iPad Review

If Steve Jobs held two of these in his hands, would MacNerds call him Moses? Also please excuse the fingerprints and desk clutter; I’m not a tech reporter by profession, so I toss things on my desk and take pictures. You want a professional tech reporting service? Well… there isn’t one. They’re all crooked. Joking! Also – Pictures.

Why the hell does new stuff always arrive when I’m going out? God damn courier dropped it off before I went off to pretend I know something about pharmacology. Nevermind, the iPad is here on my desk, plugged into a USB port and happily displaying “Not Charging”. Let’s skip the normal DisCONNECT rambling and get straight to the review. Some people spend AGES talking about an unboxing, but who really cares? The iPad comes in a white box with a picture of it on the front, and some text on the sides. The end. Inside the box is the iPad itself (I have the small-capacity 16GB variant), the normal paperwork, a USB cable with the normal iWhatever connector on the end, and a little power adapter not unlike what you’d use for an iPhone or whatever. The seller kindly sent two plastic power adapters (this one is from the US after all so the included 2 prong plug is useless) but one was smashed to pieces. I don’t need either of these though because I’ve got a suitable connector anyway from my MacBook. Unfortunately, you probably will need this adapter because the iPad refuses to charge from some USB ports, notably USB hubs (like the kind you’ll find on a computer case) but plugging it into a port directly on the motherboard will usually suffice. That’s a pain in the ass for a lot of people though.

On getting the device out of the box you’ll notice it’s reasonably large and it feels pretty good to hold in your hands. In the image above you can see the size compared to my iPhone 3G. It runs iPhone OS Version 3.2, and for those interested right now there’s no publically released jailbreak… yet. There’s a large black border around the screen, but you absolutely need it or there’s no way to hold this thing without touching the screen. At the top is the On/Off/Wake button that functions exactly like on the iPhone, while the right side has a volume control, and a handy switch to lock the screen orientation. The bottom has the standard Apple connector and some speakers. On the top left is a headphone jack and a small hole which I presume is the microphone. On the bottom face of the iPad is the Home button… which takes you home.
Booting it up, you’ll find it demands to be connected to iTunes for activation, just like the iPhone, so don’t think that this is a dedicated computing device. After the usual iTunes stuff around (I hate iTunes, it’s a clunky POS on a Windows PC) the device is ready to go. First off this screen is pretty damn good; it’s bright, sharp, and maintains good visibility from odd angles. The main screen is pretty much what you’d expect from a bigger version of an iPhone; you slide a tiny slide to unlock and bang, you’re ready to go!

I loaded up all my iPhone apps onto this thing (well, most of them), as the iPad has support for pretty much all the iPhone apps out there. Already it has a massive library of apps. For those wondering, if you’re bought it for your iPhone, you’ve got it for your iPad; there’s no dual purchasing unless there’s a version specifically for the iPad. Anyway like all techies the first place I wanted to play with was the settings, so let’s check it out.

First thing you’ll notice is that the settings page takes advantage of the increased screen real estate. It’s MUCH easier to play with settings. The onscreen keyboard is nice and easy to use, and typing is reasonably quick. I wouldn’t like to use it to type up a large document (or even this review for example) but it does the job nicely. My iPad supports 802.11b/g/n wireless as well as bluetooth, while there are iPads that support 3G connections via a Micro SIM. Wallpaper has changed; you can now set a wallpaper for both the lock screen and the home screen, something that should have been included ages ago! Both can be set independently from each other. There’s also a “picture frame” mode that converts the iPad into a digital photo frame. Why you’d do that is a bit beyond me, but there you are. We’ll tackle other settings in conjunction with each app.

First up is the calendar app. As you can see it makes excellent use of the screen, making it pretty easy to use. I’ve added an example here to show you what an event looks like; I didn’t sync up my calendar with it hence why it looks pretty empty. The calendar app is pretty easy to use and has some cool transitions when swapping between days, not unlike the iBook transitions. In all, pretty cool.

The Contacts app has also been improved. Again I didn’t sync my contacts (because I’m retarded apparently) so here’s another example I’ve added. It functions pretty much the same as the iPhone version except there’s more screen space and it’s easier to use as a result.

Personally I find the Notes application useless because… well, on a PC they pretty much go nowhere, so why the hell do I care? In keeping with the “pad” theme the Notes package has a nice new interface. Notes are displayed over on the left while the right is used for typing your notes. In portrait mode it acts a lot like the regular Notes app.

