Archive for the ‘first impressions’ Category

It’s been about 10 years since the iPod first sunk its hooks into me, and the Apple product train really caught my eye. The relationship blossomed over time, and got more and more serious. The first iPhone experience was really like falling in love, and with the release of the iPad, the relationship had grown into a full blown love affair. But things started to sour a bit with last year’s iPhone 4 release, which left a somewhat bitter taste in my mouth. While I’m still an avid fan of Apple’s technology and engineering, I’m really starting to lose my patience with their various antics and behavior patterns, some of which are becoming predictably irritating. Unfortunately I’m not strong enough (yet) to end the relationship, but certainly there are cracks developing in what started out so magically.

Every release since the iPhone has had its own “personality” – Apple has changed or tweaked something each time, sometimes for the better, but more often for the worse. Unlike the original iPad release, this time Apple decided perplexingly not to allow pre-orders. Conspiracy theorists believe it was a calculated move to generate more lines and publicity after the recent Verizon iPhone launch failed to do so. Whatever the reason, buyers were allowed to place an online order the morning of release day at 1:00am PST; to actually purchase from a store that day, you’d have to wait until 5pm local time. I decided to hedge my bets and try my luck, hoping the horrible online experience from the iPhone 4 wouldn’t be repeated. To my surprise, I was able to put my order in without a hitch a few minutes before 1:00am; the caveat being shipping dates were listed as 3-5 business days. With no other information, it appeared I’d be likely to receive the unit by the end of the next week.

Of course my patience level is very low, so I decided I would check out the lines and figure out a game plan. I wasn’t feeling as motivated compared to previous releases, and I definitely didn’t want a repeat of the 5+ hour lines from the iPhone 4. I checked the nearby Apple store line over lunch, and there were already a few hundred people at least, so that was pretty much out of the question. I figured an hour or 2 would be tolerable, though, so instead, I dropped by the local Best Buy around 4pm. There were about 100 people already waiting, and the line was kind of amusing. A goofball next to me managed to trick a lady into thinking we were waiting to get autographs from Charlie Sheen. But by 4:45pm, the store had ran out of the sheets that indicated their stock; this store had maybe 50-60 units. It was frustrating because I had guessed they would have a smaller stock level, but also a smaller line than another (larger Best Buy) that’s on my way home. In any case, I stopped by the second store and sure enough they still had stock; the line wasn’t much longer than the first line I was in. Unfortunately they progressed incredibly slowly, and it took about 2 and a half hours to make it out of the store. My guess is if I had gone straight to this store I would have been done in an hour and a half, as they seemed to get progressively slower throughout the wait. (Minor rant: what the hell is wrong with people in stores? I swear it took me less than a couple minutes to get through the checkout line once it was my turn, yet everyone else seemed to be taking 5 times that amount. Grrrr.) The only good part for me was that I met some nice people in line, and we discussed everything from child rearing tricks to Mac tips to good local restaurants. Fun! The good news for Apple is that everyone near me said it was their first time waiting in line for an electronics gadget. This surprised me a bit, and likely means the iPad 2 is bringing in a lot of new customers to Apple’s growing fanbase.

In any event, I finally made it home and promptly cancelled my original online order, which was still sitting at “Not Yet Shipped.” Clearly I had made the right decision to not wait for shipping, but a slight error in judgment as to which Best Buy to hedge my bets on. Either way, it was a bit aggravating, since a simple pre-order system from Apple would have served just fine. Maybe they had other reasons besides manipulative greed to generate publicity, but I’m skeptical and my patience with these kinds of games is wearing thin. Just wait a few weeks, then, most people would say to me. To that, I reply I want my product on release day, and I’m willing to pay or pre-pay in advance, and willing to do the research to order it as soon as it is offered. For most companies that would be enough, my guess is they would love to have hundreds of thousands of pre-orders to ship on the day of release. But not for Apple, if they don’t have lines with thousands of people clamoring in the cold so they make the news, they just aren’t satisfied.

It may sound like I’m a jaded and bitter whiner, and sure I’ll cop to that to some extent. It’s not like I didn’t have other options or couldn’t live another day without an iPad 2. I guess I’m just getting fed up with the tactics, the fanfare, the lines, the insanity – all of which have somehow become a regular routine for Apple, rather than what originally seemed like a special, once in a lifetime experience. I guess this is pretty much like any relationship, though – no matter how awesome it was at the start, the “specialness” starts to wear down after you’ve seen it time and again.

OK OK, but what about the iPad 2 hardware itself? Well yeah, it’s everything they said it would be. There are plenty of reviews at Engadget and other sites if you are interested in a full, detailed look. To sum up the reviews, pretty much everyone likes the unit, but acknowledge it’s an “evolutionary” product at best. The most derided feature is the back camera, which is incredibly low tech by Apple standards and just not meant for stills (less than 1 Megapixel resolution I believe). Uhhh, OK. This is clearly a ploy to either use up old stock (it’s the same quality camera as the iPod Touch) or, more likely, to have something they can immediately show improvement on in the next iteration. Another typical Apple maneuver, and again getting to be tiresome.

Anyway, if you were on the fence for the original, this one is everything the iPad was and more. The biggest engineering marvel to me is the weight and thickness reduction. Weight was one of my few issues with the original, and they’ve certainly addressed it. Not that the weight has come down that much, but combined with the thinness of the unit, the entire feel is different. It’s much more comfortable to hold in a single hand, and of course that is beneficial for many reasons. The thinness makes it feel much closer to a large e-Reader, but with much sturdier materials in place of cheap plastic. In fact unless I’m mistaken, it’s the same thickness now as the Kindle 3 (0.34 inches). Considering the amount of raw power inside and excellent battery life, plus the color screen, it’s almost inconceivable. The size change alone was probably enough to get me to upgrade, but I think for the majority of people who bought iPads, that wouldn’t be a big enough selling point.

So what about other improvements? New dual core A5 processor at 1GHz, double the RAM and up to 9x (supposedly) the graphics performance. The GPU improvements have already been tested and confirmed over at Anandtech, and the results, while maybe not 9x, are pretty impressive. Yes, the original iPad was already very well optimized, but this one’s just that much better on all accounts. I didn’t notice anything too dramatic at first, but the more I use it (and then go back to the original), the more I can tell the differences. The biggest improvement I’ve seen thus far was running Slingplayer. I was watching a basketball game on the iPad 2 last night in HD, and the frame rate was just fantastic. Under the exact same conditions on the original, I’d often get choppy or intermittent frames; on the iPad 2 the picture was pretty much flawless. It felt like there was virtually zero delay from the Slingbox wireless transmission; in some ways I almost thought the animation was even smoother than it plays on my TV.

