About That iPad

In the Spring of 2010, I was writing for a small tech blog, and was asked to produce a piece about the forthcoming iPad. I’d never seen or used one, but I did a bunch of research about it and, as usual, formed a fairly negative opinion about Apple’s latest introduction before ever using it. It reminded me of my reaction to the introduction of the iPod, when I said that first no one would want to carry a portable disk drive with music on it, then I said no one would want to carry around their photos, nor watch video on such a small screen. At least I am consistent. In any case, the piece never ran, I stopped writing for the blog, and then went out and got an iPad for myself.

Here in three parts is my take on the iPad- before owning one, now that I have one, and essential Apps on my iPad.

The iPad Cometh

The Apple iPad, the most hotly anticipated gadget since Steve Jobs’ last pocket-sized hunk of perfection arrives April 3, and is already taking pre-orders. Announced at a special Apple media event on January 27, 2010, it has already been previewed to the public in a TV commercial during the Oscars. Unlike the launch of the iPhone, where Apple was trying to crash the preexisting portable device market, Apple is breaking new ground this time, trying to create a new category of device, along with a whole new paradigm of controlling the end user experience.

Tabula Rasa

There are companies that make tablets already; most of them are just adaptations of laptops with screens that allow for text input or some other adaptation grafted onto current operating systems like Windows or Linux. That’s not what Apple is trying to do with the iPad. And neither is it a larger version of an iPhone. Apple keeps describing it with the phrases “the best,” “instantly familiar,” and “it just feels right.” Jony Ive, Senior VP of Design summed the philosophy up as: “I don’t have to change myself to fit the product; it fits me.” Michael Sippey probably put it best when he said that the iPad is going to become the new family computer.

Apple has always been a company that cares about every detail. You can see that in the physical design of their products as much as in their software. This is the first product where they have taken it to the ultimate level and designed the hardware inside, as well. According to Bob Mansfield, Senior VP of Hardware, using Apple’s custom A4 chip allows 10 hour battery life and response times that no other chip allowed. As well, the new 9.7″ screen is the largest multitouch screen area Apple has ever produced, containing over 1000 sensors.

Devil in the Details

To enhance the user experience Apple allegedly spent a lot of time working on new software for the iPad. According to Scott Forstall, Senior VP, iPhone Software,”We decided, let’s redesign it all. Let’s redesign, re-imagine and rebuild every single app from the ground up specifically for the iPad.” So instead of applications simply ported over from the iPhone and doubled in size, “…You get apps that are an order of magnitude more powerful.” There are volumes of documents for developers governing how to design third party iPad applications to maintain consistency and allow the full use of all the abilities built into the device.

Apple’s App store already has over 140,000 applications available for today’s iPhone and iPod Touch. Apple promises that the iPad is going to run virtually all the apps that are available and will let you use apps you have already downloaded for the other two devices. However, to make these programs run properly on the iPad, they are scaled up, doubled in size, to match the display resolution. This is somewhat analogous to watching a low resolution YouTube video on a high definition TV- it’s bearable, but not something you’ll want to do for long.

Damningly for Apple’s assertions that iPhone apps run fine on the iPad, Jon Gruber noted that some of the stock applications that come with the iPhone and iPod touch will not be appearing on the iPad. Even worse, Forbes says that of those 140K+ apps, actually only about 16,700 have been certified as actually iPad compatible, and many will not even run at all because the lower priced versions will not have GPS functionality, and none will have a camera.

Anything For Power Users?

I’ve got an old MacBook Pro, and I was thinking about getting an iPad to replace it. As of now, the only apps announced for the iPad for actually getting any work done (other than email) is Apple’s iWork suite of Keynote, Pages and Numbers. They’re nice apps for a casual user, but not really helpful for a professional graphic designer whose bread and butter is the Adobe CS Suite. Considering that the iPad does not allow for the use of Flash, I’m not anticipating Adobe lighting a fire under their developers to get a version out the door anytime soon.

