Living with the iPad

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Living with the iPad

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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 webpages. 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.)

The iPod app shows giant album art by default (left), and has an iTunes-like interface (right).

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 applicationsPages, Keynote, and Numbers. 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 email 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 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 Maps app’s Terrain view.

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 iPhone’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).

At a Glance
  • Pros

    • Solid and speedy hardware
    • Big, bright touchscreen
    • Large collection of apps


    • Music and video apps could be better
    • Heavier and harder to hold than a dedicated e-book reader
    • External keyboard needed for long-form typing chores
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