I still don’t know if I could recommend someone to do the “upgrade” – unless they are/were a tech freak like me, have a specific application that demands more horsepower, or maybe for gamers who are anticipating major improvements, particularly to 3D-rich offerings like Infinity Blade. I tried it out briefly, and the textures and detail really are much sharper with the iPad 2 upgrades, with no sacrifice in frame rate. This is likely just a small sample of what’s to come.

I also (finally) got the new video mirroring feature to work. I had a few problems here and there, but once it was working it was really fantastic. This is going to change the way teachers and others do live presentations, and will likely sell a few iPads on its own. The only downside is the loss of some picture due to the differing aspect ratios, but for the most part, it’s a fantastic way to share material as well as share just how easy to use the iPad is. In typical Apple fashion, the original iPad will not support the full mirroring capability. The only good news is that (with iPad 2), you can use either the older VGA video out or the new HDMI version.

Clearly I’m pleased with the hardware and the overall tech enhancements. There’s just no way to get around the fact that Apple knows how to engineer and put together an awesome device. Even when competitors copy pretty much everything and come up with better specs, Apple can still trump them on usability and sheer volume of top notch apps. So I’m sitting at a bit of a crossroads with my Apple fandom. While I feel locked in to the tech, which I love, I’ve also become increasingly jaded and annoyed by their questionable marketing and hardware release tactics. Only time will tell whether I get pushed fully off the fanboy bus. Let’s hope not.

If you’ve read anything from this blog before, you’d know I was a pretty dedicated Apple fan, so keep that in mind as I discuss the embarassing debacle now known as the iPhone 4 launch. I’m not sure exactly who to blame or what the core problems are, but this 4th release of the iPhone was by far the worst and most poorly executed one that I’ve been a part of. And yes, I’ve participated in all four. It’s difficult to come up with viable excuses when the companies in questions are loaded with cash and filled with experience doing these releases yet somehow came across as unprepared amateurs; you’d think this was the first time they’d done this.

It all started with the Pre-order mess. A date but no specific time was announced for the start of pre-orders. Now “normally” one would think that this iss not a big deal, it’s just a pre-order. But by this time, with over 80 million iPhones sold, and the presumptive release tagline “This changes everything again,” you’d think Apple and/or AT&T would have an inkling that there just might be some significant interest and pent up demand for this release.

So what happened? Ordering began around 1am PST that night if I didn’t hear wrong. I woke up at 2am and started trying, but was never able to get through AT&T’s servers when they would try to confirm my status. It would typically get to a point when they were waiting for information from AT&T and then it would just time out or crash. Apple’s site was eventually crashing as well. I read that some people were having luck going directly to AT&T but that didn’t work for me either. So I went back to bed and tried again in the morning. And again. And again. All day it was the same, whether through Apple or AT&T it was just a flat out mess and eventually AT&T just said (on the phone, earlier they were just automatically hanging up on me) that their servers had crashed. I finally called the local Apple store and was told some people were having luck using the new Apple Store iPhone app. So I tried that, and lo and behold I was somehow given a “reservation” to pick a phone up on release day. Now what I really wanted was a true pre-order shipped to my home, but clearly that was not going to happen. I tried numerous times throughout the day, to no avail. By the time I made it home from work, the release date pre-orders had already ended and ship dates had been pushed out a week. Not much else to say here. Whether it was poor planning or poor execution, there’s just no excuse for such incompetence from these companies. Eventually it was announced that over 600,000 pre-orders had been placed. Impressive, but really not that big a number in the relative scheme of things. For comparison, 1.2 million copies of the first World of Warcraft expansion were sold on opening day – which also means that that many people (or more) were hitting the WoW servers that day. Do you seriously want to tell me that AT&T/Apple’s resources are less than Blizzard’s? Here’s a clue AT&T: spend some cash and upgrade your server capacity!

Next came the great AT&T price upgrade extravaganza. As a baseline, the iPhone 4 was being advertised with subsidized pricing (2-year contract) of $199/$299 for the 16/32GB models, which equates to a $400 total discount off the full retail price. This pricing was for any new customer or any old one who “qualified” for an upgrade. To be nice, they even pushed up the contract dates for some people, so that anyone who would expire in 2010 also qualified (essentially bumping qualification dates up to 6 months earlier). On top of this, they released a flyer and verbage on their website that for “previous iPhone users that didn’t qualify for the best pricing” a special “early upgrade” price would be offered with a $200 discount at $399/$499 with a reset 2-year contract renewal. This is exactly the system they used last year, and I think for the most part people were happy and satisfied with it. Sounds all good so far, right? Turns out that certain select customers (namely me) simply did not qualify through AT&T for either of these discount/upgrades. I called multiple times and mentioned the flyer, and even went to the store to confirm. Everyone had a different story. Supposedly “high spenders” had improved upgrade dates, though I was never able to confirm if this was true or not. Some people who bought the 3GS the same time I did were being offered *full* upgrade pricing, and others the early upgrade pricing. At the store I was told that the “early upgrade” price could only be used once every 2 years. Essentially I decided it was all arbitrary and completely at AT&T’s whim. What bothered me was the inconsistency and lack of definition. I can live with AT&T wanting to reward its highest paying customers, but they should define exactly what that means so that I can decide if it’s worth it for me to put myself into that category by spending more.

In any event, I ultimately decided to buck the system and simply terminate my existing contract for a $115 termination fee, and start a fresh/clean line with the full $400 discount, so essentially a $285 net discount. Some additional hassle no doubt, but this is what the actual AT&T store representative recommended to me! You can do the math yourself, but clearly this makes no sense. If they had simply offered me the “early upgrade” pricing as they did last year, they’d still have me on a new 2-year contract, and I’d only get a $200 discount. Their own stupid policy cost them extra cash up front AND created un-needed animosity. It’s a complete lose for them at the expense of a little inconvenience for me. Stupid stupid stupid.

