Apple iPad surprises, disappoints

The iPad is a sleek media player and a highly functional tablet computer, but there's room for improvement

So you've probably heard about the iPad. Apple is once again making headlines with the release of a consumer-focused computing device, and the level of hysteria surrounding the iPad is fascinating from an anthropological point of view. But is the iPad really worthy of this craziness? Yes and no.

There are two ways to view the iPad: as a raw piece of technology, and as a media consumption device. It's certainly not a traditional form of either. With the plethora of content options now available to iPad owners, I wouldn't be surprised to see a shift in content digestion habits for those who plunk down their money for an iPad.

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Even if most of those buyers are seeking a next-gen media player, they will be surprised at just how usable, and useful, this single-tasking touchscreen tablet computer can be. There are certainly things to dislike about the iPad, but there are far more things to like about it -- and with the number of iPad apps growing every day, there's sure to be more to like around the corner.

Touchy-feely: The iPad's aesthetics

The first impression of the iPad is that it's smaller than you'd think. With a 9.7-inch touchscreen display surrounded by a one-inch bezel, it really does resemble an overgrown iPod touch. The second impression is that it's amazingly glossy -- so glossy it might as well be a mirror. In fact, this glossiness causes significant viewing problems in sunlight and even in some artificial lighting conditions.

The third impression is that the iPad really is an amazing example of modern computing. Regardless of whether the iPad is a commercial success or not, the concepts and form factor of the device are going to change the way we interact with computers, much like the iPhone revolutionized the smartphone industry. From that point of view, it has already made an impact.

Like all things Apple, the aesthetics of the device are impressive. The only physical controls are the home button, a volume rocker switch, a small lock button on top, and an orientation lock switch. Everything else is handled by the multi-touch screen, which is one area where the iPad excels. The multi-touch interface is so well implemented as to be seamless, and that includes the keyboard. I wrote this entire review on the iPad using the Pages word processor, and the on-screen keyboard kept up with me no matter how fast I typed -- and with virtually no adjustment necessary. The lack of tactile feedback is somewhat odd, and the keyboard is slightly more difficult to use in Portrait mode, but touch typists should feel quite at home.

As befits a minimalist device, there's not much more to say about the hardware itself. The homegrown Apple A4 processor can handle anything I've tried so far without any significant delays or hiccups, and the graphics capabilities are substantial -- graphics-intensive games like Real Racing HD are rendered exceptionally well and quite smoothly. The headphone jack is at the top of the device, which seems a little odd at first, but when you realize that there really isn't a "top" per se, it doesn't really matter. The built-in speakers adorn the bottom and are surprisingly loud and responsive given their tiny size.

But it's certainly not all wine and roses. There are some significant downsides to the iPad. First off, the device attracts fingerprints like mad. After only a few minutes of use, the screen is completely covered in them. If you're at all obsessive over fingerprints on your touchscreen devices, this will drive you nuts. Hopefully, the use of a screen protector can minimize this -- and given the glare problems in some lighting conditions, an anti-glare screen protector might as well be considered a mandatory accessory.

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Also, it's somehow awkward to carry the device. Without a cover over the screen, the iPad is just about impossible to carry in one hand without either touching the screen or looking like a waiter. I normally don't like cases that add a cover to portable electronics like cell phones (including the iPhone), but I might make an exception for the iPad. The thought of carrying it like a book in one hand and inadvertently scratching it on a rivet of my jeans or a belt buckle is worrisome.

The iPad's smooth and easy setup

Setting up an iPad is very simple: Plug it into a Mac or PC running iTunes. Once it's detected, a registration function runs and sets it up. From there, it's just a matter of syncing whatever media you like to the device. If you own an iPhone or iPad touch, their applications will be automatically transferred to the iPad. The rest of the sync process is identical to other Apple mobile devices, with the addition of the Books section for e-books. iTunes also handles syncing of email accounts, so within minutes everything I needed was on the iPad and I was ready to go.

I did some testing with Microsoft Exchange email accounts, and like the iPhone, the iPad had no trouble connecting to an Exchange Server 2003 instance. It's not clear yet whether Apple's enterprise deployment facilities for the iPad match those for the iPhone, but since the devices run essentially the same core OS, I would be surprised if they don't. My preliminary testing shows that a configuration profile generated by the latest version (2.2) of Apple's iPhone Configuration Utility will import into an iPad, but the scope of this support has yet to be fully determined. Supporting items such as remote wipe and corporate policies is fairly mandatory for a device like this, so I would hope it's all there.

Also like the iPhone, VPN connections are supported using the same basic connection profiles. If you have successfully connected an iPhone to your corporate VPN, you shouldn't have any problems connecting with an iPad.

iPad apps, apps, and more apps

The big apps available for the iPad are Apple's Pages word processor, Numbers spreadsheet, and Keynote presentation app. These are not analogs of their Mac OS X counterparts; they've been completely re-engineered for the iPad. It takes some time to figure out their minimalist interfaces, but once you grok their layouts, they are quite usable. Pages, Numbers, and Keynote can import Word, Excel, and PowerPoint formats, respectively, but only Pages can save Microsoft-formatted documents. In addition to their native formats, each can also export PDF versions. At $9.99 per app, the suite costs less than $30.

