Review: Apple iPad

I pre-ordered the iPad  as soon as I could and unpacked it the day that I returned from a trip to South America (that saw me miss its actual delivery). I’ve had the device for over a month now, have been actively using it, and wanted to offer my impressions. Those impressions, I will note, are significantly conditioned by the reasons that I bought the device, which I’ll outline. I’ll first briefly address the actual hardware and operating system of the device, then move to what I like and dislike about the product. Ultimately, I’m happy with the device and have absolutely no regrets in getting this particular first-gen Apple product.

The screen, ergonomics, and weight are all fine. It’s using an IPS-LCD, which means that viewing angles are good and colour reproduction is pretty faithful. While some have criticized the back for being slightly rounded, it hasn’t bothered me in any way, nor has the weight of 1.5lbs struck me as ‘heavy’ though the device is heavier than appearances might lead one to believe. There is a bezel surrounding the screen itself and it makes sense: I can rest my hands on the non-interactive bezel without affecting whatever I’m displaying on the screen. This is a good thing. the iPad has the same touch interface as the iPhone and iPod Touch. This makes the iPad simple to use, if lacking any deviant features from those earlier devices (and, with the release of iOS 4, the iPad actually has slightly fewer features than the iPhone or Touch). In light of its use of the older 3.2 release of the OS, the iPad is horrible if you rely on multiple windows being open to get work done and is a poor choice for any content producer looking to do a lot of work on it that will see you flipping between a document/content production editor and the web. In effect, anyone who’s tried doing intensive content production on the iPhone or Touch will largely encounter the same old problems here. I’m not saying that you can’t do such production, but it’s far less convenient than on a full desktop/notebook or even netbook. On the upside: the device is light and battery life is good (I tend to go for 36-72 hours without needing to plug in, with moderate to heavy use each day).

Now that the hardware and OS is out of the way, let’s turn to where the iPad truly shines: content consumption.

I do a lot of reading and, having exhausted a significant number of the actual books that immediately pertain to my research, I need to meaningfully dig through .PDFs of reports from various think tanks, DPI vendors, and electronic academic articles. While in the first year of my PhD I printed in excess of 5000 sheets of paper, largely articles. I’m both unable (for storage reasons), and unwilling (for storage and environmental reasons), to continue printing vast quantities of paper when I’ll likely read any printed document once or twice, and similarly dislike reading off the various screens adorning my home. I can read off the screens, but that’s not to say that I enjoy sitting at a computer desk and scrolling through documents for 6-10 hours a day. This said, it’s critical that I’m able to easily annotate any .PDF documents that I read. Further, having documents and their annotations in a searchable format can and will make my life much easier. The iPad fits this reading niche for me.

I’ve been taking the device out and about after loading up the days electronic documents to read (I’ll get into the ‘loading’ element of that is a second…) and use iAnnotate to make comments, highlights, underlines, and bookmarks in my electronic documents. The program itself is simple to use and, critically, when you export the document all the annotations are kept with the file and can be read by any .PDF viewer supporting annotation display. I’ve read documents ranging from 5-500 pages and in my experience to date the ‘comfort zone’ of iPad reading ends at around 100 pages. After this point it’s more convenient to have a hard copy of a document when you want to quickly flip through and find your notes. That said, I did successfully read a book that was slightly over 500 pages on the iPad: I would have never done that if I was tied to a computer monitor and unable to lounge with the text, walk around my office with it, and generally enjoy the rhythm of reading that I get into when reading a longer bit of text.

With its IPS screen type, the iPad is also great for viewing photos. While few consumers (a) know about; (b) care about screen type, trust me that the IPS is far better than the TN screen panels that likely adorn your home. The difference between the iPad showing a photo and my BenQ V2400W or Macbook Pro screen is literally like the difference between night and day. I have a handy program, PhotoGene, for basic photo editing. While it’s no GIMP it is more than enough for basic colour adjustments, rotations, cropping, minor effects, framing, and so forth. The problem with the program is that is can’t delete old photos or create photos in already existing albums. These problems follow from Apple not permitting developers to access this functionality. I’ll get back to this restriction in a second or two.

The other major reason that I wanted this device was for conferences.The iPad has come with me to this year’s Canadian Telecom Summit and Computers, Freedom, and Privacy (CFP) Conference, and has been a great experience in both situations. I take a lot of notes (using Evernote) at most of these events, but I find it annoying to have to type things out on a full laptop because it feels like I’m cutting myself off from the other people at the table(s) with me. The very act of having a screen between you and others creates a situation that I, personally, don’t like. Having the iPad flat on the table, like a notebook, removes this barrier for me. I also tend to fall victim to honest-to-God multifunction capability and thus will open up applications that don’t pertain purely to note taking. While it’s normal, I know myself well enough that I fall victim to this and the iPad, with its monofunctional ‘capabilities’, means I stay on task. That the battery lasts an entire day without needing to plug in is a huge benefit, and the on screen keyboard is good enough for note taking purposes that I don’t regret bringing the iPad over a full laptop.

So far, the content production I’ve referred to is what I identify as ‘short form’, or content that is generally less than 2,000 words in length, can range over various topics, and generally doesn’t have to remain too focused for too long. Key is that short form content is minimally reliant on external links and references, meaning that you can work in a single window and only have to pop out of it once or twice to produce the content. For this content, the on-screen keyboard is generally good enough, though if you want to do something a bit longer you can easily link a bluetooth keyboard with the device. I did so at CFP for writing longer emails (in excess of 1000 words) and for some side projects I was working on at the time. The bluetooth keyboard meant that text entry was a quick on a laptop, though rapid entry doesn’t alleviate the pain-in-the-ass of having to switch between multiple windows when you want links, photos, and so forth to be embedded in a document.

Truly the key problem with the iPad is that Apple has an absolutely piss-poor system for transferring content to and from the device and its installed applications. My first experience with the iPad was having it in my hands, out of its box, and immediately needing to connect it to my Macbook to initialize the device and do initial content transfers over to the iPad. The ‘tethering’ problem continues, though it’s somewhat mitigated by my premium subscription to Evernote (which lets me store documents in the cloud as well as at rest on all of my devices, ensuring I have access to documents even when without a wifi connection), Dropbox membership (which supports easy transferring of content in the Dropbox service to other applications on my iPad), and Goodreader (which integrates with damn near everything cloud-based and sucks it into the application). In effect, what I’m saying is that there are many good kludges around to resolve some of the deficiency in file transfers that are imposed by Apple, but that’s what they are: kludges. Apple’s control over the file system means that you can’t delete photos or make and save modifications to photos themselves: editing on photo in a non-Apple application leaves you with another copy of the photo in a post-edited form. This is highly annoying. Hopefully Apple releases their grip on the file system, or at least does something interesting to make the saving and transferring of files more pleasant in a future OS update.

On the whole, I really do think that the iPad is ideally suited to any niche of consumers that want to do content consumption of text and who need to be able to do small modifications/additions to the text. It’s good for anyone wanting a highly portable computer-lite experience, and stellar for going through airport security with (no need to open your bag!). For anyone looking to do substantial amounts of long-form content production that will require them to have multiple windows/applications running simultaneously, it’s a horrible, horrible device, but for small amounts of content generation and note taking its a good substitute for paper. I’d recommend the device as is – I don’t think that needing small adaptors to extend functionality is the end of days – but only if what you want to do with the device fits its particular consumer profile. Don’t get the iPad as a notebook replacements, don’t get it for long-form creation, and don’t do it if you are unwilling to play with Apple’s often aggravating rules for playing in their sandbox.