You don't need an iPad. I'm not saying you don't want one-that's a very different issue. But ordinarily, when you go shopping for an Apple product, it's for something you need. A computer. A phone. But an iPad doesn't do anything you can't already do with electronics you undoubtably already own. Nor is it an effective substitute for the vital items in your digital entourage. Carry an iPad instead of your laptop? With no physical keyboard, not bloody likely. Tote it in place of a portable music player? Not unless you have pockets like Captain Kangaroo. Doesn't make cell phone calls. Doesn't take pictures.
And yet Apple has again jump-started our tech libidos with an imaginative device that has the competition scrambling to keep up.
Now that the launch hype has dissipated and early adopter cred faded, it's time for a clear-eyed look at what Steve Jobs calls "the most important thing I've ever done." Let's examine what you get and don't get with the iPad and how it stacks up to some other options.
The iPad is, quite simply, a beautiful piece of electronic gear. When you get it in your hands, the desire to keep it is nearly irresistible. And nobody does touch screen better than Apple. It is highly responsive, making it easy to drag items, press virtual buttons and use such gestures as finger-pinching, which resizes objects on screen. Keep a few issues in mind, though.
The first is portability. Steve Jobs introduced the iPad to the press from the comfort of a plush armchair, which is really its natural habitat. However, the reason so many iPod/iPhone apps (most of which also run on iPad) are so cool is you have them in your pocket for quick access. Without a shoulder bag or backpack, you're not carrying an iPad, and that's a severe limitation for a portable device.
At 9.56'' x 7.47" x 0.5", it has the dimensions of a legal pad, but, weighing in at a pound and a half, it doesn't feel much like one in your hands. It's more of a two-handed tome-a slender coffee-table book filled with pretty color pictures-than a notepad to be held in one paw.
Another issue comes with its beautiful 9.7-inch glass touch screen. It's a pleasure to behold, bright and sharp and intensely colorful, under ideal conditions. But-as with all shiny objects-the screen is highly reflective. Watching a fairly dark movie on a train I found myself inserted into the film, as my mirror image took over the screen. Screen glare is also an issue if you're trying to use the iPad outdoors. Reading an e-book at poolside or on a park bench is an exercise in pure frustration.
The iPad design has been described as an oversized iPod Touch, which shouldn't be taken as a diss. An elegant simplicity carries over from the very successful portable music player. Buttons? Just a couple: a power button, a volume rocker and the home dimple along the bottom. One more control, a sliding switch, turns off the internal sensor that would ordinarily pivot the display to match when you rotate the iPad horizontally or vertically, because that usually terrific feature can be annoying when you hold the device at an angle.
And that's it for buttons and levers. There's a mini audio jack, a surprisingly decent speaker, a built-in mic and an iPod-style connector at the bottom for transferring files and charging the battery.
For the battery, Apple deserves both a slap on the wrist and praise. Because the built-in power cell can't be removed or replaced without a repair bill, you can't carry a spare. On the other hand, the battery life per charge is impressive. Leave the wireless network on, play back movies and video clips, listen to music, play games, have fun-you'll still make it through the day with plenty of juice to spare.
You'll want an accessory case with built-in prop: the prop to stand the iPad up like a picture frame for photos or videos; the case because a glass screen and scratchable aluminum body shouldn't be carried unprotected, especially when it comes from the factory looking this pretty.
Tasks to Tackle
Audio and Video: The iPad is the iPod/iPhone experience writ large when it comes to music and video. You can load it via the familiar iTunes software and stream music wirelessly from Pandora and other online services. The only musical advantage over Apple's pocket players is the built-in speaker. For video, though, the iPad is a major upgrade (under appropriate lighting) with its much larger screen. Movies rented from iTunes or streamed from Netflix look great, particularly when holding the iPad horizontally.
The major stumbling point here is iPad doesn't work with Adobe's popular Flash software, the Web standard for media delivery and animations. Jobs has issued a fatwa against Flash, so there's no reasonable chance the iPad will gain this capability in the future.
And at the risk of stating the obvious, there's no way to play a CD, DVD or Blu-ray disc on the iPad, as you can on a laptop.
Communication: All iPads can connect to the Internet via Wi-Fi (but unlike every computer on the market, plugging in an Ethernet cable isn't an option). The three Wi-Fi-only models differ only in memory capacity: 16 gigabytes ($499), 32 gigabytes ($599) and 64 gigabytes($699).
