I recently took the plunge and purchased my first ever Apple device. A long-time Windows user and general detractor of Apple and their expensive, controlled approach to computing, I couldn’t resist all those quality iOS apps any longer. I bought (well, technically, my wife bought as a wedding present…thanks honey!) an iPad 2 the day after it came out and I have had it now for a week.
When the first iPad originally came out, I was pretty skeptical. I was among those who scoffed at it being just a “big iPod Touch” and didn’t see a lot of value in it that my smartphone and laptop didn’t already provide. And initially, that was true, and for the first 6 months I didn’t really consider getting one.
It wasn’t long, though, before iPad-only and iPad-optimized apps came in droves and it became clear that the iPad really was a unique device with unique uses that went beyond what you could do with a smartphone-sized device. Although the games and iPad apps are definitely impressive, what converted me into actually deciding I wanted one was the music creation apps. And that’s what convinced me not to wait for a competing product to gain traction but instead take the Apple plunge. Tablet OSes from Google, HP and Blackberry are not only a year behind tablet iOS, but don’t show any promise of really competing in this particular music niche anytime soon. And since that’s the niche that most interested me in a tablet, the decision was really made for me. When Apple showed off Garageband for the iPad, any remaining reservations I may have had were completely removed.
All this is to say that I am by no means an Apple fanboy and that the iPad had to have a really irresistible value proposition for me to buy one. Likewise, my impressions below come from a background primarily in Windows and Android, so this is really a “first week with iOS” as much as it is with the iPad.
My First Week
The iPad 2 is beautiful. Thin but sturdy, has a beautifully colorful screen, and iOS provides a very slick and responsive interface. Although it has not become my go-to device for all or even most of my computing tasks, it is very handy to have around the house for quick web activities, email checking and reading the news. It is a joy to use for these tasks, and much more convenient than a laptop or screen-size-deficient smartphone while eating breakfast or lounging on the couch. The excellent battery life is also a major plus.
Ever since the first iPod, Apple has been deservedly known for their excellent hardware designs and attention to quality. Innovations such as the scroll wheel for an MP3 player, magnetic power connectors that safely pull free if the cable is yanked away, durable and stylish unibody aluminum laptops, multi-touch capacitive input surfaces, consistently excellent battery life, high quality screens…the list really does go on. Apple may not give you a lot of configuration options by virtue of their complete control over both their OS and the hardware it runs on, but this does allow them to maintain excellent quality standards while delivering on value thanks to an efficient supply chain. They’re not infallable, as design decisions such as making the iPhone 4’s back out of glass was fairly poor from both a grip and durability front, but they’ve still got the best track record of anyone in the business.
The iPad is no exception. Incredibly thin, extremely solid-feeling, no flex to speak of, solid buttons and a beautiful screen, the iPad is at least a year ahead of its competitors in form factor. The screen isn’t the highest-resolution out there, which is noticeable when reading text, but it’s not bad in the least and at least partially makes up for this by having good viewing angles, contrast and brightness. The touch screen is very responsive and registers an amazing number of input points, and the device performs well too, especially in the graphics department. All in all, it’s a very impressive machine for $500, especially when the competition has still failed to pack so much in for so little money. Beating the competition on price is new territory for Apple, but they definitely deserve praise for doing it. I really don’t have any significant complaints about the hardware.
Oh, a word on the optional Smart Cover: it’s really slick. I’m still careful when setting the device down since it doesn’t provide any protection against shock or damage to the edges or back, but as a screen cover it works great, and the way it turns the device on/off is awesome. It’s also great that it doubles as a stand, and I’ve used this while eating breakfast with good success. It is a bit unfortunate that it can’t hold the device up in portrait mode and that when functioning as a stand, the microfiber screen side is what’s sitting on the potentially dirty or rough table, but those are minor quibbles.
iOS itself is a mixed bag, in my opinion. On the one hand, Apple’s innovative way of handling app state so you never really “close” an app, but always just suspend it while its state is saved for the next access, works really well and ensures consistent performance and responsiveness. It does mean you don’t have as much control over the state of your programs as you do in a more traditional OS where apps are either shut down or in memory, which is why multitasking in iOS is still a bit clunky, but it does make for a responsive way to switch between apps without sacrificing performance. Android gives you this additional control which is great for easy multitasking (although not in a perfect way…I honestly prefer Windows Mobile’s program management scheme, believe it or not), but the caveat is that you may need to kill off apps from time to time to ensure good performance.