As release day approached, word got out that pre-order shipments were being delivered early. In the past (both for the 3GS and iPad), Apple has controlled shipping so that everyone would get product on the same day. Not this time, as people started getting their phones 2 days early. Rumor has it this was deliberate to allow more people to start activating sooner and relieve the pathetic AT&T servers for the actual launch. Of course the early birds were happy, but people like myself who had put the time in to pre-order but were blocked from AT&T’s server ineptitudes were not happy campers. Not only had we been denied the comfort of home delivery, but now to add insult to injury, we were missing the day one release fun.

By the actual release date I was feeling pretty bitter and unenthused about the whole thing. I was actually thinking about the Droid X and Verizon and whether all this trouble was worth it. I woke up around 7am and debated whether to hit the lines. I checked online and apparently at my store there were over 500 people lined up since very early in the morning. I kept checking in and the word was that the line was simply not moving. I changed my plans and decided to go to work and come back later in the day. I kept checking online, and kept reading the same things: little to no line movement in a hugely long line, with conflicting reports on whether people were split into 2 lines (reservations and non). Basically it was a mess. I even heard there had been fighting in the store, not sure what that was about. I finally got in the line about 500 deep or so at around 7:30 in the evening. By this time there were no more non-reserves left and I thought the line might progress well. I was wrong. The line moved, but nowhere near quick enough and by 9 we heard talks about vouchers being given out; these vouchers would allow you to jump back in the following day. I ended up waiting until 10:30 to receive a voucher, thanks to some Apple store employees who seemed like they couldn’t stop chatting. At one point the “voucher guys” spilt up and started working one from front, one from the back. This was even more aggravating as some of the back people had only just arrived while others of us in the middle had been waiting over 2 hours. We were told explicitly that if we left that night, the *only* people buying phones the next day would be people in our line who had vouchers. I took a brief count and there were maybe 400 people max still left in line when I left, so I figured waiting until the next day was a no-brainer.

I came back after work around 4:30 and there were only a few people in front of me, maybe 15 at most. At some point I realized they had actually lied, because some of the people in line with me told me they weren’t part of the previous night’s line, but had been given vouchers for some other line in the morning. By that time I really didn’t care to belabor the argument, but the flat out lying and misinformation given out by the Apple employees was pretty disappointing. I’m sure this isn’t their fault individually, but someone in Apple management had clearly directed this strategy. At that point if phone stock had run out I was planning to make a major scene. Luckily it didn’t come to that, but I still ended up waiting nearly another 2 hours before I was let into the store. By that time they had really worn out my resolve, and the cheery Apple salesman was able to con me into multiple extra purchases. On a side note I do wonder if this isn’t some sort of bizarre psychological tactic used to weaken customers so that they are more compliant to buy more. The salesman was great, but I could see now why it was taking so excruciatingly long to make the line move. Every customer was being given full-on sales pitches for Apple Care, MobileMe, accessories, etc etc as well as personal support to activate and transfer everything onto their phone. Even a normally efficient person like myself ended up taking close to 20 minutes. I could easily see other customers taking 30-45 minutes at a time and this relatively small Apple store clearly did not have the size and personnel to create a larger throughput.

All told, this launch may have been numerically successful for Apple (they are touting 1.7million sold in 3 days), but I think psychologically they may have failed for the first time. Many people were irate at the broken pre-order system, some at the mis-steps in shipping, more were disappointed in the poor efficiency of the stores and line-ups (I’ve read a variety of issues with AT&T and Best Buy stores as well), and all of that is now topped off with a possible faulty antenna design (more on that in a future post). How do you get this far along in the process and come out looking this unprofessional?

I think it’s become clear that Apple is fast outgrowing their singular (no pun intended) tie to AT&T; the exclusivity is becoming a burden for everyone involved. AT&T simply can’t handle the volume of customers, as well as the bandwidth requirements, but the demand continues to grow. Splitting off to Verizon and T-Mobile and giving customers some additional choices is only going to help everyone. Let’s hope it happens soon.

…after exactly one week spent with the iPad, I can honestly say for certain it’s made a successful and appreciated transition into my life. For what it’s worth, this blog post is the first time I’ve touched my Macbook since the iPad arrived. There was one time when I instinctively went for the Macbook to check something online, but it dawned on me it would be much faster to do it on the iPad. Since that moment, I haven’t really looked back.

The iPad has just integrated right into regular use almost seamlessly, but on top of that is getting much more additional use than I did out of either my netbook or laptop. I keep it close while watching TV to check scores and actors’ details, and also nearby my desktop when I’m gaming to check news or watch live TV. I’ve used it on the treadmill, and been able to watch video, listen to music, and even surf and shop while exercising. I bring it to the bathroom, I read eBooks in bed, game on the couch. I’m constantly checking the App store for new apps, and I’ve found quite a few gems, as well as iTunes for new music and videos.

Pretty much everything I’d imagined it would, the iPad is handling, and with very little effort on my part. This is not a “forced usage” kind of scenario where I’m doing these things just to prove a point. More the opposite, it’s really filling in the blanks where I had no effective equivalent on top of taking care of easy things like checking email regularly. The treadmill is the best example, where I watched an episode of Glee the other day while walking a few miles. Before I knew it 45 minutes had passed as I marveled at how good the video quality (and the show itself) was. I’ve tried other video devices and it’s always been too awkward due to the form factor or too small a screen to enjoy, so I had kind of given up. My only issue was the sound (which tends to get drowned out by the treadmill), so as soon as I stepped off, I was on Amazon searching for a Bluetooth speaker. I found a nice one for $50 (Altec Lansing) which pairs up with both the iPhone 3GS and iPad, so the next time I’m on I’ll have decent room-filling sound as well. I can’t wait for Slingbox to optimize their app so I can watch higher quality live and DVR TV; the current version works but video quality is fairly poor.

Typing on the iPad works amazingly well considering what I was expecting, but of course can still never compare to a physical keyboard. The feel of this one in particular (Macbook Air) just fits for me. That said, I’ve gotten used to typing on the iPad for short posts and emails, which I’ve typically avoided on the iPhone; I tried a typing test site and averaged about 30-40 WPM with no errors, so clearly speed and accuracy are not a big problem using the touchscreen implementation. The auto correction, as mentioned in the previous post, is very accurate and useful. Unfortunately with no tactile feedback it’s just not quite the same experience as keys can give. I don’t consider this an issue since I have other options, but somehow intending the iPad to be their *only* device should think about whether they are satisfied with the tying options.

