I've been a bit slack on gadget patrol entries this year. It's partly a side-effect of my new year's resolution to cut down on the superfluous technology; with a few notable exceptions, I'm trying to reduce my production of WEEE — and the best way to do that is simply not to buy as much.
However, I know my limits. And I knew the Apple tablet was coming back in December, so I allowed myself an iPad-shaped loophole (and an option to upgrade my mobile phone when it came out of contract — that'd be two months ago and counting, so maybe the resolution's working).
Anyway. My iPad arrived yesterday: a 64Gb Wifi plus 3G model, with assorted extras. (Keyboard dock, camera connection kit, spare power brick, case, and an O2 micro-SIM.)
What follows are some early impressions, hopefully avoiding the stuff you'll find in the regular reviews.
In a normal review of a piece of computing hardware, the reviewer discusses the origin of the device, drools over the unboxing, plays with it for a few minutes, then regurgitates the press release describing its characteristics.
First impressions: this isn't a PC or Macintosh or UNIX experience, this is something New.
Yes, there's a Mach microkernel and BSD subsystem under the hood, but it's entirely hands-off, and unless you jailbreak your iPad you won't notice it. (I tried to jailbreak mine, but Spirit hung, requiring a firmware reload. As the current Spirit release predates the 3G version, which presumably has somewhat different internals to the Wifi-only iPad, I'm not too surprised.) The actual user-experience is something else: it looks as if it ought to just be a giant iPod Touch, but appearances can be deceptive.
The normal user experience of a full-sized PC or Mac these days has multiple concurrent applications running in windows. In contrast, the iPad throws the whole screen at each app, doing away with a bunch of cruft we've come to expect — there are (usually) no window decorations, frames, maximize/minimize buttons, or scroll bars. Even with OS 4 on the near horizon, with its grudging concessions in the direction of user-accessible multi-tasking, the iPhone OS makes a fetish of decluttering the desktop.
This shouldn't come as a surprise. Steve Jobs is clearly obsessed with design, and the GUIs we've become accustomed to using to interact with computers have their roots in 1973's Xerox Alto. With more than a third of a century of development, GUIs have become hairballs of user interface crud; the Windows 7 desktop, Mac OS X, and your choice of GNOME or KDE all provide multiple different ways of interacting with the system and can be an intensely frustrating experience to a user who's not experienced in their particular interface shortcuts.
The iPad makes up for the austerity of its interface by making use of gestures. A mouse is a single pointer, with separate buttons to signal what kind of interaction to apply to the interface element the pointer's currently tracking. A multitouch system like the iPad doesn't have a continuous moving pointer, but can cope with multiple moving contact points and discontinuous contact (tapping the screen). Someone's been paying close attention to Fitt's Law in designing this UI; interface elements are mostly finger-sized or zoomable, making them easy to grab, and the width of the screen falls within the little-finger-to-thumb stretch of an adult's hand.
A lot of attention has also gone into making the user interface responsive. We've become used to computers that take their own sweet time in accepting input; a typical basic-spec netbook (a 1.33GHz Atom 270 with 1Gb of RAM and a slow hard disk) running Windows 7 or Ubuntu can take 1-2 minutes to boot up and present a desktop you can interact with, and firing up applications takes even longer. The iPad, in contrast, is almost instantaneously responsive. Of course it's doing rather less — Windows, Linux or Mac OS X all fire up scads of background services at startup, and present more complex interfaces — but it's still impressive. Also, muddying the waters, is the iPad's intrinsic performance. a 1GHz ARM Cortex A8 chip with 256Mb of RAM is feeble when compared to a modern netbook, never mind a high-end laptop, but it's quite beefy compared to a state-of-the-art laptop circa 2000, and throwing out all the cruft has enabled Apple's developers to deploy the power where it counts — in providing a really responsive user interface.
So how does it shape up?
