Okay, okay—you're probably tired of hearing about Apple's iPad by now, but I'm a technology journalist, so I'm obligated to review it. In the interest of not being overly redundant with all the other coverage you may have seen—as well as the articles that I've already written about it after attending the event where it was introduced back in January—I'll assume you know the basic technological premise: It's a thin, 9.7-inch touchscreen device that runs a modified iPhone OS. It comes in two basic flavors: Wi-Fi only and Wi-Fi plus 3G, the various models ranges in capacity from 16GB to 64GB, and costs range from $499 to $829.
The Wi-Fi model is available today (the 3G model will be available in "late April" according to Apple). I've been testing out a 32GB model for several hours now, and it is, as you'd expect, an impressive piece of hardware—solidly built, elegantly designed; lightweight, yet substantial. Apple's custom-built, 1Ghz A4 processor is fast and screen response is snappy. From the store purchase to the packaging to the unibody aluminum shell, the Apple managed experience and quality control have a way of making you feel privileged to be a customer.
That privilege can sometimes be a pain in the butt, however, as my experience trying to sync the iPad showed. First, I tried syncing to my three-and-a-half-year-old MacBook. No dice. The iPad doesn't support Mac OS's older than OS X 10.5.8. It does, however, support Windows OS's going back to XP. Okay, then, I tried syncing to iTunes on my home-built rig running an Intel Core i5 chip and a 64-bit copy of Windows 7. Fail, fail, fail! I realized at this point that all the other tech journalists who got early review units of the iPad and gave such breathless reviews must be using brand-spanking new MacBook Pros running Snow Leopard. I, however, required a BIOS update (a fact I only learned after looking up the issue and finding an obscure reference to iPhone syncing issues with Gigabyte P-55 motherboards—not necessarily Apple's fault, but still—grrr!), and two reinstalls of the iPad's OS. Three hours later, after I had teched through the decidedly un-Apple syncing nastiness, my iPad was up and running quite smoothly.
So how does it work? Well, many critics have dismissed the iPad as just an overgrown iPod Touch, and there is some truth to that. It can't make calls, it doesn't have a camera, it can't multitask, it doesn't run Flash, and it requires iTunes to interface with other computers. In fact, as a piece of hardware, there isn't really that much to differentiate the iPad from the iPod Touch, except for that 9.7-inch screen and an astounding 10-plus hour battery life. But as it turns out, app developers have found some pretty compelling uses for that large screen and long-lasting battery.
Apple's own iBooks app—which, mysteriously doesn't come pre-installed—is a good example. Its pages turn with the animated grace of real paper, and color illustrations show just how unsatisfactory a black and white e-reader screen can be. Comic books also, as seen through the Marvel Comics app, are beautifully rendered and smoothly browsable.
Video is rendered beautifully, if a bit wastefully—the widescreen is not quite wide enough to support 16:9 video, so prepare for a black bar sandwich if you want to see the whole picture—HD movies are crisp and skip-free on the 1024 x 768 screen. Plus, with apps such as the ABC Player and Netflix (and Hulu is purportedly on the way), the iPad has the potential to be a television alternative to cable…really.
Photos and e-mail are also brilliantly presented. E-mail gets a double-pane browser similar to that on many desktop e-mail clients. Photos can be piled and unpiled, then blown up to full-screen for a high-resolution look that was impossible on an iPhone or iPod Touch—plus, with its long battery life, the iPad can be propped up on a table and just left to play just like a digital photo frame…a very expensive digital photo frame.
Games are another highlight. I've tried Scrabble and Minigore HD, animation and action are fast and smooth. And the big screen makes you realize just how much you were squinting at the iPhone.
But the real revelation is newspapers and magazines. Publications such as The Wall Street Journal and Time Magazine are very browseable and readable. Seniorhelpline is among a number of magazines that can be read through the Zinio magazine app, which is basically a scaled up version of the iPhone version. (The magazine is also developing a more full-featured app to be released this summer). This is exactly the kind of lean-back content that the iPad was made to display. Nevertheless, the variability of interface from brand to brand shows that there is still a lot of innovation to be done in the publishing space.
One downer note: Apple played up how the iPad would already have access to the hundreds of thousands of iPhone apps in the App store. And it's true, the iPad can run those apps in a mini window or scale them up to full screen. But next to the iPad-specific apps, this experience is a royal disappointment. Text is highly pixilated and images are blurry and just plain bad.
I'm not quite as convinced as some of my colleagues that the iPad is an instant revolution in computing, but it is a very satisfying lean-back media consumption device. Not a must have, just yet, however, there are still too few books in the book store, too few magazines in the App store, and it seems pretty obvious that the next generation of iPad will have a webcam in it. Plus, Apple may have been essentially first out of the gate with this category of device, but there are sure to be a half-dozen tablets running Android or some variation of Windows 7 by the end of the year, so it would be good to see how this segment shakes out before dedicating half a grand to it.
That said, there is definitely a place for the tablet computer in this world. In a year or two, when all kinds of content is formatted for this type of device and machines cost $100 to$300, you may wonder why netbooks ever seemed like such a big deal.