But while iOS is great as an app launcher, that’s all it is. Literally. UI-wise it’s little more than a picture with a bunch of shortcuts on it, which is functional but not particularly interesting. It gives you no ability to customize the interface itself beyond adding a wallpaper and reordering or grouping apps together. No widgets, almost no at-a-glance information, everything is either in a full-blown app or nowhere. So the iOS interface literally is only as good as the apps you’ve got installed. This is forgivable on a tablet, in my opinion, because the apps are the main draw. But my experience with iOS so far has not made me want an iPhone, because I feel that efficient navigation and glanceable information are important features in a device that I always have in my pocket and depend upon for communication and organization.
This bare-bones approach extends to the button navigation. While iOS is arguably the best at utilizing multi-touch gestures (and this is likely to get even better in a coming update), it almost has to be because it provides so little else for navigation. A lone “home” button is the only button on the device that is always there (edit: for navigation, that is, there are a few other buttons for power, volume and orientation), and as such basic activities like going “back,” bringing up a context menu or searching must be done by tapping somewhere in the app. Although most apps conform to the Apple UI conventions, it’s still a bit annoying to have to figure out how to do these things for each app. In Android, you have dedicated buttons for these common activities which really comes in handy, enforces consistency across apps, and takes advantage of muscle memory for getting around efficiently. Another example of the disadvantage of this simplistic approach is that app settings for many apps are not accessible from anywhere in the app itself, as they would be in Android by hitting the menu button. Instead, you have to go to the global iPad settings page to do things like change email account settings or configure certain Garageband options.
The bottom line: iOS does what it does well, but if I were interested in a tablet more for its core functionality than for its apps, I’d seriously consider an Android Honeycomb device or HP TouchPad ahead of an iPad, as they’ve shown far more innovation in this department.
As far as apps that are preloaded on the device, the most useful for me so far has been the browser as Safari works very well, renders pages and resizes them very quickly, and most amazingly plays supported embedded video in an extremely seamless way. I was rather shocked at how smoothly the video plays back even while scrolling through the web page. Impressive stuff. Of course, it should be noted that the iPad doesn’t support Flash which does diminish its usefulness as a web video player, depending on what video sites you frequent (Hulu being the most obvious one that uses Flash, although you can get around this by subscribing to Hulu Plus).
The email program also works well, although it’s got a couple of glaring flaws. For one, contact syncing for a service as ubiquitous as Gmail on the iPad is pretty pathetic. The “supported” way is to sync via iTunes when it’s connected to your computer, which is ridiculous. Thankfully, I found a totally nonintuitive and likely unintended workaround that works, but it’s pretty unbelievable that they don’t let you sync contacts along with email, calendar, etc. when you set up Gmail. Additionally, and this is something that’s not a big deal on the iPhone but becomes a problem on a more “computer-like” device like the iPad, is that there is no concept of “users,” and as such, you can’t really share the email app amongst multiple people. So basically, I have my email set up in the email app, but my wife has to log in to Gmail in Safari (thankfully, Google has an excellent iPad-optimized version of the site that works great) to do email on it. So in a word, iPad email is “ok.”
I personally haven’t found much use for the remaining shipping apps. Photobooth is fun for about 5 minutes, then quickly becomes pointless. The photo viewer works fine, although I wish it’d categorize pictures in folders a la Android (guess that’s what happens when your OS doesn’t expose disk folders to the user). With only 16GB of space (on the bottom-end model, which is what I have), it’s unfortunate that a device so well-suited to photo viewing can’t hold all my pictures. I did buy the FileBrowser app which allows you to browse, view and even copy wirelessly files shared on network computers which works great. Unfortunately, this works better for slideshows than it does for on-demand photo browsing as the transfer rates over the network lead to a pretty laggy experience. Additionally, the cameras on the iPad are pretty poor, although it’s not as though I expected to use this much for taking pictures or video anyway (or video chatting, for that matter). So that’s that.
As for the on-screen keyboard: I don’t see myself giving up my PC or laptop when typing large emails, documents or notes. Nevertheless, the keyboard does work as well as could be expected for something having no tactile feedback, and the spacing is close enough to a small laptop keyboard that you can use all your fingers to type normally when in landscape mode. My one complaint is that certain keys like the @ and ! signs move around depending on which keyboard mode you’re in, which is confusing, and there’s no option to add a dedicated number row. Additionally, there’s no way to add 3rd party keyboards like in Android, so that means no Swype, which is a shame.
