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.
If there’s any huge disappointment in the first release of the iPad, it’s how entirely similar the core user interface is from the iPod touch and iPhone: Apple has left so much unchanged from last year’s iPhone OS 3.1 that it opened itself to the many “glorified iPod touch” criticisms the iPad initially received. The single biggest change is that the wallpaper once restricted to the iPhone Lock Screen can now be carried over to fill what would otherwise be an extremely black Home screen—or each can have its own wallpaper—and the iPad dock has reverted from the mesh look of iPhone OS 2 and 3 back to the glassy, reflective look of the iPod touch dock under iPhone OS 1, complete with new angled sides that look just like the ones on Mac OS X 10.6. Additionally, the Home screen now rotates between vertical and horizontal orientations, dynamically shuffling its icons from an orderly 4 wide-by-5 tall grid of 20 total icons to become a 5 wide-by-4 tall grid, with up to six additional icons remaining static in the iPad dock. There’s still a lot of page-swiping to be done, but the presentation is a lot more orderly than the average Mac or PC user’s icon-packed desktop, and the iPad’s ability to be used almost completely in one orientation or the other is welcome.
Two related changes to the Unlock screen compensate somewhat for the fact that Apple did little more than stretch the iPhone and iPod touch’s prior visual elements to fill the larger display, leaving the clock and “slide to unlock” bar basically untouched. First, there’s a small flower button off to the right of the “slide to unlock” bar, the first time that a new feature has been added to this screen on any Apple device—a positive sign for those who have wanted to see Apple evolve the static and not especially useful initial display. Pressing this button activates the second change, a “Picture Frame” feature that keeps the screen on, displaying images synchronized from iTunes to the Photos application on the iPad. A new settings menu for Picture Frame lets you choose one of two special effects for photo transitions, select a specific gallery or several to draw pictures from, and shuffle the images. A feature that zooms in on faces identified in the images by iPhoto works with one photo transition, Dissolve, but not the other, Origami, which makes photos appear to unfold and flip onto one another like the Japanese paper craft.
Other tweaks to iPhone OS 3.2 on the iPad are less noticeable. Apple has expanded the Cut Copy Paste feature from iPhone OS 3.0 to include a “Cut Copy Replace” option when you’re working with text; “replace” enables you to take a highlighted word and replace it with one of a number of words that pop up from a predictive text dictionary. It has also added “File Sharing,” a feature within iTunes that lets you export files created by iPad applications and import ones that are readable by iPad applications, including word processing and spreadsheet documents, audio recordings, and in some cases, levels for games. The feature is found under the “Apps” tab in iTunes, within the File Sharing section, and is restricted solely to applications that identify themselves to iTunes as compatible; you can’t add levels or audio recordings to just any program or leave them in a general folder waiting for something to find them.
It’s also worth briefly mentioning that synchronization times with iTunes will vary from computer to computer, but our test 5GB audio and video transfer took 5 minutes and 9 seconds, or roughly 1 minute per Gigabyte. That’s around half the time of the current-generation iPod touch. However, users will commonly see delays related to the longer times iTunes requires to install applications and optimize photos for the iPad; what would otherwise have been a smooth initial synchronization took us over an hour on one of our iPads because of photo and app transfers. Turning off photo synchronization—or delaying it until a later time—is a good way to make the iPad sync experience faster; unfortunately, iTunes will still take quite a long time to back up the iPad every time or three that it’s connected to your computer.
Though we’re not thrilled by the iPad’s continued use of multiple Home screens—now up to 11, with 224 applications—since it unnecessary requires page-by-page flipping and seeking that a folder structure would greatly reduce, the result of the iPad’s similarity to the iPod touch and iPhone is near-instant user familiarity with how everything works. Simply touching any icon loads the application, pressing the Home button pauses or quits the application, and swiping to the right on the main Home screen brings up a Spotlight search feature that’s hidden off to the left, enabling you to type in a search pill to locate media, applications, notes, contacts, and more. Anyone can use the iPad; it is, by design, a computer that a child, parent, or grandparent can figure out with only modest assistance. “Secret” features such as screen capture (press the Home + Sleep/Wake buttons together), power off (hold Sleep/Wake), and forced application quitting (hold Sleep/Wake, then hold Home when the Slide to Power Off arrow appears) all remain on iPad; surprisingly, Voice Control (hold Home) from the iPhone 3GS and 2009 iPod touch is gone.
As with iPhones and iPod touches, virtual QWERTY keyboards appear automatically in either horizontal or vertical orientation when they’re needed for input, but now offer keys that are very close to their sizes on real physical keyboards. Typing remains somewhat awkward and stilted, regardless, since the on-screen keyboards—particularly the widescreen one—require you to hold the iPad while you’re standing or sitting upright and typing, cramping your ability to press keys as quickly as you want. Leaning back with the iPad in your lap makes typing easier, particularly as you learn how to adjust to the reduced selection of keys. Additionally, iPhone OS 3.2 for the first time enables the iPad to work with both wired and wireless keyboard accessories, if you’re willing to buy them. Bluetooth wireless keyboards, including Apple’s, work right out of the box, preserving the functionality shown on their function keys for brightness and volume controls, iPod music track controls, and everything else save Expose and Dashboard. The eject button makes the on-screen keyboard reappear and disappear; it’s off by default when you’re using an external keyboard. By contrast, all other keyboards—notably including Apple’s iPad Keyboard Dock—require Dock Connectors in order to attach to the iPad, which may limit your ability to use it in widescreen mode while typing. Apple’s support for these accessories is far too long in coming, and not perfect yet, but once again it’s very welcome.
On a positive note for visual- or audio-impaired users, the Accessibility features that were added to the iPhone 3GS and third-generation iPod touch in 2009 have been carried over to the iPad, and some have been improved. Zoom, for instance, still magnifies everything on the screen with three-finger gestures for tapping, panning, and level of zoom, but it’s helped by the iPad’s additional screen real estate, which lets the feature feel less cramped than before. VoiceOver uses a synthesized voice—now with phonetics and changing pitch—to speak not only on-screen menu text, e-mails, and web pages, but also to read the contents of books to visually disabled listeners. White on Black color flipping, a merged monaural audio mode, and an option to speak proposed corrections and capitalizations all remain intact, as well.
Less positive were some issues with VoiceOver’s actual performance. We found VoiceOver’s operation with books to be unnecessarily difficult to control, and sometimes heard formatting details being spoken aloud, along with double-recitations of the contents of in-line pictures. Moreover, we experienced bug-like issues when using VoiceOver and attempting to launch applications under certain conditions, and the aforementioned absence of the song-selecting feature Voice Control—a useful feature for many users, but particularly beneficial for those with limited vision—similarly leaves Apple with post-release work to be done to improve the iPad’s accessibility.
The iPad’s numerous other features—and device-specific interface changes—are discussed on an app-by-app basis in the next section of this review. It’s worth a brief note that Apple has suggested in developer documentation, but not yet openly communicated to consumers, that it intends to release future operating system upgrades for the iPad, giving away the next major release at no charge and then charging for subsequent versions thereafter. As such, an iPhone OS 4.0 upgrade to the core operating system impacting the individual apps below will most likely take place in the near future.