That means I can’t work on any of my projects with the iPad or use it to display work to clients, other than via Safari. Nor is there even a basic HTML editor to even work on web pages. And, the entire file system is obfuscated, making it nigh on impossible to manage files except from within applications themselves. It doesn’t even have HD video output despite the higher price.

I was hoping for something more than a glorified media player and game platform, but that is really what the iPad is- an eBook reader with internet connectivity and other games and the like, just like my iPod touch, just with a bigger screen, and faster processor that allows for some user interface niftier tricks. Eventually, developers will catch up and release some software that takes advantage of the big screen and powerful processor and make it an actual competitor to a laptop. For now, it would be more of an exotic trophy to me than a device I could actually get work done with.

No iPad For Me

And that really leads to why I won’t be pre-ordering one or getting a first generation model. Apple has been notorious with their first generation products for not fully working out the kinks in their products, nor fully realizing how people might want to use them. Right now, the iPad is singularly Steve Jobs’ vision of a tablet and home computer, but it doesn’t do anything more than I already want of my iPod touch.

I’m also not at all jazzed by the idea that some of the basic features of the iPad are tied to the 3G model. I have perfectly good wireless around my house, and I don’t want another data plan, certainly not from at&t. That’s a basic reason I never got an iPhone and instead have an Android phone. Apple likes their walled garden and to safely guide their users, but they sometimes forget the individuality they once espoused in their classic 1984 commercial.

Steve Jobs is right. The iPad is fantastic and wonderful and great and the best thing Apple has ever done. At least to him. But it’s not open enough for my needs despite everything Jony Ive wants to believe or thought he designed into the product. And until it is, a lot of people are going to hold off buying one, just like I am.

Boy, Was I Wrong, Again.

Steve Jobs is right. The iPad is fantastic and wonderful and great and the best thing Apple has ever done. What I didn’t get before, was that it is not a replacement for a desktop computer/graphic design machine. Neither is it a replacement for a laptop. But it does most of the functions of both, and since I have gotten mine, I have gotten rid of my MacBook Pro and my iMac, leaving me with only a Mac Mini and the iPad as my sole hardware, and that’s all I need.

Insanely Great

That may seem a surprising change of attitude, but it really is true. The main reason for this is the power and speed of the iPad’s processor and the interface, and also the iPad’s “secret killer app,” which is now available to iPhone and other iOS 4.0 users: the separate Bluetooth keyboard. Many reviews of the iPad have complained about the terrible on-screen keyboard, but it’s really about as good as any implementation can be without the actual tactile feedback of real keys. What I don’t like about the on-screen keyboard is how much space it takes up while in use; the Bluetooth keyboard takes care of this by freeing up all the screen space while active. And, when you look at how small it is combined with the iPad itself, it’s still way smaller than even the MacBook Air.

So now the iPad has become my primary email and internet machine; I use it to read my RSS feeds and surf the web, tweet and Facebook and to look things up quickly. Since my house is chock full of Wifi goodness, it’s always available, even when I am using it to listen to music out in the garden. What has surprised me is how useful it is for other tasks that I wasn’t expecting. No, I still can’t do page layout, nor do I expect to. But Adobe has put out a couple of surprisingly good free apps for the iPad already: Adobe Ideas for vector sketching and Adobe Photoshop Express (which both work on other iDevices, too) for simple image processing. There are HTML markup apps and FTP apps. File management is handled seamlessly on the iPad- individual apps that need to know where things are, do.

Much like Jony Ive said, the iPad really IS instantly familiar and just feels right. I have seen people pick mine up and instantly understand how to interact with it and open apps and pinch and flick to navigate. Honestly, the hardest concept for most seems to be to press the honking great big button to return to the home screen. The size is comfortable for big and small hands, young and old. The screen is a great size for sharing video, and reading web pages, and manages to feel personal at the same time.

