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NOTE: This is part 1 of a two-part review. In this part, we take a holistic look at the "iPad experience". The second part will delve deeper into individual apps and touch upon usage scenarios
If you've been following our Facebook page, or our forums, then you'd know that we got our excited little paws on the Apple iPad a while back. We were too impatient to wait for news from Apple on an international release, let alone one for India. So we got a colleague to bring it in from California. If you are as impatient and would like it NOW rather than at an unknown time from now, your options are limited: Your best bet is to do as we did and get it imported from the U.S. If the U.S. is not an option, then you would have to pay ridiculous sums of money on Ebay - starting at Rs 34,490 for the 16GB WiFi model! You can also check your local grey market. Prices are around Rs 30,000 for the 16GB and Rs 45,000 for the 32GB version. Our suggestion: don't pick the iPad at these Ebay or grey market prices, the Apple iPad simply isn't worth that price tag. If you do import the unit, the good news is that the Apple iPad's power supply is universal, so you won't have to worry about powering the iPad on our 220V lines: just plug it in and juice it up. Our unit was already charged to above 90 per cent out of the box.
Unfortunately, we don't have an unboxing experience to share with you. Due to the nature of how the Apple iPad got to us, its case was left behind. May it rest in peace on Californian soil. But unboxing videos are like mushrooms all over YouTube and chances are you already know what's in the box - not much at all - the box comes with the Apple iPad, a USB cable that plugs into the aforementioned universal power plug (a quick aside here: that USB cable is very short and it's very annoying to have the iPad tied to a wall socket with such a short leash), some documentation, those stupid Apple stickers, and that's it. Not even a pair of headphones with a $500 purchase.
While we don't have an unboxing to share, the thoughts that ran through our head when we first laid eyes upon it were: (1) wow, (2) it's smaller than we thought, and finally, (3) it's heavier than we would like it to be. The Apple iPad is all screen, well except for its bezel; that bezel, incidentally is just the right amount of non-screen estate - ideal amount of space to hold the Apple iPad, without triggering screen interactions. While we would like to see future versions to be all screen, along with some amount of dead space or finger-rejection technology -- we don't think this would be an obvious implementation for most users, and would make for a poor, unpredictable interface. We are sure of one thing though -- expect future revisions of the Apple iPad to tout two features -- slimmer, lighter. The Apple iPad is about 200gm too heavy for most postures which do not involve assisted support of the device. Do you imagine yourself sleeping on your back, holding the iPad above your chest and reading? Perhaps sitting down and holding the Apple iPad as you would a paperback book? Maybe, you foresee using it one-handed (mind out of the gutter sir!)? Under all these scenarios, the Apple iPad is a tad too heavy to make for a comfortable experience over an extended period of time.
If the weight brings a tiny frown to your face, the iPad's screen will turn it upside down and split it ear to ear. Switch it on and you will say wow. The Apple iPad's IPS display is a real winner with an amazing viewing angle. You can view it from any angle with very minor loss of clarity.
Buttons and port, from top to bottom and left to right we have: home button, dock port, speakers, sleep button, mic, 3.5mm headphone jack, volume control, orientation lock
Besides the gorgeous screen, the iPad has the iconic single home button akin to its smaller brethren - the iPhone and the iPod Touch. Sleep button along the top right edge, with a 3.5mm headhphone jack and microphone on the left side of this top edge; we also have volume controls along the right edge of the iPad, and an orientation lock right next to the volume controls. Here, we would like to talk about a very welcome introduction to the iPad: there is no wrong way of holding it. Turn it around and the interface follows you, it's amazing and very welcome. If anything, the iPad feels a little too quick and eager to change orientation - the orientation lock is thus a welcome addition. We would have liked the lock to also lock-in the home button, as hitting home while interacting with the iPad is a rare, yet irritating experience. While there is no wrong way to hold the iPad, third-party developers haven't been consistent in adopting and following Apple's lead in this UI aspect. Most will lock you to a single orientation which makes for a very un-iPad experience.
Next, we take a look at syncing the Apple iPad with a PC, and dealing with iTunes (spoiler: iTunes sucks).