As far as gaming, I am anticipating really big things based on what’s already been demonstrated with the first releases. We Rule is terribly addictive, and often I’ll just watch the graphics as they are just gorgeous on the larger screen. There’s also something incredibly satisfying about touching the screen to collect cash and harvest your crops, silly and hard to explain. Warpgate HD looks like an incredibly deep space sim with an endless amount of gameplay. RealRacingHD has smoothly rendered racing tracks and great responsiveness to the accelerometer; the use of the screen as both HUD and steering wheel makes for some truly innovative gameplay. Plants vs Zombies is just plain fun and the touch interface and gorgeous graphics are perfect for the iPad. There’s a “God” sim called Godfinger which is quite amusing, and a new MMORPG-lite entitled Pocket Legends which is trying to bring Diablo style online dungeon romps to the mix.

So far I’ve only demoed the iPad to a couple of close friends. Both seemed to love the Photos and Books in particular, so these should be popular among the non-geek crowd. My one friend is now re-thinking upgrading his old Macbook, and instead going with a desktop (iMac perhaps) + iPad combo instead. Of course it really depends on your personality and usage, but I’m thinking that’s a really good way to go. Have a nice large screen with plenty of power to do your more intensive tasks, and then use the iPad for general and on-the-go needs. For more tech savvy users, set the desktop up to for both remote use and as the server to stream content from, and you’ve really got a powerful tool at your fingertips.

Clearly this is not going to be a hit with everyone in the short term. I’ve had a lot of questions from folk who still seemed confused by the entire concept? Is it a laptop replacement? Is it a computer? Is it an eBook reader? A portable gaming machine? The answer is of course it can be all of these things and more, provided one is willing to make a few sacrifices like Flash and USB support. And understand to really take full of advantage of all it has to offer, you’ll need to research the right apps and then try them out to see if they worked well for you.

My advice if you are really in the market for one but are still on the fence: take a trip to the local Best Buy or Apple store and try one out. My local BB had 3 of them for people to play with. You really have to feel the thing in your hands and interact with it to make sure it feels good to you and that you can accomplish your highest priority tasks with it. There are some things (like web and photo browsing) I flat out believe are a better experience here than anything else out there. Something about the immediacy and intimacy of the Touchscreen transcend the general state ofThen there are others (productivity) that appear to need some additional effort to learn. This kind of thing will start to sort itself out over time.

All in all I can see the iPad fitting into all sorts of different lives and lifestyles, from students to gamers to housewives to retired folk. It has the potential to be different things to different people, and because of its particular size/weight/form factor, the potential to go a lot of places that traditional laptops/netooks wouldn’t. So it will be interesting to see if it catches on more mainstream or remains in a niche. I’m guessing it won’t really take off til perhaps Christmas, taking advantage of both the holiday and (hopefully) the introduction of iPhone OS 4.

“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.

They say that all good things come to those who wait.  Well, I’ve been waiting for an incredibly long time for a really usable, portable but powerful, lightweight Tablet PC.  My earliest experiences have been with portable media players (PMPs) mostly from Archos, who has generally been in the forefront of the technology.  Of course in the years that followed, Apple has come along and essentially revolutionalized the market in this category, but only in the small iPhone/iPod Touch screen size.  As all eyes are on Steve Jobs and the big A now with the impending (rumored) announcement of a Tablet computing device, numerous competitors have been making their own announcements and trying to release their products.

The Archos 9 PC Tablet is touted on their website as “The Ultimate Mobility Experience”  which allows you to watch videos (including Full HD format), browse the web, “video chat”, email, documents, etc. – as far as I know it’s the first full-featured Tablet in such a light (1.76 pounds) and thin (0.67″) package capable of running Windows 7 (Starter edition is included).  It features a 1.1GHz Atom processor, 1GB of RAM 60GB hard drive, integrated webcam and a 8.9″ LED backlit touch-screen.  There is a single USB port, and input can be made via the touch screen (both fingers and stylus) and with a small finger “trackpoint” navigation system.  So essentially you have a low end Netbook that has been carved into a thin handheld unit all for roughly the cost of what Netbooks started out at ($550); it all sounds great on paper but how does it fare in the real world?

The Packaging: really pretty nice, it appears people are finally learning from Apple that style in packaging can also go a long way to impressing customers. Everything was neat and simple and classy and the unboxing process went flawlessly. I give it a thumbs up.

The First Look: picking the Tablet up for the first time, it felt very slick and looked very nice, better than I’d expected.  Certainly the best looking Archos device (from the exterior) that I’ve personally owned (this now being the 4th portable device I’ve purchased from them).  Again, they are clearly looking at Apple for inspriation, as the hardware has very few external buttons or ports, and interface buttons are kept to a minimum to keep the product looking sharp and sexy.  Another big thumbs up.

Weight/feel:  This is a big deal and often overlooked with devices of this type.  If you build an incredible portable device but it’s just unwieldy, there’s very little point to it.  As competition you have to acknowledge the competition, from netbooks and the Macbook Air that come in at 3 pounds vs. Archos’ own 705 Wifi 7″ unit that weighs 1.4 pounds.  On first pick up the weight felt almost exactly right, until I realized the battery was not installed. With battery in, the weight is just a tad bit over what I’d like ideally, but all in all serviceable, and very much on par with what you’d expect given the competition.  I’d say a target would be half a traditional netbook, and they are getting pretty close with this design.  Strong Pass (still needs testing in different environments over time).

Physical Interface:  The trackpoint mouse function is definitely serviceable but a little too small for my fat thumb. I like the relative position of the mouse buttons on the left side, but I think I would have preferred them in a horizontal left/right positioning instead of top/bottom vertical.  All in all a very decent secondary control scheme if no mouse is available, and I found myself using it more often than not for precision.  I like that on the back side of the unit, you have easy access to a built-in removable stylus, and there is a  prop/kickstand that works nicely to allow you to set the unit facing up.  Unfortunately both of these feel a little cheap in quality, but they do seem to work well.  I’m just worried they may break sooner rather than later.

All in all I give the physical interfaces a Pass.

Touch Screen: looks very nice overall, but still need a lot more testing for a real review in terms of touch sensitivity vs. graphics quality and look.  Thus far I’ve tried numerous calibration schemes and drivers but haven’t really got a good feel for the touch interface.  Sometimes it seems fine, other times it is frustratingly awkward.  Compared to the beauty and simplicity of the iPhone, this is a major Fail.

