Monday, August 02, 2010

On iPad

When they first announced the iPad, I thought, as many people did, "It's a giant iPod Touch? I don't get it." Then I read more about it, especially as it might be used for travel, and it started to sound more appealing. I especially liked how you could get the 3G model without a data plan, but sign up for it on the fly if you needed it. I've definitely wound up at hotels that advertised WiFi only to discover they don't really have it. Wanting the 3G had the added benefit of making me wait longer, so then I got the chance to play with other people's WiFi-only models. Weirdly, I was sort of sold but when I actually had one in my hand, as impressed as I was by the shiny, I still couldn't quite figure out what it was for. Meanwhile, I took a brief business trip and thought about how nice it would be to have something a little lighter than my laptop with me, and also how much easier it would be to use something flat in the confines of a plane. It's truly a wonder that we can have WiFi on planes and buses, but deeply frustrating that there's not actually room to open a laptop properly and use it. In the end, I decided I couldn't really know what I'd do with it unless I actually used it "in the field," so I figured I'd get one and if I didn't like it I could just sell it on eBay. (Boy's response to that after I'd had it for a week and was clearly keeping it, "Oh, did you believe you when you said that? I didn't.")

I saw lots of "It's magical and revolutionary!" and lots of "It's stupid!" press when the iPad first came out, but I haven't seen a lot of real-world reviews. Perhaps just because I don't care so much to read them now that I have my own. But anyway I thought I'd do my own list of pros and cons, just for fun. I will say up front that I come down very squarely on the Pro side. I'm also very nitpicky. I spend a lot of time thinking about user interfaces and customization and the dream computer/PDA/cell phone that I wish existed, so I've got a lot of niggling Cons on the list. I'm certainly not being an Apple fanboy apologist (no, I would never do that) but I'm really happy with it in spite of them.

I should mention that I still don't have an iPhone, but not for the reasons in that old post (well, #4 is still accurate), which seem incredibly quaint three years later. I plan to get one very soon, but for now I have a Storm, the Blackberry that wishes it were an iPhone. I bring this up only to say that the iPad is my first experience with iOS, and that my reference point for touch screen devices is the Storm, which, while, clunky in many ways, has a lot going for it.

Pro: It's incredibly intuitive…
We had no internet in the office for nine days (that's another story altogether) and the iPad got passed around a bit (it's a small office). I opened the browser and our webmail for my boss, who no one (herself included) would describe as terribly tech-savvy, turned my back, and she was typing away. I was fairly impressed.

Con: …except when it's not.
Later that same day, my quite tech-savvy co-worker used it and couldn't figure out how to select and copy text. And why would he? I either figured it out by accident or read it in the manual (yes, I actually read the manual). I still can't figure out how to put the cursor in the middle of a word to fix a typo (can you even do that?). Some of the cons below are related to this. The device is so fundamentally simple and clearly designed to just be picked up and used, that whenever it's not easy it's jarring.

Pro: Safari
When I started looking at apps, I couldn't believe there wasn't a Facebook app for the iPad. Then I opened Facebook in the browser. It's just Faceook. As long as there's no Flash involved, it's pretty much just like going online on a real computer.

Pro: Video
For several months, for no apparent reason, my MacBook has been a little iffy about playing video. Generally, it will play for a while and then the audio will continue while the image freezes. Not so on the iPad. As long as it's not Flash, of course, everything has been smooth and crystal clear, including YouTube and streaming Netflix.

Pro: Battery
I haven't done a long trip with it yet, but the battery seems to last a very long time, as promised. And it doesn't get hot like at all, unlike my laptop which is currently making me sweat through a padded lapdesk.

Con: Inconsistent user interface
Within Apple's own apps, there's an inconsistency to how things work. On the home screen, swiping changes the page. In Books (and the Kindle app), swiping or just tapping on the side of the screen "turns the page." But in Calendar and Address Book, there are little arrows you have to click. It's especially weird because both use a similarly twee paper image/metaphor to the Books app, so you naturally want to "turn the page."

I also find it both very weird and very annoying that some apps have a place to tap to bring up their settings, and some live in the device's overall Settings (Apple is at least consistent – all of theirs live in the main area). Especially without multi-tasking, it's very strange to have to exit the app you're using to set something up in that app. How does it make any sense to have to leave my Google Reader app to change the order in which I'm viewing the feeds?

Con: Not enough buttons
One of the things I really like on Blackberries is the Menu button, which, well, pops up a menu. The menu contextual based on where you are (apps, etc.), and it solves pretty much all the problems above, with settings, copy, paste, etc. I know adding physical buttons is a no-no for Apple (though I don't really get why, since I'm sure they could design something sexy), but why not stick something in the menu bar? While we're at it, why not stick a lot of things in the menu bar? On the Storm – and, for that matter, on a Mac – clicking the clock, the connections icon, etc. opens a menu or takes you to the relevant settings or app. On the iPad, clicking anywhere in the menu bar scrolls whatever you're viewing to the top of the page. It's not unuseful, but for a while I kept doing it by accident and not understanding what was happening.