The Maps application is one that I’d find particularly useful because I’m forever referring to Google Earth. The client is the same as on the iPhone but the bigger screen and touch interface make is an absolute joy to use. No, I mean that; I love this app, it’s so cool to pan around with my fingers like a 21st century technoastronaut navigating the information hyperspace webways, or some shit like that. In other words, I like it. However I think it’s important that I talk about the GPS functionality of the iPad. Only the 3G iPads have A-GPS functionality; the others get your location by tracing whatever network you’re connected to and using that to get an idea of your geographical location. In some cases, it works reasonably well. In odd network (or arguably secure network) setups, you get something that’s completely wrong. So don’t assume that you’re going to have a supermassive GPS device, because unfortunately you won’t unless you splash out for a 3G model. Also Apple stupidly said that the “WiFi + 3G” model has A-GPS, but in reality they mean the version that has “both WiFi and 3G” radios.

Here’s something new – the video player! Now I was pretty excited for a video player. Unfortunately, the entire thing runs through iTunes which means wresting with mp4s or Quicktime movies, or whatever you purchase from the iTunes store. Of course you can get around it and put whatever content you want on there, but I didn’t bother in this case so I chose an mp4 video I had at random. Now I’ll be honest, this is a pretty bad quality video that I took from YouTube so it doesn’t do the iPad justice, but the screen is perfect for watching movies. The internal speaker is… well, pretty tinny, but other than that the player is pretty good. I can’t imagine holding this thing up for a feature length film though, nor can I imagine using it for extended periods of time to watch anything, really. Still it does do a good job and if you get a stand or something for it, it’d probably be better than watching something on a tiny screen.

Next up is YouTube, the closest you’ll get to Flash on an iPad. Before we go any further, look at that screenshot for a sec, specifically the top row. THERE’S A SPACE CHAIR CONCEPT. HOLY SHIT. I’ll trade my iPad for a space chair. If you’ve got one, get in touch. Anyway apart from taking advantage of the larger screen, it’s functionally the same as it is on the iPhone.

I’d love to show you the new App Store, but I get this stupid message instead, so I can’t. If you’re not in the US like me, you can still purchase iPad apps through iTunes on your PC. iTunes works fine on the other hand, not that I’ve ever actually used it from an iPhone. I have no idea what the AppStore wants (presumably something can be updated) because of this stupid thing!

Let’s run an iPhone app and see how it goes. Here I have BOMRadar, a useful radar viewer for Australian weather radars. By default, iPhone apps run at a scale that’s the same size (or at least very close to it) as they do on the iPhone. You can make this larger though using the power of ZOOOOOOOOOOOOOMING which turns it into a pixelated view 2x normal. As you can see, the pixelation is noticable. For comparison here’s the iPhone version of DocsToGo running on the iPad. DocsToGo is arguably better than the iWork suite for the iPad because it deals natively with docx, ppt and xls files, and it includes a client to transfer them to your device. On the iPad the scaling makes the experience less than fun, but it gives you another example of how iPhone apps look.

The iPod application looks like a portable version of iTunes, except less shit. The controls are nice and easy to use, browsing for audio is a snap, and you can even create your own playlists! In what I assume is a stupid decision, despite that lovely little Search box up the top right, in this “Add Songs” mode it’s completely inactive, or if you can activate it I’m too dumb to figure out how. In all though this is a really good player with a pretty good interface.

The Photos app is pretty good, and functionally similar to what you’d get on the iPhone with the addition benefit of the larger screen. You can peek inside albums by pinching (or whatever the hell a reverse pinch is… spreading?) slightly which shows a few of the photos from that album. With a picture open there’s a few useful things you can do (namely email, set as a backdrop, and so on). Note that the iPad has no camera, so you can’t use it as an oversized camera.

Personally I hate Safari and I’d rather use Opera on the iPhone, but the iPad version is pretty decent I suppose. It supports tabs and a few other cool features, but like pretty much every other iPad specific app it’s an upgrade designed to make better use of the screen. To this end, it works really well. It’s pretty easy to navigate and having a portable screen as a web browser works surprisingly well. That said, and I know everyone says this and I shouldn’t have to repeat it, but there’s zero Flash support. And I highly, HIGHLY doubt that there ever will be.

I’d love to show you the iBooks application, but I can’t. I can’t show it to you because I can’t access the App Store. Huh, now that I think about it, that notification for the App Store is probably for iBooks. I can’t be bothered making a US account just to see that, so forget it. Perhaps I’ll get around to it when Apple pulls their thumb out their arse.