Seriously Apple, instead of calling others lazy, fix iTunes on Windows.
As of this writing, iTunes offers a terrible interface to sync applications with the iPad: there was no way to filter our 160 apps to show only iPad/universal applications. A huge oversight and one that Apple fixes quickly, we hope. Why wouldn't you want to sync all your apps to the Apple iPad? While most applications are touted to work on the Apple iPad (and almost all do), you do not want to run an application that is not universal, or one that hasn't been made specifically for the iPad. Trust us. A little backgrounder here -- there are two ways in which the iPad runs iPhone/iPod apps: (1) at their native resolution - which turns your $500 screen into a sick joke or (2) "scaled" to 2X their native size. In this second, 2X mode, the pixels take up arms and attack your eyes, while the fonts laugh at your plight. Be good to yourself and stick to native applications. As far as we are concerned, the Apple iPad can only run the 3,950-odd iPad applications (and growing fast).
So, we needed to pick and choose apps. And what we were left with was manually selecting the applications to install. There is another layer of frustration here: a lack of naming consistency in the applications. Some developers have adopted an "HD" moniker to add to their iPad apps; others go with "XL", or even with "...for iPad"; some give no indication whatsoever. All of which makes for a very irritating experience, especially when you are just setting it up and are eager to try things on the iPad.
Content discovery, is another issue with iTunes. Looking for iPad-only applications is less than ideal. Firstly, from the iPad itself, you need to log onto the US iTunes store since the Indian store hasn't been launched yet. Which is fair, we think, since the iPad isn't officially here in India. Note here that unless you have a US credit card, you can't purchase apps from the US store. So you can only peck and choose the free ones from there, if you wish; more on this later. But on the PC, you can access iPad applications from the Indian store (only a handful are off-limits such as the Apple iWorks suite and Civilization Revolution), and purchase them using your Indian CC. We imagine that this could get confusing for a non-geek, especially as you will find yourself juggling countries to get to the Apps you want.
Even on the US store there isn't an obvious and immediate way to discover iPad content. You would expect iTunes to display iPad apps as default, if you have connected the iPad to your PC, but this is not the case. You need to click the App Store, and then an iPad tab to get to the relevant filter. Fortunately, the Search feature does a decent job at alleviating this shortcoming -- search for an application, and iTunes will split the search results into "iPhone Apps" and "iPad Apps", although sometimes it throws up songs and podcasts first and iPad is relegated right to the bottom of the page. A little mo
re intelligence here would have been appreciated: display the iPad results first, if the iPad it attached to the PC, or iPhone if it's the iPhone... something to that effect.
Once you select your universal/iPad apps (again, don't install your iPhone apps, you have been warned by the pixel police), and other bits and pieces, the actual syncing process is pretty snappy. Pretty soon you will have the Apple iPad ready and willing to be touched. Go ahead, touch it. You know you want to...
Next, we touch the Apple iPad, then grimace at the fingerprints that leaves, then we touch it some more.
The iPad is a new window to the internet, and also to other traditional content type such as e-books, comics, photos, maps. The iPad experience can be summed up with the word "immediate". Everything is literally at your fingertips, and almost every content on screen is willing to be manipulated by said fingertips -- your first few minutes with the iPad will be spent tapping, twisting, stretching, zooming, and flipping through content, with a giggle or two on your lips. It truly is a fresh way to discover old content.
As you know, the iPad can't yet multitask. Come late this year, we hope that bit is fixed by the release of OS 4.0. Right now though, it's one app at a time. Arguing the pros and cons of multitasking is moot at this point, since it's coming, like it or not, but we would like to point one positive that the Apple iPad offers over traditional desktops, netbooks, laptops, and indeed some phone experiences: the Apple iPad becomes an application. It's truly a magical distraction-free experience in this time and age. Open Notes, for example, and the iPad becomes the notepad, everything else falls behind. It's nice to not have a taskbar or window decorations calling to your attention, demanding that you answer that chat message, or answer than new email (although the iPad does chime in a new mail). It's a welcome change in a hectic age. But then you wish you could Alt tab to the browser to check on something quick, and you realize that OS 4.0 offers a pretty good middle-ground to this dichotomy.
