Apple iPad full review

It was hyped and ripped before it even had a name, and after it was announced, it was both praised and panned. Apple’s iPad has been the subject of debates about the future of technology and media, and massive speculation about whether people will really want to buy and use it.

Without a doubt, it’s remarkably easy to dump a heap of existential baggage on the iPad. It’s likely that its existence is a direct repudiation of the last 25 years of computer interfaces, an era kicked off by Apple itself. It’s a product in a category—tablet computers—that has been a flop despite nearly a decade of hype.

But before we get into the big, existential questions about the iPad and what it means for life on Earth, it’s probably a good idea to look at what the product actually is: a solid glass-and-metal slab of high technology.

Holding the slab

The iPad may be the most impressive piece of Apple hardware I have ever handled. It weighs a pound-and-a-half—much heavier than an iPhone, but much lighter than a laptop. The front is almost entirely glass, save a thin aluminum frame at the edge. The back is a gently curved plate of anodized aluminum with a black Apple logo smack in the middle.

The iPad is designed to be held and carried, and it couldn’t have felt more solid in my hands. What my senses told me is that this is not a delicate piece of technology to be coddled, but a rugged device that I should feel free to tote wherever I want to go. (Yes, I know some of that feeling is an illusion—it would probably be a bad idea to hurl the iPad like you’re tossing a ball of pizza dough, especially while standing on concrete. But that doesn’t change the fact that, with the solid glass front and tapered aluminum back, the product feels nigh invulnerable.)

The iPad’s touchscreen is 9.7 inches measured diagonally, with a resolution of 1024-by-768 pixels. That’s the traditional 4:3 aspect ratio found on older TV sets, as opposed to the 16:9 ratio favored by modern HDTVs. The screen resolution is 132 pixels per inch, less than the 163 pixels per inch found on the iPhone. The iPad’s glass front continues past the screen, creating a bezel three-quarters of an inch wide all the way around. (The bezel is a good place to put your thumbs when you’re holding the iPad, so you can keep a solid grip without interfering with the touchscreen.)

I found the iPad’s screen to be extremely bright, with vibrant color and a broad viewing angle. I absentmindedly set my iPad down on my coffee table while it was displaying an article within Instapaper Pro, and was surprised to notice that I could clearly read the text despite the extreme angle, thanks to the same in-plane switching (IPS) technology used in Apple's LED and iMac displays. (At a certain angle I could also see an array of fingerprints—and boy, does this screen collect them. Fortunately, it’s got the same oil-repellant coating as the screen on the iPhone 3GS, meaning one quick wipe with a sleeve and they’re history.)

Now about the size of that screen. When the iPad was announced, one of the common criticisms of the product was that it’s just a bigger version of the iPod touch. That’s true so far as it goes, but I suspect a lot of the people who said it didn’t understand just how vital that increased screen real-estate—the iPad has five times as many pixels as the iPhone or iPod touch—really is.

Sure, if the interfaces of iPad apps were just scaled-up versions of iPhone apps (like what you get if you run iPhone-only apps on the iPad), the iPad would be the technological equivalent of one of those oversized novelty checks presented to lottery winners. But what the additional pixels really allow is entirely new, richer, and more complex interactions. On the iPhone, an app like Mail is a series of single screens, with the user constantly burrowing down and then backing up like a confused gopher. (Tap on an account, then the Inbox, then a message, then tap the back button, tap another message, tap the back button three times, tap another account, tap Inbox…) The iPad changes that experience by displaying the body of messages in their own, capacious pane, while your mailboxes and lists of messages fight over a smaller pane or, in portait orientation, a pop-over element.

Beyond the more sophisticated user-interface possibilities, the iPad’s large screen opens the door for new gestures that simply wouldn’t work on a pocketable device. You can put lots of fingers (and, indeed, both hands) on the iPad, to type or to interact with on-screen objects. This is one of those areas where the whole is more than the sum of its parts, and people who disparage the iPad as merely a hyper-thyroidal iPhone are failing to see the bigger picture.

