iPad - my first weekend

· by Steve · Read in about 13 min · (2562 Words)

Apple’s new flagship product, the iPad, was only just released in countries outside the USA last Friday, and I was fortunate to get my hands on one on launch day. Like many Apple products, this one has divided people, with a lot of people decrying it as a device looking for a purpose, a device that falls between two stools (not as portable as a phone, not as functional as a laptop), a device that is stifled within Apple’s walled garden. Despite there already being a plethora of reviews out there on the internet, I thought I’d give my initial impressions of it after the first weekend.

First, some context

It would be illustrative first of all to set out my reasons for wanting to lay down some cash on a product such as this, in order to frame the context in which I’m evaluating it. Some potentially relevant facts:

  1. I don’t have an iPhone. I work from home, and I consider it extremely impolite to be constantly stabbing away at a phone while in a social gathering (you know who you are), therefore I can’t justify owning one. I have a far cheaper Nokia smartphone which does what I need just fine for the rare occasions when I need to check the internet on the go.
  2. I like Macs. This is an opinion which I’ve come to only in the last few years - despite studying user interface design as a module of my compsci degree, my interest in practical applications of the subject has only recently been piqued, and I’ve learned that Apple definitely groks these things better than most. I’ve also changed - I used to love taking apart my PCs, customising them to the nth degree, knowing every tweaked and tricked out element of it. Now, after 20 years, I find that kind of a bore and generally just want something that works, gets out of the way and lets me get on with what else I want to do, and I find Macs are good at that.
  3. I find touch interfaces very interesting. As an RSI sufferer for the last 7 or so years, I’ve become acutely aware of how terrible mice are as an ergonomic interface. Really, they’re awful - the wrist rotation, the fact your arm has to be right out to the side with most setups, these things are ergonomic suicide. At some point, unless you want chronic carpal tunnel syndrome, you’re going to have to switch to a track ball, a track pad, or one of those vastly overpriced vertically oriented mice. Personally, I try to use the keyboard for most things, which isn’t great but it’s better than the mouse, and a track pad on laptops as much as I can, which are much more natural. The prospect of a renaissance of user interfaces designed not to need a mouse, but to be entirely driven by touch, is something very appealing to me. It doesn’t work at all for sustained use when there are large, immovable vertical screens involved, and it doesn’t work that well when the device is too small - to me the pad form factor is the ideal for this approach.
  4. I watched Star Trek:TNG and lusted after their pads for years (even though they were just fake plastic slabs). Now it’s a reality! Who wouldn’t want that? 😉

Perhaps importantly, going into this I wasn’t one of those people looking to replace another device with the iPad, but I did see it as an opportunity to use an iPad in use cases where I considered the other devices I could already use to be sub-optimal. I’ll cover those use cases later on when I discuss how things turned out in practice. So now, on to my evalution…

Physical characteristics

I’ll try not to cover too much ground that’s already been adequately covered elsewhere. You already know the iPad is fantastically well constructed, beautiful to look at, has a wonderfully bright and sharp screen (which is prone to finger prints) - we’ll take all that as read. In my opinion, it’s not that heavy, but if you had planned to hold it up in front of your face with one hand for a long time, yeah that’s going to get uncomfortable. Personally, I don’t do that - like when I’m reading a book of any size, I rest the iPad on my lap, either flat or just propping it up on edge with one hand, and that’s fine for several hours in my experience. Having said that, the sleek and smooth exterior means you can be afraid of dropping it - however I’m using it in a leather flip-case (I’ll cover that in a future post, it’s a good one), and in this configuration gripping it becomes a total non-issue.

The screen was sharper than I expected, it seems to have approximately the same pixel size as my MacBook Pro, since even though the resolution is lower, the screen is only 9 inches. The default brightness setting was a little dark for me so I tweaked it up to about 75%, which was perfect. It’s a glossy screen which you may have problems with outside, but inside in full daylight (we have many windows in our house) and using regular lighting at night, reflection has not been an issue.

As has been pointed out, there are no cameras. Personally, that’s not something I care about - I don’t use my mobile phone camera either and I have a far superior camera within 10 feet of me in my lounge if I need one. I can imagine a camera for video conferencing might be useful to some people, but I’ve had one in my MacBooks for 3 years and I’ve never used them, so really, this is not important to me.

Connectivity wise, we’re talking minimal - just a dock connector and Wifi. It would have been nice to have a USB slot or two and especially a SD card slot (although you can get an adapter for that), but anyone who’s bought an iPod before knows the Apple way - don’t try to do everything, just try to do the core things better than anyone else. So, did they manage that?

General User Experience

I’d sum it up on one word - ‘butter’. The fact is that the iPad comes with only a small piece of card of instructions (and bizarrely, a 300 page downloadable manual which I don’t think they expect anyone to read), and you don’t even need to read that. Seriously, a monkey could work this thing, and it wouldn’t even need any training. I consider myself a geek still, and some geeks seem to find user friendly experiences offensive, as if it undermines the skills they’ve acquired, but I’m not one of them, and I admire what’s going on here. It’s a very direct, tactile experience that rewards experimentation and exploration, and just says “hey, come play with me, I won’t bite”. This, frankly, is how systems should be designed.

The lack of multitasking (due to be added in OS4 later in the year) is much less of an issue than I expected. Apps remember where you were, and tend to launch fast so switching between, say, Safari and an email that you’re in the middle of writing, works just fine and feels no different to true multitasking. The only thing missing is if you have apps which need to actively do things when you switch - such as IM or voice messaging, or music players other than the built-in iPod features. But honestly, so far I’m not missing it, even though I can imagine it being useful in some cases.