The Mail app is vastly improved thanks to the new layout. It’s kind of like a desktop mail client in that you have your inbox on the left, and the currently selected email on the right. You can attach photos from the device (but strangely you can only do this from within the Photos app) and save drafts, and that’s pretty much it really. What I don’t like about this is that ultimately it’s useless for me because my primary and secondary accounts aren’t really supported. It supports GMail, MS Exchange servers, mobileMe (for the 5 people who care about it), Yahoo Mail, AOL, and standard IMAP/POP connections. My primary account is with Windows Live, while my 2nd account is accessible through POP3 but has a specific SSL port and the SMTP server requires auth. As a result, I can’t use either of them. The Mail app has very limited utility for me as a result, so I can’t say much about how well it works. My only POP3 account is from my ISP which I don’t use that much anyway, because if I leave my ISP, that account dies and becomes useless. Nevermind, at least Safari displays the web interface properly.

In terms of using the device, in general the iPad is pretty snappy and easy to use, but it does have a few niggling problems which I hope they’ll improve on. Firstly the mail client is far too limited. It really needs an overhaul, and I’m surprised they didn’t bother to fix it this time around. Then again the email client that comes with OS X is pretty bad as well. Also the one thing I really, REALLY want with this is to view PDF files… but I can’t because iBooks can’t be installed because I’m not in the US. Understandably, I’m a bit pissed off. Also there are currently no free viewers for the iPad, which means you’re stuck with an iPhone app that upscales, which defeats the purpose of having one in the first place. Even when iBooks finally hits, you’ll still be at the mercy of Apple’s closed system without an adequate method of transferring files. GoodReader however does a fantastic job of filling this pointless void.

If I was just reading eBooks, I’d probably stay with a Kindle; it’s cheaper and MUCH easier to use when it comes to transferring content. All you need to do is access it like any other form of removable media. If I was just listening to music, I’d get an iPod. If I wanted one that listens to music and acts as a phone, I’d get an iPhone. If you want something that does all of the above, then the iPad is a reasonable choice. This is not a “must have” chunk of glass, silicon and plastic. Ultimately the utility of the iPad will be determined by the apps released for it. The iPhone was in a similar position when it was first released; seemed to do a fair bit, but really, what was the point? The iPad will eventually pick up as new apps are released and people find new ways to use it, but don’t be mistaken; this is not a laptop, it’s not a netbook, and it’s not a workstation. It goes slightly beyond just being a “big iPod Touch” and the distinction will be clearer once new apps are released. If you can’t find a particular utility for it just now, you’re better off waiting to see what apps are released.

The iPad really is of dubious utility at the moment and I can’t really say that Apple are 100% certain about where it fits in. Too many people have written it off as a “big Touch” and to an extent at a glance that’s the easiest way to describe it without confusing people. It does numerous things, and it does them pretty well, but in this sort of form factor people expect a lot more. Like Flash support, for a start! That’d go a long way to improving things. Yeah, the browser is great to use, the other apps are easy to use too, the screen is fantastic, and so on, but despite doing all of these things there’s nothing yet to make the iPad compelling for everyone else. At the end of the day, an iPhone is not a must have device either, but there are compelling reasons to get one. When the iPad gets the apps that makes these reasons clear, it’ll be a lot better.

Although the iPad runs iPhone apps, the scaling makes them pretty pointless. The lack of removable media support isn’t surprising, but after using it I can see why so many would like to have access to it. It’s so hard to categorise the iPad because although it can do numerous things, because there isn’t much in the way of iPad specific apps it’s hard to show you what it can do really well. It’s unfair to throw up an iPhone app and go “Well, look at my iPad” because it’s scaling an app designed for a tiny screen. When (not if, it’s already been done apparently) the iPad is jailbroken and the tools are released for the public, its utility will probably rise even further, and until I see more iPad apps it’s too hard for me to determine exactly how to grade the iPad. There’s a large amount of potential there, but until someone uses it, that’s all there is.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a great device, and one worth checking out, but if you can’t find a use for it, hold off for a bit. Once the apps start flowing, you’ll probably find it more appealing.

NOTE – I know I haven’t discussed playing games on the iPad. This is because I don’t actually have any just at the moment, and also it’s pretty much playing a game on an iPhone, except larger. I’ll get to that eventually, possibly later today when I finally get something that shows off the 3D performance of the iPad. For now though, go elsewhere.


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