Specs and speeds

Before diving into the details of the iPad, it’s worth recapping some of the details of the product. There are currently three versions available, all identical save for the amount of onboard storage: a $499 16GB model, $599 32GB model, and $699 64GB model. Three other models with built-in 3G networking in addition to Wi-Fi will be available later in April, at the same storage sizes: 16GB for $629, 32GB for $729, and 64GB for $829. Before you buy a Wi-Fi-only model, it’s worth considering how you might use the 3G models. (Note: UK pricing has yet to be announced.)

Speed test - Sunspider

iPad: 10.4
iPod touch 64GB (late 2009): 15.6
iPhone 3GS: 15.5
2nd-gen. iPod touch: 33.4
iPhone 3G: 40.8
1st-gen. iPod touc: 44.9
iPhone (original: 43.0

Results are in seconds. Best results in bold. Reference systems in italic.

iPad tested with iPhone OS 3.2. All other devices were tested running iPhone OS 3.1.

With the iPhone and iPod touch, Apple has been reluctant to talk about processors and speeds, preferring to treat those products as magical black boxes. But we must forgive Apple from crowing a little bit about the processor that powers the iPad, because it was custom-designed by Apple itself. The new A4 processor, running at 1GHz, is a “system on a chip”—in other words, it was built to run the iPad, not chosen from a parts list and adapted to work for the iPad.

Geeky chip talk aside, the iPad flies. It was fast at almost everything I threw at it. The only times I found myself waiting were either for content to download over the network or for one of the iWork apps to convert a file into its native file format. Games played smoothly, with gorgeous graphics. There’s no lag when panning and zooming around large images. Any touch-based device stands or falls based on how quickly and smoothly the content on the screen can react to the movement of fingers on that screen. The iPad passes that test masterfully.

As a bare measure of speed, I ran the SunSpider JavaScript performance test from within the iPad’s Safari browser. The iPad passed the tests in 10.4 seconds. Last September I ran that same test on every iPhone OS model ever released, and the fastest device of the lot (the iPhone 3GS) ran the test in 15.5 seconds. (In contrast, the original iPhone took 43 seconds to run that test.) So the iPad has taken the crown as the fastest iPhone OS device on the planet.

Apple hasn’t released details of the battery that’s powering the iPad, but whatever combination of battery and power efficiency is lurking behind that aluminum back, it’s impressive. Apple boasts a 10-hour battery life for the iPad, and most reports from reviewers who have spent a week or more with the device suggest that the real-world life of that battery is even longer. My two days with the iPad bear out those reports. If you charge the iPad overnight, you can pretty much use it the whole day.

We’ll have more extensive speed and battery testing in the next few days at Macworld.com, but the short version is this: it’s fast and the battery lasts

Typing on the iPad

The iPad’s software keyboard is more typeable than I would have ever thought possible. This is not to say that it’s a suitable equivalent for a hardware keyboard—it’s not, and Apple has as much as admitted it by offering a Keyboard Dock as an optional accessory. But with some focus and a little practice, I was able to type with both hands at a decent enough pace. The keyboard in landscape mode isn’t quite the size of a real keyboard, but it’s close, and once you’ve got both hands on the keyboard you can really start picking up speed.

The software keyboard makes good use of the shift keys, giving you quick access to two extra punctuation symbols. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough room to include the apostrophe or quotation mark on the first level of the keyboard, and those symbols and the numbers were the speed bumps in my otherwise passable typing sessions. I don’t think I would ever choose to compose a long e-mail or write a lengthy document using the software keyboard, but it proved good enough for small bouts of typing.

I tested both Apple’s Keyboard Dock and several Bluetooth keyboards with the iPad, and they all worked well. The iPad supports keyboard shortcuts, so anyone who has trained themselves to hold down shift to and press the arrow keys to select text, then press command-X to cut the text and command-V to paste it somewhere else, will discover that those keys perform those very same tasks on the iPad. And the iPad is plenty responsive, even to a fast typist like myself—I never noticed it dropping any characters.

