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.
iPod, Including Headphone and Speaker Testing Notes
Though it’s hard to imagine given the iPad’s lineage and Apple’s nine-year track record with iPods, the app we were most worried about on the iPad was the iPod app—arguably the most confusingly named and designed one on the device right now. The iPhone, you probably know, has an app called iPod that plays audio and videos, cramming all of its separate screens into a collection of 11 separate bottom-of-screen tabs, plus a “… More” button. But on the iPod touch, Apple splits the iPod app into two apps—Music and Videos—removing videos almost entirely from “Music,” leaving music videos nestled anonymously amongst audio tracks, which are sorted with 10 buttons that can’t all fit on the same screen. Only the odd continued presence of video playlists within the iPod app’s playlists suggests its prior unified heritage.
For the iPad, Apple has so completely changed the iPod app that it might as well be called iTunes, instead: it starts by looking like a modestly cut-down version of iTunes 9 in Grid view, complete with a left-of-screen pane for different types of content, a Now Playing thumbnail on the bottom left, a grid view of albums on the right, and some very familiar-looking buttons and sliders at the top and bottom. Volume is now a big slider at the top left, with a track scrubber, rewind, play/pause, and forward buttons at center, search at right, and playlist, genius playlist, and sort-shifting buttons at the bottom of the screen. Surprisingly, the iPad does not currently support the iTunes LP full-screen “album experience” Apple debuted with iTunes 9, nor the iTunes Extras DVD-like menus for videos.
Instead, clicking on any album cover calls up an iPhone or iPod touch-like pop-up with a list of tracks—better than the window-replacing transition in iTunes 9—and clicking on the Now Playing album cover creates a full-screen Now Playing display akin to the one on an iPod touch or iPhone. Switch to Songs view and you get a text-based scrolling list of tracks, alphabetically organized, while Artists has an alphabetical list of artists with thumbnails and album summaries, Genres has an illustrated grid of genres plus album and song tallies, and Composers is an Artists-like collection of thumbnails, names, and album/song counts. On one hand, this is an amazing job of scaling iTunes downwards for the iPad: if only Mac OS X Mail could have received such porting attention!
But it raises a question that many users have been bringing up about iTunes 9 itself: is Apple trying to cram way too much into what only needs to be a simple music playing app? Squeezing iTunes onto the iPad screen works—for now—but the iPad’s at its best when it’s using that black, iPhone-style Now Playing screen, complete with big, detailed album art and simplified controls. Something about the redesign of the iPod app for the iPad feels like Apple didn’t know what to do with the old iPhone/iPod touch app’s largely text-based interface on such a big screen, and defaulted not to a new system for displaying and managing media content, but rather one that was easy enough to transfer over from the Mac. The result is an experience that feels more computer-like than media player-like, and leaves a hunger for something simpler as a “mini player.” To the extent that the iPod app on the iPad could go in other directions—easily subsuming the Videos app and both the iTunes and App Stores, or paring down into a simpler bottom-of-screen player for use in other apps—we’d like to see it evolve. Implementing proper user-adjustable equalization is a long-overdue change that’s especially appropriate for such an iTunes-esque audio player.
A few sonic testing results are also worth noting. First, the iPad’s battery performance as nothing but an uninterrupted audio player is predictably staggering: with its screen and Wi-Fi off and a randomized, varied collection of audio playing at 50% volume from the iPod application, it ran for over eight hours and lost only 4% of its battery charge—it could conceivably continue the process for more than six full days if it was doing nothing else. Second, even when used with some of the most expensive in-ear headphones on the market, the iPad’s headphone port output sounds virtually indistinguishable from the iPhone 3GS’s, a sign that Apple is content with the sound signature and performance it has established across the audio ports on the iPhone and iPod lines.
By contrast, there’s a decided difference in line-level audio coming off of the Dock Connector with speaker and other line-out-based audio accessories that suggests engineering tweaks will be necessary to optimize the sound levels coming out of a docked iPad. Played through even impressive speaker systems such as the Bowers + Wilkins Zeppelin, audio from the iPad’s Dock Connector is comparatively a little dull relative to even the iPhone 3GS, while its maximum volume level is considerably higher—at least, for accessories that scale their own volume to match the connected iPod’s, iPhone’s, or iPad’s. Firmware and hardware changes to accessories will be necessary, but from our perspective, the fact that a device as fundamentally different as the iPad sounds pretty good with prior iPod and iPhone accessories is a fine start.
