And now we hit Phase Two of Rumored Apple Ta … sorry, iPad
hype: in which the world attempts to review something that
won’t ship for at least two more months, and which only a few
hundred people have ever actually held and used.
The iPad is too different, and the day is too early, to make any
sort of call on the success or failure of this thing. At worst,
Apple will be faulted for atypical conservatism. At best, the iPad
will be likened to the first Mac, which combined hardware and UI
elements that were familiar on their surface, but which had finally
been combined in the right way to produce a satisfying stew that
everybody else will leap to copy.
Yes, dear readers, I promise that I shall review the holy
hell out of this thing when I have one in hand. I will knock
you down during recess and sit on your chest and pummel you
with technical details and user experiences and opinions. Our
teachers will pull me off of you and I’ll still be
desperately kicking at you with speculations about the future of
the platform and screaming “This isn’t over!!!”
as I make dark promises of a series of follow-up reviews in which I
discuss new iPad software.
So you have that to look forward to.
Until then, here are a few notes and impressions I collected
during my fondle-time with the iPad and a sober morning after a
full night’s sleep:
It has a feeling of being The Right Size. It’s smaller in
your hand than what you might expect, which means that it feels
manageable and easy to carry around. But it’s big enough that
you don’t find yourself asking “what’s the point
of having this and an iPhone or Android?”
This is no cheap hunk of netbook plastic. It’s glass and
aluminum, fitted together very precisely, with a solid feel …
just like a premium MacBook. It’s neither obtrusively thick
nor what you might call Delightfully Thin. I feel as though I could
be rather bold in slinging this in a bag (whereas I always make
sure that my Kindle is backed with something a lot sturdier than
the ebook reader is).
As expected, there are practically no buttons and openings on
the iPad. Just the usual assortment you’d find on an iPhone:
Home, power, lock, volume up/down, openings for the speaker and the
microphone, and a standard Apple dock connector. The connector is
under the Home button, as on an iPhone. It’s going to be a
small challenge to develop any kind of dock that allows you to use
or view the iPad in landscape mode.
Its weight is just fine. I had no problem holding it in one hand
as I worked the UI with the other, though for long periods —
like reading a book — you’re going to want to two-hand
it, or rest a corner on a table. When it’s on a table you can
use both hands to input touch gestures — as in Keynote, when
you’re sizing and rotating content for the screen —
which is a real “welcome to the future” moment. It made
me a bit sad that Microsoft Surface technology will never make it
into consumer space. The first “light table” app for
the iPad will do very well, I reckon.
The whole thing is sealed tight. The battery is hardwired in,
but then you knew that when you saw the word “Apple” in
front of “iPad.”
Battery life is promised as “10 hours.” Even when I
cut that in half (my usual reaction to any manufacturer’s
claim of real-world battery life) that’s more than enough for
a flight from Boston to San Francisco. I suspect that
it’ll be even enough that I can be brave about reading books
for hours on the iPad without worrying about having nothing left
when I need to do some email or write something.
The display is gorgeous — crisp, with strong color but
lots of subtlety. A pro photographer friend with a best-selling
photobook series told me he thought it was good enough to use as a
commercial presentation portfolio. Do keep in mind that we were
seeing the display under optimal conditions — a dim room
draped in black curtains.
Viewing angles are immensely wide: it’s practically like a
TV. Specs on the screen: 1024x768 at 132 dpi. This is lower
resolution than the eInk display on a Kindle and other ebook
readers. But I’d say it’s just as readable, if not more
so. You do give up some dpi, but it’s backlit, the
anti-aliasing is much better, and the OS does a much better job
laying out the type.
OS and UI
This really is the iPhone OS. I tried every trick and
technique available to me on the iPhone and it all
worked…except for the Screen Capture trick (hold down the
Power and Home button to take a screenshot).
My very first impression is that I’d like to see
Apple give us a better version of Springboard (the application
launcher). The iPad versions of the iPod, Mail and the photo viewer
apps aren’t just scaled-up flavors of the iPhone editions.
But that’s the feeling I get from Springboard on the
Apple’s iPad apps make terrific use of landscape and
portrait modes. When you tilt Mail on its side, the UI changes from
“looking at one long scrolling page of email” to
“multipaned efficient processing of an Inbox” mode, so
I can’t really make much of a pronouncement about these
apps but I was struck by the amount of restraint the apps’
designers used. A bigger screen increases the temptation to just
keep adding interface elements. And yet it’s remarkably
uncluttered. All of the features of a “real”
spreadsheet are there, but there are appear to be fewer buttons and
controls here than what you’d find on a typical Android
The iPad has soft keyboards available in both landscape and
portrait modes. I tried typing on it in landscape mode, where the
keyboard is almost full-sized. I have to say that it’s more
touch-tappable than touch-typeable. Typing at my normal
speed was … unproductive. But if I slowed down, I could type very
fast using both hands. It’s fine for writing emails, but
probably poor for writing an essay or a column. Nonetheless
I’m certain that I could do a whole 800-word column on the
virtual keyboard without suffering too much.
