After several weeks of procrastination, I recently bought myself an iPad. After my initial scepticism, seeing others (like Jon Honeyball) using theirs convinced me that it would a good purchase, and I soon found out that I wasn’t alone in the world of Microsoft-focused iPad users – Mary Jo Foley bought one around the same time, as did ex-Microsoftie Sharon Richardson and I know at least one person at Microsoft who has joined the fold. As my third monthly bill for mobile broadband access is due soon, it’s prompted me to finish writing this post about my experiences as an iPad user…
So, after a few months’ use, how has it been? What have I found? Where does it excel? And what are the iPad’s failings? Most importantly, was this a worthwhile purchase, or just another gadget to add to the pile of redundant technology in a few months’ time?
One of my original thoughts was that I’d find it the iPad too large to carry around. As it happens, that hasn’t been an issue – I’ve been an iPhone user for some time and had started to find the screen size a real limitation but, the iPad is just large enough to be useful but still small enough to be portable. Indeed, the rumoured 7″ iPad (and competing devices like the Samsung Galaxy Tab) may be too small for people with fat fingers like mine, whilst I can type pretty well on the on-screen keyboard for the 10″ iPad (although I do also have an Apple Bluetooth keyboard to use if I prefer). As for portability, I’m always conscious that the iPad is an attractive item for a would-be thief, consequently I find myself using a “man bag” more than I used to… but I no longer need to carry a netbook, or a second laptop, for personal use when I’m at work.
The next surprise was how I use the iPad – Jason Hiner thinks that the iPad is only good for reading/viewing and multitouch integration – I disagree!
Whilst I can Jason’s point, it’s actually turned out to be a far more useful device than that. Whereas my netbook was very much a content consumption device, I can create content on the iPad – it’s not suitable for everything but the nature of iOS applications means that there are scenarios when content creation is perfectly possible – indeed, I’m typing this post inside the WordPress app (and iA Writer is a perfect example of an app that’s designed to simplify writing on an iPad). Perhaps the biggest drawback when creating new content is the lack of multitasking, but more on that later…
Let’s face it, I’m a geek who loves his gadgets, but I seriously hadn’t expected the iPad to be such a hit with the family. My two young sons love the touchscreen (which seems to be a very natural experience for them, compared with a mouse) and casual gaming on the iPad is something we all enjoy (whether it’s Flight Control, Harbor Master, or an iPhone version of Battleships). Then, there’s the built-in Photos app which, even though it’s a bit limited (it would be nice if I could at least rate my images), has proven itself as a great tool for sharing pictures with friends and family after a day out – somehow, passing a tablet around and swiping back/forth seems very simple and surprisingly non-geek. Indeed, for my 5 year-old son, who’s just developing an interest in photography, being able to see what his pictures and videos look like on the screen has been a huge source of delight.
Ready for work?
I recently wrote a paper for Fujitsu on the impact of tablet computing on desktop managed service. I’d love to link to it here but, for the time being at least, its an internal document; however I really do think that the iPad has potential as a business device. There may be issues to overcome around security, but as enterprises look to deliver business IT services to a multitude of devices (possibly even consumer-owned devices) the iPad is a real contender. For example, I can connect to a VDI or a hosted virtual server environment using one of a number of solutions (for example, Citrix Receiver, or even a simple RDP or SSH client) but the limiting factor is not the iPad, but the target Windows system’s unsuitability for touch (I’m writing another post on that subject but, trust me, even with Windows 7’s touch capabilities, the user interface elements are too small for use without a stylus – as Mark Sumimoto explains, the issue is Windows recording of touch as a single point, rather than a circular area).
Here’s what I love about my iPad:
- I turn it on, and I don’t have to wait for it to start up.
- It runs iPhone applications as well as iPad ones (the best apps adjust to suit the device).
- It can read the raw images that my camera produces.
- Even though it lacks a file manager, applications like Dropbox can be used to fill the gap
- It’s great for watching video (e.g. as a TV catchup device) although the lack of Flash support can be a hinderance and I’m still waiting for the BBC to launch an iPlayer app…
- Battery life is excellent. I recently sat through 8 hours of Microsoft presentations, whilst taking notes and tweeting (Wi-Fi, not 3G) and, at the end of the day, the iPad indicated it still had 55% battery left (I had the brightness turned down).