Pro: The main keyboard
I taught myself to type at a very early age, before anyone got around to teaching me how to do it properly. As a result I can type very quickly and accurately using mostly three fingers and a thumb. So maybe that's why I took to the iPad keyboard so quickly, but whatever the reason I find it very speedy and natural-feeling. I frequently miss the space bar (and when I do I almost always hit N, which shows how consistently I hit the same spot with my thumb when I can actually feel the bar), and I'm having a tough time learning the secondary keyboards (the Storm's are pretty intuitive), but in general I'm very impressed. (I have yet to do any real high-volume writing on it. I thought about writing this on it – it seemed to make sense – but in the end I didn't want to, mostly because things like copying links just work better with multiple windows.)

Con: The other keyboards and shortcuts
As much as I like the physical experience of typing on the iPad, the layout of it's secondary keyboards baffles me. I suppose this is largely about being used to the Storm's keyboard, but the layout doesn't bear any resemblance at all to a computer or a phone's keyboard. Adding to the confusion, it's not quite the same as the iPhone layouts, so when running an iPhone app it's another keyboard that I haven't learned yet. The Storm also has better shortcuts: Pressing and holding a key will give you a capital letter; tapping the shift or number keys will give you a single hit on those keyboards, holding them locks it; there are separate keys to access both of the secondary keyboards from the main one, instead of iOS' method of drilling down. I'm sure I'll get used to it all, but as with some of the other UI and button stuff, it's surprising that a device this deliberately simple has me doing things in three clicks that I'm used to doing in one.

Con: Twitchy Autocorrect
This is something else I assume I'll get used to, but it seems counterintuitive that I have to tap the suggested word to not use it. On Blackberries, it's the opposite – you tap a suggestion to select it, and just keep typing to ignore it. Also, what if I want to type its or ill or hell? I mean, I appreciate the help, especially since I can't really find the apostrophe, but it seems like it's helpful to the point of no longer being helpful. (Slate recently ran a great article on autocorrection systems.)

Con: Calendar App
Sort of a half-con, really. The calendar is very pretty, and certainly functional. Syncing with MobileMe is dreamy. But like several of the iPad's apps, it inexplicably defies conventions that have been around forever. I'm constantly trying to tap and drag appointments to change their times. Like in every other calendar application since the dawn of time, including iCal. Nope. It's tap the event, tap the edit button, tap and scroll the times…tedious. Similarly why not tap a blank spot in a day to create a new appointment there? Or double-tap, to make it like double-clicking in every other calendar application since the dawn of time, including iCal. Nope. Click the add button, change the date, time, etc. It's just a lot of tapping (again) that could be pretty easily avoided by following convention. Also, see above re: scrolling and swiping.

Also, in my world weeks start on Monday and end on Sunday. All through high school and college I used those Week At a Glance planners that put the weekend on the end, and later worked with a union where an official workweek was Monday-Sunday, no matter where your day off was. When I look at a calendar I just expect it to start Monday.

iCal and Outlook let you decide what day you want your week to start. Blackberries and Palms to do. Not the iPad!

Also, I realize this is old news to iPhone users, but WTF there's no Tasks app?? Seriously??? Every PDA or smartphone I've owned since 2000 has had a to-do list. It's built into iCal and Outlook. Perhaps most curious, my iCal tasks sync with MobileMe and appear in the web calendar, just as they do in iCal. Apple clearly CAN do this. So why on earth would they leave it out of iOS? I found a pretty slick third party app (iPronto), but I shouldn't have had to pay for it. Adding admittedly useful insult to injury, iPronto syncs using my MobileMe account.

Pro: Other Apps
The iPad is not going to fully replace my laptop. There are things it just can't do, or that I can do faster on a "real" computer. But I'm impressed by how many things it not only can do, but can do better than my laptop. Part of that is just the nature of its portability; a map application will obviously be improved by GPS. But the Maps app is so much better than the Google Maps website that powers it. Same for lots of location-based programs (I can only say "apps" so many times before it loses meaning) like Around Me. That's an iPhone app (dammit) but it will be just as useful on the Pad if I'm traveling and want to leave the hotel.

