The iPad Has Landed: First Impressions

Posted: April 4, 2010 in Apple, Archos, first impressions, iPad, iPhone, Macbook Air, PCTablet, Tablet

“It’s been a long, a long time coming – but I know a change gonna come…”

Yeah you know the lyrics, and they were right – so shelve your netbook, box up your UMPC collection, hide the “tablet” PC, give your Nintendo DS and Sony PSP to your nephew, and stick your eReader in the bottom drawer – because after a long, long, excruciating wait (for some of us anyway), the iPad is finally upon us.  And yes, don’t be afraid of the hyperbole; we are absolutely talking about a revolution.  The time to speak gently for fear of rousing the naysayers is over; it’s time to spread the word to the non-haters who still have an open enough mind to accept an awesome new piece of technology that will help define a brand new usage space that crosses over from casual usage to business productivity to portable game console to eBook reader to media player.

OK OK I may be going a bit overboard here in excitement, but after about 4 hours of non-stop use, I’m definitely impressed.  That said, I think you’ll find a fairly balanced impressions post, as I’ve noticed a few negatives along with all the sheer awesomeness.  One thing was clear to me after my first day with the iPad; if you think you know exactly what it is and have defined (or confined) it to a particular space, you are most likely wrong.  In spite of all the research I did and all my past experiences with this “space,” I was still surprised by some elements of the actual user experience.  It’s quite simply a unique and different feeling compared to everything that’s out there now; if you are genuinely interested or on the fence, you really have to try it to see if it suits you.

So without further ado, let’s dive right in:

First “feelings”

When you first pick it up, the iPad feels “just right” – the size, weight, balance, everything seems slick and well tuned.  The first slide to turn the unit on, the first time you start browsing or checking out your photos, everything feels pretty amazing.  Contrary to the unboxing experience I had with the Archos 9 (A9) PCTablet, the iPad comes ready to go, fully charged.  If you wanted, you could just start using it immediately, with the only setup being connecting to your wireless network.  For me I had to spend about an hour syncing to my Mac, and much of that time was my own fault because I needed to reorganize my gazillion apps.  Still, the “out of box” experience was infinitely better and easier.  I’ve seriously already had more quality usage in one day than I’ve had with the A9 and my last netbook combined.  With those two, I literally spent more time updating and upgrading than I did actually using.

Back to the iPad, the rotation from the accelerometer is extremely responsive, more so than the iPhone I believe.  But after longer usage, I noticed (depending on the app) it can be awkward at times, the rotation may be too sensitive, and the weight is definitely still not optimal.  I’ve said this all along, I really think you want to be a pound or under for a device that’s meant to be held in one hand for extended periods of time.  In terms of the accelerometer sensitivity, it’s great for gaming (see RealRacing HD) but not great for general use as it can bounce around back and forth between modes when you are walking, for instance; luckily there is a hard button to lock in your screen perspective.  So I’m mixed on the day one “overall feel”.  I know I’ll get used to it in time and find natural positions (and accessories) that compensate (this is already happening in day 2), but I was a little surprised it wasn’t somehow “magically” better from the getgo.  It was probably an unrealistic expectation given that I knew the dimensions/weight, and you just can’t cheat physics.  I’ll review this again after a month or so of use.

Screen/Touch interface

As expected, the screen is gorgeous and the interface is every bit as responsive as you might hope.  The added size (it seems to be like 6x the iPhone) gives you so much more of everything to work with, and it is very impressive.  Bad news though?  Even with the special coating you’ll get fingerprints all over, and the screen feels sometimes like my finger is sticking (as opposed to sliding).  Of course I should mention that I use a screen protector (Boxwave Anti-Glare) on my iPhone which has an overall smoother feel at the cost of sucking out some of the brightness of the screen.  I was hoping not to have to add a protector but it’s probably a good idea for me since I’ve become so accustomed to the feel I have on my iPhone.  Overall the screen is of the highest quality that you expect from Apple, the touch response incredibly well executed (with no calibration whatsoever required), and the large size as it sits in your hand and close to your eyes creates a unique feel that is difficult to describe.  Yes it sounds a bit weird, but more “intimate” is probably the best choice of words.

