Not too terribly long ago the internet was awash with rumors of an Apple tablet. Everyone was talking about it; what was it going to look like? What would it be like to use? We all had our theories. For the record; when we thought about it we always envisioned a large scale personal media player combined with an e-book reader.
Well, last month Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad. Despite the terribly funny (and pointless) name, the iPad came very close to what we expected it to be. It is a content delivery system that is looking to knock the current e-book readers and personal media players into a cocked hat. It is also taking a stab at some of the lower end netbook space.
We have read and listened to all the hype surrounding it, so, on April 3rd at 8:30am (at the Altamonte Springs, FL Apple Store) our experience and review of the 16GB WiFi flavor of the Apple iPad began. How did it fare? The only way to find out is to read on!
The Box and What's Inside
Package and Contents
The package that the iPad came in was nothing special. That is not to say that it was not a good looking box. It is like every other box that Apple puts out, sleek and classy. No, I mean that it was larger than it needed to be and contained far less than it should have.
When you pull the top off the first thing you are greeted with is a view of the iPad itself. This certainly builds up some excitement. Unfortunately once you pull out the iPad you will probably be left thnking that there's a lot to be desired here. Underneath is not much.
If you look at the box we received you would think that you are getting a lot of loot inside. Well, you aren't; what you are getting is a book sized (think encyclopaedia) box that is filled with a plastic insert and a lot of air.
The total haul is only a couple of pamphlets, a USB cable, a wall adapter and a pair of Apple stickers. You do not get a set of Apple earbuds or even a cleaning cloth. I sort of feel that for $500 this should have included both and perhaps a rudimentary sleeve to protect the surface of the iPad, but you do not get any of that.
The iPad itself looks a lot like the iPhone or the iPod Touch. I am not sure the reasons for Apple going with this design when there was so much more they could have done with it. Perhaps they wanted to save money and re-use already existing designs and/or parts. But when you consider what a slate computer is, I think forming the new iPad to look like a phone or a PMP might have been a bad design choice, something of a first for Apple here. Plus, I'll be honest in my views...the iPhone/iPod Touch design is getting a little dated, I feel. It is no longer the new sleeky and sexy look that it was a few years ago. I think a new design would have been a better choice here.
Another mistake (at least in my opinion) is the placement of the 30-pin connector. Again Apple have gone with the iPhone/iPod design choice and put it on the bottom. At first I thought this was a neat idea as it puts the charging cord to the left or right if you are using it in portrait mode. Then I thought about the Keyboard dock and the Camera connectivity kit and the VGA kit. At that point it made no sense. Why the bottom of the slate? Plus I am getting mixed messages here. What is the "default" way of using this? The Keyboard doc makes me think Portrait, but all the other accessories make me think landscape. Also, on the bottom is a rather "tinny" speaker.
Heading up to the top of the iPad we find familiar looking controls. Here we see what appears to be a volume rocker and possibly a mute switch. Well, you are spot on about the volume rocker, but the switch is a rotation lock. There is no mute switch on the iPad; you have to turn the volume all the way down manually. This is also something of a poor choice. I (and many others) have said that there really needs to be a quick way to mute the iPad. But Apple decided otherwise, so that is that. On the top (again like the iPhone/iPod touch) is the sleep/power button.
On the other top corner we find the spot for those missing Apple earbuds and what looks like a microphone hole (because that is what it is).
The back of the iPad is rather dull and lacks even a small camera lens to liven things up. There were some other disappointments with the iPad's design. I know that I and many others would have liked to see at least one USB port on the product. Of course, some will argue that it is not needed and that you can get a USB port of sorts with the camera connectivity kit. Well, they would be right, but as that only works with a camera it limits the functionality of it and still pushes the iPad back into the same boat as the iPhone and iPod touch in terms of physical design and build.
One not so minor note here, you will not be able to charge your iPad from a simple USB connection. You have to have it plugged into the wall (It is not only 10Watts, but also 2.1 Amps).
The OS and UI
As with other iDevices, you are forced to connect to iTunes (at least v9.1) to activate your iPad before you can use it. While I can sort of understand this, I still think that this is another nail in the coffin with the idea of the iPad being a productivity device and it makes it more of a bigger version of the iPod Touch at this point.
