Episode #89: Hands-on with an iPad

I’ve been playing with a 64GB Wi-Fi iPad for the past few days and want to share my initial impressions with y’all: 

In general

I had high expectations for the iPad and I am not in the least bit disappointed. Before receiving the device I had speculated that it would replace the laptop for many users. I still think that’s true but now that I’ve spent some time with one I also believe many users will want an iPad in addition to a laptop.

Put another way, there are times when a laptop is the best choice for a task. For example, if you absolutely must run a Mac or Windows application for which there is no iPad equivalent (i.e. Photoshop, QuickBooks, Final Cut Studio, Logic, etc.). Or if you absolutely need the ability to see two or more apps on screen simultaneously. 

That said, I also think many users will be able to replace their laptop with an iPad. If you use your notebook computer primarily for email and Web surfing when you’re out and about, the iPad will provide more than enough oomph. 

It also serves as a better option than the iPhone in many instances. For example, in the house I rarely use my iPhone for things I can do on the iPad. For example, I used to use my iPhone to view recipes in the kitchen. Now I use the iPad. Gaming on the couch? Definitely iPad.  

So where exactly does the iPad fit in the pantheon of mobile devices? I see it as the start of an entirely new category. In my case it’s going to be another option for mobile computing. Today, if I want to surf the Web from the couch or my back yard, I’ll choose the iPad over the MacBook Pro. If I’m going to be in a hotel room for a week and think I may need one of the hundreds of Mac apps on my MacBook Pro, that’s what I’ll choose. For short trips and plane rides, iPad. For road trips when I’ll have to work on a book, MacBook Pro. Starbucks? iPad. Band rehearsal? MacBook Pro. And so on. 

So the bottom line, at least for me, is that the iPad is the best choice for many tasks I would have performed on my MacBook Pro or iPhone in the past.I’ve found that around the house I almost always reach for the iPad and rarely the MacBook Pro or iPhone. 

Note: My MacBook Pro is connected to a bunch of external devices—big screen display, hard disks, mouse, etc.—making it less convenient to grab for things like recipes in the kitchen or IMDB in the den. Your mileage may vary. 

Features: LED touch screen

The first thing I noticed was how bright and beautiful the high-resolution, 9.7-inch LED-backlit IPS display was. If you were impressed when you first saw an iPhone, you’ll be even more impressed with this display. The IPS thing refers to “in-plane switching,” which gives it an unusually wide viewing angle (178°). Sitting side-by-side on the couch with the iPad on one of our knees or the coffee table, my wife and I were able to watch a movie quite comfortably.  

I’m not a great photographer but this shot kind of captures the nicely saturated, vivid colors when watching a movie (Up).


iPad’s color touch screen (lousy photo courtesy Bob LeVitus)

One other cool feature of the screen (or the iPad itself) is that as you rotate the orientation of the device the image on the screen (usually) rotates smoothly and immediately to the proper orientation. The cool part is that there is a physical “lock orientation” button on the right edge of the iPad for times when you don’t want the screen to rotate automatically.  

By the way, the touch screen works pretty much the same as an iPhone so if you’re familiar with using an iPhone you already know how to use an iPad. Even so, my wife, a long-time iPhone user, asked me how to quit an app the first time she used it.  

Features: Performance

The iPad is the first device to use a chip (known as A4) that is custom-designed by Apple for mobile devices. My impression is that the iPad feels very responsive at almost all times and rarely bogs down. Most apps load in a couple of seconds. If you’re used to the iPhone like I am, it feels like the apps load significantly quicker on the iPad.

And though I didn’t get the touted 10 hours of battery life, the battery did last all day every day of my (heavy) testing. Since my wife kept grabbing the thing out of my hands, I couldn’t really test the battery life accurately, though I hope to in the near future. My guess is that I got over 8 hours and maybe 9 or 10 hours per full charge. The New York Times’ David Pogue says he got 12 hours of continuous movie playing so draw your own conclusions.

Features: Bundled Apps

If you’re an iPhone user the selection of bundled apps will be familiar to you. 

iPad home screen 

iPad home screen

But while they may be familiar to iPhone users, they’ve mostly been updated with features specific to the iPad. For example, in the Photo app you can “peek” at the pictures in any library by spreading your fingers (i.e. un-pinching) on it: 

photos app

iPad Photos app’s “spread your fingers for a peek” feature

Here are a few more examples of cool iPad app features: 

Safari app tabs

iPad’s Safari Tabs

Safari app bookmarks overlay

iPad’s Safari bookmarks overlay

iPod app by genre

iPad iPod app’s “By Genre” view

Notes app

iPad’s Notes app

Finally, like the iPhone, you can have up to 11 pages of apps on your iPad.  

Features: Third-party Apps and App Store

The App Store has been redesigned; when you log in with an iPad you’ll see something like this. 

App Store

iPad’s redesigned App Store app

I had the opportunity to test a handful of third-party “made-for-iPad” apps and they were, for the most part, excellent.

For example, The Elements app displays information about the periodic table of the elements in a unique way. There’s lots of information on each of the elements and all of the illustrations rotate 360° so, for example, you could look at the back label of the Gold Paint bottle in the illustration below. 

The Elements

The Elements “made-for-iPad” app

Another example is Photogene, a photo editing app previously available for the iPhone but much easier to use after being revised for the iPad. 

Photogene iPad

The Photogene “made-for-iPad” app (Note:The excellent photo I appear to be editing was shot by the great Alex Suarez)

Compare the iPad version to the iPhone version shown below.

