Back when Apple’s iPad was first released in the United States I wrote a brief review of the device for The Georgia Straight‘s Tech Blog. However playing with something for a weekend, and actually using one as a part of your life are two different things. How does the iPad hold up beyond the few days of testing that most reviewers get, if they’re lucky, before writing their articles? How does the iPad fit into my life, when I’ve already got an iPhone and a Macbook? Is the battery still as amazing as it seemed those first few days?
What is the iPad?
The question of what an iPad is, and where it fits into people’s lives is going to really determine how people take to it. Yes, the iPad is quiet clearly a computer, and for many people it might be all the computer they need. Email, web browsing, photos, video and music are all as good on the iPad as they are on any computer that I’ve used. I can think of several people who I know who could use the iPad as their only computer, and not have to sacrifice anything they are doing now, while gaining portability, ease-of-use and affordability.
The problem is the iPad remains, somewhat inexplicably, tied to a computer. Like an iPhone or an iPod touch the iPad requires an initial connection with iTunes to activate it, and if you’re using it for music and video you’ll be needing to use iTunes to manage your media. The message from Apple is clear, the iPad is not quite a standalone computer yet. Much of the pre-release backlash from some quarters of the technology seemed to misunderstand that, and the arguments against the iPad often were more based in ontological views of what a computer should be, rather than what the iPad was.
With the exception of people for whom email, the web and media are all they need a computer for, the iPad is essentially an extension of a computer. It’s the computer you take when taking a computer is a pain in the ass, it fits in between the iPhone and a laptop and it feels good there. I could not live with the iPad as my only computer, but then again neither could I stand having only a cheap netbook as my only computer.
What do I use it for?
There are clearly going to be people with no use for an iPad, and no interest in getting one. It’s clearly a device that not everyone needs and everyone is going to have to figure out where it fits into their lives on their own. I’m a tech writer, not a guidance councilor, so all I can really do is offer you my own experience of using the iPad.
As a freelance writer who also writes for a few blogs, runs my own blog and works a nine-to-five job that I drive to everyday, I was lugging my laptop everywhere. A 13″ Macbook might not seem heavy when you lift it up to feel it in the Apple Store, but day after day it begins to feel quite heavy. Mostly when out I would read things (email, web pages, RSS feeds) on my iPhone and write anything beyond a quick three sentence email on my Macbook. I was also carrying around a Kindle for recreational reading, which added to my bag’s heft. On trips I would bring all of this, along with the needed clothing and toiletries.
The iPad quickly became the device I default to for reading anything. Comic books, novels, web pages, RSS, emails and documents all work better for me on the iPad than in any other form. Rather than carrying around a few trades of The Walking Dead, I bought them for the iPad and read them there. The Kindle App has allowed me to keep my Kindle library, even after I sold my Kindle. I might browse for things to read online on my iPhone or Macbook, but with Instapaper I save them for reading on my iPad. In almost every circumstance reading is better on the iPad than on a traditional computer or an iPhone sized handset. I can sit anywhere, not worrying as much about the weight of the device as I would a laptop and not having to watch the battery status to see when I’ll need to unpack a charger. It’s a full screen experience, unlike my phone.
It’s also my preferred device for light to medium level writing projects. The onscreen keyboard is great for things like quick emails, or two or three paragraph blog posts. Anything longer and I pull out my Bluetooth keyboard, but for the brief stuff the onscreen keyboard works well. For an article I’m working on for The Georgia Straight I used Apple’s Pages application to transcribe a series of interviews I had collected. Again I used my Bluetooth keyboard, but experience was just as good as typing on my Macbook and since it is highly portable I was able to work on it in several locations and finished sooner than I would have had I had to wait until I got to my desk where I could sit and type.
Travelling, the iPad allows me to do everything I have always used my laptop for while being lighter and easier to handle.
The bottom line is that while I won’t be using the iPad as my only computer anytime soon, I could see myself opting to buy an iMac for my next computer and not worrying about the need to pack a laptop around. It’s not a computer replacement, but it might be a laptop replacement for me.
So now you know how I use it. So what makes it so good?
In my first review I noted the battery life of the device as being exceptional and it remains so. (Note I have only used the Wi-Fi version of the iPad, 3G network access will affect battery life). Reading or watching videos on the iPad barely seems to drain the battery. Web surfing is no problem. Where the battery does suffer is when using Bluetooth accessories. The life is still exceptional when compared to a laptop, but heavy work using my Bluetooth keyboard will drain my iPad down in about five or six hours whereas with Bluetooth off it will last at least ten under almost any circumstances. When asleep the battery barely drains at all, and I can wake up with it only having lost a few percentage points of power in eight hours.