In many ways, the iPad is the iPhone's promise (almost) realized. The iPhone's interface, as great as it is, is limited by its screen real-estate. This much is clear after you use the Apple iPad for a length of time. Indeed, we felt that the iPhone was suddenly "too small" and "cramped" when we picked up the iPhone after using the iPad for a stretch of time. Hopefully, the rumours of a bigger iPhone, with a higher-resolution screen are true.
Coming back to the iPad: its screen does justice to the OS. But in some ways, the OS fails the screen: interface interactions can still be a case of hunt and peck, like a throwback to point-and-click adventure games, and here we feel that Apple's UI is a little rushed -- as if Apple didn't quite finish it before deadline. For example, open the Calendar app and you are greeted with an "open diary" kind of look. You would expect to flip through this diary, as the rest of the OS and apps (including iBooks) underline such interaction. But you can't. You need to tap on a teeny-tiny date icon at the bottom of the iPad's screen to traverse between dates, or to tap on similarly sized arrows that bookend these dates. And these UI elements are at the bottom of this app's screen (most taskbars on the OS are along the top). Sticking with Calendar: you will see a "No Events" shouting at you, occupying 80 per cent of a page and one would expect to be able to tap here to add an event, but you can't. You need to tap a (teeny-tiny) button at the bottom right corner of the app. Once you do click on the and the keyboard/modal window pops up, you can't tap on the "backdrop" to exit/cancel this interaction but must instead hunt-and-peck at the Cancel button on the modal popup.
Calendar isn't the only guilty party. You can't flip between pages in Notes either. Another example - open Contacts in landscape: looks great, right? Now turn to portrait and... nothing. A taller, narrower book instead of a single-page view as you would expect (or an interface/view us plebs can't imagine). Also note how Contacts plops ungainly on the screen in portrait. While still on Contacts, note the placement of the (add a contact), Edit, and Share buttons. Each far from the edges of the screen and along the bottom of the app. Most of the iPad apps have buttons/taskbars along the top and closer to the edges of the screen to allow for easier tapping. The only application from Apple that we feel has really been designed around the Apple iPad is iBooks; everything else feels like a slightly rushed "port" from the iPhone. Note that the native apps aren't bad in any way; indeed they work well - Mail, Photos, YouTube, Maps all do their job fairly well. I personally feel that Apple may have missed an opportunity or two to redefine certain interfaces. The iBooks app and Photos especially underline how interactive and innovative an application this little beauty can offer.
The screen is a winner though. If you love reading -- whether e-books, PDFs, comics, or the interweb, then you will like the Apple iPad. If you love watching movies or playing games, then you will love the Apple iPad. There are a few caveats here though.
How good is the Apple iPad as an internet tablet? An e-book reader? Comic books? Movies? We explore these questions on the next page.
While Safari is capable enough (hey, its no Google Chrome), the browser is let-down by the 256MB of RAM in the iPad. You won't be able to browse certain forums or sites, especially those with lots of images, or worse - GIFs. The browser might stall and fail to completely load such pages. Safari also doesn't render some sites as it should - but these are few and far in-between. However, we have the issue of Flash support. Since Apple refuses to support Flash, some sites will simply not work. No matter which side of the Flash argument you fall on, you can't deny that this device thus can't access the entire Internet. Hopefully, the industry will sort this mess out and we can move forward without leaving our favourite sites behind.
It's an almost perfect book reader. Almost. Perfect would have been somehow marrying e-ink technology with LCD technology. But since we don't live in that parallel universe, we can't have both (yet). The issue? Depending on your eyes, you might not be able to handle long periods of reading on the Apple iPad's screen due to its backlit nature. The iPad's dpi is also not as high as the iPhone's so the fonts rendered aren't as sharp as the iPhone's. Keep that in mind if you are coming from the iPhone / iPod Touch. Here's a safe bet: if you have ever read a book on a Palm device, or a Microsoft phone, or Blackberry phone, then you won't have any issues reading on the iPad (except for the weight thing, we covered earlier). We do wish that iBooks offered an inverse colours option (white text on black) for easy night reading. See our section for apps recommendations later in this review to check out some great e-book readers and note that almost all of them offer free books.