The Keyboard Dock works well if you’re sitting at a desk, but in general I think more people will like typing with a Bluetooth keyboard like Apple’s incredibly tiny Wireless Keyboard. (You’ll just need to use a case, stand, or convenient box to prop up the iPad at a good angle for viewing while you type.)

iPad as reading device

One of the most talked-about aspects of the iPad is its potential as a reading device, most specifically as a competitor to e-book readers such as Amazon’s Kindle and iRiver Story. There’s also been quite a bit of conjecture about the iPad’s ability to singlehandedly save, transform, or otherwise alter the downward trajectory of the magazine and newspaper publishing industries. (That’s a lot of drama to pack into one little gadget!)

I’ve owned an Amazon Kindle 2 for a little over a year now, and I like it a lot. It’s lightweight and its grayscale e-ink display is quite readable, albeit bland. The iPad is quite a bit heavier than the Kindle (think hardcover versus paperback, though that comparison isn’t quite right), and its backlit LED display couldn’t be more different. The Kindle fails in dark conditions, because it can’t light itself—I actually bought a clip-on book light for mine. And of course, the iPad presents everything in glorious color.

I suspect many people expect the iPad to put the Kindle out to pasture, but I’m not entirely convinced. What the Kindle has going for it is its simplicity as a unitasker. The Kindle does one thing well: allow you to read books. (It also lets you read magazines and newspapers, though it does that a bit less well—but then again, Apple’s iBooks app doesn’t support magazines or newspapers at all.) It’s cheaper than the iPad, and will presumably get cheaper still in the face of such stiff competition. If a friend or relative came to me and said that all they wanted was a book reader, nothing more, I would happily endorse the Kindle.

What the iPad offers is, quite simply, more. It’s not a unitasker. It reads books, but it also surfs the Web. (The Kindle has a Web browser, but it’s terrible.) It runs apps. Competing merely as an e-book reader, it’s a tight race, but the iPad’s boundaries go far past where the Kindle was ever intended to go.

Speaking of apps, one of the iPad’s strengths is that it can display e-books from more than one source. Apple’s iBooks app is front and center, of course, and it’s attractive and functional, though hardly the best iPhone OS book-reading app I’ve ever seen. (My vote there goes to Eucalyptus.) iBooks will even display DRM-free Epub files you can make yourself or download from the Internet. But Kindle for iPad is here too, giving iPad users access to Amazon’s entire e-book library (and allowing them to sync those books between the iPad and other devices, including Kindles and iPhones). Other readers will undoubtedly follow. That adds even more to the iPad’s flexibility.

A year ago, when I bought my Kindle 2, I cancelled my print subscription to the San Francisco Chronicle and replaced it with a Kindle subscription to that newspaper. If I decided to stop using my Kindle tomorrow in favor of the iPad, though, I would actually be taking a major step backward when it comes to reading that particular paper. That’s because every morning there’s a new copy of the Chronicle on my Kindle, pushed automatically over the network. Meanwhile, Apple hasn’t provided newspaper and magazine publishers with any standardized method to sell their products, other than the obvious one: the iPhone/iPad app-development kit.

Some newspapers and magazines are building their own apps; others will likely use third-party apps built to house their content. But it’s one area where the iPad currently lags behind the Kindle—though with the staggering momentum on display in the App Store, it’s not a gap that’s likely to remain for very long. And the iPad’s large, color screen will be able to replicate the magazine experience in a way that even the larger (but still grayscale) Kindle DX just can’t.

Then there’s the reading that goes beyond books, newspapers, and magazines. Perhaps the most important app on the iPad is its web browser, Safari. This version of Safari, like many of the iPad’s apps, is a hybrid of its Mac and iPhone iterations. From the iPhone, Safari inherits the easy tap-to-zoom interface and resolution-independent type that makes even seriously zoomed-in pages readable. But the browser benefits greatly from the extra screen space, not just to display proper widescreen Websites at readable sizes but also to add Mac-style interface niceties like a set of toolbar favorites.

