April 10, 2010

Review: Apple iPad 16GB WiFi Edition

Special thanks to my friend Elliot for letting Amy bullying you into lending us this iPad the first day you received it…

I have had the pleasure of getting my hands on a brand new Apple iPad to play with over the weekend and I have never felt such a mixture of emotions towards a mobile device of my entire life.  Just when I think I have fallen in love with it, I’ll find a reason or two to remind me how much I find it to be inadequate.  As soon as I thought I’ve come up with enough reasons to dismiss this gadget, I will see something much more polished than the iPhone and the potential it has to be the next greatest thing.  Perhaps by the time I’m through writing this review, I’ll will have reached a verdict.

Lets get physical!

Its hard not to concentrate on the iPad’s sheer size when all of us have been trained for the past 3 years to associate this OS to the pocket-friendly iPhone.  Looking at the iPad for the first time makes you feel like you are starring at a freakishly large iPhone.  With a push of the home button (given this device’s larger size, I find myself using the home button to power on much more so than on an iPhone where I would use the power button 50% of the time), the LED powered screen lights up with intensity and clarity.  At 1.5lbs, the built and feel of the device can best be described as hefty, in other words, don’t expect to prop this device with your hands for a long period of time.  I find myself setting it flat against the table top for all of my usage. In terms of buttons, switches and ports, an iPhone user will find his or her way around the iPad no problem.  There is the 3.5mm headphone jack with the power switch up top and the data port with the speaker and microphone on the bottom.  Apple switched the volume control to the right side and added a lock switch right above it. It’s a little disappointing that Apple did not consider to include some basic computing ports such as GPS, USB and HDMI ports or include a much needed webcam for video conferencing, its little things like this that throws in mixed signal at me to question what this device is good for.


Power Up!
The first thing I wanted to try is to surf the web on this thing, the model I am reviewing is a WiFi-only model. Typically, when I am connecting to any computing device, first thing I reach for is my USB key that holds my network’s 26-character WEP string and I would copy and paste it to establish connection, I got pretty frustrated when I realized I have to key this in manually since the iPad lacks USB ports.  Given the new onscreen keyboard is much larger (almost as big as the uber-small keyboard I’m typing on Sony VGN-TXN27N 10.1” laptop for this review), keying in the WEP key is about as pain free as any touchscreen device can wish for.  Most of my typing on the iPad is done using both of my index fingers since I just can’t type it as if it’s a real keyboard, I just don’t see how it can be done; I guess in that respect, the iPad’s keyword is “twice” as fast as I can type on an iPhone.  Battery seems to hold a strong charge that lasts; over the past 12 hours of sporadic usage, it consumed 10% of its power while connected to WiFi.

Default App Experience

If you are familiar with an iPhone, navigating the iPad will be second nature to you.  A handful of default apps made its way over to iPad with much enhancement. Surfing the web on this device is pretty amazing; it is basically desktop web surfing enabled (minus the Flash support); in ways, surfing the web in the native portrait mode is extra refreshing given you’ll see more page coverage before the fold compared to a laptop’s 16:9 screen in landscape mode.  Google, of course, has already designed web-apps to conform and leverage iPad’s new screen real estate, for instance when you login to Gmail via iPad, the new layout has the inbox stacked on the left half of the screen with the email conversation stacked to the right; where things gets confusing is the way some sites such as Google treats the iPad (as a mobile device thus serving mobile web apps instead full website), I managed to toggle over to the desktop version of Gmail but couldn’t get it to go back to mobile version which can be a frustrating experience, lets just call this one of the many platform/identity crisis iPad faces.  Given that the sceensize is now 9.7” at 1024x768, the web-based apps experience is a lot more powerful than the experience you’ll get from your iPhone, so long as Flash is not involved, the iPad has enabled some potential there.

YouTube, Calendar, Notes, Contacts and GMAP are all beefed up with better graphics which draws many design cue straight out of Apple’s desktop OS X.  YouTube for some reason really popped out on the iPad with amazing clarity and much better presentation than the iPhone and/or desktop browser experience.  The basic operations to move App icons around or add/remove from dock is the same as an iPhone; only major difference is the ability to navigate in landscape mode.  I often refer to the iPad as an iPhone on steroids physically, but I’ll hand over some credit to Apple for giving the default apps some performance-enhancing treatment as well.

iPad Apps 3rd Party
Apple is betting big on the iPad Apps to help define its market for iPads; with faster hardware and larger screen real estate, 3rd party app developers will surely come up with creative ideas to boost user’s mobile experience.  Already, I’ve heard good things about some very creative applications developed for iPad or in the works.  For instance, Scrabble managed to tie in iPhones to allow a mobile Scrabble game using iPad as the game board. Whats noteworthy is that default iPhone/iPod Touch apps should work on the iPad, However, by introducing iPad to the mix, the mobile strategy for just about every company out there just got a lot more complicated; you now have up to 4 different hardware to consider before designing an app and thats not including thinking about other non-OSX mobile platforms, so I digress…

I downloaded Marvel’s Comic book app which looks spectacular with ability to double tap to zoom into to a pane; never have I enjoyed reading a comic book more than on the iPad; ABC’s app is also amazing in that it serves up most of its TV shows via high quality stream with some commercials in between (they’ve really figured out a way to make money via the web and emerging platforms, kudos to ABC team).  I know Apple has released iWork for iPad to legitimize iPad’s role as a productivity tool, I didn’t get around to test that so can’t make any comment but according to TUAW, the Keynote app fell a little short.  I’m not sure why Apple did not bring the Weather App and Stock App along but I found Weatherbug and Bloomberg for iPad does a marvelous job of covering both subject matters.  As for the whole using iPad as an eBook alternative, I’ve never really used an e-ink based product to compare so I can’t comment on that; I have to imagine thou iPad’s screen brightness may not be ideal for long hours of reading.

Conclusion
Throughout the entire time I was playing with the iPad, I’ve gone back and forth with my feeling towards it.  On one hand, this device is a bit bulky, heavy and limited on flexibility (no USB, no ethernet, no webcam, etc…) but on the other hand, the applications for the iPad makes it super robust and unique for a solid mobile experience.  While the iPad’s 9.7” screensize is comparable to a netbooks, somehow I find the shorter reading distance between my eyes and the iPad much more comfortable than the reading distance between my eyes and a netbook or laptop screen.  I have every reason to believe the iPad will become a very formidable device as more 3rd party apps get developed.  As for me, the iPad’s size will make it compete for a space in my backpack that has a laptop in it otherwise, but unfortunately, iPad just does not deliver enough functionality to replace my laptop.  The lack of a webcam and mere fact that an iPad will need to be sync’d with a desktop via iTunes pretty much defined its limitation as a computer replacement. 

In conclusion, I see the iPad as a weird filler device between a laptop and cell phone, but due to its size and incomplete hardware offering, it suffers from a bit of identity crisis (not small enough to be a pocket-able mobile device but not powerful enough to replace a laptop).  At the end of the day, I would still prefer to carry an iPhone and MacBook Air around town.

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