Editorial: 10 Things Holdouts Should Know About The iPad
Three types of people are holding off on buying iPads at this point: those who don’t see the iPad’s value, those who are interested but waiting for a new feature—perhaps the version with 3G—and those who won’t buy in until there’s a price drop. Regardless of which camp you’re in, this article may be of interest to you: it’s designed to provide an honest, objective discussion of 10 real life iPad usage details that you might be surprised to know. Five of the points below are unexpected positives, and the other five are negatives, each discussed with a little more detail than you might have been aware of from reading early iPad reviews.
10. The iPad Will Change Your Relationship With Your iPhone or iPod touch. Tens of millions of people consider themselves to be iPhone and iPod touch addicts—“pry it out of my cold, dead hands” users who wouldn’t leave their homes without these pocket devices. Trust us, we know the feeling. Yet as hard as it may be to imagine, the iPad actually breaks this addiction: even the latest iPhone and iPod touch devices suddenly start to feel like compromised, crippled alternatives that have only pocketability as an advantage; for the first time in years, we’ve found ourselves leaving these devices in their charging docks and using the iPad instead. Web browsing, apps, and videos are just so much easier to enjoy on the iPad.
The “want to use this all the time” feeling is so strong that we’ve been itching for a persistent “anywhere” connection for the Wi-Fi-only iPad, the exact solution that the 3G-ready iPad will enable later this month. Moreover, because AT&T has dropped the ball on offering iPhone-to-iPad data tethering as an option, some of us are seriously considering the once-unthinkable act of dropping AT&T for iPhone 3G data service and just using the iPad as a full-time 3G data device on the go. No, it can’t fit in a pocket, but the quality of its maps, applications, and other features make the iPad worth carrying around.
9. Apple Did Release A TV, And It’s The iPad. If you believe the rumors, Apple has been working on an HDTV with integrated Apple TV/Mac functionality for a couple of years; Apple COO Tim Cook recently stated that Apple had no interest in being in the TV market. But once you use the iPad for a few days, you’ll start to realize that this has already happened: the only things that prevent the iPad from being a TV are its omission of a stand and a TV tuner—offset, of course, by its ability to acquire TV shows, movies, and much more on demand from the Internet. Mount it next to your bed, angle it near your bathroom sink while you’re getting ready for the day, or put it in your lap, and you may really start to wonder if you need to use a bigscreen TV any more. We couldn’t believe it, but this has actually taken place.
It’s obvious now why Apple tried to woo TV networks to drop their per-episode pricing to $1 per show: backed by the amazing library of current and old TV content offered through the iTunes Store, the iPad has come tantalizingly close to replacing the need for a cable subscription, and the rapid content discovery it enables via web browsing, apps, and the Store feels light years ahead of the sluggish, dolittle Apple TV—all the iPad comparatively lacks is the ability to start watching a video while it’s still downloading. After some research with the iPad, we almost bought the entire HBO series The Wire from iTunes, but flinched at the price, ultimately grabbing it from eBay for half the cost—the exact scenario Apple and networks should be trying to avoid with more appropriate iTunes Store pricing. If and when TV shows fall to $1 per episode, networks will finally have a viable cash flow from paid downloads, and cable companies will deservedly be in the sort of subscription-bleeding trouble they’ve deserved to suffer for years.
8. Gaming Is Much Better Than Expected, And A “Big iPod touch” Can Actually Be A Good Thing. We’ve played lots of iPad games over the past week, and though the lack of a traditional controller remains a huge issue—one that is crippling the quality of iPad games just as it did on the iPhone and iPod touch—there are moments that are downright exciting for any gamer. Playing Labyrinth 2, N.O.V.A., Geometry Wars Touch, and Mirror’s Edge on the iPad turns out to be far more exciting than we’d originally expected, thanks to impressive (and rushed) work done by their respective developers. Other developers such as Laminar Research have taken a bunch of separate iPhone releases and bundled them together, with improvements, for the iPad. There are actually reasons that people will want to spend more than $5 on iPad games.
More amazingly, even unedited iPhone games—particularly puzzlers such as Drop7, but also action-intense games such as Tilt to Live—fare at least as well upscaled as they did on the smaller 3.5” touchscreens. Will iPad-specific versions be better? Almost certainly. But just being able to experience last year’s pocket games on a bigger screen is surprisingly compelling. A lot still needs to be done to move the iPad forward as a gaming device, but apart from the need for a wireless controller, most of it can be done in software. That’s really great news.
7. Books On The iPad Transcend iBooks. As much as we like the concept of iBooks in its current, Amazon Kindle-aping form, the iPad’s potential as a reading device goes far beyond the capabilities of boring eBook readers. There’s already a ton of evidence that the iPad will be not only the conduit for replicating magazines, comic books, and newspapers, but evolving them forward with new interfaces, superior multimedia content, and levels of user-adjustable detail that might well have been unthinkable in print. A bunch of early iPad comic, magazine, and news apps have already appeared, and they collectively demonstrate more creativity, depth, and horsepower than anything that’s been released on a competing tablet-based reading device. Even a reskinning of Alice in Wonderland demonstrates how the iPad can completely transform classic books into valuable new experiences; edutainment is truly taken to new heights on this platform.