There’s just something about surfing the Web using Safari on the iPad. It feels different, somehow. Apple’s marketing pitch says “it’s like holding the Internet in your hands,” and while that’s a little bit cheesy, it’s not far off. There’s just something different about holding that Web page in your hands, rather than seeing it on a desktop or laptop PC, or on a tiny iPhone screen. Tapping on links doesn’t feel the same as clicking on them with a mouse. It’s a good feeling.

When it comes to reading Web pages, the App Store is once again the iPad’s ace in the hole. The excellent iPhone app Instapaper shines even brighter on iPad, allowing you to save interesting items you’ve found on the Web and read them later. And NetNewsWire, the RSS feed reader, uses the extra screen space to make paging through your feeds as easy as reading a restaurant menu.

Now, no app on the iPad will let you view items created using Adobe’s Flash technology and embedded in web pages. Apple omitted Flash from the iPhone three years ago and hasn’t looked back. The popularity of the iPhone (and the wave of interest in the iPad) have succeeded in making Flash less of a must-have technology than it used to be. Many major Websites are replacing Flash or offering a Flash-free version as an alternative. Still, if viewing Flash-based content on the Web is a major part of your life—I’m thinking specifically of all the Flash games out there for kids and Facebook users—the iPad is not going to satisfy you.

Finally, let’s not forget the variety of comic books and graphic novels that are out there, already being served by a half-dozen different apps. The iPad’s big, color screen makes it the best device for reading comics in digital form yet invented. If you’re a comic-book fan, buying an iPad is buying into the future of the medium.

So is the iPad a great device for reading? I have to say yes, mostly thanks to the remarkable flexibility allowed by the variety of apps in the App Store. Now, people who find it hard to stare at backlit LCD screens for long periods of time will probably not share this opinion; but as someone who stares at backlit computer screens all day, every day, I didn’t have a problem with it.

iPad as multimedia player

Like pretty much every product Apple makes these days, the iPad is a capable entertainment device. There’s an iPod app for music playback; a Videos app for movie, TV show, and video podcast playback; a self-explanatory YouTube app; and of course an iTunes app to purchase and download content right on your iPad.

The iPod app is a hybrid of the iPhone’s iPod app and the desktop version of iTunes. It’s got the familiar iTunes play controls at the top and a source list on the left, letting you select different playlists or mixes. A set of tab buttons at the bottom let you sort your music library in different ways. You can edit playlists and create new ones with custom names, both firsts for an iPhone OS-based device.

And yet I find the iPad’s iPod app a bit disappointing. When you play a track, the interface vanishes and is replaced by the track’s album art, which fills the screen. Quite frankly, I’m not that interested in album art. I’d rather just stay in the iPod interface, so I can see what other tracks are coming next. (You can get back to that view by tapping on the album art, then tapping a back button.)

Another missing feature that would make sense on the iPad is the ability to connect to iTunes shared libraries. As I write this, I’m listening to music on my MacBook that’s streaming from a Mac mini in another room of my house. Having access to shared music (and videos, for that matter) would seem a natural for a device like the iPad, but that feature’s not there. Wouldn’t the iPad make a wonderful, portable, self-contained version of the Apple TV? I think so, but none of those features are here. If it’s not loaded via iTunes, Apple’s apps won’t play it.

The Videos app is similarly functional yet a bit disappointing. Movies and TV shows are identified by their cover art; if a particular movie’s poster is obscure, you’ll have to tap on the image in order to discover what movie it is. Displaying text with a movie or show’s title would be nice, at least as an option. (So would a simple alphabetical list.) Once you’ve tapped into a movie or TV show, the information screen is attractive. TV series, in particular, offer a mountain of data: episode titles, air dates, ratings information, and lengthy synopses.

