The iPad has so much going against it on paper. No multitasking, no flash, limited hardware improvements over the iPhone. It really seems like just a big iPod Touch in every way. Plus, it’s pretty expensive. So why do I want it so much? It’s because these limitations really don’t matter and the iPad is not a giant iPod Touch. The iPod Touch is a smaller iPad. This is a very important distinction. The iPad is exactly what iPhone OS was meant to be and I believe that with in a year we will see a dynamic shift in the development of iPhone OS as a platform. The iPad will become the primary device that forwards the software while the iPhone and iPod Touch become derivatives of progress made.
The key to this statement is that fact that everything the iPhone does, the iPad does better. Having larger screen real estate is something iPhone OS was begging for, and the iPad makes the experience far more smooth. Initially, I expressed resentment at the fact that the iPad mimics the iPhone interface so closely. But at the same time it allows you to hit the ground running with the device without any learning curve. The iPad remix of the OS also brings new UI elements that make the experience far more enjoyable. Contextual pop-up menus are all over the system, along with progressive side bars, module menus, multilayered toolbars with drop down menus, and split screen UIs. It’s these new features, only capable with the higher resolution, that make the software seem far more like a regular computer. The level of integration is actually superior in many ways to OS X. Apple must have understood that with less screen space, tighter integration had to be a priority. These UI elements are also quite nice looking with a blue or black glassy look to the window frame which I really hope makes its way back into regular OS X. As far as the core OS is concerned, my fears over its similarity to the iPhone are subsided, as long as we can look at the iPad as the primary device and the iPhone as the derivative.
You don’t feel the true value of these expanded UI options until you try each application. iTunes looks and feels much more like the real iTunes, with a progressive, sustaining sidebar with full access to your library, playlists, genius mixes, podcasts and videos. No more generalized buttons at the bottom like on the iPhone, this is the real deal. Photos is one of the most touch oriented applications, showing your entire library or individual albums with a pinch to expand feature that lets you quickly stretch a picture to see it in more clarity. As soon as you let go, it snaps back to the thumb nail a la Quicklook. Videos also provide a real iTunes-like navigation system instead of being limited to list views, plus video playback is smooth and sharp provided you have the right quality video. Youtube looks much like the website, and plays videos quite smoothly though I wouldn’t go playing the 720p versions of videos. Safari is almost exactly like the version I am using now, and the smooth, touch-based navigation really does make it one of the most elegant browsing experiences I’ve ever had. It’s just a shame I can’t use Flash. Safari makes use of the pop-over menus extensively for URL suggestions, bookmarks, and history. There’s no more separate pages for these functions like on the iPhone, it overlays it right on the screen. The App store and iTunes store benefit from the split-screen UI elements, allowing search, top apps and categories to be presented on the same screen, no more tabs needed. Mail also makes heavy use of a persistent sidebar much like the desktop counterpart and also tracks conversations much like GMail. Mail has also been enhanced to handle attachments far easier, though it seems to be the only app that does this elegantly. Maps as well benefits from the higher resolution screen for obvious reasons, though its functionality remains similar to the iPhone and without GPS on the Wi-Fi model may be less helpful.
But it is not the built in apps that really show the prowess of the iPad, it is what developers have been able to do in a matter of a few months. The results: varying from fantastic to boring. Many companies have fully leveraged the new abilities of the iPad. A guy at the Apple Store showed me Sketchbook Pro by Autodesk for the iPad. The app is a professional grade art drawing application that works fantastically well. Seriously, this could become a major asset for professional artists. Other applications are nothing more than higher resolution versions of their iPhone counterparts, which is not exactly bad as much as underwhelming. Applications break down into three categories: Made for iPhone (in which case the app runs in an emulation environment that runs the app at native resolution in the center or blows it up to 2x the size but looks fuzzy); Universal, indicated by a “+” and scales the app depending on the device it’s running on; or Made for iPad, which makes use of the new features exclusive to the iPad. A note of caution: many developers are selling their iPad versions of old apps for a much higher price, sometimes more than double the original price of what is essentially the same program. This is most notable with games, and it’s a bit frustrating. Hopefully pricing will come under control in the future.
Many have wondered if the iPad is a viable gaming platform. And that’s not the easiest thing to answer. Many games for the iPad and iPhone are of professional grade, but for every success there are 10 lemons. At the Apple Store, I tried Real Racing HD, which is one of the far better and more realistic games. Graphics were extremely crisp and well done, about equal with an early PS2 game I’d say. Control is all done with the accelerometer and the larger area of the iPad allows for more gentle turns, though the added weight of the device does make it a little awkward to position yours hands well. I saw another guy playing the HD version of Rock Band which also works quite well. Is this a gaming device? Well, Apple will certainly push it that way. But I wouldn’t sell your DS or even your PSP for this. But for the light to moderate gamer, there are enough fun games to keep you well occupied. Some other interesting games includes an HD version of Red Alert – a great RTS and N.O.V.A – a story light but graphically stunning FPS.