As a fourth and final point, the iPad’s integrated speakers—there are actually two breathing through the three mesh ports on the bottom—offer sound that is a little louder than the iPhone 3GS’s at its peak, with less distortion across the volume range, and fuller-bodied renditions at normal and high volumes. The iPad performs both the left and right channels of sound through the grill, somewhat favoring the left channel, a balance issue that can be removed with consequences by activating the iPad’s Mono Audio mode under the Accessibility settings. Most users won’t care at all, as the iPad’s volume, sound quality, and ability to perform both channels’ audio are all laptop-class, considerably outclassing the comparatively radio-like, lower-volume speakers in the iPod touch and iPod nano.
iTunes + App Store
Two of the iPad’s applications were added to the iPhone only after its release in 2007: “iTunes” was originally called the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store when it debuted later that year, and App Store famously debuted in mid-2008 with iPhone OS 2.0. Though both could easily be folded into the iPad’s “iPod” application, which so resembles the Mac and PC version of iTunes that the stores are found within, Apple has kept them as one-click Home Screen icons to incentivize users to download—and hopefully pay for—additional content.
The iTunes application is a modestly cut-down and remixed version of the iTunes Store for Macs and PCs, featuring a collection of seven bottom of screen buttons for different types of content—Music, Movies, TV Shows, Podcasts, Audiobooks, iTunes U, and Downloads in progress—which take the place of the computer app’s top content shifting bar, leaving out the App Store. Apple has carried over the large, four-photo set of rotating banners from the computer application, as well a scrollable collection of thumbnailed “New & Noteworthy” content, and a five-across set of smaller banners to promote spotlighted downloads. The biggest change is the removal of the right-of-iTunes set of “Top Charts” and links; you can now switch to a Top Charts screen using a button on the top of the page, and in some sections of the store use another button to access Genius Recommendations for new content based on songs, movies, and TV shows you already possess. Genres can be selected using a top-left button, and the Store can be searched with a pill-shaped box at the top right of every page. As always, content can be previewed before a purchase, with audio playing within the Store window, and video taking over the entire screen. A vertical iPad displays the video with huge black boxes above and below—iPhones and iPod touches don’t show preview videos in this orientation at all—but when the iPad’s rotated to horizontal position, the video takes up more of the display.
Apple’s iPad version of the App Store is considerably simpler, in part because it has fewer types of media to manage. The iPhone and iPod touch five bottom of screen buttons have been preserved with modest changes: Featured apps are first, followed by Top Charts, Categories, and Updates buttons; a Genius recommendation feature appears to be inactive but will go between Featured and Top Charts in the future. Search has been moved to a pill at the top right of the screen, leaving only “New” and “What’s Hot” options at the top of the Featured screen. Notably, Apple hasn’t—at least, yet—carried over the large four-picture rotating banner found in the computer version of the App Store, so it has instead added a somewhat awkward Cover Flow-based collection of screen shots can be be swiped to look at applications “In the Spotlight.” The iPad App Store highlights software that has specifically been developed for this device, and uses individual listing pages that resemble the ones in the PC and Mac App Store rather than the condensed iPhone and iPod touch app, including a two-column layout, and “More” text that can be expanded with a finger tap if you want additional details before downloading the program. iPhone and iPod touch-only applications are accessible on their own separate top app charts, and locatable via searches, displayed below “iPad Apps” in their own “iPhone Apps” results.
There are no surprises in either of these apps, though because their content appears to be largely served from the web, their layout and features could change and improve at any time. They both remain easy to use, but the fact that Apple’s various “stores” are now spread out amongst three different applications—these and iBooks, say nothing of its online store’s presence in Safari—illustrates how Apple’s retailing ambitions are actively competing with its minimalist designers, one pushing for more attention as the other pushes hard to make unnecessary buttons disappear. It seems unlikely that Apple will merge all of its stores into one grand Store app, or into the media player applications to reduce icon clutter, but it’s worth adding to the wish list.
Calendar, Contacts, and Notes
Though they’re not the most important applications on the iPad, Calendar, Contacts, and Notes have all received fairly significant user interface overhauls that take them steps beyond the iPhone and iPod touch versions, while remaining at least somewhat different from Apple’s otherwise similar Mac applications iCal, Address Book, and Stickies.
Calendar advances on iPad by defaulting to a two-column vertical Day design that provides quick text and time block looks at the day’s events, plus a miniature month view of the calendar at the top and a scrollable timeline at the bottom; the iPhone version displayed only a list of events or time blocks. The iPad’s attractively designed Day view is its most conspicuous improvement over the Mac’s iCal application. By comparison, both the new Week view and the improved Month view borrow from iCal, providing a time blocked week grid with personal and work events separated by colors, and a white formatted month calendar with text events summarized by title. All three views can be rotated into widescreen mode, and feature little paper and book-style edging effects, such as slight remnants of torn-off week and month pages.