The virtual keyboard doesn’t have to be as good as a real
one, anyway. There are two options for mechanical keyboards: a
keyboard dock that holds the iPad like an easel and incorporates a
notebook-sized keyboard, and Apple’s standard wireless
I could type on the keyboard dock just as quickly as I can type
on my MacBook … and of course, the Pages app kept right up with
me, keystroke for keystroke.
The keyboard dock sports a few extra iPad buttons, for reaching
the Home screen, Photos, Search, and a Mystery Unlabeled White
Button that I didn’t press for fear that a poison dart would
be fired from the middle of the screen into my neck.
It also has a familiar Command key. Common keyboard equivalents
for Cut, Copy and Paste are supported and I expect that other
keyboard shortcuts will be supported in apps.
One disappointment: the keyboard dock doesn’t fold flat
for travel. I suspect that on-the-go iPad users will want to give
it a miss and either buy the Bluetooth keyboard, or wait for an
enterprising third party to design a more travel-studly option.
Fast. Fast, fast, fast. I did absurd things, like zoom in and
out of webpages with fast twitches of my finger tips. The iPad kept
right up with me, millisecond by millisecond. When you drag
something, you feel like you’re physically sliding a photo
across a surface; no need to wait for the OS to catch up with you.
When you turn the iPad, the screen switches display modes almost
This sort of responsiveness enhances the whole experience. In so
many touch-based systems — yes, I’m flashing an
impatient glance at Android devices — the interaction feels
like “I have made an input gesture; the ebook reader app has
received the ‘turn to the next page’ command; the
computer is now rendering and displaying an animation of a page
turning in this ebook.” On the iPad, it feels as though you
put your finger on the bottom-right corner of the page and dragged
that corner towards the spine of the book until it flipped
And of course, it plays HD video smoothly and smartly. HD video
on a netbook is a pipe dream. Even many of the $500 notebooks
I’ve tried can’t really handle any video that
hasn’t been transcoded for low-bandwidth mobile playback.
The iPad’s support for existing iPhone apps is a mixture
of Awesome and Awkward. In general, the only iPhone apps that
won’t run on it are ones that require the device to be a
phone. They all work great at original iPhone size (postage-stamped
into the middle of the screen).
When you tap the “2X” button to scale the iPhone app to iPad
dimensions, the results will depend on the app. Some rely heavily
on bitmapped images and controls (like labels on buttons). The OS
does its best to up-sample the graphics but there’s only so
much that can be done.
But even an iPhone game scaled-up to iPad dimensions is a
tantalizing glimpse of what HD gaming will be like on this device.
Holding and twisting this big screen in your hands is an immersive
Bravo to Apple: the iPad has plenty of features to aid people
with low vision, such as full-screen zoom, a white-on-black display
option, and Apple’s “VoiceOver” technology (which
reads anything on the screen aloud). For the hearing-impaired, the
media player supports closed-captioned content and the audio output
can be remixed to mono.
Reflecting on the “magical day
It’s the Morning After. I’ve had a good
night’s sleep, finally, and have also had the chance to wash
the stink of a full day’s worth of coverage off of my
battered body as well as the glitter and stardust that Apple
sprinkles over the folks who attend its product announcements.
I’ve also been able to read some of the Internet’s
first impressions of the iPad.
Let me address one thing straight away: anyone who declares the
iPad a “fail” because the
browser lacks support of Flash needs to elaborate their
position beyond one word of a single syllable. Frankly, I think
some people elevate flash-based Web content to the level of a
fetish. Which isn’t far off the mark, given the kind of
content that its fans stream from various video sites.
It’s true that there’s a lot of
Flash content out there. But Flash –
see Adobe’s reaction to the lack of Flash support on iPad here
– is in no way part of the true language of the Internet.
It’s Scottish-accented English. Sometimes it makes the
language more colorful and entertaining, and sometimes it just
renders it into unintelligible mush.
Months ago, I installed a browser plugin for Safari called
“ClickToFlash.” It blocks all Flash content.
You’ll see a placeholder image in the webpage and if you
want to view the content, give it a click and it’ll
load in. I have not noticed any drop in my ability to enjoy the
Web. What I have noticed is that my browser is faster and
more responsive, and that I can leave a couple of dozen tabs and
windows up for weeks without having to force-restart my Mac.
