I have bought an iPad. For a guy like me, who remembers with fondness using BSD 4.1 Unix on a PDP-11 that stood three feet tall and ran on a huge 2 MB of RAM and booted off of 8 inch floppy disks, the notion of a device the size of a small book with 64 GB in it that can do – if Apple is to be believed – anything, is a bit of a stretch. Still, the iPad presents me unique opportunities. I thought it would be interesting to track my experiences with my new toy, from a designerly point of view. (UPDATED 21 August 2010)
Some background: I love Apple products; I have an iPhone; and my 13″ MacBook Pro is both old and running an old version of MacOS (10.4, aka Tiger). I have a G5 Mac Pro at the office that acts as a server. At home, all I really need is a laptop. I prefer the laptop to an iMac because I want to be able to (a) hide it when company is over, and (b) take it with me when I travel for work.
My laptop is over four years old and needs replacing. I could just upgrade the OS on it but the thing would still be quite slow compared to the newer laptops, and software itself has been getting more and more complex over the years…. Buying a new device just makes sense now.
The question is: which laptop to buy? I could just get a new 13″ MacBook Pro, but lugging it around for work, especially when I travel internationally, is a pain. Or I could get a larger laptop that I can still move around easily at home and hide when need be, yet have a more powerful, larger-screened device – and buy an iPad for travel and work.
Well, I guess my decision is obvious. I bought the iPad first, because if it turns out not to be enough for me, I can always give it to my wife and go with Plan B.
I bought the “big” iPad – 64 GB with 3G as well as wifi. As usual, I was thoroughly impressed with the packaging. I know packaging is a sustainability no-no, but the box this thing came in is so elegant and well-made that I’ve decided to keep it and use it for storing things – probably memorabilia, given it’s non-standard size. I think this is an important feature of Apple’s design approach. Their attention to details – even to details of packaging – shows their interest in providing a far more complete user experience than other manufacturers. This speaks to what I think is a genuine interest to provide the best possible product. It makes me feel that they care about their customers. And I’m willing to pay a little extra for that – especially considering how technically robust Apple’s products are too.
Having an iPhone, I already knew that the first thing I should do is plug the iPad into iTunes. Unfortunately, iPads don’t talk to Tiger. Fine; I got the thing running using iTunes on my kids’ PC. With all those years of computer geekery behind me, I should have known better. Mea culpa. It would have been nice, though, if these limitations were a little more prominently advertised. The weird thing is that the iPad had to be plugged into iTunes, whereas my iPhones and my kids’ iPod Touches worked right out of the box. (Some of you may already see what’s coming in terms of syncing the iPad with my laptop after it had already exchanged data with some other iTunes installation – more on that in the future.)
It took me less than a half hour to acclimatize to the iPad’s larger keyboard. While I can’t type as fast on it as on a real keyboard, the iPad is much faster than my iPhone. I can even use several fingers when typing, even though real touch-typing is quite difficult. So, as far as data entry goes, the iPad is as I suspected better because of its larger size. And one must be careful to not even brush a finger across the screen lest you end up inserting extra letters or moving the cursor to unexpected places. So, there’s a learning curve. What new device doesn’t have a learning curve?
There is a problem, though, with the iPad’s flatness: whether it’s sitting on a table in front of you, or on your lap, the screen isn’t angled well and reflections tend to make it hard to see the otherwise beautiful “Retina screen“. This is easily fixed with one of the many iPad cases on the market (such as those by Apple or incase, which are pricey but effective), but it’s a bit annoying that the iPad design team didn’t think of something to handle this – perhaps a little flip out stand. In any event, I picked up the simple yet effective Apple case, the cover of which flips around and forms a wedge (in landscape mode) improving the angle that the screen makes with your face. It’s also made of a non-slip material so the iPad doesn’t slide around. It works like a charm, whether I’m sitting at a cafe with the iPad on my lap, at a desk with the thing on a desk in front of me, or in bad with it propped up on the covers. I highly recommend such a case for your iPad, no matter how you use it.