Judged simply on content, Contacts is essentially a two-column remix of the iPhone application, shifting your list of contacts into a left-hand column with full scrolling, a search pill, and a left-of-screen alphabetical touch bar, with the same individual contact’s thumbnail image and personal information moved off to the right. But the look of this right pane duplicates the Mac Address Book rather than the iPhone’s “populated fields” layout, with less emphasis on the clickable, button-like nature of all of the phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and geographic addresses contained inside—the e-mail and physical addresses are still clickable, opening Mail and Maps, respectively, but phone numbers are not, like the iPod touch rather than the iPhone. Edit, Share, and + (Add Contact) buttons are found at the bottom of the screen, and a Groups button disguised as a fabric bookmark at the upper left. Everything in Contacts has been laid out to look like an actual address book, complete with the appearance of pages and a hardbound cover on the edges of the screen, plus binding down the center. Rotating the iPad merely expands the book to consume the full size of the display.
Like Contacts, Notes has been visually tweaked to take on a book-like format, though its proportions are different: in horizontal mode, the screen is divided into a narrow column listing the first lines of all the individual notes and their dates of last modification, along with a search pill at the top, while the rest of the screen is formatted to look like a yellow note pad, complete with the same + (create), back, forward, e-mail, and trash icons found on the main screen of the iPhone and iPod touch application. This horizontal presentation is glammed up with framing that looks like a leather-bound folder, which disappears when the device is rotated, leaving you with a full-screen display of the note pad; here, clicking on an upper-left Notes button brings up a list of your notes with a search pill in a floating window above the pad’s surface.
Apple missed out on two significant opportunities with Notes: the app continues to use the ugly Marker Felt font found in the iPhone and iPod touch version of the software—a big step down from the adjustable fonts found in the Mac note and word processing applications Stickies and TextEdit—plus it continues to rely upon keyboards, virtual or physical, for input. If there’s any application on the iPad that could benefit from a pen-based input scheme and handwriting recognition, it’s Notes, which unnecessarily belabors what could be the easiest and most natural form of note-taking in favor of replicating a less than thrilling app for the iPhone and iPod touch.
Maps is one of the most important applications on the iPhone—a button we press so frequently or access from other apps that we couldn’t imagine the device without it. But on the iPad, the story’s a little different. On a positive note, Apple has upgraded the Maps application to fill almost the entire 9.7” screen with your choice of plain-shaded maps, elevation-hinted terrain—new to the iPad—or photographic satellite imagery, which is technically the same as what appears on the iPhone or iPod touch, but looks dramatically more impressive on this larger display.
The prior bottom-of-screen Search, Directions, and Current Location buttons have been moved to the top of the screen alongside a pill-shaped search bar and a separate bookmarks button. Like the iPhone app, the iPad version’s search defaults to popping up a list of places you’ve recently looked for, but quickly locates businesses and addresses that are typed in using the pop-up on-screen keyboard. Pinching to zoom, scrolling, and access to Google Street View-level versions of locations are all still available here; they also all look great—Google Street View is fast, occupies the full vertical or horizontal screen, and lets you preview locations in a seriously impressive first-person perspective. Even without zooming, panning, or Street Viewing, the big maps let you see so much detail that you’ll never want to pick up an old-fashioned paper map again. Apple’s even giving Google’s own web-based interface a run for its money: it’s now just as easy to see these maps on the big iPad as on a computer, but easier to navigate through them.
There’s only one problem. As with the iPod touch and Mac computers—not the iPhone 3G or 3GS—the Wi-Fi version of the iPad doesn’t include any GPS hardware, so you can’t retrieve additional map or even positional data without the aid of a Wi-Fi hotspot. You can plot and download a single route with the Wi-Fi-only iPad, but only the 3G-equipped version (with paid data service) will enable you to update your route or look up new destinations from the road. Moreover, the Wi-Fi-only iPad shows your present location as a dot within a general several-block radius rather than as a specific map point, and sometimes fails to be able to place the dot properly; as noted earlier in this review, the iPad’s digital compass is so flaky that we couldn’t rely upon it to provide the right direction when we were standing still, nor while driving in a car. This means that you’ll be left to your own skills—or perhaps pricey third-party add-on GPS hardware—to figure out exactly where you are. Even more than the iPod touch and iPhone version of Maps, the iPad application could seriously benefit from at least a temporary caching capability so that users might switch between several maps or routes without worries.