Keyboard

Prior to release this looked like it would be the Achilles heel and I had a lot of doubts it would be effective, particularly after the relatively poor experiences I had with the Archos.  With software keyboards on a touch screen, the larger size can actually become a detriment as I found with the A9.  Luckily, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised, in spite of my good experiences with the iPhone keyboard.  In portrait mode, it’s actually easier to use because (assuming your thumbs are long enough) you can just type similar to the way you would on your phone, but with much larger keys and more spacing.  Basically your 2 hands are holding the unit and your thumbs do the work.  I can’t type at regular speed, but combined with the correction technology, I can type faster than I can on the iPhone, which is pretty amazing.  Landscape is actually more awkward if you are holding the iPad; you pretty much have to set it down somehow to type properly.  This can get awkward depending on how you are sitting.  The good news is once you take care of the positioning, you can really take advantage of the size of the keyboard and type with 2 hands.  The speed/responsiveness is almost fast enough to keep up with my typing speed, but still a bit too slow.  Again, the correction tech is almost impeccable, and anyone who’s come to rely on it like they do with the iPhone should be a happy camper.  Now if you do decided you need a physical keyboard you can either go with Bluetooth or a keyboard/dock combo.  One bad thing is for the latter, you are stuck using the unit in portrait mode since there is only one docking connection on the bottom (in portrait).  Personally I’m not thrilled with that design trade.

Battery Life

More good news here, thus far from reviews and my own experience, it looks like Apple’s 12-hour claims were justified.  My usage over 4 hours was browsing, gaming, some video, books, pretty much everything I could think of – and a lot of wireless access.  Last I looked I was at about 70% so I’m pretty impressed.  On other piece of good news, even after all the constant usage I never felt the unit get hot, not while gaming, not while surfing, not while constantly using wireless.  This is a major feat in itself and should not be taken for granted, as pretty much all the (larger screen) portable devices I’ve used will get hot in spots or under sustained usage.

Email

The email client is very nice, if you’ve seen the demos you pretty much know what you’re going to get.  Being able to interact with the touch screen makes for an overall more enjoyable feel compared with web mail and even Apple’s own client.  I definitely like the way that I can flick scroll through all the email while still having a particular one on the main screen.  Speed and overall response is also quite better than it is with the iPhone.  It’s not going to sell the device, but it definitely offers a “best of both worlds” experience compared to the iPhone and a Macbook or traditional web-based client.  The only negative is of course typing, so if you do a lot of long replies, it may not be the best choice.

Web Surfing

This is really the crown jewel of the iPad in my opinion.  By now everyone surfs the web, from my elderly parents to my baby nephew, and finally someone has really made it an enjoyable, more personal and (there’s that word again) “intimate” experience.  Information comes to you as you touch it in an intuitive and comfortable manner, it just feels right to gently flick a page and have more information scroll forward.  We got a taste of this with iPhone but the screen was just too small and cramped to give a more complete experience.  With the improved processor and Wireless N, browsing is just a wonderful experience on the iPad, as full web pages complete with graphics just pop up almost instantly, and responses to your touches are just a tad more responsive and immediate.

