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Apple iPad: The Switched Review


The iPad, Apple's new "magical" tablet device whose months of hype claim that it will save print media, kill laptops and redefine the computing experience, is finally here. As expected, many camped out at Apple Stores nationwide, but, aside from Saturday's launch day theatrics at 9 a.m., crowds were subdued compared to those attending the frenzied iPhone launch of 2007. Steve Jobs introduced the device by describing a computing space currently unfilled by either smartphones or laptops. We got to spend a long weekend with the device, so read on to see how Apple's iPad holds up.

Hardware

The iPad, from a hardware perspective, is in line with what we've come to expect from Apple. The brushed-aluminum backing and bezeled screen both fit with the styling of Apple's current desktop computers, monitors, laptops and mobile devices. Buttons, knobs and slots continue to disappear from Apple devices; in the 1.5-pound iPad there's simply a rotation lock mechanism, a volume rocker, headphone jack, a sleep button and the iPhone-esque front-and-center home button. In terms of connectivity, the iPad is largely untethered; you get the standard Apple connector, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 2.1. Users looking for a card reader, USB port or ethernet jack are out of luck. Internal storage capacities start at 16GB ($499), hit 32GB ($599) and finally top out at 64GB ($699).

The capacitive 1024-by-768-pixel, multi-touch screen is gorgeous and extremely responsive, if a bit glossy with a tendency to pick up fingerprints. While the display lacks the crispness and pixel density of e-readers like the Kindle (or even the iPhone), it's perfectly suitable for viewing over long periods of time. The Kindle and other e-ink readers trounce the iPad in outdoor (or even bright-light) performance, and the glossy display only serves to make the iPad's outdoor readability worse. As a result, you probably won't be ditching your paperbacks or e-ink readers for beach reading anytime soon.

The iPad's battery life is a pleasant surprise from Apple; after a full day of Netflix, heavy Web browsing, music streaming and gaming, our iPad still had over 20-percent of the initial charge left.

iPad Hardware




Software

Setting up the device involves a quick sync with the latest version of iTunes via your computer (or at the Apple Store). At a basic software level, the iPad doesn't offer much innovation to current iPod touch and iPhone users, which isn't necessarily a good thing. Don't get us wrong; setup is a breeze, and Apple has elaborated on earlier successes to create an intuitively usable device that nearly anyone can navigate. That said, the iPad lock and home screens are simply bigger versions of what we've seen on the iPhone. The top bar displays the same amount of information (wireless status, time, and battery life) as the iPhone, despite having significantly more room at its disposal. The app layout is a blown-up version of the iPhone; each page is a bed of 20 apps (compared to the iPhone's 16). Fortunately, Apple and many third-party developers have taken advantage of the bigger screen in apps like Mail, Contacts, Calendar and the Settings app. Similarly, Google's HTML 5 Web-based Gmail implementation is a must-use app.

Keyboard

The on-screen keyboard is huge, and offers a very different experience from the iPhone's. Typing on the iPhone or iPod touch is a question of thumbs, but the iPad requires fingers. It takes getting used to, but we were able to employ both the hunt-and-peck and full-finger approaches. Because you're usually not holding the device and typing at the same time, we found ourselves laying the iPad flat on a table or perching it on our laps, an oddly workable way to type. Of course, you can tether a Bluetooth keyboard or keyboard dock to the device, if you need those tactile keys.

Files

The iPad's odd treatment of files is a major sticking point for us. Although the iPhone and iPod touch are no different, the iPad makes it frustratingly difficult to browse, access and move your files. Are you working in a .txt file on your desktop machine, and wanting to bring it to your iPad for later editing? You could import it into Pages, but will probably need to come up with some convoluted workaround involving e-mail, copy-and-pasting and crossed fingers.

Multitasking

Perhaps a deal-breaker for many, there's still no multitasking on the iPad. Granted, at Switched, we're usually running an abnormal 10 to 15 apps at any time, but we encountered countless situations where we simply wanted to do more than one thing at a time with the iPad. For example, if you're listening to Pandora and a new e-mail comes in, you have to drill out of Pandora (cutting off your music stream), check your e-mail, pull out of your e-mail app and then open up Pandora again. For a device that claims to do things better than netbooks -- and "magically," at that -- this is absurd.

Notifications

System notifications (such as incoming IMs) are implemented in the same way as they are on the iPhone. When you receive a new IM, Facebook message or other notification, the alert appears in the center of the screen, and you can't continue what you were doing until you press 'OK.' Android and Web OS both provide subtle, unobtrusive updates to what else is happening on your device, a lesson Apple could definitely stand to learn.