After you do connect with iTunes, you can quickly get all of your iPhone apps synced up and installed on your iPad.
The lock screen is still the same one you see on the iPhone and iPod Touch. Even the "slide to unlock" is the exact same size. Of course, this is because the iPad is using the iPhone OS (version 3.2). So you are getting the same thing that you have with the iPhone and iPod Touch; well maybe a few extra features and/or functions, but still pretty much the same thing as the iPod Touch.
The Dock looks the same, although you can put more than the standard four icons on it; you can drop up to six on the dock. One new thing that is an improvement is that you can operate the home screen (and even the lock screen) in landscape mode. This is very cool and a welcomed addition to the device. However, there is a problem even with this. The accelerometer inside the iPad is very sensitive. I found that when the device was on my lap or on a table a small movement would often change the orientation of the screen and I would have to pick the device up and force it to rotate.
Apple did include a rotation lock switch, but even that has an issue. If you launch an app that has a default orientation of portrait then you get that mode, you have to unlock it, rotate the view and lock it back. It is something of a pain to deal with this.
One thing you will have noticed by now is that Apple has changed some of the menus. As you can see in the image directly above, it is not like the iPhone here. You actually still have the menu of options visible on the left. No more drilling down then back up to move to a different part of the settings menu.
The same UI has made its way to the mail application, although here it might not be as much of a good thing as it is in the settings menu. One of the problems is that if you have an open e-mail in one account, it stays on the screen until you choose another folder or drill back up to another account.
I found this to be a tad annoying. The mail app even retains e-mails you have deleted until you move to another folder (if there are no other e-mails in the folder). Speaking of the Mail App and things that need to change, I wonder when Apple will let you have a signature for each e-mail account, like many other smart phones/devices do.
One of the nice items that Apple has thrown in (obviously to combat the jailbreakers), you can now change the wallpaper on the lock screen and the home screen. You can do this independently or use the same image for both. This is not the same as being able to change the entire theme, but it is a baby step in the right direction.
As was shown at the launch event, there is a new feature called "Picture Frame". This lets you turn your iPad into a 9-inch digital picture frame when you have it locked. It is a pretty neat idea and one that I played with a total of four times in two days. I have not used it since and after thinking about it, a $500 digital picture frame is something of a joke anyway.
Overall, the OS and UI are really identical to the iPhone and iPod Touch with a bigger screen and better resolution. I wish there was more to say about this, but there isn't at the time of this writing.
The Stock Apps - Revisited
The Stock Apps - revisited
Starting at the top left and working our way through the stock apps, we can see that Apple did spend a little time to make these more than just ports from the iPhone.
The Calendar app is quite attractive when you are in landscape mode. I like the way they have made it look more like a planner than just a bunch of dates. The inclusion of a small line with all of the days of the month is a nice touch.
When you rotate to portrait mode the calendar looks a bit silly; I would have almost preferred them to limit it to one page instead of just stretching the book.
The List view is also a great idea and shows all of your upcoming appointments in a list form. As you tap each the details appear on a page to the right.
Here we again see Apple making the most of the extra screen size. The contacts app is clean and nice to look at. It is nothing spectacular, but it is functional and looks good.
I really like the new Notes application. One of the problems I had with the one on the iPhone was the way that it handled multiple notes. Again, you had to tap multiple times to get back and forth between notes; it was a pain and made the app of little use to me (and many others I know of). I might have used it a handful of times when I did not have a piece of paper and a pen handy. But I honestly think that I used it no more than 10 times since I bought my first iPhone (original model).
Now with the iPad, I have used it several times and even used it to take notes during a phone conference. I do with that Apple would drop in a hand writing tool (like you find in a few other smartphones), but maybe we will see that in iPhone OS 8....
The iPad does have a form of GPS (WiFi Assisted) and could potentially be used as a GPS device for driving instructions (although I think I would wait for the 3G version before giving that a try). For the most part the maps app is identical to the one you are used to on the iPhone.
As we mentioned above, movies and videos are in their own app like on the iPod Touch. I guess this makes sense, but as I have been used to the iPhone having them in the iPod app, I was a little surprised to see this. I guess I was wrong in my statement that the iPad is a giant iPhone; it is more like a giant iPod Touch. Or at least the WiFi version is at any rate.