On-screen Keyboard:  this is where things start to get a little iffy.  There are multiple options for the keyboard, but none of them seem ideal.  While you are able to resize and reposition the keyboards, the overall effect given the size of the main unit makes everything awkward.  It’s too big to allow you to do iPhone or Blackberry thumb style typing, but too small to do true full-hand typing.  I found myself using the stylus more often than not, and in truth I’d really rather just avoid typing as much as possible.  I ordered a Bluetooth keyboard for this, but really it’s not an ideal solution if you want to see how the unit stands on its own.  Because this is really a software/interface issue, and compared to what I know works well on the iPhone, I’m going to have to give this a solid Thumbs Down.  (After a few more days of usage I made some headway into getting a better feel for the on-screen keyboard options, but all in all it’s been rather hit or miss, nothing like the ease of use and intuitiveness you get with the iPhone.  Just as an example, often if you want to put a search term into Google, you bring up the keyboard and it shrinks your browser in half, leaving you seeing…. nothing.  This can be circumvented somewhat with some things I’ll mention later, but it’s just an example of the lack of thought that went into the design.)

Documentation:  incredibly skimpy and poor. You are given the bare minimum info, and it comes in multiple places and different sheets of paper or on a sticker on the screen.  Poorly executed given that the device is just not simple plug and play. If you want to go minimalist like Apple does on docs, your device better be up to the task.  Sadly, the Archos is not.  I do not need the same 5 pages of skimpy information printed on a tiny booklet in 10 different languages.  Reeks of cheapness and/or laziness.  Fail.

Startup:  First off you have to press and hold the power button (about 2 seconds) to get it to start. I don’t remember how it was documented but it wasn’t clear to me.  Not to mention one of the mouse buttons says “ON” on it and I originally thought it was the power button. You can say I was foolish for not reading the manual but I would counter by saying there is a lack of intuitiveness to the setup.  And yes it is slow as people have complained about.  The initial bootup and setup is kind of excruciating given that most people probably want an iPod Touch/iPhone like experience – there is nothing near “instant gratification” with this device.  Instead you need to charge the battery for at least 2 hours before you even hit the on button, and then you get to go through the tired Windows 7 startup, which takes quite a while given the slow processor.

At various points you need to enter information in. Somewhere in the docs it mentions to press a small onscreen icon to bring up the keyboard, but it was definitely not intuitive for me.  Typing in the Windows 7 serial number was also a bit excruciating, as you have to keep flipping the unit upside down to read the numbers, and then tapping them in with stylus or finger.  I also had to drag the keyboard around to access the correct portion of the window to type in, etc.  It’s little details like this that make for an overall unfriendly experience.  You wonder if Archos quality department ever sat and watched a real person just try the initial procedure, because nothing on the unit or in the documentation prepares you for the subtle details.  After the long Windows initial bootup, I did what a second sheet of doc told me to do, and ran the backup. This was also a long and excruciating wait to complete.  So after about 5 hours (including battery charging) I was theoretically ready to begin using the unit.  But by then it was way past my bedtime, sigh.

The next morning, I decided to try the Windows Anytime Upgrade before diving deeper, but I had to leave as it was taking a long time and I needed to get to work.  I left it running and when I got back from work I was disappointed (but not surprised) to see that the upgrade had failed and the system had reverted back to Windows 7 Starter.

Day 2 Impressions:

I spent around 5 hours the second evening working on the Tablet.  I use the word “working” purposely  because it really did feel like work for a majority of the time.  I must have rebooted over 20 times over the course of the evening.  For those interested in such things, the approx. boot time was about 2 minutes, maybe a bit more.  In comparison, my HP Mini 311 netbook (spruced up with an SSD) has a boot time of 45 seconds.  The time is actually not horrible or unexpected given the processor and hard drive speeds, but when you are trying to get drivers and such squared away it can feel like a lifetime.

I was finally able to get Windows 7 Ultimate “anytime” upgraded after following the advice on the Archos Fans forums.  I then started updating drivers to try to get better performance from the touch screen with mixed results. I was able to get Flick support installed but it didn’t seem to work right, or maybe I am flicking incorrectly. I calibrated using my thumbs as that seemed the easiest way to do it, but it may have been a mistake as afterwards when I tried to use the stylus everything was always offset. As far as the popup keyboard, I’m still a bit confused with it. I know the button on the left is supposed to bring it up but it seemed hit or miss for me. I then tried starting the “Touch” keybaord program directly and again it was hit or miss whether it started. Once it was on, I found it kind of aggravating that it would often shrink my internet window into a worthless long skinny rectangle.

In any case, these are the kinds of things that I find baffling and a bit disappointing. Can you imagine how cool this product would have been if it came out of the box and just…. worked? Touch interface, multimedia, full featured Windows? Clearly it is capable of delivering a decent internet browsing experience as well as playing certain formats of media (with the right codecs installed). And clearly some folk have been able to adjust the user interface to their liking, so it is all possible. But instead, it seems like Archos was content to just build the hardware, slap Windows 7 Starter on, and let the user community itself try to figure out how to actually use their product effectively.

One piece of good news. It found my home network server without issue, and I was able to get in and stream a video from it without incident. The video was a tad choppy from the streaming but all in all I was happy with it.

In any case, I will continue to forge on as boysie suggests. In the following days, I’ll likely mess with Office and iTunes and see if I can get any netbook level games to run on it. Should be interesting.It certainly appears to be perfectly capable of most of the things I wanted in a full Win 7 device. Just looks like a lot more “work” to get it all the way I want it.Day 2 Impressions:

I spent around 5 hours last night working on my Tablet. I use the word working because it really did feel like work. I must have rebooted over 20 times over the course of the evening. BTW for those interested the approx. boot time was about 2 minutes, maybe a bit more. In comparison, my HP netbook (spruced up with an SSD) the boot time is 45 seconds. The time is not horrible given the processor and hard drive speeds, but when you are trying to get drivers and such squared away it can feel like a lifetime.

I was finally able to get Windows 7 Ultimate “anytime” upgraded after following the advice on the Archos Fan forums.  (This forum is a wonderful resource for anyone looking to purchase the device.)  I then started updating drivers to try to get better performance from the touch screen, with mixed results.  I was able to get “Flick” support installed but it didn’t seem to work right, or maybe I am just “flicking” incorrectly.  I calibrated using my thumbs as that seemed the easiest way to do it, but it may have been a mistake as afterwards when I tried to use the stylus everything was always offset.  Again, this is nowhere near the incredible ease of use with Apple’s Trackpad gestures or on the iPhone, all technology that has been available for 2 years now.

