With a tech launch that has polarised the geek population, the iPad has finally arrived on the shores of blighty – and I have spent the last week living with one in order to bring you this review. The last time I last saw such contrary opinions was back when Apple launched the original iPhone. Blogs and forums exploded with criticism, but now a few years on it is almost ubiquitous. Of course, in that instance Apple were revolutionising an existing product. Now they are occupying a new space – a market that exists midway between mobile phones and full specced PCs. The problem here is, many cannot see that this market even exists, and label the iPad as merely an oversized iPod Touch. So, has Steve Jobs invented the ultimate white elephant here, or have Apple simply spotted a new market and jumped in before everyone else?
I have divided this review into several sections. In section one, I look at the hardware – the design, screen quality, speed and performance. In section two I look at being productive with the device – here I cover everything from time management through to word processing and anything else which is designed to assist in our general everyday life. In the third section I look at entertainment. Playing games, surfing the web, listening to music and watching films. In the final section I'll try to answer the question of whether there really is a market for this device and where (if at all) it might fit into your life.
Before I start, however, I would like to make my position on Apple perfectly clear, so you can see where my loyalties lie. I think it’s important to know when reading a review like this, exactly where the reviewer is coming from. I am not an Apple acolyte. I have never used a Mac in my life, and wouldn’t even know where to begin with one. I do have an iPod (after many years of owning Creative and iRiver players), and I also have an iPhone 3G, although I did not jump onto the iPhone bandwagon until the second generation and did not see any point of upgrading to the 3GS. I would like to think that when it comes to Apple products I am completely unbiased, and can see the good and bad points of their business model and products. I would also like to make it clear that this iPad was not provided by Apple. I purchased the product myself and as thus I feel I can be totally honest about the product and my experiences with it.
Obviously, the first thing you notice when you take the device out of the box is the form factor. At this stage, unless you have a computer with iTunes nearby you wont actually be able to start up the iPad – so it is likely that your first experience is simply to hold the device. I must say that until I actually had one in my hands, I had only seen web videos – so I was not entirely sure what to expect. When you finally get it out of the box, you realise that as much as it looks like an enlarged iPhone, there are some distinct differences. For a start, the screen is quite a different shape. Whereas the iPhone is more rectangular in design, the iPad is squarer. This has an important effect when it comes to watching movies on it, as we will see later. In terms of thickness, it is probably around the same size (or maybe even slightly thinner) than the iPhone. This is probably as a result of there being more real estate to fit the technology into. Used without a case, it certainly fits really nicely in the hands. Some have said that the weight is a problem, but I have never found this. I have always been able to use it around the house whilst holding it in one hand quite happily. I have read books and magazines in bed, I have read my newspaper in the bath, I have held it in one hand at work to catch up with a document whilst eating a sandwich with the other hand. None of these have been a problem. Even my eighty year old mother, with her crippling arthritis in her hands has been able to use this device no problem. To me, then, the size and weight is just about perfect.
I should note, however, that in the above paragraph I am talking about using the device naked. If you want to do any significant typing on it, then you would need to put it in the official case to stand it up at a decent angle. This works really well, but in everyday use I did find that the official case added just enough weight and width to make it uncomfortable for prolonged use. For this reason after four days of near constant use, I ditched the case and used the pad without. This, however, does present the problem of what to do when I need to do some extensive typing. For this reason I tend to carry the case around with me as well. This is not a huge drawback – it is a very light case and takes up very little room. It would have been nice if the device was more comfortable to use when in the official case though.
The home button and the power buttons are in exactly the same place as they are on the iPhone. The power button, though, is a little more tactile to press – it gives a lot more feedback than the one on the iPhone. The volume buttons have moved from the left to the right of the device, and now also acts as a kind of mute button. Just hold the down button down for about half a second and it will mute the device. There is a “rotation lock” button above the volume button, and this brings up a handy indicator on the screen when it is engaged.
Once you get the device setup in iTunes, you can finally put it through its paces. Speaking as someone who is still using a 3G iPhone and therefore come to expect some sluggishness – the processor within the iPad is a revelation. I spent the first few minutes spinning the device in all sorts of ways – and the speed of the response in the rotation of the screen was amazing. As many times as I rotated, the screen kept up near instantaneously. This is the first glimpse I got of just how powerful the machine is.