Now for the real reason anyone buys an iOS device these days: App Store Apps. I’m still exploring the vast world of iPad apps, but so far I’ve been impressed with the consistent level of quality of those that I’ve downloaded, the useful user reviews and the relatively good store organization. Coming from the Android world where the reviews are polluted with spam and finding the good apps within Marketplace is somewhat trial-and-error , this is a welcome change. I’m particularly impressed with Flipboard and Garageband. The former is a very enjoyable way to consume news and written information, while the latter does very well what I wanted to do with the iPad most: create music. I look forward to trying out some other music creation apps on the iPad as well, but Garageband is such a deep and full-featured program, I think it’ll be some time before I feel the need to buy another.
3/18 Update: Minor annoyance: the App Store prompts for a password for everything having to do with downloading or even updating apps. I don’t know what the rationale is for this…there ought to at least be a password-protected option to disable it for free downloads. I’d expect to have to supply my password when paying for something, but updating a free app?
PC Synchronization & Updates
Although I’ve been very happy with the iPad so far, I must note that my very first experience with it was not a positive one. It was disappointing to find that after opening the box, I couldn’t even use my new toy without pairing it to my PC with iTunes. I installed iTunes (every time I’ve given the software a chance in the past, I’ve uninstalled it out of frustration shortly after), plugged in the iPad, and waited. Nothing happened, and iTunes was completely frozen and unresponsive. I unplugged the iPad and then it woke up, but it froze again once I plugged the iPad back in. Killing iTunes and restarting it didn’t fix it either. I did a quick search and found that others had had this problem and they suggested reinstalling. Sure enough, that fixed it and after going through the registration process, I was finally able to use the thing. I haven’t had iTunes problems since, but I’ve kind of avoided using it. The way you get data on and off the iPad is really annoying, too, since you have to use iTunes and even getting songs from Garageband requires you to click iPad > Apps > Garageband > Files. Considering the fact that any other mobile OS lets you drag/drop directly to and from the device, having to use a proprietary software just to do something as simple as grab an exported song is kind of ridiculous. Of course, this all stems from Apple’s insistence that the user not have to deal with a directory structure, which I can understand, but it does make “power user” type activities pretty tedious. No over-the-air updates or syncing is also surprisingly archaic for an otherwise modern and standard-setting platform. The iPad’s dependency on iTunes is definitely it’s biggest shortcoming, in my opinion.
Apple has been touting the iPad as a pioneer in the “post-PC” world, and as such, that it is increasingly reducing users’ dependence on traditional computers. Of course, this conveniently ignores the fact that the iPad still depends on wired connectivity to a Windows or Mac OS computer with iTunes for things as basic as activation, syncing and updating. Still, many people are using iPads where they had used PCs, so it’s definitely making inroads in some areas, perhaps the most notable being the Atom-powered netbook market. In my case, I am so far finding that the iPad hasn’t done too much to reduce my use of other devices, but has opened up new opportunities I didn’t have before. So I’m not buying the “post-PC” rhetoric just yet, but that’s not to say the iPad isn’t useful.
Here are some comparisons with other devices I own and how much, if at all, the iPad has reduced my use of them:
Android Smartphone (Epic 4G)
I don’t expect to take the iPad out of the house much, so I obviously still depend on my phone for mobile web access, email, social networking, stock monitoring, etc. (not to mention phone calls and texting). However, where I used to use it for quick web queries and the occasional email while at home, I now prefer to use the iPad if it’s handy. For things like weather, alarms, etc., however, I still prefer the phone thanks to this information being presented in widgets on my home screen.
I would estimate the iPad has reduced my use of my phone by about 10%.
I have found that I read more since I bought the Kindle a year ago. It’s small and light, easy to read on, and (if Amazon has the book available in the Kindle store) gives immediate delivery of books which is both bad in that it makes spending money on books all too easy, but good in that it encourages me to read more.
At launch, the ability to read books on the original iPad was heavily promoted by Apple with the launch of iBooks. The iPad’s form factor certainly makes it a more eligible e-reader than a laptop. However, with its traditional LCD display, it is susceptible to some of the same issues that make reading on a laptop uncomfortable after a while – namely, a reflective, backlit display can cause eyestrain in long reading sessions, (edit: and the inability to read outdoors in the sun). I’ve noticed this when reading books on computer screens before, especially since I sit at a computer at work all day. And though it is much better for reading than a laptop, it’s still fairly hefty to hold in a comfortable reading position for extended periods.