Apps


Full-screen, iPad-optimized apps look wonderful. The New York Times Editors Choice is a joy to read, books (of the iBook and Amazon varieties) look great in full color, and games are a blast to play in crisp full-screen. Generally, Apple took advantage of the iPad's larger screen, and updated versions of everything from YouTube and the App Store to iTunes and Mail and reflect this. Third-party developers have produced some stunning apps for launch (including Elements, Mirror's Edge and Epicurious).

iPad App Store




Safari

On one hand, Safari on the iPad gets very close to perfecting a style of browsing first glimpsed with the original iPhone. Browsing on the iPad is blazingly fast, and navigating the Web on a large screen via touch, instead of a mouse, feels exactly right. One small problem: a giant chunk of the Web's online video, gaming and content is inaccessible without iPad support for Adobe's Flash. You simply won't be able to load Flash games, videos from Hulu, or music from Grooveshark and countless other sites.

iTunes and iPod

The iPod interface fits between the iPhone version and iTunes on your desktop machine. The split screen format lists your playlists on the left side of the screen, and reveals all the tracks in your playlist on the right. Nothing groundbreaking here, but it's much easier to browse your library and create playlists. Unfortunately, there's still no drag and drop for creating playlists, but creating playlists on the fly is much easier than on the iPhone with the added screen size. The iTunes Store shines on the large screen, revealing far more information at a quick glance. Subscribing to and downloading podcasts may be even easier than on your PC, and the iTunes store is tightly integrated with the iPod app.

Mail

Though Apple improved Mail with the new split screen display that shows your inbox on the left and full messages on the right, threaded messages (like Gmail or OS X's Mail) still aren't available. Setting up accounts with most e-mail providers is simple enough. Dealing with attachments is a backwards process. If you want to e-mail a friend a photo, you're forced to go to the Photos app, and then send from there instead of browsing and attaching from within the Mail app.

Maps

Maps have been standard in smartphones and mobile devices for years, but this is far and away one of the best implementations of Google Maps we've seen. It's just as zippy as the iPhone's implementation, but multitouch navigation of satellite imagery on a much larger screen is, frankly, awesome.

iPad Google Maps



YouTube

We're still annoyed by the YouTube app icon. (It still hides itself in the app list with no visual connection to YouTube.) But, the app itself provides for endless YouTube viewing. Running on our Wi-Fi network, videos started up quickly, were extremely responsive to dragging along the time scrubber and jumped smoothly from fullscreen and back.

iPad YouTube




Books


A simple tap of the iBooks' 'Store' button flips the wooden bookcase interface around to reveal the iBookstore. So far, the iBooks selection seems pretty slim; quick searches for Cormac McCarthy, Jorge Luis Borges and Joan Didion -- all available in the Kindle Store -- turned up nothing. iBooks pulls a selection from Project Gutenberg, opening up the free online book resource to iPad users. More importantly, both Amazon's Kindle app (our preferred reader on launch) and iBooks take full advantage of the iPad's large full color screen.

iBooks




iPhone Apps

To be blunt, upscaled iPhone apps look terrible. Although all the current apps available for the iPhone and iPod touch work perfectly fine on the iPad, the experience reminds us of running Classic Mac apps on OS X. The apps are either run at iPhone size or doubled in resolution, leading to chunky and pixelated text and images. The non-iPad optimized apps force you to use the iPhone keyboard (which has a different key layout) on the iPad, a bizarre rift in the interface.

For example, the iPhone version of Facebook uses a clean, easy-to-understand interface that recognizes the challenges of the small screen size. On the iPad, this same app is simply a badly pixelated browsing experience, driving us to visit Facebook in the browser instead. Apple's Remote app is the same way; it looks like the blown-up iPhone app that it is, where an iPad-optimized version would merely take design cues from Apple's iPod app. In effect, developers will need to construct separate experiences, respectively optimized for both the iPhone and the iPad.


Final Thoughts


We're left with mixed feelings after a weekend with the iPad. It's the first device we've seen that embodies the tablet we had imagined we'd use in the future. Many apps are a joy to use, and the device has some of the best implementations of browsing and Google Maps we've ever seen. Limited connectivity aside, the device is a beautiful piece of industrial design, and official software updates and third-party app development give us hope for the coming months. It's a radically cutting edge device.

It's not perfect, though. Though the multitasking issue could be fixed with future OS updates, it's still a serious stumbling block on the track to a true productivity machine, much less a primary computer. A huge chunk of the Web is left inaccessible without Flash support, and a file system obscured from users will prove frustrating for power users and beginners alike. Much of the iPad experience is marked by remnants of an operating system designed for a smartphone-sized screen. Yes, you can write, edit and be mildly productive on it, but, for now, it's no laptop killer. As with most Apple products, the price will eventually come down, and many of the early complaints will be handled with software upgrades. Today, Apple teased an event for the major iPhone OS 4 update, which could render many of these software issues meaningless on Thursday.

At $499 for the base 16GB model, the iPad will remain a polarizing luxury device for the immediate future. There's really nothing else quite like it out there, and it's a thrill to use -- despite all its Apple quirks.

Tags: apple, apple ipad, AppleIpad, features, hands on, HandsOn, ipad, reviews

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