The iPad- Pass, Fail or Wait?

The Apple iPad
So finally we have the long-awaited ‘iPad’, a possibly unfortunate name
for what is certainly a very beautiful device. Like the rumoured name, many are content to call this class of devices a ‘slate’- something between a laptop and a mobile device. Touch-screen and portable, it is a new class of devices that remains to be defined. Until I hold one, I can’t comment on the ergonomics first-hand, but by all accounts it is a
natural, magazine-like fit, though opinions are divided on how hand-holdable it actually is, it just looks to big to be comfortable to me, belonging in a lap or a table-stand. As an Apple fan, I can share Steve Job’s and Jonathan Ive’s enthusiasm for what is, for all it’s limitations, is an unprecedented multi-touch device. All the things I love on my iPhone can be done at a fuller resolution, with a stylish flair and the most intuitive of interfaces, touching what you want.

Yet, speaking as a consumer, who obviously doesn’t just go out and buy everything they make, I have to wonder if it is really something I want to go out and buy. This issue awaits prospective buyers- it worth it and what do I need it for? For most now, this is something to wait on for better feature-sets, as whilst it offers a tantalising taste of the future of touch-based interfaces, some essential features were purposefully left out, whether to keep costs down or to charge for with the future models Life as usual with Apple, many would say, as they either jump out to get one with a view to upgrading in the future, or decide to sit tight for the inevitable ‘revision B’.

 

The Hardware

So what is there? First and primarily, a beautiful 1074 x 768, haptic
touchscreen panel at 9.7″. It’s apparently very sharp and sensitive and
both backlit LED and IPS (inline plane switching, as used on the iMacs), so offers wider viewing angles and richer, deeper colours than a conventional LCD (such as the current iPods).

Unfortunately, the aspect ratio is unsuitable for movies, but if this is
a compromise to be good for reading books or internet browsing, that
could have been a conscious choice
. It looks to be very fast and ultra-smooth at what it does, the most impressive displays so far being the redesigned ‘iPhoto’ app, which looks stunning (and like something I would love to use to show photos) and the calendar, which just allows a more expansive view than the portable ones do. Having everything touch-screen and with more real-estate than before, promised to expand the ‘fun feeling’, the naturalness, of using the iPhone to more in-depth use. As far as viewing media goes, if this is seen as a bigger iPod, then video is one thing that could naturally benefit from the screen.

Although you might expect the screen to be designed for HD videos, seeing as 720P is actually 1280×720, you are losing some horizontal resolution, not to mention only using the center of the screen for it. I suppose it could be seen as iMax lite! Personally, I like to see films as large as possible and not being wide-screen certainly
cramps this, but for something to take on a plane, or for casual
viewing, it could work very nicely. Undoubtedly videos will have
stunning picture quality, though I can see the aspect ratio being more
suited to TV episodes or music videos than movies.

As for the inside, it’s custom-made 1Ghz CPU/graphics chipset,  ‘A4’ (the ‘A’ for Apple, probably), is a RISC-based creation that is specially
designed for the job at hand, so draws unusually low power. It’s probably similar to the ‘Snapdragon’ making it’s way into smartphones and will probably be in the next iPhone, too. Where does this stand compared to other devices? In terms of power, all in all you can expect 10 hours of battery life for web and video- more than the average laptop, but far less than the two weeks of the Kindle… kind of an unfair comparison, perhaps, but perhaps relevant for those looking primarily for an e-reader. In short, it won’t replace a Kindle, it isn’t built on ‘Amazon’s shoulders’. It’s a slate, with paltry battery life and not a replacement for anything else. As a super-duper iPod/movie player/ internet surfer, it promises an enriching experience, making those things unprecedentedly fun (except perhaps for the lack of Flash support leaving some of the internet invisible)- cheapo Netbook ‘killer’. Yet, when it is compared ‘uphill’ to more advanced netbooks and even laptops; and perhaps also the Windows 7 slates to soon come, all of which will share it’s price-point, the situation seems a little more shaky. If I was to sum it up, it’s essential problem here is a lack of connectivity.

For starters there is no webcam, making Skype-like video calls impossible- something I would definitely want it to do, if it is the only
device to take on a trip. It’s something I could immediately see it would be perfect for and it’s a curious and frustrating omission, though perhaps it could be solved with a connectible camera (or in next years version, he says with rolled eyes). Also unfortunate is the current lack of multi-tasking, meaning that you are stuck with one (non-Apple) app at a time, making instant messaging, Skype, or flipping in and out of a game all at once  a mere fantasy- though you can still do email, iPod and internet more or less all at once. In this sense, the speed offered is
deceptive, as productivity will be so lowered by this, though it could
well be fixed in a future  OS update, say iPod OS 4.0, so we will have to wait and see.