One thing that disappointed me was that the iPad wasn’t running iOS 4, but rather 3.2. It turns out iOS 4 won’t be available for the iPad for a few more months. Hmph!
I’m impressed with the battery. I have been pounding on this thing rather mercilessly for the last few days, and I’ve gotten many, many hours out of it between changes. They say it’s supposed to run all day on a charge. Well, maybe not all day, if you use it for absolutely everything, but it’ll get pretty near. On days of modest use by my standards, I use about 60% of a full charge, which leaves me plenty of emergency power for late-night blogging before I have to plug it in.
Then I started downloading some apps: task managers, document processors, and diagramming stuff. Boring stuff, I know, but it’s what I need.
I found that the App Store presents differently on the iPad than on the iPhone. It rather took me by surprise at first, but again, I quickly acclimatized to it. Everything was quite clear, the controls were in obvious places, and it was generally well-behaved. But I did notice some weirdness in the apps themselves.
First thing: there are cost differences between iPad software and iPhone software. Some software costs more in its iPad form than its iPhone form. And while some iPad apps will download for free if you already have them for the iPhone, others won’t. And unfortunately you won’t find out about this till you’ve confirmed the purchase. You might end up with a few unforeseen expenses if you’re not careful. I haven’t yet noticed any clues from the software or the App Store that would forewarn of this. It would make much more sense for the App Store to tell you about this before you commit to the purchase. Seeing as there’s real money involved here, I see this as a substantial design flaw.
Second thing: the “Apple Standard” look and feel for iPad apps is substantially different from that of the iPhone. You may find that an app that you really liked on your iPhone just doesn’t feel right on the iPad. Some developers have gone to great lengths to maintain a certain integrity between their iPhone and iPad apps (Pocket Informant and Taska being good examples), while others have not. You’ll have to decide for yourself, on a case by case basis, which iPhone apps still work for you on the iPad.
Third thing: some iPhone apps still haven’t been updated for the iPad, which can be very frustrating. For example, my favorite note-taking app is NoteMaster; on the iPhone it’s absolutely brilliant. But there’s no version for the iPad, and the developers have decided not to rush out a quick and dirty port. While that’s quite admirable, it really is a bee in my bonnet because taking notes is one of the main reasons I got the darned thing. I need a word processor that can sync with Google Docs because I need to access those documents from a variety of platforms, and Google Docs is the best such service by far. This limits my choices. The only real alternative is Documents To Go, which is overkill – both functionally (it handles Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, and Powerpoint presentations) and financially (regular version $9.99; premium version $14.99) – but what am I to do? None of the other note-taking apps that I’ve tried so far come anywhere near the simplicity, usability, and robustness of NoteMaster. So while Documents To Go is not the best app, the iPad’s design, size, and general interface still makes it a great way to take notes.
Another thing that the iPad is really good for, I’ve discovered, is reading RSS-based feeds. There’s a great app called G-Whizz that packs a bunch of Google services into a single relatively easy to use interface.
It’s supposed to support real “desktop” versions of things like Gmail and Google Reader, but these bits seem buggy. It even supports quite nicely the “desktop” versions of Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Reader. (My problem was I couldn’t figure out how to scroll a pane in these apps, but G-Whizz’s author answered my post to the G-Whizz Google Group nearly instantaneously, explaining that one must drag with two fingers, not just one, to scroll a pane – per the Apple interface standard. Silly me.) Still, even the non-desktop version is eminently usable, and I’ve found the mobile version of Reader that G-Whizz uses to be really very nice. Combined with the iPad’s portability and size, it makes reading feed-based news a real joy.
So in the end, what do I think about the iPad? It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty freaking amazing. For two key uses, note-taking and reading news, it’s really fantastic (modulo my particular problems with note-taking apps). Apple has once again successfully tread the fine line between function and form, geeky power and Friday-night bistro coolness.
I still need to investigate handwriting apps and diagramming apps – two other key purposes for which I intend to use it. I’ll report on those once I’ve gotten to them. In the meantime, I give the iPad 8 out of 10. And it really does work like a PADD from Star Trek.