For an extra $130 at each memory tier you can buy a 3G iPad model that's compatible with the AT&T wireless network, so you can surf from just about anywhere. When the iPad first launched, it had an option for unlimited data at $30 a month. The higher-end plan now tops out at 2 gigabytes per month, for $25. Streaming two hours of music a day for a month would nearly eat it all. Watching movies will consume roughly 1/4 gigabyte per hour and blow your monthly allotment in about four flicks.
Even with a cellular data plan, you can't make cell phone calls with an iPad, though the device does have a built-in microphone and speaker plus support for Bluetooth wireless earbuds. There is a workaround of sorts if you sign up for Skype, which lets you make computer-to-computer calls to other Skype users for free, or call cell phones and landlines for a few cents a minute. Skype on the iPad only works when you're connected via Wi-Fi, though, not the cellular network.
Down to Business: iPad comes with e-mail, calendar and contact software, and Apple sells word processing (Pages), spreadsheet (Numbers) and presentation (Keynote) programs for just $10 each. But compatibility issues hamper their relationship with the industry-standard Microsoft Office. For example, I tried editing a friend's film treatment, saved as a Word file, while traveling with an iPad. The Pages program was happy to open the file, after warning me that my fonts and formatting would change and my footnotes would disappear. I don't work in a vacuum-I send documents back and forth with editors and collaborators. Smashing the formatting in such an exchange is frowned upon. Similarly, the Keynote presentation program will accept PowerPoint files, but won't save them to PowerPoint format.
Just getting your documents into and out of the iPad is a kludge. You must e-mail them back and forth to yourself or sync to your computer using iTunes software. But iPad won't support a USB stick or SD card.
My biggest problems getting work done with an iPad, though, were entering and editing text with no physical keyboard. The sensitivity and size of the screen make it more practical for typing than on-screen picture keyboards on smaller devices (an iPhone, for example), but it's still a lousy way to enter much more than a brief e-mail or text message. The lack of physical feedback when you press a "key" will slow most touch-typists to a crawl and lead to typing mistakes. The autocorrect system is pretty smart, but it's no substitute for typing accurately in the first place.
Letters and numbers are on separate on-screen displays, so you have to toggle between the two if you want both facts and figures in your text. The on-screen keyboard doesn't have arrow keys, so to fix a mistake you have to try touching the screen precisely where you want an edit point to appear-it's a time-consuming task. You could connect an external or wireless keyboard to the iPad, but this is a multi-piece solution that makes iPad less portable and clumsier.
What no one seems to mention is that you can't use a mouse with a factory iPad at all. You could "jailbreak" your iPad, by altering the operating system software to recognize a Bluetooth mouse. But that term itself is a hint that you might end up with a voided warranty or, worse, turning your iPad into a shiny brick. Oh, and one more thing... the iPad can't print. Tortuous workarounds will deliver middling results but, basically, if you create or edit a document on the iPad and want to print it, you'll have to transfer it to a real computer first.
Bottom line: the iPad may be a useful alternative for lightweight tasks, but it's no laptop, or even netbook, substitute.
Fun and Games: The single application that has consumed more of my iPad hours than any other is Pinball HD, a $2.99 app with three different pinball tables, spot-on physics, beautiful graphics and enough challenge to keep me coming back. The big screen is well suited to pinball; playing on a little Nintendo DS, or a cell phone, just doesn't support the level of detail that makes a pinball table interesting. And controlling a pinball game isn't a problem on the buttonless iPad; a thumb on each side of the touch screen works just fine.
Most iPad game options fall into the "casual" category, like those found on cell phones. A few titles will appeal to serious players, such as Civilization Revolution, a wonderful turn-by-turn strategy game ($6.99). Even an old chestnut like Scrabble is a winner on the iPad, its full-board- at-a-glance format trumping the cramped-screen iPod version. You can also use an iPhone or iPod touch as a tile rack, if you happen to own one.
Most iPad games don't have the depth to keep you amused for very long, but the price-to-amusement ratio holds up, with most casual games selling for under $3. There's also a nice assortment of games for kids, who are riveted by anything iPad.