As a result of all this, I pulled out my trusty Kindle the same day I bought the iPad when I wanted to continue reading Atlas Shrugged, and found it a welcome relief in its lightness and pleasant screen. In other words, I don’t expect to use the iPad to read any books that I could just as easily read on my Kindle. The one possible exception would be at night, since a white text on black background setting on the iPad is a pretty decent way to read at night. But since I have a light for my Kindle, I don’t really see myself doing this much either.
Finally, while the relatively low pixel density of the iPad isn’t bothersome in most situations, when reading it is noticeable and makes an already less-than-ideal experience slightly less comfortable still.
Given all of this, I’d say I expect the iPad to reduce my use of the Kindle for book reading by at most 10%.
I bought my laptop primarily for using at work and when I go on trips and need a computer. Prior to getting the iPad, I’d also used it a fair amount when lounging around the house to surf the web or work on projects, as it’s a thin and light ULV Toshiba that gets excellent battery life.
I don’t expect to use the iPad at all for work tasks. It’s possible to do some of it, such as presentations, video chatting, remote desktop, chatting, etc. But most of that requires buying more apps, and without a keyboard or the ability to natively run many of the programs I use most (VPN, Microsoft Office Communicator, Word, Excel, OneNote, etc.) it really doesn’t make much sense.
At home is another story. While about half of my laptop usage at home is for work stuff, the other half had been for doing computer stuff on the couch around the house. Some of that will remain, ie, if I really need to be productive, I’ll still want a full desktop OS and keyboard. But I expect a good portion of that to be easier on the iPad with it’s instant-on performance and excellent web browsing abilities.
Thus, I expect my total laptop usage to diminish by around 20% thanks to the iPad.
I use my desktop for the majority of my home computing, including heavyweight things like video/photo editing and stock analysis which benefit from multiple monitors. I also use it for entertainment such as watching videos and browsing the web at the same time, plus social stuff like personal email and Facebook.
I can foresee myself using the iPad for a lot of the Facebook and casual web browsing as well as some email. I don’t expect to use it for editing or stock research since both involve PC software and require a lot of power and/or screen real estate. I don’t expect to watch video on the iPad much since I have an HTPC connected to my TV, but I can see myself watching more video on the TV and using the iPad to casually browse at the same time, which I used to sometimes use my multi-monitor PC for.
So, I expect my total PC usage to diminish by around 10% thanks to the iPad.
Home Theater PC
I’ve been meaning to post about my HTPC build sometime but haven’t gotten around to it yet. Suffice it to say, it’s got an HDTV card, broadband connectivity, runs Windows Vista (partly because I didn’t have an extra Win7 license, and partly because my cheap TV card’s drivers don’t support Win7), has a blu-ray drive, surround output to a good Logitech 5.1 system, and is controlled via a Media Center remote as well as a wireless mini keyboard/mouse. It has tons of video and music on a local RAID, and also can play Hulu and anything else online since it’s a full PC.
Although you can now buy an HDMI dongle for the iPad which will mirror its video to your TV, I don’t expect to spend the $39 to buy this since I can’t see myself using the iPad in this way with any regularity. Maybe if I were in a hotel room or visiting family/friends and we wanted to stream Netflix to the TV there, but certainly not at home.
Additionally, I rarely us the HTPC to just browse the web since the mini keyboard isn’t very convenient to type on and a big screen TV is overkill for that sort of thing, so I generally used my phone for quick web searches in the living room anyway.
As a result, I don’t expect the iPad to reduce my use of the HTPC by much at all…maybe 2%.
So to sum up, I’m thrilled with the quality of apps that are available for the iPad, and very happy with the device itself. The OS is great at what it does, but unfortunately doesn’t provide much of anything in the way of customization or additional functionality beyond launching apps. The value proposition of the device is very high considering all it can do, although I still think that it’s something of a “jack of all trades, master of none” when it comes to doing what had formerly been the sole domain of PCs, laptops, e-readers and smartphones. Ie, it doesn’t replace them, but it can do enough that you may not need to use them as much.
Where the iPad shines most, though, is in the unique experiences it provides its users. It’s an experience that really does feel new and fresh, and with thousands of high quality apps, it promises to continue to deliver new and amazing ways to absorb information, consume media, exercise creativity, and even get things done, all using a sleek and powerful touch interface that until now was simply not available to the average consumer. Though not without its shortcomings, the iPad is, hands-down, a remarkably compelling product for $500 and I’m happy to have one.