iPad first impressions

· by Steve · Read in about 5 min · (875 Words)

Yesterday saw world-plus-dog in the technology sector glued to Apple’s announcement of their new tablet device, which has now been officially dubbed the iPad. Basically, when you boil it down it’s a super-sized iPod Touch with optional 3G support and a few more apps.

Reaction has ranged, as usual, from the ecstatic “I’ve seen the face of God, and his name is Steve”, to “What a useless piece of junk”, stopping at most points in between. In the more negative camp, lots of talk has centred around what it doesn’t have (multitasking, a camera, a USB port, Flash), and that some people seem to find it hard to grasp the usage conditions of a device that neither fits in your pocket, nor does everything a laptop does.

Personally, I’m cautiously optimistic. The device was never supposed to be a phone or a laptop, so I’m curious why people are comparing it to one - the point is that it’s something else. I can actually think of multiple use cases where a device of this form factor and capability would be useful to me. Here are a few examples:

  1. I’ve thought about buying an eReader before, but have always been completely unsatisfied with the existing solutions: current e-ink devices are fine for reading black and white novels, but don’t handle A4 formatted content at all well, can’t do colour, take far too long to flip through pages, and are basically unusable for keyboard input, making searching impractical - and therefore these devices do not satisfy my need for a reader that replaces my bookshelf (physical and virtual) of reference material at all. The iPad, however, looks like it would be able to do that much better.
  2. Sometimes I’m in the living room or kitchen and I’d just like to look something up on the web; maybe check some news or look up a recipe maybe - just a 5-10 minute thing. Firing up the laptop just for this is overkill, but the pages are too small to really read properly on a phone. In the end I do one of these things anyway but it’s never ideal. Again a tablet form factor would be perfect for this.
  3. When we’re showing photos to family and friends, these days we do it on a laptop because we never print anything. It’s not ideal, even the most elegantly built laptop requires everyone to crowd around the screen behind you or similar - it’s awkward. If I had a tablet to do it, one I can easily hold up and pass around, that would work much better.
  4. When I’m in a social situation when it would be useful to have intermittent access to some documents or other information that’s too big to fit on a phone screen comfortably, currently you need a laptop to do it. Laptops are really, really unsociable to have out on a table with others around (say at a meeting), because of the way they need to be used, with a screen forming a psychological barrier between you and whoever else is on the opposite side of the table. This happens all over the place: I strongly feel that laptops are the scourge of coffee shops today, turning a social space into a cluster of virtual mini-cubicles with individuals hunched behind screens not talking to anyone. I also play pen-and-paper RPGs socially, and over the years I’ve tried to use a laptop with many highly useful applications as an accessory, and it’s never, ever worked. Even the smaller laptops are too obtrusive, but a phone is just too small to be useful. I’d love to try using an iPad with some dedicated apps for tracking things.

I’m sure there are other examples. Basically I think people need to get over the fact that it doesn’t improve on what they currently use their phone or laptop for - that’s really not the point. I see the iPad as a ‘gap filler’ - and I can certainly see some gaps for it to fill in my life.

The price is much better than expected too, mostly because it’s an upgrade of an iPod rather than a downgrade of a laptop. I’d skip the 3G option because it’s pointless for me, I’d only use it on wifi, so that makes it not that much more expensive than a top-end iPod Touch.

But, it’s not all roses. The lack of Flash is an issue for web compatibility, although at least video through HTML5 is starting to happen (YouTube added it recently). The lack of multitasking is a bit disappointing, but might be relaxed in an OS update later. The GPU capabilities are a bit unexplored online so far, it seems that it’s probably as powerful as an iPhone 3G, but falling short of the 3GS (so GLES 1.1). I’ve also heard today that iBooks might not be available in non-US countries at launch, which definitely undermines the offering as an eReader.

So, depending on the practicalities when it’s released over here, I may or may not grab one. I can definitely see places in my life where a not-a-phone-or-laptop device would be useful, and frankly, I’m intrigued by the possibilities of where this kind of device may go in future.