Books/Reading

Thus far I’ve dabbled with 2 book readers (Apple’s iBooks and Kindle) and a comic book reader (Marvel).  All were free to download but cleverly give you some free choices and free previews, but then charge you for the content you really want.  And since it’s all done seamlessly through the app itself, you can quickly bankrupt yourself before you know it.  iBooks includes a free Winnie the Pooh book, which is perfect to demo the app as it includes a number of gorgeous original color illustrations.  It also has a great in-app brightness changer and the graphical page turning that’s been shown in commercials and demos.  It all makes for a much nicer presentation than Amazon’s more spartan offering.  Still Amazon has the content at this point so it should be an interesting battle.  The comic reader is absolutely fantastic.  I bought Joss Whedon’s classic Astonishing X-Men #1 and it was simply a pleasure to experience in bold vivid colors on the iPad screen.  There’s even a feature where you can switch to have each panel appear individually and progress the story, which really gives you the opportunity to focus and appreciate the artwork.  All in all I am very satisfied with the reading aspects.  I still need to try reading before bed to see if the brightness will bother me.

Photos

You’ve probably seen the commercial or the demo, and let me just say it is every bit as cool as it looks.  The way your photos kind of come alive at your fingertips as you explore an “event” is simply amazing.  Everything is smooth as silk and flipping through photos, zooming in and out, is all wonderfully rendered.  Be forewarned that the first time you install all the photos will be “optimized” for the iPad, so that can take some time.  All that said, this is more of an adjunct feature for me, I don’t anticipate it getting heavy use.  It’s great for showing off though, I have to admit.  And for photo/image buffs, it could be a main selling point.

Music and Video

It’s funny that like with the iPhone, the whole iPod featureset is pretty much overlooked.  We’ve come to take it for granted that we’re going to get a solid experience, and the iPad delivers pretty much everything you’d expect, though coverflow seems to be missing in the music interface.  Instead a more practical but less sexy scrolling interface is used, more similar to the contacts list.  Video quality looks pretty top notch, but again no surprises here.  I have to admit this is the feature I looked at the least so I will probably evaluate it more as time passes.

Apps/Gaming

At the time I’m writing this, I’ve heard different stories on the number of “release” apps specific to iPad.  Something like 1000 was the rumor.  Add that to the nearly 200,000 iPhone/iPod Touch apps and it’s actually a bit overwhelming.  But having choices is always good, it just might take some time and research (and perhaps some misfires) to get to the cream of the crop.  Before even receiving my iPad, I had already downloaded about $100 worth of iPad apps, ranging from the iWork productivity suite to games to comic and book readers to note-taking.  I was amazed at both the quantity and apparent quantity of what is already available.  Apple definitely worked the timing out well, giving developers ample opportunity to hone this first gen of apps and give us a much stronger release sampling than the iPhone had.  And compare this to your typical console release which generally comes with 10-20 titles, this is absolutely insane.  Most people generally agree it will be the apps that will sell the system long-term, and judging by the initial wave it looks like we are all in for a real treat.

I have about 6 pages worth of apps already, a mix of iPad exclusive and iPhone apps I wanted to try out, really far too many to cover in detail here.  The iPad versions are noticeably improved taking full advantage of the higher resolution and larger screen.  Worth mentioning is the RealRacing HD app, which allows you to use the full iPad to steer as you drive.  I was afraid it might make me nauseous but it just played perfectly.  It’s a very unique experience gameplay wise as no other driving game offers you quite this exact perspective in this size of a screen.  It doesn’t make a lot of sense (physically steering the actual first person point of view) but game-play wise it just works.  I also got some time in Dungeon Hunter HD, which looks fantastic on the larger screen and plays great once you get used to it.  I ended up going with a touch approach (in place of the virtual stick) which seemed to work better on the large screen.  If you are into the Farmville scene, I highly recommend We Rule.  The iPhone version was already addictive enough, but the iPad takes the interface to the next level.  It’s absolutely gorgeous and with the larger screen you can pretty much see your entire kingdom without scrolling and gain a great overview.  Even nicer, instead of having to come out of your kingdom view to see the larger area map where your friends are, you can stay in your kingdom and scroll around the Social map.  Just some nice subtle touches but all very appreciated.  I also tried the first few levels of Plants vs. Zombies HD and let me just say the graphics were stunning on the screen.  I wasn’t actually expecting it to be much better as I thought the iPhone version was already close to perfect, but the higher res graphics and larger screen size take it to the next level.  Playing it with full touch is such a marked improvement over using the mouse to click on things, I’d almost say this game alone is worth the price of admission to getting an iPad for fans of the genre.