Many have said this is a bigger iPod Touch. They’re right, but in the same way that a bay window is just a bigger porthole. If you think that doesn’t matter, maybe you wouldn’t mind replacing all the windows in your house with portholes. In my opinion, the size of this device is absolutely perfect - for the purposes use it for (see below).

So What’s It Good For?

These are the primary things the iPad is being used for in our house:

  1. Checking mail, web, news, social networks at home in a casual setting. When we’re doing things at home, watching TV, playing non-PC games, having guests around, or just between other things, it’s often useful to quickly check email or look something up on the web. Getting the laptop out takes too much time and it’s too bulky if you have friends around, and a phone is often too cramped, particularly if you want to show the contents to others or you want to type more comfortably. The iPad has instantly become the way my wife and I do all these things when we’re not at the PC anyway, and it works really well. Websites display legibly with no scrolling around, typing is fast (slower than a real keyboard but much faster than a phone). Most importantly, it doesn’t feel like a ‘work’ device and fits into a casual / social setting perfectly. My preferred way to check the detail of the day’s news after breakfast is now on the iPad via the Reuter’s app. YouTube works great on it too, I can catch up with my subscriptions very comfortably this way. As for the lack of Flash - in almost 3 days, I haven’t noticed, and I don’t think my wife even knows that Flash is not available. Maybe it’ll be an issue some time, but not so far.
  2. Touch gaming. I’ve specifically added ‘touch’ there because people trying to play normal games with traditional controls (using virtual joysticks etc) are completely barking up the wrong tree. Games on the iPad, like the iPhone, work best when they’re designed with a touch interface in mind, or at least adapt well to it (e.g. Plants vs Zombies). Flight Control and Harbormaster are good examples of this, where there’s just no way you could implement a game like this efficiently with anything other than touch controls, and they click in 2 seconds flat. To be honest, my wife has the most experience of the games so far, but the fact that it’s hard to get her off them is a fairly solid endorsement of the gaming capabilities of the device 😉
  3. Documentation. I don’t think I’d use a device like this for casual reading. A paperback is more rugged, cheap, and appropriate in the majority of cases than even dedicated devices like the Kindle, IMO. However, I do think e-readers are perfect for reference documentation, the kind of stuff you need to access randomly, search and dip into at a moment’s notice, often over several volumes, and for that I’m using GoodReader. Of course, if you’d be using that documentation at a PC anyway, you don’t need an e-reader. However, if you’re not at a PC, and you need access to this kind of information, then e-readers suddenly become useful. Because I have a minority usage for this, a dedicated e-reader has never been a worthwhile purchase for me, but as one feature in a multi-function device - that’s useful. In particular, I run a D&D campaign one night a week, and thus far have always needed a big stack of books next to me, which is a pain for space when we have a full crowd in. I’ve tried using laptops before, but they suck - they take up too much room and if you have them in a comfortable position in front of you they’re just too distracting. The iPad is the perfect size, and replaces several physical tomes with fully bookmarked, searchable texts, and it can sit to the side of me, available but not obtrusive, large enough to read but not too large to dominate the space. It’s by far the most practical device I’ve ever come across for this purpose, and I can’t help but think others will find places where it’s useful too.
  4. Photos. This might seem odd to call out as its own bullet point, but actually I think this is significant. Since we transitioned to digital photos, it’s made sharing them with family more awkward. Sure, you can use Facebook, but firstly - shockingly - many friends / family members don’t use Facebook (and no, I’m not going to pressure them to use it), and secondly it’s actually nice to show photos to people in person, and, you know, talk about them. Interact. Face to face. Radical stuff I know, but Facebook doesn’t solve that problem. In the past we’ve taken a laptop to other people’s houses, but that just feels clunky and geeky. And we don’t want to get them all printed, because that’s just a massive waste. And digital photo frames of any decent size are too expensive to justify. Enter the iPad - which can double as a photo frame and is very good at being a medium to share photos in person, just because its form factor works well - it’s easy to pass around or look at from multiple directions (rather than everyone crowding around a laptop screen). It’s a digital photo viewer that works in a multi-person environment, and the display is still large enough to do them justice.
  5. Sketching. It may not be a match for my wife’s Wacom tablet, but as a casual sketching tool (via SketchBook Pro) it works quite well. Obviously the touch interface is a no-brainer for this - it’s missing things like pressure sensitivity and angle detection like the Wacom kit does, but even so it’s far more natural than drawing with a mouse, and considerably cheaper to try out than buying a full featured tablet.

The important thing is that none of these things could be done as well with devices of another form factor, IMO. You could do them, but you’d be compromising something - such as screen space, comfort, instant accessibility. I think a pad form factor hits a sweet spot for these things, and that Apple’s implementation is confident and slick. In the end, that’s all I really wanted.

Conclusion

My personal opinion is that there definitely is room for a device of this form factor in the lives of many people. You can argue that iPad version 2 will have more features, or that an Android tablet (whenever they arrive in a product form) will do better later on and will have more apps because of the open architecture, but  I think the phrase ‘a bird in the hand is worth 2 in the bush’ is relevant here. In technology, there’s always going to be something better in the future, that’s a universal constant at any point in time, for any product. Right now, the iPad pushes exactly the buttons I wanted it to push - that doesn’t mean there isn’t potential for more, but what it does do, it does extremely well. And more importantly, it does it right now, not at some theoretical point in the future. That has value to me.

Perhaps the best illustration is that the iPad has been in pretty much constant use since purchase, barring when it’s on charge, and so far the split has been 70/30 in favour of my wife, whose review comments are simple: “It’s cool”. I concur.