The Videos App does give you a nice layout with an image of all of your synced or downloaded movies. If you grab them from iTunes you can see all of the information about the movie including a synopsis, who is in it, who it was directed by etc.
For all of us that like to put our own movies into iTunes for use on our devices, I have some good news. The current version of Videora for the iPhone 3G S has support for the iPad in a roundabout way.
I stumbled across this quite by accident when I was making a file; I found that by using the Apple TV H.246 720p setting you get great quality video for that nice clear screen. So you can get your movie collection on your iPad right way without the need to wait on a new product.
The layout of YouTube is also different from the way you see it on either the iPod Touch or the iPhone. It is a little cleaner and much closer to the way you would see it on the web. Of course, it is not exactly the way you would see it when you are looking for something, but when you get to the end of the video you are watching then things begin to look familiar.
The Stock Apps - Revisited (Cont.)
- iTunes and the App Store
As with just about everything else, the new layout for both iTunes and the App Store is quite different from what you might be used to. I am not even sure if it is better to be honest; it is just different. This brings up something very interesting.
At the launch one of the claims that Apple made was that because there were so many iPod Touch and iPhone users, the iPad would fit right in because people already knew the interface. Yet, things are different once you get inside the iPad. The layouts are different by necessity and due to the major differences between the two formats, but still it is not as cut and dry as Apple would like you to think.
Still, both the iTunes and App Store interfaces are easily learnable after a few minutes inside each.
We briefly covered this application earlier; there is really not much that is different except for appearance. You still have the same general options and limitations on what you can and cannot do in the settings pages.
This app works pretty much the same as the one on the iPhone. Apple has changed the look (as we mentioned above) to give it a new "feel", but other than that you are not getting a whole lot more out of Mail than you would from the iPhone.
Ah, one of my favourite topics; the browser on the iPhone. Well, you are pretty much getting the same thing on the iPad. Safari for iPhone has been listed as "the best way to experience the web" in many Apple advertisements. The problem with that is the complete and total lack of any support for Flash or Silverlight.
These two items make up a large portion of the internet experience, yet for some reason many members of the press keep making excuses for it not being on Apple's products. We have talked about it before and it all comes down to control and money.
But all of that aside, even with Flash and Silverlight you are still missing a large part of the internet. A recent article stated that you can still go to sites like Facebook, Flickr and others which is true. However, you cannot upload anything to those sites using Safari, as you have zero access to the file system.
Take a look at what you get when you try and upload photos to Facebook using Safari; the same thing with Flickr and of course same thing with Photobucket.
Now I know that I am going to catch hell here as there are Apps for each of these. But here is the rub with that; Apple says it will not allow applications that mimic functions of the device. Ok, so that means that the Flickr, Photobucket, Facebook and many other Apps should not be allowed as they mimic something that Safari SHOULD be capable of doing.
What is worse is that both of these apps look terrible on the iPad. As they were designed for the iPhone's resolution and screen size, you have to use the pixel double feature to get them full screen. Otherwise they only occupy a small window in the center of the 9.1-inch iPad screen. As you can see, once you use the pixel double, all of the text starts to look like you are back on an 800x600 monitor with no 3D (or even 2D) acceleration. It is a joke to be honest. And there are many, many apps that are like that. Their only purpose is to fill in the gaps in the way the iPhone OS is restricted for the user.
- Photos and iPod
The last two items in the "pre-installed" app list are Photos and iPod. These two have also benefited from the larger screen area. The photos app has been given a very nice make over. However, I am a tad disappointed that even on the iPad I cannot rotate the view. It remains stubbornly in portrait mode. You can move it around and even spin it with your fingers, but...as soon as you let go, it snaps right back to the original position.
There is also no way to create a new album inside the photos app. This is something I would think Apple would want to put in place. It would be an excellent option for people that might be considering the camera connectivity kit.
The iPod app is really the same app found on the iPod Touch or iPhone with a larger screen area and a cleaner UI. Nothing much to see or talk about here.
How does it work in practice
So now that we know about the iPad and the apps you get free with it, let's take a look at how it works in practice.