The screen is just a tad smaller than ideal. About 2-inches more and it would make a perfect comic book replacement as comics would fit as is. Right now, comic readers need to do a bit of zooming to make the panels readable. Readers such as Marvel Comics offer a very cool panel-fly effect which pans, zooms, and moves around comic panels lending some drama to a comic book. But unfortunately, Marvel Comics doesn't yet offer a subscription service for the iPad, like it does for the PC. Moreover, it's Marvel - not exactly great reading. Vertigo/DC is sorely missed here. As are Graphic Novels. Bottom line: if you have a lot of comics from unofficial sources, your best bet is to buy Comic Zeal for $8 and read your CBRs on the iPad. It isn't a perfect experience, but it's pretty close to being so.
It's perfect. Almost. Again, the source of your videos would determine your experience. If you have a lot of DVDs, then prepare to rip them; ditto for Blu-rays. If you have movies from other sources, then consider buying Air Video - an excellent application that transcodes everything that isn't tied down by DRM. It does the transcoding on-the-fly, over-the-air and streams it to your Apple iPad. It also handles off-line transcoding and queues. Bottom line: if you have a lot of videos, Air Video will be the best $3 you will spend on the Apple iPad.
Games on the iPad are perhaps the cheapest you will find on a digital distribution system (legally). The Apple iPad is currently the most powerful handheld console. So what's the issue? Controls: A lack of any physical keys will invariably dampen your experience with more traditional games and genres. Personally, I've gotten accustomed to on-screen d-pads and thumbsticks and what-nots; especially for slower genres such as RPG and strategy. But your mileage may vary. If you can overcome that hurdle -- the games are excellent on this platform. In many ways, the Apple iPad is the true indie platform. You will often come across a gem that will hook you for a week, developed by a bunch of geeks (and often a small bunch too), sold for $0.99. Often, you will have stumble upon treasures such as Canabalt, Hook Champ, Bird Strike, Doodle Jump, Labyrinth 2, Unify, geo Defense, and so on and on and on. This is a great gaming platform, make no mistake (looking at you, Nintendo). Look for our apps recommendation section later in this review for a list of some great games for the iPad.
Let's say you buy the Apple iPad from Ebay and are thus rendered broke. Can you do anything with it if you don't have money to spend on the App Store? Find out on the next page
Let's ignore for a moment, the Apple App Store. A terrible thing to do, we know, but bear with us. What does the Apple iPad offer right out of the box? A large, capacitive, multi-touch screen, with wide viewing angles and excellent colours. This is immediately apparent. You then have a Mail app, which gets the basic work done (you can't attach files from within Mail... yes really), a Photos app which is a great way to view and browse through photos, Maps, which is only half-uselful in a WiFi-only GPS-lacking model, a window to YouTube, a Calendar to help you see and manage your schedules, Notes (with that horrible font) to jot down notes, iPod in a much better desktop-like avatar to listen to your music, Videos for your movies if you only consume H.264 content.
Kind of limited for a $500 device, yes?
Now let's add in the Apple App Store but with a caveat: you can't buy anything from the Store. What you then get is a glut of mostly useless, but free apps. Make no mistake, there are some great free apps too, but these are few and far in between. There are some great Wikipedia readers on tap, for example. Some great news apps: BBC News, AP News, NPR, and this amazing app we discovered just last night called Eyewitness (by the Guardian). The Kindle ebook reader, Marvel Comics reader, Comics X, School Notes Pro, some weather apps, IMDB, Frame HD (a very cool app), an excellent drawing app in Adobe Ideas, and so on. While the App Store may have 3,950 apps for the iPad (or 1,85,970 if you insist on counting the uncouth iPhone apps); you would be hard-pressed to list more than 50 good,free apps (not counting games). What's the point we are getting to? It's this - as is, the iPad is just an expensive promise. You need to invest in the App Store to really enjoy the relationship. And by invest we mean $$$, not sweet nothings and backrubs... The good news here is that the Apple App Store is an amazing place. It's a magical, paradoxical, paradise-cum-hell where apps bounce around merrily like bunnies with chainsaws amidst bullets with butterfly wings.