With no physical buttons to mash, game controls can be troublesome, particularly with titles that use the built-in accelerometer for this purpose. Overall, though, gaming is a fun feature on the iPad platform, as long as you don't mistake it for a more powerful Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3.
Web Surfing: The built-in Safari browser does a nice job displaying most Web pages, and the option to view with the iPad held either vertically or horizontally is a wonderful feature. Turn the page sideways and the tiny type on most Web sites becomes large enough to read and the links big enough to click accurately with big fat fingertips.
Of course, the touch-screen pinch that lets you zoom page size in and out is another option, and great to have for special circumstances. For most Web surfing, though, it's a slow way to go. The zoom feature I find myself using more often is double-tapping a column of type to expand it to full screen width, and repeating the procedure to get full-screen view again. For a three-column page this works like a charm. Not so charming: the message "This content is not supported on your device" that comes up too frequently when browsing for entertainment content.
Safari doesn't support multiple windows simultaneously, or visible tabs while viewing a page the way Internet Explorer or Firefox do on a computer, but it does have a nine-page display for navigating between recent choices, which works well. And looking at lengthy Web pages is one place where touch-screen control is notably faster and more intuitive than keyboard, trackpad or mouse.
Even with the Flash snafu, surfing the web is the most compelling reason to own an iPad. Way back in 2001, I was a consultant on a product called the Intel Web Tablet, designed "to allow consumers to access the Web from anywhere in the home" without buying an extra computer. The product was killed at the last minute because you couldn't use both your computer and the Tablet at the same time. The iPad delivers what we were after a decade ago nearly flawlessly.
Other Apps: The iPad app catalog is a decidedly mixed bag. The provided photo software makes this a great opportunity to show off your digital camera shots (despite the iPad's lack of built-in camera). However, the much-touted iPad versions of magazines and newspapers have been underwhelming. The magazines add flashy effects and navigation, but not much content enhancement over their Web sites, and the newspapers basically bring touch-screen access to stripped down versions of their Web-based content. Interestingly, comic books look spectacular.
Use the several nice cooking apps with a stand accessory and iPad makes a great reference for slicing and dicing. For those with more talent than yours truly, music creation and sketching apps are a natural fit with the colorful touch-screen display. There are also snazzy pieces of educational software (if you can bring sizzle to the Periodic Table of the Elements, I say more power to you).
While I could go on for several thousand words just cataloging the iPad's software, I find more breadth than depth in the collection, with only a handful of apps that trigger my gotta-have-it reaction. And while the choices available when the iPad launched were vast and exciting compared to most new product introductions, few dramatically different or intriguing additions have surfaced since that initial gee-whiz moment. At the same time, there is something for everyone, and with millions of iPads sold, a lot of smart software developers are poking away at the platform.
iPad vs. Alternatives
Apple wasn't physically present at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2010, but the iPad certainly loomed over the convention center. We knew it was coming, and several manufacturers promised alternatives in roughly the same size and shape. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer proudly showed off the HP Slate, a Windows 7-based tablet that would be "more powerful than a phone and almost as powerful as a PC. Perfect for reading, surfing the Web and taking entertainment on the go." Lenovo showed off the cool U1 Hybrid, that works as a tablet or a full-fledged computer when clicked into its keyboard-equipped base. Dell had its own tablet contender, and other prototypes were shown behind closed doors.
But the promised wave never hit the shore, for a variety of reasons. For now, Apple has the only device with the size and shape of an iPad. Competitors are in the works, most notably those running Google's Android operating system, now increasingly popular on cell phones. Acer Asus, LG and Samsung also threaten tablet devices, though details are sparse. The iPad competition really consists of devices that perform some or all of the same functions, but in very different shapes and sizes.
If your primary interest is reading electronic books, newspapers and magazines, Amazon's Kindle, Barnes & Noble's Nook and Sony's Reader lines all start at less than $200 after recent price cuts. They are smaller and lighter than an iPad, though much more limited in function. Both Amazon and Barnes & Noble actually offer free iPad apps that let you shop the same book collection as their dedicated devices, a major boon to iPad buyers who would otherwise be limited to the smaller selection in Apple's own iBook library.
The screen technology, though, is still a major point of differentiation. Books look great on an iPad screen, with sharp text, color illustrations and even a two-page horizontal display. Some complain that the backlit display tires your eyes, but dimming the iPad screen eases that. Still iPad's highly reflective surface makes it nearly impossible to use outdoors, where dedicated devices work perfectly.
