Living with the iPad

The original iPad: Macworld's complete review

At a Glance
  • Generic Company Place Holder Apple iPad Tablet Computer

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  • Generic Company Place Holder iPad with Wi-Fi 64GB

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  • Apple iPad with Wi-Fi 16GB

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Living with the iPad

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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 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.

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 touch 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 for 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

Typing in a Pages document in landscape mode.
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 Barnes & Noble’s Nook. 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.

Reading a book in iBooks (left) and Kindle for iPad (right).

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.

At a Glance
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