The next thing I did was run some further tests. I loaded the HD versions of some games I already have on the iPhone and compared loading times. For your interest, here are the figures :
- Let’s Golf : 46.09 secs - Let’s Golf HD : 12.94 secs
- Low Grav Racer 2 : 29.29 secs - Low Grav Racer 2 HD : 20.96 secs
- Tweetdeck (iPhone) : 14.45 secs - Tweetdeck (iPad) : 6.35 secs
I could go on – but you get the picture. The processor in this pad is lightning fast. It is also, at the risk of stating the obvious, far more capable than the processor in the phone. I bought RockBand on the iPhone but it quite simply will not work without stuttering. On the iPad I can finally play the game I bought eight months ago.
This speed is also noticeable when rendering web pages. Even when on wi-fi, the browser on the iPhone can produce that tell-tale “checkered” pattern as the web page is being loaded. Whilst this is still obvious on the iPad to a certain extent it certainly is usually only there for a fraction of a second. The web pages are rendered clearly and beautifully on the screen.
And what a revelation the screen is. It may smack of Apple hyperbole, but it is genuinely true that when you are using the device, the intimacy of the interaction really draws you in. The screen is bright and vibrant, and the colours are well represented - far deeper than on the iPhone and this really helps bring gaming and movies to life. The angle of viewing is also most impressive. You can have a group of people looking at the device around a semi circle and all can see the screen clearly with no degradation in quality. I can sit at a table eating, and have the pad flat on the table next to me and I can still read text clearly. It is difficult to overstate how important the screen is to this device.
One thing I have noticed, and it is a very small criticism, is that just occasionally the screen doesn’t seem quite as responsive to touch as my iPhone. Sometimes I have to tap an icon several times in order to make the application launch, and occasionally when browsing these forums I have accidentally clicked on someone’s profile when I meant to click on the thread title. I should stress that I can count the number of times this has happened on the fingers of one hand (and I have given it a LOT of use) but it would be remiss of me not to mention it.
In terms of design, then, there is very little to fault with the iPad. The screen is gorgeous, it is comfortable to use, and the device is fast. But in your everyday use, just how productive can you be?
The iPad comes with some basic apps pre loaded to enable you to organise your life. These are the same apps as on the iPhone – so email, contacts, and calendar are all included and will sync with gmail or mobile me exactly as before. Obviously, due to the speed of the processor, these all respond faster.
The calendar app makes use of the increased screen real estate nicely. There is an increased viewing option of a week view, whilst Day, Month, and list is carried over from the phone / touch version. The biggest difference in this app is that ease of searching is much better. For example, finding a hospital appointment I booked in September is so much easier on the pad than it is on the phone. The diary is also presented as a proper desk diary, although puzzlingly you can't turn pages by swiping. You have to use the right and left buttons at the bottom of the screen. One annoyance when syncing with google calendars is that the pad is not supported properly. This means that only one diary can be synced over the air. There is a workaround for this, which is available in this site’s iPad forum – but it is annoying that is has to be done. The second annoyance, which is carried over from the phone version, is that you cannot edit which diary an appointment appears in once you have entered it. If you put it in the wrong diary you have to delete it and re-input it a second time. At the time of writing, the new iPhone and OS4 announcment is due in a couple of hours and it may be that mobile me is being made free. Until this is confirmed though, the above Google limitations should be noted.
Overall, the calendar app works very well as a desk diary, which is exactly how I use it at work. When moving around I would still prefer to enter appointments / view my diary via my phone – but the seamless integration is nice, and the increased screen size makes the calendar a pleasure to view on the pad.
The email experience on the iPad is again very similar to the iPhone's, but with an important caveat. When accessing your email in portrait view, you simply see whichever email you last happened to be reading. In order to bring up a list of all your emails, you have to tap the inbox icon on the top left of the screen. This is a bit of a nuisance. For this reason, email is best viewed in landscape mode. Turn the pad around and suddenly the screen divides in two, with the email list on the left, and the email you have actually tapped in the pane on the right.
This is a much more elegant way of dealing with email. Suddenly, everything you need is there in the same place, accessing the mails is just a tap away and they are clear and easy to read. Replying is quick and easy, and archiving within your folders is simply a matter of selecting the email and then tapping the folder you want it to go into. You still can’t create folders on the fly (you need the desktop application to do this) which is a pain – but since having the iPad I have found my desktop never being used for email. This is one of the tasks which is a joy to perform on the iPad.