For communication purposes, a large-screen smart phone will deliver practical versions of many iPad Internet-based activities, along with the must-have ability to make calls, in a single device. This is particularly true of Android-based phones-the sheer number of iPhone/iPad compatible applications is higher, but the Android market is well stocked, growing rapidly and more open than Apple's company-controlled selection.
I've taken the HTC EVO 4G for an extended test run, and while far from perfect, it highlights the potential of Android-powered devices. Web pages aren't as big and readable as on the iPad, but especially when you are holding the device horizontally, surfing is pleasing on the 4.7-inch touchscreen. The same goes for reading electronic books, and showing off photos works well (with the same kind of pinch-zoom capability you'll find on the iPad). Flash support wasn't available for the EVO when I reviewed it, but it's promised for the next revision of the operating system, which may well be available by the time you read this.
The EVO 4G battery life can't match the iPad, and games aren't as much fun on the small screen. The 4G online connection speed is much faster than the 3G iPad, but I can't swear to the practical effect since, as in most of the country, my area has no 4G coverage. Still, the EVO 4G is far more portable than the iPad, costs just $200 versus at least $500 and most importantly, replaces the phone I have to carry.
The other key comparison case is a netbook or ultraportable laptop computer. What's the difference between a "netbook" and a "laptop"? It's a fuzzy line, but basically a netbook is a small, inexpensive, low-power laptop. One of the best I've tried is the Toshiba Mini NB305, a Windows 7-powered netbook for about $350. It has a 10.1-inch screen, a comfortable keyboard, a capacious 250-gigabyte hard drive, myriad connectivity options, including USB and Ethernet, and a real-world battery life of about eight hours. For about a pound's more heft than the iPad, while investing $150 less, you have a typing-friendly device compatible with all the business software you need and nearly all your entertainment needs. The "nearly" caveat comes from video playback. While the NB305 is compatible with Flash, high-quality video streaming is too much to ask from the system's low-power processor.
The Lenovo IdeaPad S10-3t is another 10.1-inch netbook, but this time the screen is touch-sensitive, and what's more, can be pivoted around and folded down over the keyboard to work as a tablet. The screen size is nearly the same as the iPad, though lower-resolution, and offers the same type of finger-controlled navigation and pinch-directed zoom. The price is about $100 higher than the Toshiba netbook, and the hinged screen adds some bulk. Weight is about the same, but the battery is smaller.
For the sake of apples-to-Apples comparisons, we won't linger long over ultraportable laptops-the iPad starts at $499 and tops out at $829, the ultraportables laptops I feel good recommending run $1,600 and up. Still, you do get what you pay for with a premium laptop. The beautiful Sony VAIO VPC-Z116GXS, for example, weighs just 3 pounds complete with a 13.1-inch screen, a fast processor and DVD drive. It can run all your productivity software plus Web- and disc-based entertainment of all sorts. Given my choice of hitting the road with an iPad or the VAIO, it's no contest. In fact, my five-year-old Fujitsu Lifebook ultraportable, still chugging away with Windows XP and an antique microprocessor, is still a more useful device on the road than an iPad.
The Product vs. the Hype
At this point, Apple loyalists no doubt have branded me the worst kind of infidel. But the fact is, I'm not an iPad hater-I'm a hype hater. The iPad is an impressive piece of engineering, a fun device to own, with an easy user interface.
But contrary to so much I've read and heard, I don't believe it's the beginning of a new era in computing. It replaces nothing, except maybe possibly the most low-intensity laptop. It can't do anything not already possible without an iPad.
If you like what it does, and feel the price is reasonable based on your budget, by all means buy an iPad and enjoy it. But on the other hand, there is not a single substantial task you can't perform without one, and failing to send your cash to Cupertino will not leave you hopelessly behind the curve technologically.
The best use I've come up with to date for the iPad, based on months of hands-on use, is a digital marital aid. No, not that kind of marital aid. But if your spouse insists on watching something awful on television, you can still cozy up on the couch together, happily Web surfing or playing pinball on your iPad while "Wife Swap" or "Entertainment Tonight" unspools on the HDTV. I'm just not sure this adds up to "a truly magical and revolutionary product," as that other Steve insists.
Steve Morgenstern is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.