Apple is also pushing this device as a productivity device, and as such released touch versions of their iWork suite of apps: Numbers, Pages, and Keynote. I love these apps on the desktop, but how do the iPad versions compare? Really well actually. They are not as feature rich as the desktop versions, but they are just as elegant. These apps, more than any others, make the most use of the new UI features of OS 3.2. Pages was the most suspicious app for me because I wondered if word processing was actually possible with the soft keyboard. The answer: mostly. Typing in landscape mode is far easier than portrait, which is not quite big enough for two hands but too large for one hand. You can’t touch type but after some practice it does become far easier and even quick and accurate. Pages makes use of much more intelligent auto-correction and auto formatting to detect when you are making lists or charts. Touch navigation lends itself well to dropping in objects like pictures, shapes, text boxes, charts, etc. I would never write a report on the device, but I could do some pretty extensive editing or make a flier with the app. Keynote is far more useful because touch operations simply lend themselves better to working with pictures and shapes. Overall it works very well and has the same level of integration as Keynote does on the desktop, though with less features. Again: use for editing or lighter creation, never for something that make cost you a grade or a job. Numbers is more of a mixed bag, but this is more because try as I might, I just don’t like Numbers as much as Excel and touch controls are not as accurate when working with spreadsheet cells. One more thing about the keyboard – I found myself desperately wishing there were arrow keys in landscape mode. There aren’t and I understand you can’t really fit them, but it’s a shame because moving the cursor with your finger is not as precise as it should be. An optional hard keyboard dock is available if you need it, and the iPad does support a bluetooth keyboard as well. Document navigation is also frustrating because the iPad has no folder function. There is no way to access your projects unless you’re in the application and this also makes syncing documents very difficult – it all has to be done through email or iTunes. Apple may correct this with cloud syncing but that will probably be through Mobile Me and cost money. The iPad desperately needs a single location for documents and an easier way of accessing and transferring between iPad and computer since there is no print function.
iBooks is another big part of the iPad. I’m personally not into the whole eBook craze but for people who are, you will not be disappointed. The text is sharp and the books have many features. You can take notes by selecting sections of text to highlight, search through the book for terms, and turning the page mimics the action almost precisely on screen. It’s little things like that that make the experience pretty enjoyable and not as static as on something like a Kindle. Text books and even picture books will now be a possibility, something that would be cumbersome or impossible on the Kindle. Again, I’m not into eBooks, but people who are will like it. The catalog is pretty small as of now, but hey: it’s been 4 days, give it some time. And if you just can’t wait, Amazon sells a Kindle app for the iPad as well.
So my review has the iPad coming out with flying colors. But in the end, I’m still not getting one. This is because I’m a techie and even though this device proves that software can overcome hardware limitations, I still feel the iPad lacks in hardware. Inputs are limited to just the 30-pin connector when the machine desperately needs a USB port and SD card slot. Cameras would also be greatly appreciated and should be in the next model. I also have a problem with the pricing scheme for the iPad. $500 may not be too expensive but for 16GB I’d easily swallow that with just my music before any apps. Especially because the base iPad only costs $260 to make. I get it that Apple likes high margins on their products but they need to learn that this is a commodity and you’ll have to make your profit on volume, not per-unit revenue. This, coupled with the fact that the 3G radio, which probably costs $10 to place in the device, costs $130 more, is ridiculous. I can justify maybe $50, but this is exorbitant. And in general, though the device was wicked fast, never skipping a beat, the hardware is in reality just an overclocked iPhone 3GS. Same CPU – ARM Cortex-A8 (clocked at 1Ghz vs. 600Mhz); same GPU- PowerVR SGX 535; and the same amount of RAM – 256MB. A4 – the SoC that comprises the CPU and RAM, has it’s advantage in its super-tight integration. That single chip is actually a package-on-package design with multiple dies stacked over each other. This does mean very low latency between RAM and CPU (the RAM also has a 64-bit bus instead of 32-bit on the iPhone) and that has given the iPad a performance boost, but I worry that it would start to slow significantly if allowed to multitask between a few iPad apps. In summing up, it’s just not that powerful even if it seems fast in use. For that reason, I’ll wait for the next one.
As well as the hardware, there are still some missed opportunities with the iPad. I kept feeling like there should be some dashboard utility that allows a few, small widgets to run on the same screen, that would be a real boon for people who don’t want to launch a new app for something really simple. Being able to run multiple, light iPhone apps in this environment would also have been a nice addition. If there was one more swipe past the search menu that had this functionality, which is completely possible with the larger resolution display, I think it would add significant utility to the iPad and make it more like a computer. Multitasking would, of course, be necessary for this and yes, it is sorely missed.
The iPad may change the game of computing despite all of our doubts. This device proves that it’s all in the software, and you have to use the thing extensively to grasp what makes it clearly better than the iPhone. It’s not a giant iPod Touch, it’s the iPad. The iPod Touch is a mini iPad. And I will say this: months ago I mentioned how this year will be the rise of the tablet and the destruction of the netbook, given the right device. Apple has come as close as possible to that very real world with the iPad, and I’m very excited to see where the future takes us.