While not technically high definition, the screen is beautiful for all practical uses. Videos look clear and sharp, and documents are easy to read. The touch screen is responsive, seemingly even more so than the iPhone’s. Browsing the internet on the iPad remains a joy. There’s a whole intermediary level of interaction that is dispensed with, and it truly feels like I’m touching the web pages. It feels good to flip through a webpage, as cool as it looked to see Tom Cruise manipulate data this way in Minority Report it actually feels like this is how it should have always been. No mouse. No keyboard. Just reach out and touch what you want to control.
The iPad also seems quick. It’s far less powerful than almost any computer you’re going to own, but the stripped down operating system makes everything seem so much faster. Rather than wait for an email client to load the iPad’s mail app just launches and I’m typing a new letter almost instantly. Most application launch in seconds, and it’s that quick launch that makes it feel so much more responsive than a traditional computer.
This isn’t the place to find ontological issues with the iPad. If you don’t like it on principal because it doesn’t match your idea of what a computer needs to be, then so be it but that’s not what I’m interested in. If you don’t like how Apple treats its developers, then that’s another issue from whether or not the iPad is a good device. Also there is a set of well publicized things that the iPad does not have that I’m not interested in rehashing. If you absolutely need to have access to Flash on the internet then don’t get the iPad, it does not have Flash. It will most likely never have Flash. Some freezers do not have a built-in ice maker, and some do. Whether or not a freezer without a built-in ice maker is going to be right for you will depend on how much you value automatically frozen water versus the other things the freezer offers.
There are things, however, that the iPad does do or should do but does not do right. Those are the things that I’m interested in, and that I’ll look at here.
My biggest disappointment with the iPad is in applications. There are some very good applications, but with the exception of about a dozen or so great ones, most are not yet up to the standards of the iPhone apps that I’ve come to love over the past few years. There’s a lot of missing applications that would have been nice in the early months, such as a Facebook application.
For me the biggest whole is a really decent blogging application. My personal blog’s host, Squarespace, has a decent iPhone application but it doesn’t work right on the iPad and there’s nothing really good out there. The few blogging apps there are allow for the upload of pictures and text, but nothing like adding links to a post or doing anything more than that. The online interface for many blogging platforms won’t play nice with the iPad, especially when it comes to uploading photos. Bloggers are so clearly a potential market for the iPad that it’s hard to see why nobody has put together a really good blogging app yet. A MarsEdit level application seems like it’s possible, so it’s disappointing not to see it.
Document management on the iPad is also an issue, especially when dealing with documents that are being edited. It’s one thing to throw all my .cbr files into the iPad knowing that they will be openable with ComicZeal4, but working on an article in Pages on the iPad and then needing to open it on my Macbook is a hassle.
Say I start an article on my Macbook, move it to the iPad to work on, I now have two copies of the article. Keeping track of which is the current one, and which is old, can be a pain. While I’m rarely working on more than one or two things at a time, if I was juggling a large number of projects the way more successful freelancers need to, I could see mistakes being made. Apple has cloud storage solutions such as iDisk and Mobile Me, but even with those there’s no way to tie it all together as neatly as say Google Docs does. I should be able to start writing on either my Macbook or my iPad and have the changes be wirelessly synchronized between the two places. Google has this down, so why can’t Apple figure it out?
I really like the screen, but there are times when it is hard to see. Sunlight especially kills visibility with the screen, and often it’s like looking into a mirror. You may be one of the beautiful people, but I rarely want to be looking directly into a mirror for long periods of the day. It’s also not quite as nice to read on for extended periods of time as the Kindle’s e-Ink display. Having said that I still do not regret selling my Kindle.
The iPad is not going to be for everyone. It’s not for everyone, and there are very good reasons why it might not be right for you. (I only really take issue with people who look down on people who do like the iPad, because people should be just as free to like it as dislike it). There may be reasons why you want to wait for next year’s model, or the model after that.
When I went to Portland on the long weekend I was able to take a longbox worth of comic books, nearly a dozen full length books, a DVD shelf worth of movies my basic computer needs in something that was smaller and lighter than a history textbook. I was able to blog, Tweet and email just as I would have had I brought my laptop. These days my Macbook stays at home and my iPad goes with me everywhere. The iPad didn’t revolutionize my life in the way that, for example, the internet has but like my first iPod it’s made it lighter.