There are a boatload of other iPad-specific apps in the App Store. I purchased a few, including the aforementioned Real Racing HD, and downloaded several freebies including the USA Today app, the Marvel comics app, iBooks, The Weather Channel MAX, MLB At Bat 2010 for iPad, and several others. Pricing for these apps is generally higher than iPhone apps, presumably due to the enhanced capabilities offered by the iPad and the newness of the platform. It wouldn't surprise me to see price reductions on some of the higher-priced apps relatively soon.

Generally speaking, you're better off running iPad-specific apps on the iPad versus their iPhone counterparts. Though it's possible to run iPhone apps on an iPad, they look tiny when run at their natural resolution, and tend to look poor when run full-screen due to the nature of the pixel-doubling scheme used to increase their size.

iPad omissions: Multitasking, camera, and USB ports

Just about every iPad reviewer has decried the lack of camera and USB ports, and I'm no different. Apple has released USB and SD adapters for the iPad, but it's unclear if these are usable just for importing pictures from a camera, or if they will enable external storage devices to be used. Given the nature of the device and the reliance on iTunes for media delivery, it's unlikely that external storage will be supported. That's unfortunate. It would be a natural to plug a 16GB flash drive into an iPad and play back movies and other content, instead of having to dock and resync. The lack of a camera is also disappointing. It would be great to use the iPad for videoconferencing, or even to take photos. The buzz is that cutouts behind the bezel seem designed to support a camera like the built-in iSight camera in MacBooks. Presumably, the next iteration of the iPad will include a camera.

[ Also from InfoWorld: Read Peter Wayner's "iPhone App Store roulette: A tale of rejection." ]

And then there's the multitasking issue. The iPad doesn't support multitasking in any real way. You can play music while using other apps, but that's about it. You must quit an app to use another. This limitation is somewhat annoying on the iPhone, but it's downright irritating on the bigger and beefier iPad. Rumor has it that multitasking support may be part of an upcoming version of the OS. If this does come to pass, it'll no doubt be hailed as miraculous, but multitasking should really be there now.

There are a few other oddities as well. For instance, YouTube search results appear to be different using the iPad and a laptop. Certain videos are present in a search from a MacBook, but fail to appear in the same search on an iPad. They're not random omissions; they're the same missing videos every time -- and they're the top viewed videos for those searches. For instance, the search results for "OK GO this too shall pass" omit the official videos that have millions of views. This same phenomenon occurs on the iPhone as well, so it's not iPad-specific, but it is troubling. It may be that YouTube will not show some content if they can't overlay the video with ads, which isn't possible with the iPad due to the lack of Flash support. Whatever the reason, it's a problem.

The iPad on the go

Apple claims that the iPad has a 10-hour battery life, and this appears to be mostly accurate. With normal use the iPad ran for well over 24 hours (left unplugged overnight) and still retained 50 percent battery life. It certainly doesn't appear that it will require daily charging like an iPhone, which is a good thing. Note that only high-power USB ports can produce enough juice to charge the iPad. My MacBook Air will charge it, but my workstation won't. It will also be interesting to see how battery life changes on the upcoming 3G version, which will add a power-draining wireless radio.

Speaking of radios, the iPad lacks a fairly fundamental feature: the iPhone's airplane mode. Even the non-3G iPad has wireless and Bluetooth radios that need to be turned off during flight, but the only way to do this is by disabling each of them. Considering how much iPhone users like airplane mode, the lack of this feature is puzzling.

One of the big draws of the iPad is as a book reader. Unlike other e-book readers, the iPad has a real display rather than a power-saving e-ink display. Some have worried that the standard back-lit display would be difficult to use for long periods of time or in low-light conditions. Both of these fears are baseless, as I found it extremely comfortable to read for long periods of time, and the easily accessible brightness controls can make any reading situation tolerable. I was very happy that the iBooks reader app uses the ePub ebook standard. If you have books in this format, it's very simple to get them synced to the iPad by importing them into iTunes. I added half a dozen books this way without a problem. It is rather surreal to read something like Neal Stephenson's futuristic tech novel Snow Crash on a device like this.

Much ado has been made of the newspaper applications on the iPad. I don't know if the iPad will save the newspaper business, as some have hoped, but it's definitely a compelling way to read the "paper." USA Today's app is nicely laid out and customizable, offering a great way to easily find and digest news. The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have similar applications, and will be charging monthly subscription fees for unfettered access to their content.

There's no doubt that the iPad truly is a wonderfully engineered piece of technology, and the features it provides are going to be game-changing. That said, it's a little underwhelming. If any other company had released this device, I would be blown away, but somehow I expected more out of the iPad. It seems that Apple might be a victim of their own success to some degree.

For a freshman entry into the tablet market, the iPad is phenomenal, but it certainly isn't what it could be. Rome wasn't built in a day, though even that might be possible for Steve Jobs. I know that I like the iPad enough to keep it, but I'll also be looking forward to Apple's sophomore effort.

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This story, "Apple iPad surprises, disappoints" was originally published by InfoWorld .

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