First impressions of the Apple iPad

After playing around with various e-readers I decided that a more general purpose device would suit me better. A colleague showed me his iPad. I was slightly disappointed by the glossy screen and weight but liked some of the apps I was shown, the device’s versatility and its built quality. So I made a mental list of what I expected from an iPad and checked online if it would meet those demands. It did so I bought one late July 2010, as soon as the iPad was released in Belgium. To solve the problem of screen glare and smudgy fingerprints I added a  matte-finish screen protector. The Apple case for the iPad was nowhere to be found so I had to mail-order another case.

First impressions

I think Apple got the form factor of the iPad just right: it is not too small, not too big and the aspect ratio of its screen is just right for surfing, watching photographs or reading manuals and other documents.

Battery life is acceptable. Apple’s promise that you can use the device for 10 hours between recharges seems to be about true. That is good enough for me, as it gets you through an entire day of fooling around.

Many people complain that iPad apps are more expensive than their iPhone/iPod Touch counterparts. While that may be true, I think most apps still offer excellent value for money.

The biggest let-down of the iPad is its lack of a proper file system. There is no central folder structure in which you can store documents and open them using various applications. This is a weird design decision that gets more and more annoying as you make better use of the device.

Another dislike is the way the iPad is completely iTunes dependent. Too many things can only be achieved on the iPad by hooking it up to a Mac or PC and syncing it with iTunes. Apple may be capable of writing excellent software but I don’t consider iTunes to be an example of that.

Using the iPad as a document reader

I often run into interesting web sites or documents at work, where I don’t really have the time to look at them in more detail. A lot of those documents are technical publications, typically PDF files. I installed two apps for this on the iPad:

  • DropBox allows you to share a folder between the systems at work, at home and on the iPad. If I find a useful PDF or link at work, I drop it in a DropBox folder called ‘To be read’. That folder is automatically synced with the DropBox app on the iPad.
  • GoodReader is a document viewer app that has support for DropBox built in. In the evening I use it to check my ‘To be read’ stuff. GoodReader does a good job as a PDF-reader and it allows you to archive documents in a series of folders and subfolders.

Using the iPad for digital newspapers and magazines

The iPad app for De Standaard, a local newspaper, was the first one I bought. For 15 euros per month the app allows you to download the complete content of the newspaper. You can browse through the layout or read the articles in a bigger text-optimized view. You can also navigate through the pictures of the day (similar to what the Boston Globe does) or load the latest news updates from their web site.

Meanwhile I’ve also added the apps from Zinio, Yudu and Wired, along a few other digital magazines. Overall reading digital newspapers and magazines has been a pleasant experience. I’ll probably cover this in more detail in a follow-up post later on.

Using the iPad as a browser

Safari is a nice enough browser, with support for up to 9 separate windows. The lack of Flash is occasionally annoying but I can live with it. Lacking support for Java web start applications means the machine wouldn’t be practical at work, but that is fortunately not what I bought it for.

After a while I did find out that I would always return to my PC with its 24-inch monitor, 20+ FireFox tabs and decent keyboard to actually get any work done. As many have already said: the iPad is for media consumption, not for creating content. In a way the iPad is the computer equivalent of a television. It lures you into wasting your time watching other people’s stuff, instead of encouraging you to do your own thing. Maybe I’ll end having to put myself on an iPad diet and limit its daily use to 2 hours at most to avoid becoming a couch potato.

Using the iPad as a photo viewer

I love photography and using the iPad as a photo viewer was supposed to become one of the system’s main tasks. This works but I am running into too many restrictions to my liking. iTunes fails to import my existing picture library which contains around 8000 pictures. Its ‘Out of memory’ error message seems to also occur with many other  iPad users. None of the suggested solutions on the web help. This forced me to create a separate folder structure with a limited choice of pictures that get synced with the iPad. Even worse: pictures can be organised in folders, or albums as they are called, but those folders cannot contain subfolders. That is just plain stupid! It also doesn’t help that it is impossible to sort pictures using their metadata.

Fortunately the screen of the Ipad is gorgeous. Pictures on it look so much better that the 10×15 (4×6″) prints I used to order.

Using the iPad for drawing

I attended art school so it seemed logical to try some drawing applications. Adobe Ideas was the first one I tried, mainly because it is a free app. Much to my surprise, drawing on an iPad using one of your fingers is as straightforward as one would think. According to an article in C’t, a German computer magazine, it is mainly the lack of  accuracy that makes drawing so difficult. Using one of the special iPad styluses helps. A lot of practice and some patience also seem to improve matters. I’ll have to look into this a bit more in the future. It would be great if I could draw cartoons on the iPad.

Using the iPad as a games machine

It wasn’t my original intent to use the iPad much for games. I bought a few for my daughter and quickly got hooked myself. Plants vs zombies and Angry Birds are just awesome!

Killer apps

New computer platforms often bring along applications that either offer something completely new or do something familiar in a completely different and better fashion. Here are some of the apps that I consider to be killer applications on the iPad:

  • Flipboard takes your Facebook and Twitter updates as well as news from a wide range of web sites and put alls that information in a nicely structured ‘social magazine’.
  • ExploreFlickr and Eyewitness are simple picture browsers, showing the best daily pictures on Flicker and The Guardian newspaper. There is nothing earth shattering about them but it is something that I would never have considered doing on a regular basis on any other device. There is something oddly compelling in being able to sit in the the garden and just watch other people’s photographs without anything else getting in the way of the experience.
  • AirVideo streams movies from a PC or Mac to the iPad. Again this may not be a true killer app but it is a completely new way of watching movies and TV-recordings for me.

The best is yet to come

For me the iPad has already proven that it is much more than the large iPod Touch that many people claim it to be. This is an entirely new platform and way of accessing content. We’re even still waiting for its ‘true’ operating system – iOS 4. My guess is that the true killer iPad-apps have yet to appear. I can’t wait!

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