Word Processing on the iPad is done via the iWorks suite. I have given the pages application an extensive workout and found it a joy to use. When you first open it up, you get an extensive document which is interactive. This teaches you some of the surprisingly advanced things you can do with the app. Inserting images, flow charts, diagrams, tables, and other items are easily done via a simple menu and a tap. Resizing such items are done with the expected pinch and expand method, and it is easy to edit existing text. Again, to get accurate typing you need to be using the keyboard and to effectively do this you need to be in landscape mode which does rather reduce the amount of screen you can see – and this is a shame. I have my doubts about whether you could type a long document on this device, but for interim working it is absolutely fine. You can also get a spreadsheet and presentation app, but I have not downloaded these (for the price I wouldn’t get enough use out of them) so I cannot comment on them.
To give you a perfect example of how well word processing works, this review was written partly on my home laptop, partly on my work PC (don’t tell my boss) and partly on my iPad. It was stored on Google docs all this time, and was accessed from there by each device in turn. However, accessing the document on the iPad did prove to be the most fiddly – which brings us on to the worst aspect of the iPad...
Why Apple didn’t build in a decent File Management solution is quite simply baffling. Any serious device needs this – but sadly and almost cripplingly it is not there. This means the only way of accessing a document is from within the app itself, and the only way of exporting it is by email. However, all is not completely lost as an app called Good reader is available. This is essentially a file management app and is pretty much essential for anyone who wishes to be proactive with their iPad. Once you have this, you can download documents from Google Docs, Mobile me, Dropbox and other online storage and store them within folders on the device. You can even password protect folders and files. Sadly, this is still not the perfect solution as it cannot “see” documents created on the device. This is a major drawback and does bring in some limitations in terms of being productive. It is not a deal breaker, as it is still possible to work quite well with the iPad – but it is an oversight that I find it hard to believe that Apple made. It adds an extra stage to every piece of work you do – and is certainly not an example of how easy the device is to use.
But all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. The iPad is a device that demands to entertain you as much as it does to help you be productive. And it can easily be argued that it does a far better job on the entertainment side.
Photo viewing is fantastic on the large crisp screen. Sync your photos via iTunes and they appear on the screen in folders. Pinch to open the photos and scroll through them to view. They look clear and crisp on the screen and it is a far more pleasurable experience to view them than it is on the small iPhone screen. Swiping between images is instant and there is no delay for updating the image. When the lock screen is on, an extra icon appears allowing you to change the iPad into a digital photo frame. Sadly, this has very few configuration options – meaning that the photos change way too fast to make this practical in everyday use. They need to change this in OS4 if it is to be a useful function. You can change parameters on my £20 frame but you can’t on the iPad. Poor, Apple, very poor.
I was very sceptical of gaming on the iPad. I am not convinced with the accelerometer as a gaming controller, and the small screen on the iPhone is (to me) pretty useless for any sense of immersion in the game. I was expecting to download one game and that was it. However, within one hour of playing my first game I had downloaded another four. Gaming on the iPad is a revelation.
For a start, the screen really does immerse you in the game. You cannot help but feel totally involved. Graphics wise, the quality is probably on a par with a PS2 – but as you are so close to the screen this is more than adequate. Whether the accelerometer has been better designed, or the programmers have utilised it better, I can't say. But in my test driving game (Need for Speed) steering by tilting the device was responsive and felt natural. The increased screen estate allows for more precise onscreen controls. Suddenly, virtual joysticks and buttons are usable and actually enhance the game experience. Low Grav Racer 2 HD, for example, eschews tilt control completely for onscreen buttons and it works wonderfully. Admittedly, I have large hands. I do wonder how well someone with smaller hands might cope, as gaming in landscape means holding the pad and pushing buttons with your thumb on the edge of the screen. It works for me, but others may struggle. It is also worth mentioning the sometimes increased price for iPad games compared to their phone equivalents. I personally didn’t mind paying £7 for Need for Speed as it is a long, involved game – but it is something to bear in mind.
Movie watching on the ipad can be done from the device or across the network, as long as you add the Air Video app. The problem here, in particular when watching 2.35 transfers, is the shape of the screen. Because it is slightly squarer than the iPhone, video appears in an even smaller “letterbox” in the centre of the screen. I uploaded the free digital copies of Watchmen, Star Trek, and Mama Mia to check and found this an issue with all of them. I cannot, in all honestly, imagine watching a whole movie on this screen – however impressive the colours and resolution are. It goes without saying that the screen is gorgeous, and the actual picture quality is stunning – deep colours, no motion blur and a wide viewing angle. Video files can be viewed over the network using Air Video, a paid for app. If the file isn’t natively compatible then the app will transcode on the fly. This works insanely well and is probably as close as you will get to an essential app.