With most movies and TV shows these days shot in 16:9 (and more extreme) aspect ratios, the iPad’s 4:3 screen means most video content will display with large letterbox bars at top and bottom. Double-tapping on the image will zoom you all the way in, cutting off the sides of the image. It’s a nice compromise, yet I kept wishing I could zoom to an interim step, cutting off some of the picture without filling the entire frame.

The general high quality of the iPad’s display means that movies and TV shows end up looking beautiful, and the iPad’s surprisingly loud and clear speaker means you can watch without headphones and still have a pretty good experience. (Unless you’re on an airplane—that would just be rude.)

iPad as a laptop alternative

During the run-up to the iPad’s debut in January, rumors abounded that it would be a device designed solely for the playback of media, be it video, text, or even games. Apple challenged that perception by announcing it had designed iPad versions of its three iWork Mac applications. Throw in the ability to type on an external keyboard, and you got the distinct impression that Apple was trying to make the case that the iPad is a business tool and a true laptop alternative.

So can the iPad truly replace a laptop? It all depends on what you use your laptop for. The iPad isn’t going to replace a MacBook Pro anytime soon. But let’s face it: there are plenty of tasks that we currently use laptops for (checking e-mail and Twitter, surfing the Web, looking up some actor on IMDB) that don’t really tap the power of a laptop. These are the tasks the iPad is perfectly suited for. If you’ve considered buying a cheap laptop to keep around the family room in order to access the Internet, the iPad would fit the bill perfectly.

For me, the iPad excelled at tasks where I could lean back and read, watch, or listen. When I needed to lean forward, things got a little more complicated. The iWork applications are a little rough around the edges, but they’re truly groundbreaking. I am amazed at the amount of functionality that has been crammed into each of those three apps. The three iWork apps seem good for the light editing and displaying files, but using them to create important business documents from scratch seems much more daunting.

In the hand, on the lap

One of the biggest challenges to using the iPad is simple logistics: Where do you put it, and can you see and touch the screen comfortably from there? The laptop has two separate planes, one of which sits on your lap (or a desk) and the other one faces toward you. The iPad has only the one plane, which makes things trickier. In some positions on a couch or in bed, I felt uncomfortable with the iPad, and had to keep shifting until I found ones that worked for me. For many people, an iPad case will be a must—not so much to protect the device, but to help you prop it up at the right angle so that you can use it comfortably. Reading with the iPad also seems to me to be more of a two-handed activity. Without a case, the iPad is heavy enough and slippery enough that I found it difficult to hold in one hand. With Apple’s case, it was a lot easier to hold.

I didn’t really like Apple’s iPad case on first glance, but I have come to appreciate as a major improvement to iPad usability. A flood of other case manufacturers will undoubtedly follow—many of them useless, but many of them contributing mightily to iPad usability. I’ve never been a fan of iPhone cases, preferring to keep the device unadorned in my jeans pocket. But I suspect I will be singing a different tune when it comes to the iPad.

The onboard apps

I’ve already mentioned that Safari is, in many ways, the centerpiece app on the iPad—if a device connected to an App Store with thousands of apps can be considered to have a “main app.” But the iPad’s other built-in apps aren’t too shabby, either. They all take advantage of the iPad’s screen size in clever and sometimes subtle ways, and will serve as templates for iPad app developers everywhere: these apps are Apple’s examples of what iPad software should be.

Mail is a fusion of the iPhone Mail program and the version of Mail on the Mac. It’s pretty and functional, though there’s no unified Inbox and there’s still a bit too much sliding around between mailboxes for my tastes, a way in which the app hews a bit too closely to its iPhone cousin. (A popover window that lets you choose from your available mailboxes on all accounts would be nice, for example.)

Calendar has a nice embossed background reminiscent of a physical day-planner, but beyond that it’s very much like Apple’s iCal application for Mac OS X. Only I think the iPad’s Calendar app is better than iCal. It feels more responsive, looks better, and provides more flexible views. Contacts is a basic address book (also with a pretty frame reminiscent of a physical address book). Notes is an overgrown version of the Notes app for the iPhone, complete with its insistence on lined yellow paper and the annoying Marker Felt typeface. Thank goodness the App Store will soon be flooded with plenty of alternatives.

