Monday, April 5, 2010

iPad Review

With all the hype surrounding the iPad this weekend, I decided to wait a bit and only write about it on Monday. This was also just a picture-perfect weekend with ideal weather in New England and the Red Sox Opening Day on Sunday, so I spent most of my time outdoors rather than playing with or writing about the iPad.

Being a technology geek I had, of course, pre-ordered my iPad a while ago and so it arrived on Saturday via UPS truck as promised. The truck driver jokingly remarked that he had a full truck of just iPads to deliver and he wished he had bought Apple stock a while ago. The first sales data that Apple reported today does indeed sound promising.

But is the iPad really a new “magical” device as Apple likes to describe it? Or is it the beginning of a dystopian future where Apple controls what we are allowed to see, the apps that are approved, and the end of an open Internet (as some pundits claim)?

I won’t bore you with unboxing details that others have reported before, or give you a detailed guide to the best applications you should download to your new iPad.

Instead, I will distill the benefits of the iPad down to the one product image that explains it all:

Marvel Comics on iPad

Yes, the iPad is a primarily a media consumption device. Think of that cozy armchair in your living room, or the sofa, or the couch, or a bench in your backyard. Anywhere you would sit down with a good book to read. Have you tried using a laptop in any of those spots? It doesn’t quite work. Laptops are – despite their name – really only useful when you put them on a hotel room desk or airplane tray table.

By contrast, the iPad is really made for consuming media wherever and whenever you don’t want to sit at a desk! Now, in addition to reading books from the iBooks or Kindle bookstores, you can also read comics by Marvel (see image above), consume newspapers in digital editions, catch up on TV that you missed, watch movies you buy or rent on iTunes or Netflix, and browse the web. And if you are one of those always-connected people (like me) you can even read your e-mail and respond to the occasional important one, or access one of the many social networking sites or apps.

And it does all of that extremely well – to the point where it is indeed a new class of device and since everything just works and is super fast, it really has a certain “magical” feel to it. In fact, when I showed some of these apps to my family this weekend, I immediately got requests for additional iPads that they now want me to buy…

iBooks on iPad The one iPad app that is of great interest to this XML Aficionado is, of course, the iBooks app, which is both a very pretty e-Book reader and also a bookstore where you can buy these e-Books directly from Apple. The interesting thing about iBooks is that apple decided to support the open ePub file format for e-Books rather than a proprietary format like the Kindle. As you may have guessed already, ePub is XML-based and the content can be provided in either XHTML or DTBook format. The result is that with the launch of the iBooks bookstore there are not only a few publishers who have already signed up, but you also get a ton of works in the public domain, whose copyright has expired, and you can download all of them for free from the iBooks bookstore. 

WolframAlpha on iPad Above and beyond that, the iPad is really a great educational tool. Using WolframAlpha on the iPad is just a joy and there are also new apps, like The Elements: A Visual Exploration that are really beautifully made.

Yes, there are also some business applications, like Keynote for presentation, Pages for word processing, and Numbers for spreadsheet-type work. Those are really very pretty and easy to use and will certainly be useful for some people, but I am guessing these are more attractive for people who don’t have a laptop and, therefore, want to use the iPad for that purpose, too.

Regarding the iPad hardware: the device fits comfortably in your hand and even though it is a bit heavier than the Kindle, it just feels right. The screen is really beautiful and the colors are vibrant. I used the device for several hours on Saturday and Sunday and the battery life was much better than expected. And it is really fast and responsive. I didn’t find any feature or app where I had to “wait for the computer”. Very refreshing, indeed!

So should you buy an iPad now? That decision is entirely up to you, but this flowchart might help. All kidding aside, if you are an early adopter, like new technologies, and have the money to spend, I would go for it. Likewise, if you are considering buying a Kindle or a PSP, I would buy an iPad instead. However, if you don’t yet have an iPhone and are trying to decide between iPad and iPhone, I would probably rather go with the iPhone – in my opinion it is the more versatile device.

multi_touch_20100225 There is another group of people, for whom the iPad is probably ideal: those of the older generation, who have not yet bought any computer. The iPad is certainly the most gentle way for a senior to get access to e-mail, web browsing, and sharing photos with the younger generations. If you want your parents or grandparents to finally “get connected”, then a broadband Internet connection with wireless router plus an iPad is probably the best solution out there.

Are there any negative things to say about the iPad? I’m afraid not many. There is, of course, the one issue that developers of applications for the iPad are totally dependent upon Apple with respect to whether the apps can be sold through the app store, since Apple has a mandatory approval process and can reject any app for any reason. Tim Bray, co-author and editor of the XML specification, has been very outspoken about that issue and recently said:

“The iPhone vision of the mobile Internet’s future omits controversy, sex, and freedom, but includes strict limits on who can know what and who can say what. It’s a sterile Disney-fied walled garden surrounded by sharp-toothed lawyers. The people who create the apps serve at the landlord’s pleasure and fear his anger.

I hate it.

I hate it even though the iPhone hardware and software are great, because freedom’s not just another word for anything, nor is it an optional ingredient.”

The same is true for the iPad as much as for the iPhone. On the one hand I agree with Tim about freedom not being optional, on the other hand there are very few apps that Apple rejected that I would miss (Google Voice being the only one I can think of right now). The one benefit of Apple’s tight control over the app store is the total lack of viruses and malware on the iPhone/iPad platform. And it adds a layer of QA on top of most applications, so the software you buy in the app store typically works and is useful.

The second issue with the iPad that is worth mentioning is that there are apparently some Wi-Fi issues that people have reported. I haven’t seen any of those problems myself - either at home or in the office - and the iPad has been flawless in its ability to connect to the Internet anywhere I tried.

Finally, for those who are not convinced and would rather want to see the iPad being abused, there are already some interesting videos out there…

3 comments:

Jim Tighe said...

Thanks for the review Alex, I bought my wife a netbook Christmas time and although she has used a computer before she is struggling with it and Windows 7. This iPad might have been just the ticket for her as she only does e-mail and searches the web.
Jim

Mark said...

Excellent review. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.
-M. Shasha

pedromiramis said...

Tim Bray is quite right as far as the general concept and native apps are concerned. I hope that web apps will grant some additional freedom to the iPad. Developer's ingenuity will be stronger than Apple's idiosyncracy.