Think Different

Now that I have had my iPad for several months, I have my laundry list of things that could be done better and I would like to see fixed. First of all, like any of us who has a device that runs iOS 4, it’s frustrating to endure the lack of the best of those features on the iPad- multitasking, folders, unified inbox, etc. (Update September 4, 2010: This will be coming in November along with AirPlay as promised by his Steveness at the September 1 Apple Event.)

Secondly, as Khoi Vinh has pointed out, shaking the iPad to undo is ridiculous. It was fine for a hand-held device, but not for something this size. In the same vein, the non-traditional layout of the on-screen keyboard can be frustrating, especially with the placement of the Undo button, and switching between iPhone and iPad apps.

Speaking of iPhone vs iPad apps, it’s disheartening how many major applications, like Facebook and Twitter still rely on doubled versions of their iPhone app for their iPad customers, when over 3 million iPads have been sold by now. I was also disappointed that Apple included so few apps with the iPad compared to what they include with the iPhone, like no alarm clock or weather app. As well, they have an iMovie app for iPhone, but it’s not supported by the iPad, which seems odd, since the screen size and processing power would be well suited to the task.

And, it’s also pretty harsh that so many developers are releasing “HD”/iPad versions of their apps that are not much different than the iPhone/iPod version other than scaled up graphics, but 3-9x the price. I bought Plants vs Zombies for my iPod touch last year for $1.99, and at 2x on my iPad it looks great, and doesn’t make me feel like I missed out by not paying $9.99 for the HD version. After spending more on an iPad than an iPhone or iPod Touch, one would think that developers would understand that our pocketbooks are roughed up and can’t take the gouging.

I would like to have control of push notifications; i.e. I would like to turn them off during certain hours. I would also like to be able to set apps to update themselves, instead of having to check and then authorize them each time. It would also be nice to set up separate accounts so that I could have a configuration for when my friend’s young children come over, all they see are kid’s games and painting apps.

The Computer for the Rest of Us

The iPad is the first of a new class of computing devices that has long been anticipated. Others have tried to get it right, but Apple, once again,  told us what we wanted and given it to us in a tidy, well-designed and functional package. Developers are already getting on board with the new device and coming up with software and ideas that only months ago would have seemed ridiculous science fiction. This is a computer your octogenarian great-grandmother could get as much use and enjoyment from as your teething toddler or a professional like me. With the Bluetooth keyboard and my Compass stand, anywhere there’s Wifi, I have a fully functional workstation where I can sit down comfortably and get real work done.

Discarding the mouse, which has been the standard input device since 1984, may be a difficult task for some, easier for others, but in all, it’s a liberation that makes interacting with technology simple and elegant and intuitive. Pointing and clicking is one step less removed, now. Although I understand why mouse support will never happen, it would be nice if Apple allowed the Magic Trackpad access to the iPad in a future update. Multi-touch is easy to learn as well; although one has to be mindful of resting extra fingers accidentally.

There is also a certain pleasure from sharing media on a right-sized screen such as the iPad’s. It’s not just that it’s a glorified media player. It’s an extension of social media, heavy on the social. It’s big enough to gather around, and small enough to pass to a friend. Better yet are the (still limited, but hopefully growing number of) apps that allow video out from the iPad to composite video and external audio. Now I can stream movies instantly from Netflix to my HDTV any time I want, as well as from YouTube, but, unfortunately, not from Hulu Plus.