So I’m not worried about the lack of Flash. If
there’s anything about the iPad design that concerns me,
it’s the lack of an open file system, which the iPad
inherited from the iPhone. Here’s a typical “Thank God
I had my ASUS netbook with me” situation: I’m usually
desperate to flee the scene of the crime after I’ve filed a
column or an article. I grab my netbook and my car keys and soon
I’m 30 miles away from my office.
I grab the netbook partly because I don’t feel like
I’m free to go until all of my editors have gone home for the
day. If there’s breaking news (or if someone just gets a
Fancy Idea) I might have to write and file something on the spot.
If I screwed up (like failing to forget that this isn’t 1932
and the Sun-Times
can’t print a 3811-word review), then the piece I emailed
from the office will be sent back to me and I’ll make cuts
and improvements and send it back.
It’s easy to do this with a netbook. Download the file
attachment from my editor’s email, cut 3000 words that were
utterly essential to the story, then email it back. Or download the
column from cloud storage and open it in my word processor. Or
write a whole new piece and attach it.
On the iPhone, it’s almost impossible. I can create a new
document in a word processor, but the Mail app can’t see into
the word processor’s data area so I can’t do anything
Every iPhone app that needs to share data with other iPhone apps
or other devices on the Internet uses a different trick to get
around this problem.
But instinctively I think that an app running on a $500 thing
shouldn’t have to resort to tricks for something so
basic. There are loads of tasks in which the simple ability to
create a file, edit a file, and move a file someplace useful is
As a consumer, I’m hoping that the iPad will indeed be the
One True Thing. You know, the device that does so much, and does it
all so well, that it’s the only thing that I need to have
with me when I leave the office. If, once I’ve had the iPad
for a month, I find myself fleeing the office with the car keys,
the iPad … and my netbook just in case, then Apple will
have failed. Pages — Apple’s $9.99 iPad word processor
— is a treat to use. But it’s not useful to me if I
can’t easily get documents into and out of it. Time will
On the whole, I see no reason to peg the iPad as a success or as
a failure. Which seems like a ridiculous thing to even point out at
such an early juncture but it’s sometimes good to put it in
writing. I’m as certain today as I was yesterday that any
single-purpose device that costs more than $400 (like the
Kindle DX) isn’t long for this world, though.
Otherwise, the release of the iPad marks a classic battle
between two philosophies:
Is it better to have a device that is loaded with
Or is it better to have a device that has a shorter list of
specs … but which does everything right?
That’s not a loaded question. It’s the key
difference between the Android and iPhone operating systems.
It’ll also define the difference between a netbook and an
iPad. The former looks great on paper. The Apple product looks
great when you’re actually trying one out firsthand.
Example: the iPad (like the iPhone) doesn’t multitask
third-party apps. You can listen to music from the iPod app while
you work on your mail, but you can’t listen to music
streaming from a Pandora client. But on an iPad, switching between
two apps is lightning-fast and intuitive, and if it’s
anything like an iPhone, this “one third-party app at a
time” policy will result in a far more stable computer.
An Android tablet does true multitasking. But this feature makes
Android devices a little crashy, it slows down performance
(sometimes to the point where you need to restart the device), and
it really demands that you download and use a special app that does
nothing but help you manage this herd of skittish and sometimes
quite angry sheep.
These differences don’t mean that the iPad is
under-featured or that an Android-based tablet is so backward that
it might as well have been made from sticks and dried animal skins.
It’s a difference in philosophy.
I like my netbook a lot. Most of my admiration for it comes from
the knowledge of what I can accomplish with it despite its many
limitations. “Wow, this keyboard and screen are useful …
they’re not as big as I’d like, but what would you
expect from a machine this small?”; “This webpage
loaded plenty quick … of course, it’s a lot slower than
what I’d get on a real notebook, but what do you expect for
$300?” … that sort of thing. Most of my admiration for the
iPad comes from the fact that I left that demo room with absolutely
no complaints about the speed, comfort, or simplicity of my user
As such, I don’t imagine that the iPad will light the
world on fire immediately. I suspect that the majority of
purchasers — the average consumers — will buy one at a
time when they were in the market for a pan-useful computer anyway.
They’ll walk into the store with a cheap notebook or a good
netbook in mind. But then they’ll think of the times they
were in a conference room and saw a couple of people with iPads in
front of them. Or they’ll think of that six-hour flight last
month in which the guy across the aisle was on his iPad for as long
as the flight crew would allow him.
And then they’ll give the iPad a try. Then and
only then, after a half an hour of tapping and dragging
and tilting and reading, will a consumer really know what the right
choice will be.