The iPad’s Maps app will be familiar to anyone who’s used Maps on the iPhone, but it offers a number of nice improvements. The sheer size of the iPad screen makes Maps that much more attractive. There’s a new Terrain view that puts your surroundings in graphic relief. And a new blue overlay bar lets you navigate driving directions without getting in your way.

Some people will probably not use the Photos app on the iPad. After all, the device has no camera. But other people will probably come to love Photos most of all. It’s a beautifully designed app, with photo galleries displayed in stacks of images that you can pinch open and closed with two fingers. The iPad makes a fantastic photo album (and digital photo frame), thanks again to that big screen. If you sync the iPad with iPhoto, Photos will also let you browse via iPhoto’s Events, Faces and Places views.

Just about the only thing Photos doesn’t do is let you edit your images. That’s no big deal when you’re using it as a photo frame, but a forthcoming iPad accessory will allow you to import photos and videos from your digital cameras into the iPad, making it a great photographer’s companion as well. Presumably many third-party apps will rise to take on the challenge of cataloging, selecting, and editing of photos right on the iPad.

There are also some iPhone apps that have no iPad equivalents—they’re just not on this device. Weather, Stocks, Clock, Calculator, Voice Memos, and Compass have all been omitted. But fear not: There are free replacements for most of them on the App Store, and they’re generally better than their Apple equivalents. Maybe it’s better if Apple just gets out of the way on this one and lets its developers lead the charge.

When you download all these apps from the App Store, they appear on the iPad’s home screen, which has been slightly updated from the home screen on the iPhone and iPod touch. You can now set a wallpaper image behind the home screen, for that extra personalized touch. (This image is separate from the one that displays on the iPad’s lock screen.) And the dock at the bottom of the screen can hold up to six apps, rather than the iPad’s four.

Unfortunately, the main area of the iPad’s home screen seems loose and a bit barren. Only four apps can appear in a row in portrait mode, leaving wide spaces between each app. (Each home screen can fit five rows, or twenty apps outside of the dock, in portrait mode. Everything shifts into a new configuration if you rotate the iPad to landscape, creating four rows of five apps each.) A tighter grid or larger app icons would have solved this problem. And the iPad, even more than the iPhone, is crying out for the ability to drop small widget-like apps onto the home screen. Who needs a full-fledged, full-screen Weather app when a small Weather widget with the current temperature and forecast could live on one of the iPad’s home screens?

Wide-open potential

When I reviewed the original iPhone in 2007, I was reviewing a product that was relatively self-contained. It came with 16 home-screen icons—what we’d now call “apps”—and that was it. It was a year before the App Store launched, opening the iPhone’s potential to anything that developers could imagine (and that Apple would approve).

The iPad, in contrast, arrives with the doors wide open. The iPad might come with 13 default home-screen icons, but there are already thousands of iPad-enabled apps available, with more coming seemingly every minute. I have no doubt that some of those apps are, by themselves, going to make the iPad a must-buy for certain audiences. Baseball fans and MLB At Bat 2010 for iPad. Graphic novel fans and the various comic-book readers. An avalanche of games will exploit the iPad’s speedy custom-built A4 processor and graphics systems.

It might seem obvious, but it’s worth saying anyway: The existence of the App Store and a thriving community of iPhone OS app developers exponentially increases the functionality of this device. As a device with 13 default apps, plus iWork and iBooks, it’s nice and all. As the target of thousands of intelligent, creative software developers who already have two years of iPhone OS development under their belts? The sky’s the limit.

In just my first few days with the iPad, I’ve been amazed by the high-quality apps that have been developed for the device. And keep in mind, most of these apps were created by developers who have never used the product, or—if they’re lucky—have used it for a short burst of time under the watchful eye of Apple representatives with Tasers on their belt holsters. In the next few months, the iPad platform will continue to evolve, as developers and users start to understand just how the iPad works and where it fits into users’ lives.

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