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.
A lot has changed in the nearly three years since Apple introduced the iPhone OS version of Safari—aka MobileSafari—as a new paradigm for web browsing. To accommodate its 3.5” touchscreens, Apple initially pushed developers to create brand new iPhone-optimized versions of their web sites, shrinking old web pages down to tiny little rectangles with “double-tap to zoom” as a trick to enable actual reading. Gesture-based scrolling, pinch scaling commands, and automatic rotation from horizontal into widescreen orientation with device turns were all included, becoming second-nature within days of a user’s first iPhone experience. Not surprisingly, the iPad version of Safari includes the same technologies, but the web experience is far less compromised because of the device’s larger 9.7” touchscreen.
By default, the iPad Safari browser scales a webpage up or down to fill the full width of the screen—1024 pixels or 768 pixels, depending on the device’s orientation—with up and down vertical scrolling if necessary to see the rest of the content. The experience is almost identical to running Safari on a Mac or PC, except there aren’t any windows, and Apple has combined the iPhone and Mac paradigms to minimize other distracting window elements: the change page, bookmarking, and window-shifting icons of the iPhone have been added to a single bar at the top of the screen that includes the page’s title, URL entry area, and a Google Search pill. Perhaps the best addition to Safari is the addition of a Mac bookmark bar, which is hidden by default until you click on the URL entry area, providing one-touch access to your favorite web sites—including folders, if you want. Switching this on full-time requires only a quick visit to the iPad’s Settings application, and radically improves the device’s browsing experience. Otherwise, you can click on the Bookmarks icon to bring up a short list of bookmarks, or press the change page button to bring up a grid-like preview of up to nine already open pages. Blacks and dark grays are used to edge the list and background the grid—a nice touch.
One point needs to be made about Safari on the iPad: it is considerably better than Apple’s harshest critics have claimed for months that an iPhone browser would be on a larger-screened device. Safari’s lack of support for Adobe’s Flash plug-in—the technology behind most of the web’s existing commercial video players, animated ads, and some sites’ user interfaces—has been endlessly discussed since the device was announced, and some users have suggested staying away from the iPad because of Flash alone.
We put Safari through extensive testing on a very wide variety of web sites, including literally every one we use on a daily basis, and a number of others that we visited solely to check out content for kicks—Flash or otherwise. The experience was remarkably like using any regular web browser had been the day before on a Mac or PC, minus only the pop-ups and multiple windows at once. We had to hunt for video-specific sites and ones with broken Flash plug-ins, as many of the biggies who were formerly using Flash for video had already switched to newer, Safari-compatible HTML5 before the iPad’s release, and others are already following their example. Moreover, the iPad’s battery consumption when using Safari was extremely low, except in very rapid page-reloading tests, where it still rivals or beats the most capable netbooks in longevity. We didn’t experience a single crash in any site we visited, either.
Our view at this point is simple: Safari on the iPad offers a fantastic, simple browsing experience that’s fast, easy on the eyes, and up to date with the latest standards and web technologies—apart from Flash. Adobe has let Flash swell and fester for so many years that we’re glad to say good riddance to it. Any site worth visiting will be fully iPad-friendly within six months to a year, and apart from the tiniest glitches here or there, every site we actually visit already is.
Apple’s Mail application for the iPad is based heavily on the technologies of the iPhone version of Mail—a program we’ve found fine rather than great—with only minor changes to make better use of the device’s larger screen. It continues to include support for POP3 and IMAP e-mail services, Microsoft Exchange servers, and multiple e-mail accounts on a single device. Additionally, it can still display photos, single-page PDFs, and audio clips directly within messages, and opens up a full-screen viewer to display videos, multi-page PDFs and Microsoft Office documents without forcing you to change apps. Images, some videos, and certain other files can be saved for access outside the Mail app, as well, but others—MP3s, for instance—can’t.
Run in vertical orientation, Mail on the iPad consolidates the iPhone’s top and bottom-of-screen bars into one at the top, leaving the entire rest of the screen filled with a single e-mail message. Clicking on an Inbox button at the top left brings up a floating window containing an individual inbox for messages, plus buttons to manage the inbox, switch inboxes, and refresh its contents. It’s virtually identical to the iPhone version’s Inbox screen, only taller and with a search pill permanently at the top. Flip the iPad into widescreen mode and the floating window becomes a permanent left-of-screen list, complete with the same buttons and search pill, while the e-mail fills the right of the screen. Composing an e-mail fills the screen in vertical mode, or appears in a narrow overlaid window in widescreen mode. Everything works, but nothing looks or feels like it’s evolved much over the iPhone app; Apple CEO Steve Jobs has hinted that something better is in the works.
Hopefully it’s a major improvement on what’s here. While Mail is a straightforward app for reading messages, it’s well shy of the powerful Mail program included with every Mac computer: junk mail isn’t filtered, individual mailboxes aren’t aggregated, and switching between your inbox, drafts, and sent mail is more labor-intensive than it could be with a dedicated “Mailboxes” pane like the Mac’s. While Apple might argue that the iPad version of Mail makes things easy for the average user, the reality is that it was merely the easiest update of the iPhone app the company could muster in time for iPad’s launch, and falls well short of the convenience and power most users would expect from an e-mail program in our spam-filled, multi-mailbox world.
