Review: Apple iPad (16GB/32GB/64GB) - With Full Interface Videos
Pros: An impressively built tablet computer, featuring a clean industrial design borrowed from Apple’s MacBook Pro computers, internal components derived largely from its iPod touch and iPhone pocket devices, and stable, multi-touch software. Runs over 150,000 applications, thousands of which have been optimized for this device, offering iPod-equivalent sonic performance, better than iPod- and iPhone-quality visual performance, and 10+ hour battery life unmatched by any current-generation Apple product, or most competitors. Superb for book and periodical reading, strong for web and video viewing, more capable of content creation than iPods and iPhones. Supports 720p HD video playback.
Cons: Cannot serve as a standalone computer; in addition to iTunes dependence, horsepower is presently shortchanged by limited, iPhone-class multitasking that forces all third-party applications to occupy and waste entire screen; lack of camera similarly limits value for video communications. Screen dimensions are sub-optimal for movies, including HD content. Confusing battery charging requirements and slow iTunes synchronization. Initial iPad-optimized applications, as well as Apple’s strategy for performing and selling color digital publications on the device, need additional work. In addition to anti-glare, anti-fingerprint screen film, most users will need new in-car, docking, and/or speaker accessories.
For the entire decade starting in 2000, the “tablet computer” was literally defined by products running Microsoft’s Windows operating system—thick boxes that might as well have been laptops but for their externally-mounted screens and included styluses. Bill Gates famously predicted in 2001 that the Tablet PC “will be the most popular form of PC sold in America” within five years, but that neither happened nor even approached reality: Microsoft’s Tablet PCs remained extremely nichey, went through a series of stylus, keyboard, software, and screen tweaks, then were discontinued in 2009. Even users who had been excited about tablets in concept were indifferent about Microsoft’s “stuff a PC into a different sort of casing” approach.
With the iPad ($499-$829), Apple wants you to throw away every preconception you may have of a tablet computer and embrace a new paradigm. This isn’t a MacBook laptop crammed into a different shell, running Mac OS software with a touchscreen rather than a mouse, but rather an iPod touch grown up to fit a larger and more powerful set of hardware, with a tweaked version of its stripped-down, power-sipping iPhone OS software. One version of the iPad ($499-$699) is quite like the iPod touch, accessing the Internet solely through Wi-Fi networks, while the other ($629-$829) is more like the iPhone 3GS, with Internet access both through Wi-Fi and 3G cellular towers—if you’re willing to pay a premium for the hardware and for month-to-month 3G service. Updated May 3, 2010: A comprehensive supplemental review of the iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G is available here.
In either configuration, the iPad competes with Amazon’s Kindle as a book reader, netbooks and iPods as a video player, web browser, and e-mail device, and full-fledged computers as a personal organization and content creation tool, albeit in each case with distinct advantages and disadvantages. For instance, the iPad may occupy 10 times the physical volume of an iPod touch, but it’s less than a third the volume of a MacBook, and only 60% of the once “impossibly thin” MacBook Air. Apple has achieved this with part reductions: there’s no hard drive, no DVD drive, no trackpad, no spare ports, and no super-hot video card requiring fan cooling. Instead, the inside houses a tight collection of tiny, cool-running chips that are only modestly more powerful than the ones in the latest iPod touch—capped at the same maximum storage capacity of 64 Gigabytes—plus a significantly larger battery, and a netbook-sized, multi-touch screen with five times the pixels and nearly seven times the surface area of past iPod touch and iPhone models.
The choice of components highlights a fundamental difference in Apple’s and Microsoft’s tablet approaches. Unlike Tablet PCs, which ran Windows software that needed to be retrofitted to work with less precise and responsive input devices, the iPad arrives 100% ready for a new generation of touch-based applications and games, ones that were literally designed from the ground up to eliminate the mice, styluses, and physical keyboards of past computers in favor of direct, finger-based input, all while using far less power and storage space than the apps created for PCs and Macs. Better yet, you don’t have to wait for these new programs—over 1,000 of them are already here on day one of the iPad’s release, along with roughly 150,000 others that were developed for the iPhone and iPod touch but work on the iPad as well, though not perfectly.
Therein lies the rub. iPhone and iPod touch applications were designed to run one at a time and fill the entire display, and the iPhone OS-based iPad still doesn’t enable most applications to share the screen. Since few people would devote the entire display of a traditional computer to a calculator, a phone dialer, or a stock widget capable of showing only six stocks at once, Apple removed even some of its own core iPhone OS applications from the iPad, and hasn’t yet explained how they—or the iPhone’s full-screen instant messaging, Twittering, or other less-than-completely attention-demanding apps—will be replaced. Other developers have released early solutions that hog the screen, until and unless Apple enables multitasking. But Apple clearly sees the iPad as having greater potential than the iPhone. It has already taken on the daunting task of creating stripped-down iPad versions of its iWork suite of Mac productivity apps, including a word processor, spreadsheet, and slideshow presentation tool, all designed to work without mice, styluses, or physical keyboards. On the other hand, it hasn’t included any iPad tools for obvious needs such as interpreting handwriting or recording sketches—features that were rightly considered critical in the company’s Newton series of devices in the 1990s.
For now, Apple pitches the iPad as a computer that fully engrosses you in a web page, your e-mail, or media because—apart from playing music in the background—you can’t really do two things at once on it, and its non-finger input solutions are still in their infancy. Since it depends upon Apple’s iTunes software to synchronize content from your Mac or PC, and can’t print documents without a computer’s assistance, it’s not ready to fully replace either desktop or laptop machines, at least, yet. These issues will almost certainly be addressed in the future. However, rather than speculating as to what the iPad might become six months or two years from now, our comprehensive review looks at the impressive experience that Apple’s device actually delivers to consumers today, as well as where it falls short of reasonable expectations from both hardware and software standpoints. Only time will tell whether the iPad’s promise is realized with the sort of software and hardware updates that will take it fundamentally beyond its iPod-like origins and into a truly powerful computer in its own right.