The built in Youtube app has also been well configured to use the screen. Managing your Youtube account on the device is intuitive and you can easily search, add favourites, and view your own uploads. Videos play smoothly across a wi-fi network, and this is an example where I actually found myself using the service more on the iPad than I have ever done before, even on my laptop.
Internet and reading
The internet is another joy to use on the iPad. The page rendering is smooth and quick, with text and graphics appearing crisp and well reproduced. Moving around a web page using your finger just seems totally natural and the whole experience is so good that again my laptop is never used for surfing in the home any more.
There are several ways to read. There is the free to download Apple iBooks app, Amazon’s Kindle app, and you can also read magazines and newspapers via their own apps. I have got several books in both iBooks and Kindle, and subscribed to The Times and GamesTM. iBooks is more graphically impressive version of Kindle, and for books is far the best option. The bookshelf is a lovely idea and makes the book appear more of an artefact if that makes sense. Reading is clear and quick with text and illustrations easy to see and I experienced no eye strain. Turning the page renders a lovely animation, and text and illustrations can be see “through” the page as you turn it. The choice of books on the iBook store is poor, and this is easily trumped by Kindle. Books that are available on both seem to be slightly cheaper on iBooks though generally. Kindle does not have the graphical flourishes that iBooks has, but it does have the wider selection of books. Again, text is clear and easy to read – but I have not come across any illustrated editions yet.
For a fee you can also subscribe to newspapers and magazines, and the ways these are presented are varied. For example, about 50 magazines can be read through the pixelmags service which presents the magazines on a shelf like the iBooks app and you can either download individual mags or subscribe for six or 12 months. This is a great service, although the magazines are presented in a standard format. You need to double click on the image to make each page readable and then double click to return to the double page spread. This sounds cumbersome, but in reality works incredibly well due to the speed of the processor. I found it perfectly acceptable to read in this way and thoroughly enjoyed it.
The Times is an example of a newspaper optimised for the iPad. Although there is missing content the page is formatted perfectly for the pad, and retains the sense of reading the actual newspaper. Video and graphics are added to enhance content and the whole experience, although buggy in the first instance, is actually an excellent attempt which will only get better.
Apple iPad Review
I have read many reviews of the iPad stressing that as a device for consuming media the iPad is a fantastic device but for creating it is very poor. To be honest I find this rather a generalisation that does the device great disservice. There is much more to it than this.
One of the positive points of the device is most certainly the design. It is beautifully proportioned and the screen is an absolute delight. It is certainly true that in direct sunlight, the screen is very difficult to see to the extent where it is pretty unusable. But in all other conditions the screen is fantastic. It handles media very well. Whether it be magazines, books, video, or the web the iPad is now my chosen device – the one I reach for before my laptop or anything else. It is very true that the phone does pretty much everything that this device does, and it is possible that the iPhone 4 will match it for speed, but do not underestimate what effect the increase in the size of the screen has. You would not, for example, want to be typing for more than a few words on the iPhone screen – but it is possible to do so quite easily on the iPad. Personally, watching video or playing games on the iPhone is not a pleasurable experience for me but the increased size of the iPad makes it enjoyable.
The main negative for me is the lack of a decent file management system, which is a major loss. What is the point of having an office suite if you cannot manage your files? There is also the point that if you want to extend the usefulness of the device – you need to be buying extra apps. Many times these are third party apps that are adding functionality that Apple should have included in the first place.
But despite these flaws the iPad is an absolutely gorgeous device that has attracted envious glances from everyone I have shown it to. The problem for Apple when positioning it in the market is that it is very much designed to be the second device in peoples' homes. It will not replace the laptop or PC – it is quite simply incapable of doing so. What it will do very nicely though is bring web browsing, simple document creation and editing, and media consumption to the sofa and the bedroom. If you are the kind of person who will entertain the possibility of reading your daily paper on the device, will surf on the way to work, is prepared to transfer your reading habits into the digital world, and struggles to get time on the PC in your home then this is the device for you. But realistically, in a time of recession, I do not feel that the iPad is yet ready to reach out into the mass market. Unlike the iPhone which revolutionised a market and was always likely to attract a wide user base, the iPad is likely to remain a niche market for the next year at least. A gorgeous, exciting, sexy, well designed niche for sure. Whether it will ever break out of this market will depend on either adding extra functionality or dropping significantly in price.
Apple have astounded the early adopters – the question is where do they go from here? I look forward to finding out.
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