A few accessories I have picked up for my iPad that I recommend to anyone who has an iPad:

The Apps I Can’t live without

I use a variety of different apps for different things, but if I had to whittle down my iPad to only 30 non-included apps, these would stay (+ indicates universal app, multiple prices listed iPhone first, iPad last):

  1. Air Display + $9.99 – Allows iDevice to function as auxillary touch sensitive display for your desktop machine.
  2. Analytics Free, in-app upgrade $5.99 – iPad interface to Google Analytics with charts and reports
  3. Angry Birds Free, 99¢, $4.99 – Insane game where one must kill pigs by launching birds at them.
  4. AppMiner Free – Non-iPad app, useful for finding things on sale and free at the iTunes Store.
  5. Atomic Web + Free, 99¢ – Full screen tabbed browser with gestural interface.
  6. Chopper 2 + $2.99- Insanely detailed chopper simulator shoot-em-up, best played using a second iDevice as a controller.
  7. Dropbox + Free – Always synced cloud storage for your iPad and desktop computers.
  8. Evernote + Free – Keep track of notes and pieces of information synced across all your devices.
  9. Glow Hockey 2 HD $1.99 – Best air hockey game, even better when playing two-player head to head.
  10. GoodReader 99¢ – Opens almost any kind of document and works seamlessly with Dropbox.
  11. Google Earth + Free – Find anything anywhere at street level or from space.
  12. Instapaper + $4.99 – Save web pages and articles to read later.
  13. Last.fm Free – Non-iPad App, streaming music custom tailored to my tastes, based on my actual music library.
  14. Mocha VNC Lite Free – Full control over your desktop from your iPad, at a totally reasonable speed, with keyboard input.
  15. Netflix + Free (plus Netflix membership) – Stream anything from Netflix’s library and put DVDs in your queue.
  16. NPR Free – Access all of NPR’s programming plus live podcasts anytime.
  17. Orbital Free, $2.99, $2.99 – A cerebral shoot-em-up. My favorite time waster.
  18. Osmos $2.99, $4.99 – Darwinian amoeba strategy game. This game was around on other platforms, but is really suited to the iPad’s interface.
  19. Photo fx Ultra $5.99 – From the makers of Tiffen photography filters, this app packs a lot of photo processing power.
  20. PS Express + Free – Surprise! Adobe Does ♥ Apple! This is another useful photo processing app, and the price can’t be beaten.
  21. Real Racing Free, $4.99, $9.99 – As good as this game is for the iPhone/iPod, it’s exponentially better for the iPad, and one of the few games I don’t mind shelling out again for, and shelling out that much for. Excellent.
  22. Reeder for iPad $4.99 – The best news reader I’ve found on any platform, bar none. Elegant, intuitive, and a pleasure to use, it syncs with Google Reader, and makes consuming media enjoyable.
  23. Remote Free – Another non-iPad App that makes the cut because of its usefulness- I like to be able to control my iTunes without having to be at my computer.
  24. Shazam Free – This is what the music companies should have been fighting for all these years. Now there is a legal, legitimate way to identify, find and buy new music, without having to resort to stealing it. Brilliant. Now cut out the tagging limit.
  25. Skype Free – Also non-iPad, but worthwhile for the ease of having a portable speakerphone with which one can make free international calls.
  26. Soundpaper $4.99 – A clever use of iPad technology, this app records audio and uses your typing as cues during the recording for recall. So when you type “John stepped up and started speaking” as John steps and starts speaking, when you later click on that block of text, it jumps you to that part of the recorded audio. Great for taking notes at meetings and reporting.
  27. Soundrop + Free, $1.99 in-app upgrade – Silly physics fun- draw lines for balls to bounce off and make music. It’s far more addictive than it sounds.
  28. Twitter Free – This app cries out for an iPad version, considering how full featured it is, and how cramped it is, but it’s still the best Twitter client available. Updated September 4, 2010: Now the updated iPad version is a showcase for how good iPad apps can be. Location searches aren’t as good as they were in the iPhone app, unfortunately, but overall,  it’s still best-in-class.
  29. Uzu $1.99- A fascinating particle simulator that shows off how fast the iPad is, and how nifty the multi-touch input can be.
  30. Words With Friends Free, $2.99, $2.99 – A great Scrabble clone with network and pass and play functionality.

So, what have I missed? Any plaudits or gripes you want to contribute? Any apps you can’t live without? Please leave them in the comments below.

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