- It’s a great eBook reader. Sure, there are probably studies that show reading on an electronic display is not as good as eInk devices (like the Kindle) but, whether I use Apple iBooks or the Amazon Kindle app for iPad, the iPad is a great eBook reader and, when reading in bed, disturbs sleeping partners far less than a reading light.
- It’s silent too.
- It’s grabbed people’s imagination for what can be done with a tablet/slate PC, with many new ideas that would not be practical on a smartphone, or on an “ordinary” PC – digital magazines are just one example, whether it’s the model taken by Conde Nast/Wired, or Flipboard, or even BBC News.
My number one gripe is the lack of support for Adobe Flash (and, to a lesser degree, Microsoft Silverlight). I know Flash is a nuisance, and I would love to see a web of standards-compliant sites using HTML5 to deliver dynamic content, but I also live in the real world, and when sites like the BBC’s weather page don’t work properly on the iPad, it’s a bloody nuisance – and Apple’s puritanical stand against Adobe is not helping consumers.
Gripe number 2 is the lack of a USB port and/or an SD card slot. I bought Apple’s Camera Connection Kit for iPad but it seems a little strange for such a beautifully designed device to rely on what is essentially a dongle in order to connect to a camera or to flash media. With no power available from the iPad’s dock-USB connector, few (if any) peripherals can be used with the iPad – even if there was software available to exploit them. For example, there are times when it would be good to hook up a webcam, and my main camera uses CF cards so, without a working card reader, there is no choice but to (slowly) download images from the camera over a USB cable, draining the camera’s batteries in the process.
Multitasking is another missing feature – at a recent event I was trying to take notes at the same time as tweeting live updates and restarting each app every time I switched was more than a little tiresome. Printing is another missing feature – whether its a photo, or some details on a web page. Thankfully, both of these issues are expected to be resolved in the upcoming iOS 4.2 release, expected next month.
Something that a new operating system release can’t fix is application availability. Sure, the iPad can run iPhone apps, even scaled up to use the whole of the device’s screen, but, as I mentioned earlier, the best application experience comes from those apps that have been written to exploit the iPad or, even better, as iPad and iPhone apps that adjust their display according to the device (and its orientation). Whilst there are some excellent examples of iPad applications (for example, the WordPress app, or Twitter’s own iPad client), the simple fact is that there are not as many iPad apps available as there should be – developers are yet to get on board and, when they do, the prices are normally a little higher than for iPhone apps (probably more realistic, but the bar has already been set).
Finally, like many Apple products, it is beautiful to look at, but easily damaged; which means that my iPad spends its life wrapped in a case. I have Apple’s case because, unlike many third party products that leave corners, etc. exposed, it seems to do a pretty good job at protecting the device; however, even that has some issues when I have to use the camera connection kit dongles on the dock connector. The iPad is not an inexpensive device – it’s a shame that it’s so easily damaged. Still, at least I can’t fit it in my pocket to get scratched by keys and coins like a phone!
Apple’s iPad has some compromises but it also has many benefits and I’ve yet to see any credible competition from another manufacturer. I’m sure we’ll see a new model next year and it will be interesting to see what Apple does with the next iPad (high resolution display? Front facing camera? SD/USB slots?) but, in the meantime, I’m getting plenty out of this first generation device. Apple may not have invented tablet PCs but they sure have found a way to make them popular.
Was it a good purchase? Certainly. As Mary Jo Foley wrote in a recent post about Microsoft’s potential answer(s) to the iPad:
“Would I still shell out for a Winpad? If it allowed me to seamlessly connect […] and had true instant on/off and 10-hour battery life my answer would be yes. But I’m sure glad I didn’t wait a year or three just to get the true portability that I’ve wanted and needed for the past couple of years.”
I’d add another caveat to that – a Windows competitor to the iPad would also need a new interface (or a new operating system – like Windows Phone 7?). As for Android… well, let’s see, but that market is fragmenting quickly and whilst there may be some good ones too, there are some truly awful Android tablets out there. One thing’s for sure though: for all its failings, iPad’s biggest competitor could well be the next iPad.