When I first started playing with the iPad I found that many applications were different enough that I had to spend some time with them (not much) getting used to the new look and feel. There were things that I was used to with my iPhone that were not the same on the iPad. I have covered many of those just before, but I will also touch upon some of the major items (both good and bad) here.
- The Keyboard
The new virtual keyboard is nice. It is very easy to use after a few minutes of acclimation. I do feel that it is a tad too big in landscape mode, but for the most part it is a well done effort.
The portrait mode keyboard is awkward. It would also be nice if there was a way to disable or ignore taps in the document area while typing. Due to my large and clumsy fingers and hands, I kept moving the "cursor" around the doc and would find myself typing a new sentence in the middle of an old one very often.
- The Web
Safari is a clean browser; it is also fast compared to many other mobile browsers. It has a nice render engine which is able to display most pages very well.
I went over this before; the lack of Flash, Silverlight and access to the file system make using the web like you would on a real computer impossible. You are forced to use multiple apps to get the same work done that you could from a single browser on a PC or Mac.
- The Apps
Apple is not far off the mark when they claim "there is an app for that". A quick run through the App Store shows this to be true. There are Apps to do almost everything. With the iPad you can even get a trio of real productivity applications in the form of iWork for the iPad.
Apps cost money. We added up what we have spent on the iPad after we bought it and it is over $46 just to test this thing for you. It was $29.97 to get the iWork Suite (each is $9.99), $6.99 for a single iBook and $9.99 for the movie we used for testing. During our review we resisted the urge to buy more apps just to keep the cost down, but you can quickly end up spending into the $100's of dollars on an iPad if you are not careful.
The other bad point here is that not all apps can handle the iPad's resolution; you end up running them either in a small (very small) window or you get them full screen using Pixel Double and they look simply terrible. This even happens in more than a few games; of course to get the iPad version you have to shell out more money as most companies are not going to allow a direct upgrade to that version if you have the iPhone version of the app.
The iPad can be synced to iTunes 9.1. This is good and allows you to move files around; you can even share files on the iPad through the USB connection with your PC or Mac. This is a great add-on if you are using the iWorks suite for the iPad. Of course, you will need to spend some more money to view these files locally, but that is the name of the Apple game anyway.
Due to the increased power demands you cannot sync and charge your iPad at the same time. There is just not enough power from a single USB socket to do this. It is a shame really, but until someone comes out with a dock (or Apple release theirs), you are left without this function.
Ahh, this app is not one that comes pre-installed (and I have no idea why not). Thankfully it is a free app, though, so you are not shelling out more money to get this installed. Once you do have it installed then you have access to some pretty cool books.
Apple has decided to give you one for free. It is the classic, Winnie-the-Pooh, and I quite enjoyed looking through it and remembering being read those stories when I was a kid (I told you Apple's marketing team is brilliant). It had me smiling and quickly looking for other books I might like to read. The initial "book shelf" look was something that I was not fond of, but you can change that to a list view as well, so no worries there.
With iBooks you can read in either landscape or portrait mode. In landscape it looks like a regular book with pages open on either side. In portrait mode it is a single page view. I found that reading in landscape mode was the best view for me.
Inside the book you can see the table of contents and quickly move forward to a chapter of your choosing. You can also setup your own bookmarks for favorite passages (this is great on books like the Bible and some text books). You can also drag your finger along the bottom to move to a particular page very quickly. iBooks also remembers your place when you put a book back on the shelf, making it easy to pick up where you left off.
In the upper right hand corner you can adjust for brightness, font size (and even type) as well as search through the book for a word or a phrase.
You can also search Google or Wikipedia from this interface. We wanted to see if all of the books were like this, so we bought the book "Patriot Games" by Tom Clancy from the iBook Store.
Speaking of the iBook Store; Apple did a rather good job here. It included a New York Times best seller list, a top of the charts list (top free and paid books) as well as a featured and purchase list.
If the listings are not to your liking you can always view the books by category.
Overall I found the iBooks app to be just about the best new App on the iPad.
- Real World Usage Conclusion
I typed up the entire review of the iPad, on the iPad. But I was not able to finish it up and get it sent off. This meant that I still had to move this file back over to my PC to get things warped up and out to you. I was not overly surprised that I had to do this as I have become used to the controlling nature of Apple, but I was a little annoyed that they are getting away with the claims that it is in any way a productivity device.