I bought my iPad with the idea of using it for a variety of tasks. It's a convergence device, for one thing: I want to use it as an ebook reader. I want to use it for the obvious cloud-computing tasks — email and web browsing, running an RSS reader, and so on. Some light gaming would be nice. Music and video I will take as read. And I want a reasonably powerful portable word processor.
I'm going to go through the list one by one, but first a word or two about the standard peripherals.
The keyboard dock is a curate's egg. I'm typing this blog entry on it right now. As a keyboard, it's excellent — same finger-feel as my desktop Mac. However, I have a couple of reservations. It has a weighted base; this adds up to a hefty 600 grams, according to my kitchen scale. That's more than the iPad itself, and compares with about 220 grams for my old Think Outside folding bluetooth keyboard (which works fine with the iPad, subject to the slight lag that's common with wireless keyboards: the keyboard dock, in contrast, is instantly responsive and doesn't require batteries). It's very solid, and unlike the bluetooth keyboard it's not verboten to use it aboard an airliner in flight, but the weight is a bit of a worry. Also, the stand for the iPad is fixed. It sticks out, raising the profile of the keyboard dock, and it fits so tightly that the iPad won't slide into place if it's wearing a protective case. I'm a bit disappointed; the keyboard dock is the only physically coupled non-wireless keyboard for the iPad, but it's less than ideal for travel.
The Apple book-style case is cheap, fits well, and is nicely designed. I can only find two flaws in it. Firstly, there's the aforementioned failure to fit with the keyboard dock. (I'm very tempted to take a razor to my case, to make a flap for the dock. Second, the front flap doesn't clip shut against the display of the iPad; in principle it's possible for something to slide between the flap and the screen if you dump it into a bag, leading to the potential for screen damage.
(I haven't tried the camera kit yet.)
Now for the use cases.
Ebooks: I've been reading ebooks since around 1998, starting on a Psion 3C and going forward, most recently to a Sony PRS-505 and then a Sony PRS-300 pocket reader. When I got my iPhone I discovered a number of very nice ebook reading programs for it, including Stanza and Amazon's Kindle. If I didn't have forty-something eyes with presbyopia, I'd be sold on the iPhone or iPod Touch as a killer ebook reader. As it is, it's the iPad that does it for me.
E-ink devices (such as the Kindle Reader and the Sony PRS series) have two claimed advantages over LCD display based readers such as the iPad; battery life, and use in sunlight. E-ink displays only draw power during screen refresh, so in principle they're very abstemious; Sony claim 7000 page-turns on their readers. However, I'm skeptical. Experience suggests that a more realistic figure is around 3000 page turns, corresponding to 50 hours between charges (at one page per minute). Moreover, if you use an e-ink device for anything other than reading, the battery drains as fast as any other device; reportedly, the Kindle only runs for a few hours when browsing the web via whispernet. The iPad delivers a solid 10-11 hour battery life, and I can see very few use cases where I might need more than 10 hours and be unable to find a mains socket for at least some of the time. So I tend to discount the battery life argument.
The other issue, readability under sunlight, is a matter of personal taste. E-ink displays are reflective, and are more readable in brighter lighting conditions. The iPad has a glossy LCD screen, and (I haven't taken it outdoors yet) should therefore be less useful in sunlight. However, I don't spend much of my time reading outdoors — I generally read under a roof. This may drive you up the wall, but I'm happy with the iPad screen — and it's a whole lot faster and more responsive than an e-ink device (which tends to flash for half a second at each screen refresh).
As to the software ...
There's Kindle. It gives you a Kindle, with a big fat LCD screen instead of e-ink. There's Apple's iBook store, but this has virtually no content as yet in the UK — other than the staples from Project Gutenberg — that will change with time. In the meantime, you can read any ePub format files you have lying around using iBook; you have to get these onto the iPad by syncing with iTunes, and there's no obvious hierarchical file management facility.
Stanza, alas, runs on the iPad — but not in native resolution; development appears to have ceased since Amazon bought Lexcycle. So I'm stuck using Calibre as an ebook manager, without a decent wireless-sync-aware epub reader on the iPad.