I do most of my reading online and I spend the majority of my iPad time in Reeder, a Google Reader…reader. It's very pretty, but more importantly (to me), it syncs and stores articles and even images for offline reading, making it perfect for subways and planes. When you're back online sync it up again. I already mentioned iPronto, and while I wish it weren't necessary it definitely does the job well. AccuWeather is incredibly gorgeous, which seems an odd thing to say about a weather app, but it just is (and also useful). Read It Later also lets me read internet content offline, and I can add to it from any browser. Pages and Numbers are very nice, and have been able to open any Word and Excel documents I've thrown at them so far, but to be fair I haven't really done much with them yet. The IMDB app is a thousand times nicer and easier to use than the actual website is. There are several apps like this. I just started using a diet and exercise diary called FatSecret (worst. name. ever.), which I can't say I recommend because I haven't used it much, but if you get a free account it syncs with the website, and it's remarkable how ugly the website is and how nice the app is. They're entirely different experiences, and the web one is definitely bad. OpenTable and HopStop have really pretty iOS interfaces too. It's not a bad trend, I suppose, except not everyone wants or can afford a smartphone or has the same OS. Why not adopt some of the app's design into the bad website?

(IMDB, AccuWeather, Reeder)

I know this is old news to iPhone users, but it's exciting to me, and it's one of the things that finally pushed me over the edge to deciding to get the phone too.

Pro: Games
Sure, games are apps, but I felt they warranted their own category. I have a DS and a PSP but lately I've had a hard time finding games I want to play on them, let alone spend $30 on. I like to play games on the subway while I listen to podcasts, because apparently I can't just do one thing (the TV, of course, is on as I write this). I'm rather obsessed with Angry Birds and Words With Friends, the latter for the social element as much as the game (well, social with people you never actually see or speak to). Qrank is a trivia game you can only play once a day (you play against friends and you all get the same set of questions), which is a great thing to be addicted to because there's a built-in time limit. Wake Up The Box is odd physics fun.

I suspect when I get an iPhone I'll switch to playing games there, and not carrying the Pad around so much, though the big sceen is nice (even for lower-res iPhone apps that get blown up on it). I'm fascinated by the motion control elements (which none of the ones I've mentioned use), which seem to sort of fulfill the promise of the Wii in a much more intuitive and elegant way. I feel like a lot of them work better when the device is smaller and a little more wieldy. Doodle Jump works really well though.

Pro: 3G on the fly
I mentioned this above and there's not much else to say about it. It's easy and cool.

Con: It's only 3G
I took a trip a couple weeks ago and had trouble getting onto the janky WiFi network, but there was no 3G either. I have no idea how this works technologically, but it would be nice if it could also connect to whatever lesser network iPhones connect to when 3G isn't available.

Con: No Security Slot
If memory serves, every Mac laptop I've ever owned (which is going back to 1994), has had a slot for a Kensington cable lock. Call me paranoid, but I never travel without it. Not all hotel rooms have safes, lots of people have access to them, and, rigorous backups or not, losing my computer would be a huge pain in the ass. So it seems strange to me that something so light and grabbable wouldn't be lockable. I assume the thining is that an iPad is more like a cell phone than a computer, but there are still going to be times when I don't want to carry it with me, but my paranoia may force me to.

Pro/Con: App Store/iTunes Store
This is one of those super nitpicky ones, but I hate the way the App Store dumps you out to the home screen whenever you do anything. Yes, I just bought something, but I wasn't done shopping, and now I have to go back and wait for everything to load again. Also why do you need my password to upgrade apps I've already paid for? Is someone going to steal my iPad and surreptitiously upgrade me? On the other hand, both stores are super-easy to use, and the instant gratification of being able to read about something online, buy it, and use it instantly is great. And then it's on your computer and on any other applicable devices when you sync.

Con: Finger as input device
It's super-cool in many ways, and I certainly don't want an iStylus, but it's frequently impractical. Like the time I was using the iPad and I paused to put on lip balm from a tin and then was like, Fuck, now I can't use the iPad! I mean, I wiped off my finger and life went on, but I often feel like I'm not clean enough to use it. I also have a tendency to accidentally hit things with limply curled fingers when I'm trying to hit things with my index finger. I guess I should be more forceful.

Con: Lack of Cases
Not a con of the device itself, but I wish there were more options for carrying cases. I know it's new and there will be more. Apple's case is garbage. I'm not convinced it will protect it from a fly landing on it. And it costs $40. I got one from Marware that I mostly love (very sturdy, elastic strap to keep it closed, little kickstand to angle for typing, affordable), but it's as heavy as the iPad itself, which makes it a little less portable or in-bed-readable.

Well, I've gone on far too long, but there's my take on the iPad. I actually thought I'd have more cons when I started. I could probably think of some, but I've gone on long enough. I really love mine, but I can't necessarily recommend it to anyone else. I mean, I wouldn't talk anyone out of it either, but I think it's too new and too expensive for me to say "Yeah, get one!" to anyone. I'm a little internet-addicted, and I read a lot online, and I commute and travel for work, so for me it's kinda perfect, if not a full-on computer replacement. That won't be true for everyone. And I haven't taken a business trip with it yet; that will be the real test. The short vacation I took with it the other week was very successful, but how much real work I can do remains to be seen.

But it's super cool and delightfully science fictiony. Whether that's worth $500+ to you or not is something I couldn't say.

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