The constant need to fix accidental touches in the article was extremely annoying, as was the inability to easily move back and forth between images and applications while I was detailing them. iWork was also something of a problem; when using Pages it is recommended to use the landscape mode when typing large amounts of text. However, when you do that your tool bar goes away and cannot be restored unless you put it back in portrait mode. This was also very annoying and made me not want to use it to finish this article.
That having been said, I loved the iBooks app and was quite pleased with Mail and the way movies and few other items worked. I do not know if I would spend a ton of cash on these things, but I did like the way they worked. I also enjoyed being able to watch Netflix on the iPad using the Free App, although I would like to be able to use the browser based version as well.
The battery life was not bad at all; I found that over the course of the review I could generally use it for about 7-8 hours without the need to plug in for a recharge. This included leaving the WiFi on all the time and also listening to music and audio books, watching a few free TV programs and also movies, as well as having two e-mail accounts set up. One was an exchange account with push notifications and the other was a POP3 account that was set to fetch mail every 15 minutes. This was in addition to push notifications from the Facebook app and a few others like IM+ lite. That number is a couple of hours short of the 10 hours that Steve Jobs claimed, but then again, we are talking real use vs. lab testing.
Gaming was ok; I did not dive too deep into it, but did play my favorite, Zombieville and also Audi A4. Both were responsive but needed the pixel double to reach full screen. This killed the enjoyment of them as the controls on Zombieville were flakey in this mode. I felt like a complete dork tilting the iPad to play the driving game, though, which would make me want to shy away from using it as a gaming platform.
The Hidden Cost
The iPad we tested here was the 16GB WiFi version. It cost us $499 + tax (just over $53 extra) just to get this. As we mentioned, we needed (to give you a more complete review) to add a few things to this. The first was at least one movie and one iBook. This added roughly another $15 to the cost.
Next, we picked up iWorks; tack on another $30. From there we ended up needing a cover for our iPad as it was getting scratched, not something we wanted on a $500 piece of hardware. The cheapest case was $40. Now, this is the bottom of the barrel iPad. And after one week we are already into it for $637. We have not even picked up any extras like a set of Apple earbuds (another $40 or so), the dock or the camera connectivity kit. We also have not bought more books or movies. We did buy one additional app to allow us to move files a little easier to and from our PC, but that was only $2.99.
So, you can see that even when buying the entry level iPad you can quickly and easily push your out of pocket costs over $1000 in a very short period of time. Make no mistake; the iPad is a revenue generator. It is meant to provide a constant cash flow to Apple in addition to the 50% margin they typically have on their products. So if you are considering this, keep in mind the continuing money stream that you will be sending Apple to keep using it.
Now, I am sure that many of you will read this and feel that it is a slam on the iPad. After all, I have covered many of the shortcomings of the product. But still, the iPad is not all bad. There are many items that are very good and many more that show great promise with some time and real effort on the part of Apple.
The idea behind the iPad is a good one; it is solid one. However, the controlling and proprietary nature of Apple takes what could be an outstanding product and stifles it into a mediocre one. I simply cannot wait to play with this thing once there is a jail break available for it. Once the software limitations imposed by Apple are removed, this thing will be stellar. We also hear that Apple is working on the next version of the iPhone OS. In Version 4.0 we will see a very simplistic form of multitasking, as well as a better online gaming interface (stolen from MS, Sony and Steam).
The other issue with the iPad is the storage size. If this is truly a computer that is capable of productivity work then it should have quite a bit more room to store items on it. Of course, this would take control from Apple and is not in keeping with their cloud services MobileMe. So the limitations and issues with the iPad that we talk about above are all about revenue stream and continuing to get money from your pocket. Of course, I am not opposed to a company making money, but I am when they do it in the manner Apple does.
To wrap up my rant here, the iPad is not there yet. It is overpriced and limited by the OS and Apple's xenophobic ways. We do think that a good jail break will open it up a lot more and could make one of these worthwhile (with the proper development support and apps). We hope to let you know if the 3G model with 32GB of space is better value sometime in the near future, but we are not sure if we are willing to invest that kind of money again so soon, especially considering that it will be at least $230 more than what we have already spent on the 16GB WiFi one (32GB 3G iPad is $729.00).
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