Next, the Alpha and the Omega of why an iDevice is awesome - the App Store. Learn to love it and it will love you back
Well, maybe not Love. Tolerate would be more appropriate.
The real magic behind the Apple iPad (or other iDevices) is in the Apple App Store, and you will learn to appreciate its raw beauty over time. When people say "X phone is the iPhone killer", or "Y tablet is the iPad killer", I smile like Buddha might have, if he had an iDevice. The hardware is not the secret ingredient, it's not the secret weapon that keeps winning wars for Apple; nor will it be the interface, no matter how IP-protected Apple thinks it is. It's the App Store and the developer community that powers it. In many ways, the App Store resembles the Wild West (or a Mumbai local train during rush hour... or any hour, for that matter). If you are a developer, you need to shove, stamp on feet, and power drive your way through the crowd to earn your place. The good news for us consumers is that this brings in phenomenal competition for our money, and that's never a bad thing for a market. You will thus find an abundance of excellent applications and games for $0.99 (that's about Rs 44). Almost everything worth buying is under $10 (~Rs 440). The best part? If you are patient and can resist the urge to grab a hot new app/game, then there is a very good chance that the app will either drop in price to $0.99, or be offered for free - if only for a limited period of time. Just be patient.
You know what happens in a Wild West scenario? The Law happens. You can almost feel the myriad developers hold their breath as they submit an app, or hope that Apple doesn't drop a bombshell during one of Steve Jobs' papal addresses. The recent commandment, perhaps aimed at Adobe Flash, has effected a lot of small, indie application developers, not just the giant Adobe. It's for them we should give a pause, and a thought. Similarly, the developers that spent time and money behind community services such as OpenFeint, Crystal, and Plus are surely apprehensive about Apple's Game Center and how it might affect their bottom lines (although we believe that the Game Center will be a positive influence over the long term). The long and short of it is that the Apple App Store is your friend and we should all hope that it doesn't get policed to death.
With the Apple iPad's release, there has been a ripple in the App Store continuum. Content distributors have seen it fit to charge 3-4X the price that they would on the iPhone. Part of this is because the Apple iPad is the new device on the block: there will be early adopters, and early adopters will swallow almost anything, even a $20 app that tracks your to-dos... Partly though, distributors are hoping that they don't fall into the $0.99-app trap-and-churn, and finally get their effort's due. One might say an app sells for $0.99 because it's not worth more than that price. Which is true for most, but there are several gems - games, for example that you would pay $5-10 for on your DSi, Xbox 360, PS3, or PSP, that sell for $0.99, not to mention the occasional sale down to FREE. Even good applications need to price themselves low because the cheap apps set a dangerous precedent. While the iPad apps launched at a high price, the market will correct itself. Indeed, some of the launch prices have already been slashed by half or more. There is also an element of greed here: some of the apps and games are merely the same as the iPhone ones but with higher-res textures -- at 2-3X the price. Such pills are harder to swallow and we hope that developers and distributors will do the right thing: (1) create universal applications that can be run on both devices, or (2) bundle the iPhone version free with the iPad version, or (3) create something truly unique for the iPad to justify the higher price.
So without further ado, let's take a look at some of the highlight apps for the Apple iPad. Note: (1) some of these apps require access to the US Store, and (2) the following are not reviews, merely recommendations on how to best spend your money and time, based on our time with them:
We would recommend that you wait for part 2 of this review before making that decision. In the second part we will delve deeper into some of the applications for the Apple iPad and you should then have a much clearer picture on where this device fits in your life, if at all. Part 2 should be up soon. If you can't wait until then, here is our recommendation: get the 16GB Apple iPad if you can import one from the US and if you don't mind spending money on the App Store. If you are thinking of buying from a local grey market, or from Ebay, we suggest that you don't do so - the prices are way too high and in my personal opinion, not worth that price tag. Wait for the official release, which is probably a couple of months away for India. Hopefully, the Apple iPad will be priced sanely in our market. If the official price of the 16GB unit is around Rs. 25,000 then this is a great device to consider. It will really change the way you interact with data, media, and the internet.
Decision Maker for those who must have the Apple iPad NOW: