyboard makes good use of the shift keys, giving you quick access to two extra punctuation symbols. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough room to include the apostrophe or quotation mark on the first level of the keyboard, and those symbols and the numbers were the speed bumps in my otherwise passable typing sessions. (One great trick: if you press and swipe up on the “! ,” button, it will insert an apostrophe for you.) The keyboard’s not ideal for a lengthy document or long email, but it’s good enough for small bouts of typing. And the Bluetooth and iPad dock keyboards work well if you do need physical keyboards for extensive writing sessions.
Typing in a Pages document in landscape mode.
iPad as reading device
One of the most talked-about aspects of the iPad is its potential as a reading device, most specifically as a competitor to e-book readers such as Amazon’s Kindle. There’s also been quite a bit of conjecture about the iPad’s ability to singlehandedly save, transform, or otherwise alter the downward trajectory of the magazine and newspaper publishing industries. (That’s a lot of drama to pack into one little gadget!)
We’ve used Kindles at Australian Macworld, and frankly, they’re great for reading. They’re lightweight and the greyscale e-ink display is quite readable, albeit bland. The iPad is quite a bit heavier than the Kindle (think hardcover versus paperback, though that comparison isn’t quite right), and its backlit LED display couldn’t be more different. The Kindle fails in dark conditions, because it can’t light itself. And of course, the iPad presents everything in glorious colour.
What the Kindle has going for it is its simplicity as a uni-tasker. The Kindle does one thing well: allow you to read books. What the iPad offers over the Kindle is, quite simply, more. It’s not a uni-tasker. It reads books, but it also surfs the web. It runs apps. Competing merely as an e-book reader, it’s a tight race, but the iPad’s boundaries go far past where the Kindle was ever intended to go.
Speaking of apps, one of the iPad’s strengths is that it can display e-books from more than one source. Apple’s iBooks app is front and centre, of course, and it’s attractive and functional, though hardly the best iPhone OS book-reading app I’ve ever seen. iBooks will even display DRM-free ePub files you can make yourself or download from the internet. But Kindle for iPad is here too, giving iPad users access to Amazon’s entire e-book library (and allowing them to sync those books between the iPad and other devices, including Kindles and iPhones). Other readers will undoubtedly follow. That adds even more to the iPad’s flexibility.
Reading a book in iBooks (left) and Kindle for iPad (right).
The internet in your hands
Perhaps the most important app on the iPad is its web browser, Safari. This version of Safari, like many of the iPad’s apps, is a hybrid of its Mac and iPhone iterations. From the iPhone, Safari inherits the easy tap-to-zoom interface and resolution-independent type that makes even seriously zoomed-in pages readable. But the browser benefits greatly from the extra screen space, not just to display proper widescreen websites at readable sizes but also to add Mac-style interface niceties like a set of toolbar favourites.
There’s just something about surfing the web using Safari on the iPad. It feels different, somehow. Apple’s marketing pitch says “it’s like holding the internet in your hands,” and while that’s a little bit cheesy, it’s not far off. There’s just something different about holding that web page in your hands, rather than seeing it on a desktop or laptop PC, or on a tiny iPhone screen. Tapping on links doesn’t feel the same as clicking on them with a mouse. It’s a good feeling.
Now, no app on the iPad will let you view items created using Adobe’s Flash technology and embedded in web pages. Apple omitted Flash from the iPhone three years ago and hasn’t looked back. The popularity of the iPhone (and the wave of interest in the iPad) have succeeded in making Flash less of a must-have technology than it used to be. Many major websites are replacing Flash or offering a Flash-free version as an alternative. Still, if viewing Flash-based content on the Web is a major part of your life — we’re thinking specifically of all the Flash games out there for kids and Facebook users — the iPad is not going to satisfy you.
iPad as multimedia player
Like pretty much every product Apple makes these days, the iPad is a capable entertainment device. There’s an iPod app for music playback; a Videos app for movie, TV show, and video podcast playback; a self-explanatory YouTube app; and of course an iTunes app to purchase and download content right on your iPad.
The iPod app is a hybrid of the iPhone’s iPod app and the desktop version of iTunes. It’s got the familiar iTunes play controls at the top and a source list on the left, letting you select different playlists or mixes. A set of tab buttons at the bottom let you sort your music library in different ways. You can edit playlists and create new ones with custom names, both firsts for an iPhone OS-based device.
And yet we find the iPad’s iPod app a bit disappointing. When you play a track, the interface vanishes and is replaced by the track’s album art, which fills the screen. Quite frankly, we’re not that interested in album art. Why not just stay in the iPod interface? That way you can see what other tracks are coming next. (You can get back to that view by tapping on the album art, then tapping a back button.)
The iPod app shows giant album art by default (left), and has an iTunes-like interface (right).
Another missing feature that would make sense on the iPad is the ability to connect to iTunes shared libraries. Having access to shared music (and videos, for that matter) would seem a natural for a device like the iPad, but that feature’s not there. Wouldn’t the iPad make a wonderful, portable, self-contained version of the Apple TV? We think so, but none of those features are here. If it’s not loaded via iTunes, Apple’s apps won’t play it.
The Videos app is similarly functional yet a bit disappointing. Movies and TV shows are identified by their cover art; if a particular movie’s poster is obscure, you’ll have to tap on the image in order to discover what movie it is. Displaying text with a movie or show’s title would be nice, at least as an option. (So would a simple alphabetical list.) Once you’ve tapped into a movie or TV show, the information screen is attractive. TV series, in particular, offer a mountain of data: episode titles, air dates, ratings information, and lengthy synopses.
With most movies and TV shows these days shot in 16:9 (and more extreme) aspect ratios, the iPad’s 4:3 screen means most video content will display with large letterbox bars at top and bottom. Double-tapping on the image will zoom you all the way in, cutting off the sides of the image. It’s a nice compromise, yet it would be great to zoom to an interim step, cutting off some of the picture without filling the entire frame.
The general high quality of the iPad’s display means that movies and TV shows end up looking beautiful, and the iPad’s surprisingly loud and clear speaker means you can watch without headphones and still have a pretty good experience. (Unless you’re on an aeroplane — that would just be rude.)
iPad as a laptop alternative
During the run-up to the iPad’s debut in January, rumours abounded that it would be a device designed solely for the playback of media, be it video, text, or even games. Apple challenged that perception by announcing it had designed iPad versions of its three iWork Mac applications — Pages, Keynote, and Numbers. Throw in the ability to type on an external keyboard, and you got the distinct impression that Apple was trying to make the case that the iPad is a business tool and a true laptop alternative.
So can the iPad truly replace a laptop? It all depends on what you use your laptop for. The iPad isn’t going to replace a MacBook Pro anytime soon. But let’s face it: there are plenty of tasks that we currently use laptops for (checking e-mail and Twitter, surfing the web, looking up some actor on IMDB) that don’t really tap the power of a laptop. These are the tasks the iPad is perfectly suited for. If you’ve considered buying a cheap laptop to keep around the family room in order to access the internet, the iPad would fit the bill perfectly.
The iPad excels at tasks where you can lean back and read, watch, or listen. When you need to lean forward, things got a little more complicated. The iWork applications are a little rough around the edges, but they’re truly groundbreaking. It’s amazing how much functionality has been crammed into each of those three apps. The three iWork apps seem good for light editing and displaying files, but using them to create important business documents from scratch seems much more daunting.
In the hand, on the lap
One of the biggest challenges to using the iPad is simple logistics: where do you put it, and can you see and touch the screen comfortably from there? The laptop has two separate planes, one of which sits on your lap (or a desk) and the other one faces toward you. The iPad has only the one plane, which makes things trickier. In some positions on a couch or in bed, the iPad can feel uncomfortable.
For many people, an iPad case will be a must — not so much to protect the device, but to help you prop it up at the right angle so that you can use it comfortably. Reading with the iPad also seems to me to be more of a two-handed activity. Without a case, the iPad is heavy enough and slippery enough that it can be difficult to hold in one hand. With Apple’s case, it’s a lot easier to hold.
The onboard apps
We’ve already mentioned that Safari is, in many ways, the centrepiece app on the iPad — if a device connected to an App Store with thousands of apps can be considered to have a “main app.” But the iPad’s other built-in apps aren’t too shabby, either. They all take advantage of the iPad’s screen size in clever and sometimes subtle ways, and will serve as templates for iPad app developers everywhere: these apps are Apple’s examples of what iPad software should be.
Mail is a fusion of the iPhone Mail program and the version of Mail on the Mac. It’s pretty and functional, though there’s no unified Inbox and there’s still a bit too much sliding around between mailboxes for my tastes, a way in which the app hews a bit too closely to its iPhone cousin. (A popover window that lets you choose from your available mailboxes on all accounts would be nice, for example.)
Calendar has a nice embossed background reminiscent of a physical day-planner, but beyond that it’s very much like Apple’s iCal application for Mac OS X. Though the iPad version may be better than iCal: it feels more responsive, looks better, and provides more flexible views.
Contacts is a basic address book (also with a pretty frame reminiscent of a physical address book).
Notes is an overgrown version of the Notes app for the iPhone, complete with its insistence on lined yellow paper and the annoying Marker Felt typeface. Thank goodness the App Store already has plenty of alternatives.
The iPad’s Maps app will be familiar to anyone who’s used Maps on the iPhone, but it offers a number of nice improvements. The sheer size of the iPad screen makes Maps that much more attractive. There’s a new Terrain view that puts your surroundings in graphic relief. And a new blue overlay bar lets you navigate driving directions without getting in your way.
Some people will probably not use the Photos app on the iPad. After all, the device has no camera. But other people will probably come to love Photos most of all. It’s a beautifully designed app, with photo galleries displayed in stacks of images that you can pinch open and closed with two fingers. The iPad makes a fantastic photo album (and digital photo frame), thanks again to that big screen. If you sync the iPad with iPhoto, Photos will also let you browse via iPhoto’s Events, Faces and Places views.
There are also some iPhone apps that have no iPad equivalents — they’re just not on this device. Weather, Stocks, Clock, Calculator, Voice Memos, and Compass have all been omitted. But fear not: there are free replacements for most of them on the App Store, and they’re generally better than their Apple equivalents. Maybe it’s better if Apple just gets out of the way on this one and lets its developers lead the charge.
When you download all these apps from the App Store, they appear on the iPad’s home screen, which has been slightly updated from the home screen on the iPhone and iPod touch. You can now set a wallpaper image behind the home screen, for that extra personalised touch. (This image is separate from the one that displays on the iPad’s lock screen.) And the dock at the bottom of the screen can hold up to six apps, rather than the iPhone’s four.
With all that room on the screen, the iPad is crying out for the ability to drop small widget-like apps onto the home screen. Who needs a full-fledged, full-screen Weather app when a small Weather widget with the current temperature and forecast could live on one of the iPad’s home screens?
The iPad might come with 13 default home-screen icons, but there are already thousands of iPad-enabled apps available to expand on its functionality, with more coming seemingly every minute. Some of those apps are, by themselves, going to make the iPad a must-buy for certain audiences, and an avalanche of games will exploit the iPad’s speedy custom-built A4 processor and graphics systems.
It might seem obvious, but it’s worth saying anyway: the existence of the App Store and a thriving community of iPhone OS app developers exponentially increases the functionality of this device. As a device with 13 default apps, plus iWork and iBooks, it’s nice and all. As the target of thousands of intelligent, creative software developers who already have two years of iPhone OS development under their belts? The sky’s the limit.
In the next few months, the iPad platform will continue to evolve, as developers and users start to understand just how the iPad works and where it fits into users’ lives.
What about 3G?
Wi-Fi may be plentiful these days, but it’s far from ubiquitous. A device like the iPad is just begging for always-on internet access, whether it be for checking mail, surfing the web, or even using most of your apps. Apple’s iPad Wi-Fi + 3G delivers on that promise, though the 3G experience may occasionally have you searching about for a Wi-Fi access point.
Outwardly, the 3G-enabled iPad is almost identical to the Wi-Fi model, and the two share almost all of the same features, with the exception of those related to 3G networking and GPS.
Given that the iPad also boasts the latest 802.11n Wi-Fi specification, there’s no contest between the two: Wi-Fi will beat 3G every single time. Of course, such performance varies widely depending on the quality of the network in your location. If you live, work, or otherwise spend a lot of time in a place with solid 3G coverage, you should find the iPad’s 3G performance to be perfectly serviceable for most common tasks, like reading e-mail, surfing the web, checking RSS feeds, and keeping up with social-networking sites like Facebook or Twitter.