In any case, these are the kinds of things that I find baffling and a bit disappointing.  Can you imagine how cool this product might have been if it came out of the box and just…. worked?  Touch interface, multimedia, full featured Windows?  Clearly it is capable of delivering a decent internet browsing experience as well as playing many different formats of media (with the right codecs installed).  And clearly some folk have been able to adjust the user interface to their liking, so it is all possible.  But instead, it seems like Archos was content to just build the hardware, slap Windows 7 Starter on, and let the user community itself try to figure out how to actually use their product effectively.  

Archos is clearly of the traditional hardware manufacturer’s mindset.  Build the hardware and let the users do whatever they want with it.  It’s very much the opposite of the Apple mindset, where they put as much (if not more) time into the end-user experience development as they do the hardware itself.  Imagine the iPhone if it released without the brilliant touch OS (yes yes I know it was missing things), plus iTunes/App Store in its back pocket.  It would just be a cool device but people would struggle to figure out how best to use it. 

All that said, while I’m an Apple fanboy, I also enjoy having devices like this where I get to decide what to do, and I can tinker and optimize and have complete freedom to play with it.  Whatever else one might say about the device, this Tablet has full Windows 7 running on it, with all the opportunities and baggage that that capability brings with it.

One piece of good news on night 2.  It found my home network server without issue, and I was able to get in and stream a video from it without incident.  The video was a tad choppy from the streaming but all in all I was happy with it.

Conclusions:  Oddly enough, I’m really starting to like the product going into the 4th and 5th days of ownership.  There have been definite disappointments, and a lot of restarts and baffling “why the heck didn’t they do such and such?” moments.  But for the most part I am finally starting to get a grasp on the pctablet and how it might fit into my usage patterns.  Yesterday morning I realized I could easily rotate the screen 90 degrees and go vertical.  With the keyboard locked on the bottom, browsing was much more manageable.  With the keyboard  shrunk and locked at the bottom of the screen, it was no longer intrusive on the browser size, and the keys were close enough that thumb typing similar to the iPhone was possible.  I then downloaded Kindle for PC and within moments was reading a book I had purchased for the iPhone a while back; it looked great on the much larger screen. Very very cool.

I’ve now installed the base Office products but haven’t tried them out yet.  Three games I installed ended up not working correctly (one was 1024×768, the other kept having weird purple glitches) but a 4th (Spectromancer) seems to run fine.  iTunes installed without incident but as others have mentioned the video can be pretty choppy; I still need to check the audio.  I tried playing a number of different wmv, mp4 and mov files I had, old and new, and it was a pretty mixed bag.  The larger HD resolution files were very choppy, but others worked great.  Quicktime files were equally hit or miss, but since I am not anything close to an expert on encoding and video files, I’m not sure what was what.  Same goes for streaming directly off the internet.  Choppy to good depending on what it was.  Too many variables to say whether it’s solely the tablet’s issue or not.

My conclusion on video?  It’s an obvious point but sometimes hard to accept: the hardware (and software) is limited (surprise!).  But the fact is you can pretty much convert anything you download (or DVDs or even HD) to something the device will like, once you figure out the formula.  Yes it’s more work but realistically, what portable/tablet-style device is out there that you don’t have to adapt in some way your video content to it? Maybe there’s something I don’t know about, but for something in this form factor and weight, I think it’s fair to expect that video content will need to be adapted for best performance.  Even Apple’s Tablet will have some kinds of restrictions on what video content is playable (keep in mind wmv is still not directly playable on a Mac without flip4wmv), and users will simply adapt to it through conversion or other means.

Ultimately this mindset is what you really need to enjoy and exploit the device’s potential. Understand your own goals, the hardware’s limitations and help yourself by not trying to constantly overcome them.  Archos advertises the unit as a next gen style of Netbook, so from a usage standpoint you have to get a sense of what a 1GB, 1.1GHz (about 50% slower) Netbook is capable of.  And then adapt your expectations to what you can get out of the Tablet form factor to maximize the unit’s potential (shifting to a vertical perspective is a great example of this; it’s something you could theoretically do on a netbook but you wouldn’t normally, but it’s perfect for the Tablet).

As you can probably tell, this is not a consumer friendly device at the outset, so it’s hard to recommend to people without the caveat that it’s going to take quite a bit of work to get it to do what you personally want.  It’s a very nice, solid piece of hardware, fairly priced, but without the seamless user experience to back it up.  My sense is that it can still capture its own niche in the market, as Apple will likely not release a product that is going to be Windows 7 capable.  PC users may want a tablet but still prefer to stick with what they know, and the Archos 9 could easily fill that void.

My recommendations to Archos:  install 2GB of RAM, provide an SSD option, and install Windows 7 Home Premium (possibly streamlined with all the frills and unneeded elements removed).  Change the keyboard button to one that automatically rotates the perspective 90 degrees (including the mouse pointer).  Re-structure the initial user turn-on experience with better documentation.

What a difference a year makes!  Or, I guess in this case, it’s been only 9 months since the original release of Apple’s ultraportable Macbook Air (MBA).  Still marketed as the one of the thinnest notebooks around, Apple has upped the ante with its second generation version through some subtle (and also not so subtle) improvements. 

As noted in some of my previous entries, I’ve been perfectly happy with my MBA rev 1, and have often been impressed with its capabilities.  In particular I’d been excited to see just how well it worked as a low to mid-level gaming machine, able to handle a number of older games like Diablo 2 and Warcraft 3 handily, but also being playable for relatively newer games like Sins of A Solar Empire and Hellgate London (running Windows XP in Bootcamp).  There were just a couple of things I would have really liked to make my overall experience better.  First off was a larger hard drive.  Of the 80GB I started with, I partitioned about 20GB for Windows, which itself took a huge chunk of space.  The result being I could only maintain a couple of larger games installed on the XP side, which was a bit disappointing.  As I experimented more with games, I couldn’t help but wish for just a slight boost to the graphics power.  I had installed Warhammer Online and was impressed to be able to get it running, but it was very choppy even at the lowest settings.  When I heard the rumors about new Macbooks coming with possible improvements to the Air, I couldn’t help but hope for a boost in the graphics department and maybe the processor. 

