Apple iPad full review - Page 4

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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