There are other ebook reading options. GoodReader deserves a mention, as an extremely nice PDF reader (with features such as zoom and bookmarking) that has a metric ton of tools for getting content onto the iPad; DropBox synchronisation, WebDAV, FTP, or even a WebDAV server of its own. It doesn't support annotation, but as a reader it's great (and there are other PDF tools if you need to annotate or mark up files). This is going to revolutionise my ability to check page proofs on the move — I would have killed for something like this last month when, in a hotel in Japan, one of my publishers emailed me the page proofs to "The Fuller Memorandum" as a honking great PDF file, expecting a rapid turnaround. As my publishers are moving to all-electronic workflow — which means reviewing PDFs — this alone is going to make the iPad an indispensable tool of my trade.
Email, Web browsing, RSS: This is not the review you were looking for. Suffice to say, I'm writing this piece on the iPad, have got it sorted out as a tool for managing my blog, and move on swiftly.
Gaming: It's as powerful as a circa-2000 laptop. I've got X-Plane on it, and aside from the unfamiliar UI (using the tilt sensor to control the stick and rudder of a plane? No, really?) it seems fine. There's a port of "Battle for Wesnoth" which will fill my RPG jones, and "Civilization: Revolutions". This gizmo is clearly going to be a major gaming platform, and Nintendo know it; they recently named the iPhone/iPod/iPad ecosystem as the biggest threat to the DS. But I'm not (despite "Halting State") much of a gamer, so let's move on again.
Word Processing: Now this is currently a bad situation.
Apple are pushing their own iWork suite: Pages, Numbers, and Keynote. My experience of Pages is that although it looks nice (and is plenty responsive), it's a toy: not fit for purpose. Let's leave aside the lack of core functionality (who would try to sell a word processor in this day and age that doesn't even have a word counter?); the real killer is synchronisation.
There are three use cases for a device like the iPad: (a) as a stand-alone computer, (b) as a PDA-like companion machine, sharing data with a primary computer, and (c) as a thin client, sharing data with servers over the internet ("in the cloud"). While case (a) probably lies in the platform's future at some point, it's not there yet. Apple's vision appears to be case (b), and the pipe through which the iPad communicates with its desktop-bound mothership is iTunes.
Let's not flog the dead horse that is iTunes here — let's just say that it has bloated over time, so that now it's a collection of different utilities flying in loose formation, bound together by a not very consistent interface. The problem with synching between the iPad and the desktop is that it's utterly half-assed. You have to start by dragging documents (be they desktop Pages files or Word .doc files) to a pane in iTunes. Then you sync. Then you have to remember at the next sync (after you've edited the files on your iPad and saved them) to get them out of iTunes and back into your desktop machine's filesystem. Nor is there any facility for a hierarchical storage abstraction in Pages.
Me, I like to keep a lot of work files on hand. About 2000 of them, totalling over 1Gb. Auto-converting them to .doc isn't hard (Apple's textkit on the Mac is your friend), but I like to keep them in a project-oriented folder hierarchy three or four levels deep. There is no sane way to get this into Pages, period.
Hope is at hand, but not from Apple. I'm a fan of Dataviz's Documents-to-Go suite. DTG has been around for donkey's years on PDAs, and arrived on the iPhone last year. It gives you a cut-down but surprisingly functional Word/Excel/Powerpoint file editing suite. More importantly, the last release of DTG Premium includes DropBox support, making it effectively a thin client for Microsoft Office files. Dropbox is one of those really neat cloud computing ideas that deserve to succeed; storage hosted in Amazon's S3 cloud that shows up on your desktop (Mac, Windows, or Linux) as a folder hierarchy. Only changes you make to files (not the entire changed file, but just the changed data blocks) get uploaded to DropBox — and if you have DropBox installed on multiple computers, the changes are propagated to them. (Oh, and it caches data while you're offline and synchronises with the cloud when your network connectivity is restored.) DTG supports DropBox properly, showing you a traversable folder hierarchy on the iPhone and letting you edit your docs, storing them locally if for some reason you can't connect to the net, and uploading the changes whenever possible.