In all honesty, I had told myself that if they jumped from the X3100 to the X4500 graphics, I would likely make an upgrade.  The thought was that the boost would be just enough to make WAR playable (the X4500 is listed as being supported on WAR’s official site and claims were it was 200% faster than the X3100).  I was fretting over whether I’d want to spend the money for a new version so soon, but it felt like the MBA was so close to satisfying my gaming needs that I wouldn’t be able to resist. 

When the announcement was finally made about the move to the nVidia 9400m chipset, I was completely blown away.  Roughly FOUR times the performance of the original unit (or double the X4500), plus 50% more hard drive space, faster memory and a slightly improved (45nm) processor; it essentially became a no-brainer for me.  Forum-goers were asking, is this new version “way” better – as a gamer I had to reply hell yeah!

I had my pre-order in for the standard unit by the afternoon they were announced.  The first couple of weeks, I wasn’t feeling particularly antsy, the anticipation clearly wasn’t quite the same as the original release.  But as the days started getting closer to November and the projected ship date of Nov. 5th, I started getting more and more restless.  When websites started posting first shipments and in store sightings, I kind of just lost it.  My pre-order had not moved and it was driving me crazy.  How much longer was I going to have to wait?  On Friday (Oct 31), the early reviews were in and the performance improvements sounded amazing, particularly with the SSD/1.86GHz version.  The overall Xbench result of around 48-50 for the original model had jumped to 137 for the new high-end model, a resounding >250% performance improvement!!!

I called my local store and when they said they had the new model in stock, I was out the door before I could think twice.  I just couldn’t wait for my standard model to ship (I know, I am horrible about things like that), and coughed up the extra cash (ahem, credit) to get the SSD model.  I’m not convinced the SSD and faster processor are worth the incredible $700 premium, but after playing around with the unit over the weekend, I must say I am very impressed yet again with what feels like a marvel of modern engineering.

Now, of course, price and size standards have changed dramatically over the past 6 months in particular with the introduction of the Asus EEE and subsequent netbook releases.  Intel’s Atom processor looks to be leading the way to a new generation of low cost, ultraportable computers with surprisingly robust features.  Price points on these are incredible, in the $500 range or less, and it’s hard to argue with the bang for the buck.  Weights and sizes are comparable or even smaller than the MBA, with larger hard drives in some cases, so the competition has really changed in a very short amount of time.  While Apple is seemingly ignoring the impending competition, it’s hard for consumers and gadget freaks alike to not take notice.  The baseline MBA remains over 4 times the cost of a well-specced netbook like the Acer Aspire One (1.6GHz, 160GB hard drive, 1GB RAM, XP Home).  Whether an MBA is truly worth 4 times the amount is obviously in the eye of the beholder.

But I digress – so what exactly are we crazed fans paying for?  For the moment, the MBA still stands alone in its own category in terms of blending high end performance with ultra-portable packaging.  The thinness and light weight (yet still sturdy and solid construction) still stand above its redesigned Macbook cousins, something hard to convey without having picked up both.  An additional 1.5 pounds doesn’t sound like much, but pick one up and I guarantee you’ll feel the difference.  The gorgeous LED screen also remains a strong selling point.  Performance-wise, not much has been compromised compared to the standard MB, aside from a slightly slower processor.  Compared to the non-Apple crowd, it’s a difficult discussion because most everything in its weight class doesn’t have the graphics processing power.  The reality is, aside from a couple of wannabe designs, nothing quite matches up.  The MBA is hard to classify and thus difficult to assess from a price standpoint.  Clearly, feature for feature it feels like you are paying far too much in comparison to various other models.  But once you try to find something exactly comparable, you realize there is nothing that quite matches up, and that’s ultimately why you are paying the premium.

Moving on, how about a few benchmarks?  I ran Xbench on the new model and had a composite score almost identical to what was posted in early reviews: just under 137.  I checked my boot-up times and, just as had been posted in video form, it took 25 seconds to boot into MAC OS X.  Very nice!  After installing Windows XP through Bootcamp, I clocked boot time at a respectable 45 seconds.  I re-ran 3DMark06 after an intial score of 500 scared me silly.  After turning off the power mizer settings, I got a more respectable score around 1460.  I was expecting better (closer to the 2000 score the standard MB has been advertising), so there may still be some driver or other issue to look at.  I re-ran the benchmark at a lower resolution (1024×768) and achieved about 10% better results (1600).

Benchmarks aside, the big personal goal for the upgrade was to have a portable, playable version of Warhammer Online.  From two initial play sessions, things are looking very good.  At full resolution (1280×800), I’ve played in both “Fastest Framerate” and “Balanced” mode and the game seems to hold up fine.  Framerates look to average out in th 20-30fps range.  There’s some occasional sputtering and stuttering, but this is true even on my desktop system, so it’s not that big a concern.  There are often network and other factors that make judging an MMORPG performance more difficult than a standard game.  The biggest test which I am very happy to report on was that playability was maintained even in a full “scenario” mode.  For those not familiar, this is basically a fast-paced, 12 on 12 competitive match with all live players, played in a dedicated zone.  While graphics are not necessarily the issue here, network concerns with many other players, special effects and control responsiveness are all a huge part of the game experience.  One keypress not responding can often cause you and/or your whole team to lose.  Results were very good, particularly in terms of responsiveness.  I had no issues playing the match about as “normal” as I might imagine on any laptop.  There was some additional choking each time I reloaded after dying, but it would quickly correct itself.  All in all, I cannot complain.  I have yet to do anything special to optimize the game performance, and it’s already playing fine in my mind. 

On top of WAR, I have a lot more gaming I’d like to test and not enough time to do it.  I’ve already installed 3 virtually brand new games: King’s Bounty, Sacred 2 and Fallout 3.  KB I played through a tutorial session and it looked great (settings I believe in medium detail).  The turn-based combat gameplay (similar to Heroes of Might and Magic) was excellent and perfect for this kind of system.  Sacred 2, a Diablo-like action RPG, had some stuttering issues at first with the mouse, but became completely playable after some adjustments to the graphics settings.  I still need to play around with that one.  Similarly, Fallout 3, a full 3D single player RPG based on the Oblivion engine, seemed a bit stuttery on low settings, but I haven’t had a chance to delve deeper.

So, first impressions are clearly good to great.  An already solid design that was close to meeting all my expectations in its original form, just took another extremely solid leap for the better.  It maintains all of the benefits I already loved about the MBA in terms of portability and flexibility, and now it’s a proven, capable, legitimate portable gaming machine (for the newest of games) on top of that.  Yes, it’s pricey, but in terms of engineering goodness, Apple has done it again.