The only problem: the exciting stuff isn’t happening in iBooks—in fact, developers are being forced to create these experiences outside of the iBooks application. Consequently, these next-generation publications lack the sort of unified store, unified browsing app, and device-to-device portability they need—they should really all be a part of iBooks 2.0, complete with Mac and PC playback within iTunes. As chilling as the thought of Apple as a monopolist media gatekeeper or vendor may be for many people, some things really do benefit considerably from the company’s paternalistic involvement, and converted printed content is now at the top of this list. The alternative will be a proliferation of numerous different comic book, magazine, and newspaper apps with different stores, subscription models, and display technologies, generally with limited or no ability to view and store purchased content on a computer. Apple can and should fix this, very soon, before the “why do I have to re-buy my publications?” question becomes a huge problem for users.
6. Flash Isn’t Much Of An Issue, After All. We noted as much in our review, but after even more browsing and testing, we need to say it again: Apple has done a surprisingly effective job of reducing the need for Adobe’s Flash on the iPad. Part of this was the result of its simultaneously public and private initiative to convince content providers to switch from Flash to HTML5, which was accomplished more rapidly—if incompletely—than many people would have imagined, but part is due to the iPad’s current status as a “not quite computer.” Ninety-five percent of the web sites we visit don’t need Flash, and the remaining five percent can either be done without or used on a full-fledged computer. We feel confident that this will only improve over time.
5. Glare Is A Very Real Problem, As Are Fingerprints, But There’s A Solution. We touched on it in our comprehensive review of the iPad, but Apple’s glass screen is a double-edged sword: beautiful for videos, though dangerously shiny in cars, and even more of a fingerprint magnet than might have been guessed in advance. Consequently, we’ve spent the last week very actively testing Incipio’s Anti-Glare Screen Protector for iPad, and it’s an almost unqualified winner—it mitigates fingerprints, diffuses glare enough to make the iPad more usable outside, and fits the face of the iPad near-perfectly. You’ll still want to wipe finger oils off the screen, but half or a third as often. Even with the Protector on, passengers will need to be careful using the iPad in a car, but it’s as good of a solution as is available for the time being.
4. Multitasking Is The Biggest Omission. If there was one thing we could change about the iPad right now, the absence of true multitasking would be it. And we’re not sure that what Apple has announced for the iPhone in iPhone OS 4 is going to suffice for the iPad: having to switch screens back and forth for instant messaging, Twitter following, and multiple web pages is currently the biggest pain point when using the iPad during the day. If you’ve been holding off on buying an iPad because of this omission, we totally understand where you’re coming from; it’s the single biggest reason we would discourage some people from going out and buying iPads right now. Having to wait until this Fall for a fix is going to be painful.
3. Mail Sucks, Especially In Portrait Mode. As fans of Apple’s Mail for Mac OS X, it’s hard to believe that Apple could screw up an e-mail application, but it’s happened: the Mail application was never great on the iPhone or iPod touch, and it has stayed virtually identical on the iPad—apart from gaining, at least in landscape mode, a second pane. There’s no junk mail filter, no unified inbox, no advanced rich e-mail composing tools, and it’s as boring to look at as a starched shirt. Out of all the apps on the iPad, it has received the least improvement, and desperately needs at least the unified inbox of the iPhone OS 4 application. It’s the one app we dislike using on this device, and almost comically bad in portrait mode. If other iPad apps had looked as bad and done as little as Mail, the device would have been in a lot of trouble.
2. Wi-Fi Issues And Persistence. Shortly after the iPad was released, some users began to report problems with Wi-Fi connectivity, and Apple has acknowledged that dual-band routers may be one of the causes. Though we wouldn’t describe the problems as terrible in our own experiences—and one of our editors has experienced no issues whatsoever across single-band and dual-band routers—we have seen evidence of dropped connections that fall more into the “annoying” than fatal flaw department, with one editor reporting the need to reconfigure his iPad for the network once, and another experiencing brief, unpredictable disconnects with rapid reconnections thereafter, both on Apple dual-band networks. Our impression at this point is that the iPad’s new 802.11a/b/g/n drivers need fine-tuning, and will receive them in a bug fix update. That said, it’s also worth mentioning that Apple’s iPhone OS 4 presentation made a fleeting on-screen reference to “Persistent Wi-Fi,” which may suggest that the OS will let users choose whether to conserve power by repeatedly dropping and picking up Wi-Fi connections, or maintain the connection to improve network stability at the cost of power. We’ll have to see.
1. Replacing and Repurchasing Apps. One of the bigger iPad user experience surprises might have been anticipated by some users, but probably didn’t dawn upon others: previously downloaded iPhone and iPod touch applications need replacement or repurchase for the iPad more often than one might think. This is sometimes completely painless: Shanghai Mahjong for instance was a completely free update to a previously paid application, and a number of free and paid applications have released either completely or partially new updates at no cost. Other times, however, developers are charging for the upscaled iPad versions: Gameloft’s entire family of “HD” releases are paid upgrades, sometimes deservedly so (N.O.V.A.) and other times not (Uno), while EA has gone even further by charging up to $15 per game for its “For iPad” re-releases. On one hand, iPhone and iPod touch users probably never expected to get tablet computer-quality graphics and UIs for free when they bought their pocket-sized games; on the other hand, iPad buyers probably don’t realize just how little of the iPhone and iPod touch software they previously purchased will actually be worth using on the device.
Some key iPhone apps, such as Facebook and Tweetie, are in desperate need of updating but have no ETA for iPad releases, while others—including AOL’s AIM—have received updates that generally work, but don’t make great use of the device’s screen. Second- and third-wave iPad adopters will no doubt see most of these issues resolved by the time they buy in; those of us who are actually using iPads will be waiting with bated breath for the improvements, and enjoying all of the great things the devices already have to offer.
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