Photogene iPhone

The Photogene app for the iPhone

One last thing about apps… the iPad will run nearly all of the 150,000 existing iPhone apps. I’ve tried several dozen and haven’t found any that don’t work. When you run an iPhone app you have the option of running it in its native mode (at 320 x 480) in the middle of the screen as shown here: 

Tetris 1x

Tetris for iPhone running in native mode on an iPad

Or you can tap the little 2x button in the lower right corner to double its size as shown here: 

iPhone app 2x

Tetris for iPhone running in pixel doubled mode on an iPad

Frankly, I was surprised at how good most apps looked when pixel-doubled. I really expected them to look crappy, with a bad case of the jaggies. But as you can see above, Tetris looks pretty good even at 2x. 

Features: iBooks and iBook Store

One of the most talked-about features of the iPad is its ability to buy and display books. If you like to read books on an electronic device I think you’re going to like the iPad implementation. Here’s what I said in my Houston Chronicle “first look” review, which pretty much says it all:  

Reading a book on the iPad screen was a pleasant surprise for me.  I wouldn’t want to read an entire book on my iPhone or MacBook Pro screen, but I wouldn’t mind reading one on my iPad and look forward to doing so. 

The iBook Store should look familiar to anyone who has ever used the iTunes on a Mac or PC or the iTunes or App Store on an iPhone. The layout is a little different, but buying a book is a lot like buying an album, movie, TV show,  or app.   

Here’s what it looks like: 

iBook app store

The iBook Store in the iBooks app

And here’s my library:

iBook app library

My iBook library in the iBooks app

Here’s what it looks like to read a book in portrait mode:

iBook app portrait

Reading a book in portrait mode in the iBooks app

And here’s what it looks like to read a book in landscape mode: 

iBook landscape

Reading a book in landscape mode in the iBooks app

Features: Accessories

I also had the opportunity to use Apple’s iPad Case ($39), iPad Keyboard Dock ($69), and Apple Wireless Keyboard ($69). 

The case is very cleverly designed and can hold your iPad in a comfortable position for viewing movies or photos in both landscape and portrait modes. It can also serve as a stand when you’re typing on the on-screen keyboard in landscape mode as shown below. 

Landscape keyboard

The iPad Case used as a stand for typing  (lousy photo courtesy Bob LeVitus)

It’s made out of nice grippy material with a soft microfiber interior. It’s thin and lightweight and a pleasure to use. 

The Keyboard Dock (shown below) is nice and works as advertised but there are a pair of issues you should consider if you wish to use one. 

Keyboard Dock

The Keyboard Dock (lousy photo courtesy Bob LeVitus)

The first issue is that if you use an Apple iPad Case you will have to remove your iPad from it every time you wish to use the Keyboard Dock. Trust me when I say that it’s a hassle and you don’t want to do that.

The second issue is that you can only use it to type in portrait mode. If you want to turn your iPad 90° and type on a physical keyboard, you’re S.O.L. 

Fortunately, the iPad box includes a cable and AC adapter so you don’t really need it. The Apple Wireless Keyboard costs the same amount ($69) and works in portrait or landscape mode, and doesn’t require you to strip your iPad naked to use it. Another advantage is that you don’t have to be so close to your iPad when you type on it (as you would with the Keyboard Dock). You can put a foot or two between keyboard and iPad screen, which I found to be optimal. My advice: If you plan to use a case and the Keyboard Dock, make sure you won’t have to remove the case to use your iPad with the Keyboard Dock. I’ve only had the chance to try one third-party case (the iLuv Silicon Case), which was pretty nice, but although it’s quite thin, I still had to remove it to use the Keyboard Dock.

Features: Random Notes

Just a couple more observations and I’ll let you run along. 

One is that the built-in speaker is much better than I expected. I wouldn’t mind using it to watch a movie in a reasonably quiet place like my den or bedroom. 

Another is that the on-screen keyboard was better than I expected, especially in landscape mode. I could almost touch type that way, which was a big shock. I can already type WAY faster than on my iPhone and I suspect with practice I will be able to type even faster. It’s never going to be as fast as on a physical keyboard but I bet I’ll be able to come close if I practice enough. 

Last but not least, I was surprised to find that the box didn’t include a headset or earphones. On the other hand, since you know I think the Apple iPod/iPhone earphones and headsets suck, this could be a good thing, forcing users to buy earphones or a headset that sounds better and/or is more comfortable than the Apple offering.  

The Bottom Line

Before I got to play with one I wasn’t sure what to make of the iPad. Of course I knew I wanted one. But I’m a gadget geek and I always want one. Read my Dr. Mac column in the Houston Chronicle Feb. 2 for some insight on my thoughts before I had seen or touched one. 

Other reviewers have complained about things like the lack of a USB port, a webcam, an SD card slot, a removable battery, and Flash support. If those things are a problem for you, then the iPad may not be your cup of tea. Frankly, none of them affect me much. (Well, maybe I’ll find I miss Flash, but I hate it so much on my Mac that I won’t use Safari without the Flash-blocking plug-in Click To Flash.)  

The bottom line is that I still think lots of people will opt for an iPad in place of their next notebook computer. And now I think even more will opt for an iPad in addition to a laptop. The way I see it, the iPad may or may not be a laptop replacement though it could easily be one. Instead, I think it’s an entirely new category of mobile device one might choose for a given task. For example, when I want to surf the Web from my couch or my back yard, the iPad is the tool I reach for. Starbucks? Same thing. Reading anything longer than a page or two on a screen? iPad again.

Choices are good and I’m happy to have the option of choosing the iPad for the tasks it’s best suited for.  

And that’s all he wrote…