From my first bit of exposure, the answer is almost — and that’s pretty great. The first visual impression (it’s just a big iPod Touch!) is seriously misleading. Until you actually hold it and interact with it, you can’t appreciate how its scale makes the iPad a different animal from the iPhone and the Touch. There’s something about the size and interface that engages you almost primally in reading, viewing video, web browsing, playing Scrabble and other activities. The iPad points to a Third Way — sitting in between the phone and the laptop — of interacting with information.
The other constant is speed. Like other mobile devices, there’s no waiting time to get up and running; it’s virtually instant-on. And with its custom-designed A4 chip powering things, iPad apps run much zippier than what you’d see with the iPhone.
Like everyone else, I rushed to see how the iPad would perform some specific tasks.
First, browsing. Steve Jobs promised that Safari on the iPad would be the best browsing experience ever. It’s hard to give it that distinction when it doesn’t run Flash, the technology behind a lot of web video and animation. I also miss tabs. That said, the techniques that work well to allow the iPhone to smoothly surf the Web really shine on the bigger screen here.
Watching video is terrific. Settling on the couch with a good movie in your lap is now as natural as nestling in with a book. (Though by the end of a two-hour movie, the iPad — even at a pound-and-a-half — begins to feel a bit heavy.) I can’t wait to take this on a plane loaded with movies. Even better if the plane has Wi-Fi, since the iPad NetFlix app provides customers with a library of great instant movies. I watched The September Issue using that app last night, and was impressed that it ran smoothly even with a relatively weak Wi-Fi signal.
As a Kindle aficionado I was curious to see how the iPad stacked up to Amazon’s device as an e-reader. The answer: Pretty well. Newspapers, of course, are a natural, and the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Reuters and USA Today are all taking a step toward Minority Report–style living newspapers, where a touch expands a story or starts up video. (That’s much better than Kindle’s clunky newspaper navigation.) Using the familiar conventions of the iTunes store, the iBooks store made it easy to buy a virtual book, though many best-sellers cost more on Apple’s store than Amazon’s.
Apple has added some welcome innovations to the reading process, like a scroll bar that makes it easier to zip through chapters. Pages turn really fast. And the backlit screen makes the pages themselves clearer. But I’m not sure whether the backlighting is a plus — I found it easier to read with the brightness turned halfway down. After a bunch of long novels I’ll figure out whether or not backlighting in “ludic reading” situations (intense, lengthy sessions) really does strain the eyes more than the Kindle’s screen does, as some have claimed.
It’s also clear that the iPad is well-positioned as a game platform. So far, some of the strongest games are those that use the touch functions and the accelerometers to bring traditional games into the digital world. I quickly got hooked on Labyrinth 2, which makes the iPad into a virtual wooden box that you balance to keep marbles from falling into holes in a maze.
In some ways it is just a larger iPhone, and apps on the former work on the iPad, but can be blurry when blown up to full size. But by expanding iPhone-sized applications, it creates a new paradigm: paper that’s alive. A good example of this is the iPad Maps application. It’s revelatory to see how much better Google-powered and Apple-enhanced Maps work when you don’t have to squint (as with a phone) or hold a clunky laptop.
Of course there are quibbles with iPad version 1. It’s too bad that some portion of iPad’s lovely screen real estate can’t be used for gadgets to keep us updated on Twitter, or connecting us with IM buddies. Multitasking, please! And GPS comes only with the 3G-equipped version.
Also, the virtual keyboard takes some getting used to. (I’m far from there yet.) You can use a slightly undersized actual keyboard (a $70 option that docks with the iPad’s connector port). But it’s not the kind of thing you want to drag around with you.
I wish Apple had built-in voice recognition like Google offers with the Nexus One. That said, using the dock, I’m having no problems using the iPad’s word-processing app, Pages, to write this post. I have also successfully loaded a complicated Excel spreadsheet with fantasy-baseball calculations into Numbers, and have toyed around with the Keynote app enough to see that for editing presentations on a plane or a car while en route to the site of a talk, this Third Way will be a boon.
A lot of the iPad’s shortcomings will be addressed as the category evolves. None of them significantly detract from its key virtues, which all work to make it into a computer that people won’t think of as a computer. At its best the iPad puts no space between you and the thing you want to do, whether it’s reading, watching video, or editing a presentation.
Sidelight to those wondering whether to get the Wi-Fi version now or wait for the 3G version, which costs $130 more and requires a month-to-month contract of $15 or $30 to get 3G data service from AT&T. At first I thought the Wi-Fi version was the hands-down way to go, figuring that the slower 3G connection would just be annoying. But testing the iPad with a 3G Mi-Fi setup, I found it surprisingly speedy, and it was able to stream video much better than my MacBook could through the same connection. So maybe it’s a tossup for those who can afford the monthly tariff.
If the iPhone is any example, the best is yet to come. It took months for a healthy app market to emerge on the iPhone, but for the last couple of days the iTunes store has been piling up with apps customized or originally created for iPad. There will be well over 3,400 at launch. Yes, there are some genuine concerns about the App Store model, which puts Apple in control of what goes on your iPad, but I won’t deal with those issues here.
I was pretty much sold on the idea that the time was right for an iPad-like tablet to bring us to the next step in computing, and using the actual iPad has only strengthened my view.
Despite what looks like a big initial wave of buyers, this shift won’t happen overnight. Lots of people will balk at paying between $500 and $830 for something that they think is an unnecessary complement to what they already have.
But eventually, as prices come down, power and connectivity increase and developers create unexpected and wonderful apps, I think this format will find its way into people’s hands as ubiquitously as smartphones. And though Apple has thrust itself into an early lead, there will be competition for the Third Way, and we’ll all be better for it.
Back in 1975, Ed Roberts’s Altair cost $397, only a bit less than the iPad does today. But it had no screen, no web, no apps and you had to assemble it yourself. We’ve come a long way since then. And as of Saturday, we’re a little way further.