Other disappointments are a lack of any digital-out capability for sound or video; neither optical audio or HDMI, standards commonplace on other such devices (incidentally few Apple products have HDMI, partly because they support the competitor, display-port). What is avaliable is analogue VGA, with special adapter and limited to a pathetic 480p, like the Nintendo Wii- and who’d want that? The iPad would be perfect to plug into an HDTV, monitor or even projector and show slideshows, movies, etc larger. Also, annoyingly there is no USB, meaning if you want to use a webcam, external storage, or a keyboard, or even a card-reader, you are fresh out of luck. A probably overpriced keyboard ‘dock’ is being offered and no doubt others will follow, but I want the freedom of USB. There’s also no slot for micro-SDHC cards, so you
are stuck with the paltry memory of any but the expensive 64 Gig model; which to me is a bit of a rip-off, as you are forced to over-pay for storage. Yet another thing is the lack of Adobe flash on the machine, a fact related to a long-running rivalry with Adobe, which of course makes the internet browser less than complete (as is the iPhone’s Safari). Neither does it feature Java, all meaning that only the App store apps will work and much of the internet, especially video, won’t. They even mocked up screens of the New York times to disguise this. All of this tells me that right now it just isn’t open enough to be called a computer any more than a toaster is, and that in expecting it to be one,  lies the path to frustration.

No doubt these issues will be ‘fixed’ in later installments. These games with seemingly basic features have been taking place with the
iPhone generations, which although it started with a basic camera and poor sound quality, had these improved bystages. Only on it’s third
generation has it acquired it’s current 3MP, auto-focus model. It took years even to get copy-and-paste, a tremendous source of frustration, but one we just had to live with to be in ‘Apple World’. On that subject, for now it also lacks a forward-facing camera for video calls, something it will hopefully get in the next version. Each time people are expected to upgrade as affordable hardware was withheld, which just leaves people angrily asking, why? Or , if they can, going to the competition and putting up with the far inferior user interfaces there.

To be fair to Apple, the fact that a, ‘Jack of all trades risks being a master of none’ is a problem that has long dogged ‘convergence’ devices and as people focus on it’s omissions, may well prove a hurdle to the
iPad’s acceptance. Remember, this is intended as the next iPod, which ‘everyone’ will have. Perhaps the first success in this was the iPhone, so building on it’s strengths seems to me a good direction to take for ‘convergence’. I can say, as a user, that it is incredible how many things I do on that, including some things I never would have even thought of. I expect the same will be eventually true of the iPad. For now, it
may be best to see it for what it is- a media portal, an evolution of
the ‘PMP’ (personal media player), though definitely supercharged with
apps and ebooks. I personally can see myself having a lot of fun
with it, and touch-screen browsing on the couch might be a great
experience, as would plane journeys be improved. I can’t see it
replacing even low-powered computers, at least not whilst it is in the
‘walled garden’ of the iPhone OS. This isn’t exactly a bad thing, as it
is sticking to it’s guns at being intuitive and fun and offering new ways to do the same things, so for people who don’t like computers much in the first place this is great. Of course, this may be a deal-breaker for those wanting something more fully usable, expecting a much more open device that Apple currently have.

 

The Content

Even if the hardware is quickly overtaken by the competition, the central pull is content, based around the various departments of iTunes and seamlessly synced with Tunes. This is it’s ‘killer app’ (if you’ll pardon the pun), all in one and probably the reason Apple attracts so much attention in the first place. It made the MP3 player and the Smart Phone household items rather than just treats for Geeks. Many are planning on getting the same success for the iPad. Like Nintendo, Apple knows that good price points and enjoyable experiences sell hardware, not the other way around. In some ways my iPhone 3G is antediluvian- but it still reigns king (okay, alongside the 3Gs). So what’s going to be available?

First of all are all the existing apps, which can be automatically
unscaled and some already being rewritten for the ‘big screen’. New ones will no doubt emerge and no doubt if there are a selection of great
ones, many will buy one just for that- there is a hope amongst content
producers, especially in games, that this will take off. I for one am
excited to see the future of ‘alternative’ touchscreen applications
revealed. Some of my favourite apps now being Koi Pond, Tesla Audio,
Jisho Touch, all things that couldn’t really exist or thrive outside of
the app store ecosystem.