It’s been a long time since I’ve actively searched for a full fledged laptop for multiple purposes.  The Macbook Air has really held up so strongly this past year I really haven’t had the need for much of anything else.  Of course there were a few times when I would have liked it to be a bit more powerful to handle new games, or have a better video output and/or an optical drive, but for the most part it really takes care of everything I need from the portable standpoint.  In terms of the search, though, I found it astounding this time around just how many options there were out there, and the price ranges from around $500 to $5000 with everything in between.  Custom units, built units, different sizes and shapes, processors, graphics, there’s so much more to consider in today’s notebook market.  So where did this start?

Recently when Warhammer Online (WAR) released, I went through one of my “desktop upgrade urge” phases.  It really wasn’t necessary but I just wanted to make one innocent upgrade to the latest and greatest WD Velociraptor hard drive.  Simple enough, right?  I’ve added and removed hard drives for over 20 years now, and it has only been easier with the new SATA interface.  Sadly, through a series of unfortunate events, I started having problem after problem, not just with the game but with the computer itself.  Without going into the gory gory details, I ended up replacing not one, not two, but THREE sets of motherboards and CPUs and essentially putting together 3 new/old Windows machines over the course of a week or two – all in order to find a stable machine to play WAR on.  Don’t ask, the details disturb me so much that I want to blank them out of my memory.  

In any event, it occured to me during this period that given my nature and bad luck with electronics destruction, I should always have a suitable gaming laptop as my ultimate backup in case all the desktops were to fail.  Why a laptop, you ask, when apparently I put together multiple backup desktops?  Well, essentially it seems I need something that I physically *cannot* upgrade so that I can’t inadvertently destroy it in the process.  My laptop purchases over the years have been fairly robust – in fact I believe even the giant brick from 5 or 6 (?) years ago still runs fine.  The last semi-gaming laptop I bought about 3 years ago (Acer) is still in good shape, and can handle the majority of older games.  It has an ATI X700 Mobility graphics chip which at the time was very decent, but now is bordering on the edge of obsolete.  For someone who doesn’t typically take good care of his stuff, I’ve found my laptops have held on through time much better/longer than any other electronics item.

At the same time this was all happening, I read quite a few reviews on the recently released Gateway P-7811FX gaming laptop, which you can purchase at Best Buy.  The price/featureset for this laptop are virtually unbeatable at the moment, particularly when on sale for $1249 as it was recently.  Even at the original price point of $1499 this unit is practically a steal in terms of specifications.  It has pretty much all the features you could ask for and price comparisons I made with other vendors were literally double the cost for similar specifications.  A good (2.26GHz) Intel processor, 4GB RAM, 7200rpm 200GB hard drive, ESATA and HDMI ports, 1066MHz bus speed, and the icing on the cake, a Geforce 9800M GTS graphics processor.   With a 3DMark06 score in the 10000 range, this puts it on par with many desktop gaming systems.  Try to put this set of features together on HP, Sony, Dell, or Alienware, and it’s almost shocking what you’ll find, or what you won’t be able to find.  Many of the big names don’t have the option for the higher end gaming video GPUs; the gaming boutiques that do generally cost a whole lot more.  As an example, a similarly specced unit from Vigor Gaming priced out at $2491.  By the way, Notebookcheck has a great chart on relative performance comparing various mobile GPUs.

So I had my head set on making the purchase at Best Buy, and I went to take a look.  I found the unit on display and started playing around with it.  It definitely seemed fast but unfortunately there were no significant game demos to try, so I ran Fate for a couple minutes, which looked really good.  (Note to Best Buy: why not show these units off with some real games running?)  The only problem?  The thing just looked and felt HUGE.  It’s got a great looking 17″ screen, so if you’re looking for a true desktop replacement, this may be the best buy ever (no pun intended), at least in the short term.  On top of the overall size, it just felt kind of unwieldy all around, for lack of a better expression.  I loved the featureset and price point, but I wanted something that I still might potentially travel with, or at the very least be willing to lug from upstairs to downstairs on occasion.  The Gateway just didn’t seem the way to go.

So, I thought, well why not just look for the same features in a smaller package size?  Surely Gateway itself would offer something of that nature.  Nope, nada, try again.  Shockingly I went all over the internet and could not find something comparable but smaller in the same price range.  A lot of vendors are going slick and stylish but are lacking in the graphics department.  I flirted with the idea of the Macbook Pro, but the model at that point was running an 8600M GT, and the price point was similarly close to double that of the Gateway, not to mention I knew new models were coming out.  (Note: I’m now glad I didn’t wait for the new models, as it would have been well over $2200 with inferior graphics capability and no option for Blu-Ray.)  One of the other things I really wanted was a built in Blu-Ray drive so that I could wacth movies on the laptop and/or hook it up to my TV.

After going through a bunch of different options (including my old standbys like Cyberpower and iBuypower), I had pretty much decided I would go with a Sager laptop.  I’d had very good success with my first custom gaming laptop many many years ago, and there was a vendor called PCTorque which I really liked.  I liked that I could customize it any way I wanted and it would still be in a relatively smaller form factor.  So, I priced it out exactly as I wanted – but this time adding in the feature of a Blu-Ray drive – which ended up being right around $2000 configured similarly to the Gateway but with the added Blu-Ray drive.

Another day or 2 passed, and I was ready to place my order for the Sager, when I happend upon the Asus G50V series.  I hadn’t noticed these before, but the more I read in reviews (particularly user reviews), the more I realized this looked like a good deal (relatively speaking) with a solid build and design.  Custom is great, but I also like a pre-built design for a laptop, with the assumption engineers have gone over all the options and made specific design choices and tradeoffs for good reasons.  This one sports a 2.53GHz Intel  processor, 9700M GT graphics, 4GB RAM, with ESATA and HDMI ports as well.  While the graphics processor is weaker than the Sager and Gateway, it was just one step down and the reviews seemed to indicate it was well thought out and put together.  The A2 model includes a Blu-Ray drive and 400GB of hard drive (7200rpm) space for a $1900 base price.  The Sager similarly equipped would cost me a few hundred more, but would likely be a very good computer as well.

So thus far I’m fairly pleased with the decision.  I’ve only done very limited testing, but it certainly runs Warhammer Online fine.  The next big test will be to connect the HDMI port up to my HDTV and see how that pans out.