But when you start to get into more intensive tasks, the cracks in the 3G networks begin to show. While we were able to stream video, audio, view maps, and so on over a 3G connection, the performance was sometimes subpar. The quality of the video delivered over the 3G network is also noticeably lower than what you get via Wi-Fi. Most perplexingly, we found that YouTube videos streamed over 3G were practically unwatchable, due to their low quality — you appear to get the same videos that the iPhone gets over the 3G connection, which look terribly pixelated on the iPad’s higher resolution screen.
YouTube streamed over a 3G connection (above) is substantially lower quality than the same clip over Wi-Fi (below).
In general, pretty much any bandwidth-intensive task from video streaming to rendering graphics-heavy web pages takes longer to complete via the 3G connection, but when you’re out and about with nothing to compare it to, it’s not much of a bother.
The 3G data plans are pretty good for Australians. Most major telcos are supporting the device with a vast range of plans — you can find out all the details here.
If you want to keep an eye on how much bandwidth you’re chewing up, there are two options (though these may vary for different networks): one is to use the meters under Settings -> General -> Usage, which tell you how much data has been sent and received over the cellular data connection. This information is tracked by the iPad’s operating system itself, so it should always be up to date. You can also view your bandwidth usage under your account in Settings -> Cellular Data, but that can sometimes take time to update.
3G and battery life
The addition of cellular capability to the iPad raises another question: how does the device’s battery life hold up? The 3G connection does impact the bottom line for power, though not as badly as you might fear. While relying on the cell phone connection, its normal to see the battery power dip much lower than it does while using the Wi-Fi model, but not so much so that you’ll struggle to get a full day’s use out of it.
But remember that the addition of 3G support and GPS means that the iPad carries four separate radio chips that can all be active simultaneously: the cellular connection, Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth. Having all four of these on at once can definitely put a dent in your battery. In fact, a solid day’s worth of mixed usage — from about 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. — dropped the iPad as low as 40 percent of battery life. Though that’s still still pretty impressive in our books.
You have the ability to deactivate the cell connection under Settings-> Cellular Data and rely only on Wi-Fi. And that’s a welcome option, especially if you spend a lot of time in a location where the iPad struggles to get a solid signal. I’ve taken to leaving the cellular data connection off unless I’m specifically out of Wi-Fi range, at which point the battery life ought to more or less be equivalent to a Wi-Fi-only iPad.
Australian Macworld’s buying advice
The iPad is a wholly new product, though it will be familiar to anyone who has used an iPhone or iPod touch over the past couple of years. It is simultaneously a futuristic gadget the likes of which we’ve never seen before and a version-one device that will soon be viewed with the same nostalgia-tinged contempt we have for the original iPod and iPhone.
Is the iPad a good product? The answer is undeniably, enthusiastically yes. It’s a fantastic piece of hardware, inside and out, but more than that, it’s the apotheosis of Apple’s design philosophy, synthesising cutting-edge hardware design with innovative system and application software into a single, unified product. Holding the iPad feels like you’re holding the future, and not in a hazy dream-like way, but in a I can’t believe I’m actually here kind of way.
Should you buy one? As always, that depends on what you want to do with it. If you’re just in love with the latest whizzy cutting-edge gadget, you will find no gadget that is cutting-edgier or whizzier. If you want an internet-connected device that fits in that space between smartphone and PC — for your living room or on the bedside table — you’ll find the iPad a joy to use.
One day, devices like the iPad may very well change the way we view computers and technology. But right now, I don’t believe the iPad is going to make anyone stop using their main Mac or PC. If you were in the market for an e-book reader or a supplemental laptop, though, I’d give those plans a serious re-think.
The 3G iPad is every bit as good a device as the Wi-Fi-only model, and it’s only more capable than its fellow model. There are no significant tradeoffs with the 3G version, as long as you’re willing to pay more in exchange for more capability. But 3G connectivity gives this version of the iPad a measure of flexibility missing from the Wi-Fi-only version.
iPad Wi-Fi + 3G
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