Some of the seeming limits could become strengths. By not optomising the device for movies, it offers an aspect radio better for more balanced
ratios, especially things like reading or writing, in which it’s useful
to scan up and down the page. In fact, soon the iBook store will open,
offering a clever and stylish way to read e-books, along withan easy way
to purchase them. Whilst Amazon already has it all and a more suitable
screen, I can see the ‘little guy’ faring better on the iBook store,
where cheap purchases will be possible and user reviews take more
precedence. the whole alternative nature of the Apple world, the world
of home-made Apps and pod-casts will tend to favour such moves- and if you can excuse a shameless little plug, I fully intend to do some publishing myself there, if possible. (note,

Being a new type of device, I’m still wondering how it will be used
in practice. As a slate, it’s something you can easily place in your lap, or on a stand wherever you happen to be, you could use it in bed the way it would be nice to use a laptop (and how I use my iPhone), though I certainly wouldn’t want to have to hold it for long. If it catches on, I can see umpteen docks and stands being available, even built into trains, planes and automobiles. I consider it portable, like a laptop, rather than mobile, like a iPhone, Nintendo DS, or Kindle. I could see myself taking it to Starbucks where I meet with friends, to share photos, or to private English classes. Places where you don’t really need a laptop and want to pass something around would suit it great. When they bring out the hand-writing recognition software, it will surely be great for note-taking, and this is where it could end up as a must-have item for the classroom, having the textbooks built in. In fact it would be great if my students could see presentations I’ve made, all at once, without the cost of projection or printing things out in
colour.

 

A Preliminary Conclusion

As for me, will I get one? It is currently a ‘wait’ and see, though I probably won’t be able to resist it, just to play with the new apps. I hope the price will drop either on this or comnpetitor’s models to the point at which they are like games consoles and you can get whichever model you like without breaking the bank. My advice to anyone else is to try waiting for a later edition, as it isn’t all there yet; whatever the cool-aid salesman tell you about not really needing USB/HDMI/Webcam/memory, etc. Of course, we will all need to wait for at least a couple of months, in which the situation could change. A new OS, a dock that offers far more connectivity. Right now, it almost
seems like a mock-up, a beta product, with that ‘unchanged from iPhone’ interface without even so much as an animated iBackground. So many things look like a step backwards- the screen aspect ratio, the lack of a camera (sorry to go on about it, but that was a real mistake, in my view). If I do get one, it will be with a mind to one day upgrading to one with missing features. How important these will be to others is
anyone’s guess, but the market certainly behaves differently than the
way tech geeks often expect it to. If I was to offer a prediction it’s that early adopters will be ‘punished’ by it’s early obsolescence, but since it can already do so much, it will still have a lot of value as a secondary device, or even on the used market to help pay for the new one.

More than the iPhone, this is a work in progress. It may take a few generations to give people what they need, which may be different from what the Apple engineers currently think they need, but they’ll get there. New features will even come that we haven’t really considered- AMOLED or even 3D-capable screens, projectors and wireless motion-tracking devices ‘a la Wii. It’s a new world and people haven’t tried something like this out yet, at least at this size so they haven’t ‘caught the bug’. I think they will, if not with this device, then with similar ‘Slate’ designs by Apple’s competitors. We have the HP Slate coming, along with Leveno’s intriguing hybrid notebook/slate  hybrid, the IdeaPad U1 Hybrid Tablet Netop. Of course, Apple’s advantage is the seamless way to get your content on there and sync it. Fiddly software has often dogged other systems but iTune’s ease of use and popularity virtually assures much content will be available for it. Unless Android or something like it picks up, a lot, there is still no real competition for this. It will certainly be interesting to see how well the iPad does when it hits the shelves in March this year. Can Apple really create a new market, selling something we didn’t yet know we need? They’ve done it before and even if this particular launch is a relative dud, I’m sure that they’ll do it again.

 

(Premiminary) Perfect Futures Rating– 3/5 stars (down from 4 for the curious hardware omissions; something like what I’d have given the original iPhone. The future, though, is very bright as it gets more features).

 

Gallery

The First iPad Emerges!

The iBooks App

In Future Generations?

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1 Comment

  1. The iPad 2- The Tech Talk Review (Technologies) « Perfect Futures

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