Dataviz have announced that the next release of DTG Premium will support the iPad native screen resolution, and they're probably working on it hard because of the iPhone 4G lurking in the wings. Edit: according to their support fora, a new release with iPad screen support was submitted to the App Store reviewers five days ago, on the 24th. This means it should show up in the store any day now.
(I'd recommend avoiding Office2 HD if you want an office suite. I encountered formatting errors when opening a Microsoft Word .doc file created using MS Word 11 (part of MS Office 2008 for Mac). Also, it doesn't play nice with external keyboards — there's no support for cursor movement keys. It's giving Pages a run for its money in the not-fit-for-purpose stakes ... although, as always, future releases may improve the situation.)
Usage case ... oh, what's the point? If you can't figure out why I might want to work on a buttload of Word documents using an ultra lightweight tablet that nevertheless gives me cloud-based backup, I'm obviously talking to an alien.
Now. What's wrong with the iPad?
In a nutshell, the whole walled garden experience. I understand why they're doing it. But it keeps me from certain specific tasks I want to do, which is why the first thing I tried after I registered my iPad was a jailbreak. (Are you listening, Apple?)
I hate internet advertising with a livid fiery passion that I don't expect you to share but nevertheless expect you to accept as one of my foibles. I am very happy to have a Flash-free experience. (Flash: Fucking Lame Advertising SHite. Do I make myself clear?) However, I am not happy about not being able to configure my iPad to block ads. I'd like to be able to use a hosts file to redirect folks like Doubleclick to 127.0.0.1. Or to install Privoxy or some other junk filter. Or AdBlock. I can do these things on a jail broken iPad. I can't do them on a non-jailbroken pad — that is, I can use a proxy gateway while I'm at home, but not when I'm out and about. Hence the primary motive behind my desire for a jailbreak.
Secondary motive: I want to stay current. I have a bunch of O'Reilly nutshell books on Python. I would like to be able to open a terminal and run a python interpreter while I work through the tutorials. Ditto ruby, smalltalk, or whatever else I want to play with. The "no interpreters" rule in the app store gets right up my nose.
Finally, I'm not your bitch. I bought an iPad because I intend to use it for my own purposes. Limiting me to stuff that comes from a single source — the app store — irritates the hell out of me.
I'll put up with the walled garden for a while. I know why it's there; it's to force the development of a mature computing ecosystem. And I suspect it'll crumble under either an anti-trust probe (now that Apple's market cap exceeds Microsoft they're in the firing line) or external competition from the likes of Google. But I really want my machine for use cases (a) or (c); use case (b) is a PDA, and we saw how well that worked a decade ago. (Hint: the next company to make desktop sync work properly will be the first.) If Apple want those markets they'll have to open the iPad platform up eventually.
Finally, a closing thought.
The iPad doesn't feel like a computer. It feels like a magic book — like the ancestor of the Young Lady's Primer in Neil Stephenson's The Diamond Age. It's a book with hypertext everywhere, moving pictures and music and an infinity of content visible through its single morphing page. The sum is much weirder than the aggregate of its parts. Criticizing the iPad for not doing Netbook-or laptop-like things is like criticising an early Benz automobile for not having reins and a bale of hay for the horses: it's a category error. While we've had experimental multitouch devices for some years, the iPad is the first true representative of the breed to hit the mass market, just as the original Macintosh 128K was the first computer with a modern graphical user interface to ditto. (If you want to be pedantic you can cite the Xerox Star and the Apple Lisa ... then I shall mock you.) The Mac 128K had numerous flaws, but it's still the direct ancestor of the Macbook Air sitting behind me. It'll be interesting to see what the iPad gives rise to, 26 years from now ...