Apple’s Photos app has long been the oddball in its collection of iPod and iPhone features—a feature added to the “iPod photo” back in 2004 that seemed merely to change, rather than evolve, through subsequent Click Wheel models. On the iPod, you told iTunes which pictures from your computer to transfer to the device, then could display them individually or in extremely simple slideshows. Photos improved only a little on the iPhone, enabling you to scale images, turn them to match the device’s orientation, and eventually copy and save multiple images at once for use in other apps, including Mail. The slideshow feature continued to be weak, and although the iPhone 3GS added iPhone video camera footage storage to the Photos app, it was an odd addition to the program.
Photos for the iPad isn’t fundamentally different from the iPhone version, but it’s better thanks to a considerably more graphical user interface. It now opens to a roughly five by seven grid of scrollable thumbnails against a black backdrop a la its Mac program iPhoto. New is a bar at the top of the screen offering tab-like buttons for Photos, Albums, Events, Faces, and Places, the latter three custom photo organizational tools added to recent versions of iPhoto. Click on Albums, Events, or Faces, and you’ll see a three-by-four grid with stacks of photos, which you can pinch or zoom to unfurl on the screen, creating a new orderly selection grid when fully expanded. Places instead first brings up a flat-shaded map with the locations of your GPS-tagged photos, then the grid when you’ve selected a location. Click on any individual photo and, in addition to zooming in and out, you can move on to additional images by using a new timeline-style display at the bottom of the screen with ultra-miniature thumbnails in the album’s sequence. Slideshow and sharing buttons are found at the top of the screen, rather than at the bottom as in the iPhone.
The sharing features aren’t much new—they let you e-mail, copy, and use the photos for contacts, as well as selecting any single picture as wallpaper for either the iPad’s Lock or Home screen, or both. Much improved is the new Slideshow Options menu, which unlike the iPhone version lets you choose music for the slideshow, and replaces one of the prior five transitions—“Wipe Down”—with “Origami,” an effect that transforms the screen into a multi-pane display of multiple photos at once, flipping one photo at a time to replace itself and others. Origami and the simple fade effect called Dissolve are both available for this app and the Picture Frame feature of iPad discussed above; oddly, Origami disappears as an option when the iPad is connected to an external display for photo purposes.
Arguably the biggest change to Photos on the iPad is its support for photo importation directly from cameras or memory cards—assuming that you’re willing to buy and carrying around Apple’s $29 iPad Camera Connection Kit. Designed to import photos directly from SD cards and cameras with USB cables, this pair of accessories cause the iPad to display a black screen with a grid of broken-outlined rounded squares, each filled by thumbnails as the photo content is discovered by the iPad. The iPad Camera Connection Kit hadn’t yet been released for testing as of the date of this review, so it’s unknown how fast or slow photo transfers will be; increasingly large photo sizes led the prior version for iPods, the iPod Camera Connector, to be sluggish and discontinued. The iPod Camera Connector does not work with the iPad. We’ll review the iPad Camera Connection Kit and provide additional details as soon as it’s available.
As with Photos, the biggest updates to the iPad version of Videos from its iPod touch predecessor are visual: previously, the app loaded into a scrollable combined list of Movies, TV Shows, Music Videos, and Podcasts that was heavier on text and white space than video cover art or thumbnails; now—based on the button you select at the top of the screen—it loads a two- or three-by-four grid of movie posters, a four-by-three grid of TV show or podcast covers, or a four-by-three grid of music video thumbnails with song titles underneath. Clicking on the movie or TV show art enlarges the art to fill the right half of the screen, while the left half contains an informational screen describing the video you’ve selected, plus a button to switch to a scrollable, selectable chapter list view for movies. Content purchased from the iTunes Store is populated with plenty of text; self-imported content may or may not be.
What’s odd about the new Videos interface is that it actually regresses from Apple’s prior system of click minimization: instead of jumping straight into whatever video you select, there’s now that additional step of looking at some text, pressing a separate play button, and/or choosing a chapter—the latter steps unnecessarily more like using iTunes on a Mac or PC than playing a video straight away on an iPod or iPhone, calling up chapter information only if you need it. This seems to have been done to give movies some parity with TV shows and podcasts, which now display some summary text in lists—plus a “more” button for additional text—before you play them; it would be great if “more” was merely a button in one corner of the movie cover art, skipping the text for those who don’t want to be bothered by having to click through it.