MIA

So after all that, what’s missing?  It’s hard to dwell too much on a couple of desired features that didn’t make it into this first design after being overwhelmed with the amount of things that were done correctly.  But yes, Flash is still not supported so a number of websites are going to look sparse or flat out not work.  I’m lucky in that the majority of my top sites do not use much Flash at all, so I really don’t notice it.  I would have really enjoyed a front or dual-facing camera for video chat and the like, plus there have been many innovative uses of the camera such as for a business card scanner.  This is a minor disappointment all in all and likely something that will be added in the next release.   Multi-tasking is of course the “big” feature that many people have complained about, essentially saying it cannot compare to a powerful “computer” because of this.  The fact is we know on some level the hardware is already capable of “multi-tasking” as you can already run iPod music in the background while surfing or doing other things, or check a map while on the phone (as shown in the commercial).  So while I do believe Apple will address this soon enough (both here and on the iPhone), I have to question the full necessity of it.  Cluttering memory with a dozen open applications is something we get used to on our desktops, but does it really make sense to do a traditional style multi-task on a portable device like this?  Honestly I have never once felt the need to have some background process running on the iPhone, and there are only a couple usage cases where I could see it being truly relevant.  Hopefully when it does come it will be presented in a logical, useful, easy to use way, and not just added as a feature to appease the critics.

Bottom Line

Is it for you?  That could be a tough call given the price point which is enticing but certainly not cheap.  For geeks who love new tech, it’s practically a no-brainer.  Ditto for gamers who are interested in a different style of interface.  The hardware itself is top-notch, but when combined with the never-ending supply of cool new apps, it’s a dream come true for people who love new releases and you can bet there will be plenty.

For a truly casual user, it could conceivably replace or be used in place of a “real” computer (laptop or desktop).  It’s going to handle all the same core functions (web, email, multimedia) in a simpler, easier to use form factor.  People like my parents could easily get by with these functions as that’s pretty much all they do.

I could also see this being perfect for students as the preferred unit to carry to classes and coffeehouses.  Imagine having all your textbooks loaded on the iPad and being able to highlight and copy/paste and annotate directly onto the electronic books.  From a business-user’s standpoint, it’s tough to say.  I haven’t had a chance to evaluate the “big 3” productivity products but they look solid.  Still, I don’t see people necessarily giving up their computers to work on detailed spreadsheets and presentations.  As I’ve seen in other reviews, the iPad looks like a great way to edit and review content but not necessarily to generate new content from scratch.  One other thing that I found disconcerting at first look was there doesn’t seem to be an obvious and intuitive way to handle file transfers, organize documents (particularly PDFs), or stream media from other computers.  I found an app called FileTransfer that seems to do what I want, but it’s been difficult to get running effectively, and this is something that really should be handled by the OS.  (Edit: apparently it’s handled somewhere in iTunes, I still have to figure it out.)

For gamers, it’s opening a whole new gaming interface due to the size of the screen combined again with the touch sensitivity and the accelerometer.  I’m expecting a lot of bigger and better things to come along and clever ways to use these capabilities.  The small portable DS and PSP screens just can’t compete, so this is something developers can really take advantage of.  Admittedly there are certainly some games that become more awkward when you don’t have buttons or a mouse, but there are others (like Plants vs Zombies) that really do play better when they are all-touch.

So for now I see the iPad fitting perfectly alongside my other gadgets and computers, but quickly taking over some spots (like the bathroom, bed and couch).  It’s the perfect companion piece to fit in the in-between spaces that were awkward for my laptop or when the iPhone screen is too small.  On top of that it’s providing the best web-browsing interface I’ve personally used to date, as well as a whole new way to game.  Short version: love it.

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