Video quality has taken one big step up and one medium step back on the iPad. Apple has finally enabled the iPad to not only display but also store high-definition 720p videos—recent iPhones and iPod touches were prevented from doing either, despite the fact that their hardware could technically do both. As a result, all of the HD iTunes Store videos that have heretofore been sold solely for Apple TV and iTunes Mac/PC users can now be transferred without hassles—other than storage space concerns—over to the iPad. You can set up iTunes so that the iPad preferentially receives HD or SD videos, depending on whether video quality or storage capacity is your primary concern, and to the device’s credit, it does a good to great job of playing everything it supports: MPEG-4 and H.264 videos, plus Motion JPEG videos in AVI format created by some digital still cameras, ranging from iPod nano-sized 320x240 up to 720p. Moreover, we ran three separate battery tests on the iPad with video playback, and the results were impressive: with Wi-Fi turned off and both the screen and volume set at 50%, the iPad ran for 13 hours and 22 minutes playing standard-definition videos, well ahead of Apple’s 10-hour average promised run time. With Wi-Fi on and the same videos playing under the same conditions, the run time dropped to 11 hours and 43 minutes, still ahead of the estimate. Finally, a test with iTunes Store-encoded 720p HD videos and Wi-Fi on ran for 11 hours and 34 minutes, suggesting no important distinction in run time between SD and HD video playback.
That having been said, these videos don’t look as good on an absolute basis as they do on a current-generation Mac or PC. As noted in the earlier discussion of the screen, Apple chose a 4:3 aspect ratio 1024x768-pixel display that was designed to mimic the dimensions of old, standard-definition televisions rather than current widescreen TVs and the formats of theatrical movie releases. Consequently, when you play a movie or HD television show on the iPad in its native format, you’ll see big black bars unless you double tap, which fills the screen but crops off a lot of the video’s edges. Even those 720p videos—1280 by 720 pixels—are scaled down or chopped to fit on the display, rather than playing at their unadjusted size. In practice, users won’t mind much unless they’re watching movies filmed in the popular 2.35:1 Cinemascope aspect ratio, which looks especially odd on the iPad; 16:9 videos such as current high-definition TV shows and other movies, look fine and suffer less from being cropped. Hopefully the next-generation iPad will follow the example of the Mac, iPhone, and iPod touch, which all use wide screens that are better suited to modern video content.
There are a couple of other oddities in the iPad’s HD video performance. Unfortunately, user-encoded videos that worked on Apple TVs don’t necessarily play on the iPad: only three of the 20-some high-definition videos we’d encoded for the Apple TV would even transfer to the iPad. This is especially aggravating given that Apple offers support for so few video formats, yet doesn’t appear to guarantee that files encoded in those formats will work across its own devices, unless the files were sold by Apple itself. Additionally, the iPad refused to output HD iTunes Store videos to an external VGA display connected with the iPad Dock Connector to VGA Adapter, citing DRM issues. It made no such objection with the same content and Apple’s Composite AV Cable and Component AV Cable, both of which worked to output video and audio from the iPad to television sets.
Overall, we’d call the iPad a very good video playback device with a few issues, most of which could and hopefully will be resolved in a software update. While the iPad’s best mounting solutions for video, including in-car, on-desk, and in-bed ones, are still well ahead of it, it’s otherwise a very good video playback device.
The YouTube app for iPhones and iPod touches outgrew the devices’ screen dimensions some time ago: five button-like tabs at the bottom of the screen now lead to a total of ten different panes, six accessible via a “… More” button. So YouTube on the iPad makes use of this device’s larger screen to spread seven buttons across the bottom and up to five features across the top: Featured, Top Rated, Most Viewed, Favorites, Subscriptions, My Videos, and History all get dedicated tabs, with a Favorites/Playlists button appearing at the top of the Favorites window, and Search now sits inside a pill at the upper right of the screen.
Browsing options aside, what’s different about YouTube from the standard Videos application is the design of the screen. In vertical orientation, the screen is split into upper and lower halves, using the top of the screen for video, and the bottom of the screen for text, related videos, more videos from the same producer, and comments. You can press a button to bring the video to the center of the screen and eliminate everything else, or instantly do the same by rotating the device into horizontal orientation. Horizontal mode places the video and text content on the left of the screen, with a scrolling list of related content, “more from,” and “comments” off to the right. You can rate and add your own comments to the video directly from the iPad just as on an iPhone or iPod touch. Additionally, you can now start typing a search term while you’re watching a video, but actually initiating the search will stop the current one in its tracks. It would be better if the application was designed to let you search and watch at the same time.
UI differences aside, the single biggest improvement to YouTube on the iPad is its ability to display high-definition content from YouTube when it’s available. As with HD videos in the Videos application, YouTube’s videos are capped at 720p resolution, and depending on how they’re formatted may or may not display with black bars on the iPad’s screen. Using Apple’s video cables and adapters, you can watch the videos—even the higher-definition ones—on an external display rather than on the iPad’s. Back when YouTube first became available for the iPhone—and the Apple TV—the chief complaints were that the videos were choppy, low-resolution, and almost universally amateurish in quality, a “cesspool” as we and others referred to it at the time. Today, even non-HD YouTube videos look pretty good on the iPad’s screen in both resolution and video compression, and the amateur content has been balanced by a tremendous amount of semi-professional and professional-grade video. This app isn’t a huge jump over the current iPhone and iPod touch version, but the content has matured considerably, and that alone makes YouTube worth more attention on the iPad.