November 24, 2010

Thoughts on an iPad

Right, I've been trying to write this review column for a month now and just haven't been able to commit to words my thoughts about the iPad.

But I think I've figured those words out now:
  • The iPad is neat.

There, that's about it.  That's the summary of the far-longer review that I'm about to offer up.

It's absolutely neat.  The interface is slick.  The design and look - certainly typical for an Apple product - are slick.  The touch controls are intuitive and largely responsive, and the entirety of the iPad experience is neat and fun.

About two months ago, Princeton City School District loaned me 'my' iPad.  It's clearly not mine; I know that.  In fact, in about two weeks, it'll be shifted along to our school psychologist so that she can see how to make the iPad useful in her job.  In spite of the iPad's inherent neatness, however, I wish her better luck in finding ways to incorporate it into her job than I did into mine.

Let's start with the positives of the iPad...
  • The iPad is gorgeous. - From the simple elegance of the sleek, black frame to the high resolution screen, the iPad is absolutely beautiful.  There is one single, physical home button on the front (shown to the right in the above photo) and a few buttons (power, volume, rotation lock [for now]) along the edges and two input/output connectors (headphones and the now-standard Apple connector).  Nothing else mars the crisp, clean lines of the physical device.

    The touch screen, then is where all of the action happens, and the most impressive apps are the ones that use the entirety of this viewable space leaving absolutely nothing surrounding them but that simple, black frame.  This is, at its best, a computer permanently in presentation mode.  There is no task bar, no Windows-style frame around the information to distract from the user's immersion in the sights and sounds being presented.  When control is needed, however, the controls appear at a touch but almost always in an impressively unobtrusive manner.
  • Everyone loves the iPad. - The moment I mentioned in my classroom that I had a school iPad, students clamored for a turn, for a chance to touch the magical monolith that is the iPad.  Students - almost all familiar with the interface of the seemingly ubiquitous smart phones - instantly knew how to find the home screen, the access the various apps, to swipe across the screen to the next screen of apps (currently sorted by me into science and non-science apps).  The knew how to manipulate the information and to spin the screen as needed from landscape to portrait to let the information appear in the most attractive manner. 

    Since those first introductions, I have had two students in particular who are most eager to use the iPad and spend time during lunches and after school watching videos, browsing the web, downloading apps, and generally being much more effective testers than I often am.
  • The best apps are awesome. - As I mentioned, the best apps for me are the most immersive apps.  They are the games that require you to turn the iPad around like a steering wheel for your bouncy car, manipulating the game gravity with a simple iPad tilt, the virtual marble mazes that require movement just like a physical marble maze would. 

    They are the apps that utilize the entirety of the screen and take advantage of the iPad's unique features to turn what would normally be a passive viewing experience on a computer screen into an interactive Experience.
  • The iPad is quick. - The laptop on which I am writing this post is about three years old now.  It's certainly showing its age but is still a very effective machine and one that I'm not anywhere near replacement for just yet.  When I need to use it, I turn on the power button and walk away for about thirty seconds.  I then come back and click to log in to my account, and I walk about for about four minutes.  At that point, I come back and open up Firefox or Word or Excel or whatever and walk away again for a minute or two until the program is open.  Once everything is open and the computer is fully logged in an warmed up (whatever internal processes that entails), things roll along quite smoothly and largely glitchless (except for the fact that if I try to play iTunes, half the time it shuts down my sound card for about five minutes, but if I try to play iTunes while a YouTube video - or other sound producing action in my browser - is playing, iTunes works just fine 100% of the time).

    When I want to use the iPad, I hit the power button and wait about one second.  I swipe my finger to the right to wake it up, and I hit the app that I want.  Not ten seconds after I've hit the power button - admittedly waking the device from sleep rather than from a full off state.  If I've turned my computer off and need to look up a quick something that I'd forgotten, I turn to the iPad every time.

    The browsing experience is almost as quick, as well, with 'my' iPad being the lowest end of the spectrum, dependent on WiFi signals rather than on the - as I understand things - faster 3G network.  In spite of that, web browsing was only a tic slower than it is on my laptop, and almost all of the apps ran absolutely without a hitch.
Sadly, however, the iPad isn't exactly perfect...
  • The iPad isn't for producing. - I will admit that I haven't downloaded the Apple iWorks suite ($9.99 each for the Pages, Numbers, and Keynote apps), and that probably limits my full understanding of the iPad's capabilities in this area, but I just don't see that the iPad is a replacement for a computer.  Yes, it views and shows data and images brilliantly, but I haven't seen that it is a machine on which I would be making those presentations.  The virtual keyboard is actually more user-friendly than I had initially expected, and the auto-correct feature is something that I think could be very useful but to which I haven't yet become accustomed yet.
  • The iPad isn't for projecting. - This one baffles me, but I even sat in on a training given by Apple employees and was told that the iPad will not export a screen image to a projector.  This meant that the Apple presenters had to use a document camera to get the screen image to the LCD projector in the school library.  They did say that some apps support the exporting of a screen image via a purchasable  dongle that attaches to the Apple connector, but that most apps did not allow for projection.  I don't know why they wouldn't include that as a feature.
  • The iPad doesn't support flash. - Again, I have no clue why this is the case, but it severely limits the usability of the iPad as a web browsing device.  Hopefully the more and more prevalent use of HTML 5 will solve this issue, but I imagine that Flash will continue to exist on a lot of websites for a while to come.
  • The iPad doesn't allow multitasking. - This is supposedly getting fixed on OS 4.2, the iPad that I am using doesn't have this function meaning that I can't play music while browsing the web, can't have two pages open at the same time, can't copy and past from a page into a document without significant hassle.  iPad OD 4.2 also apparently allows for app folders which will also be much appreciated.
So, would I buy an iPad? doesn't seem like a replacement for a computer, but it would certainly allow me to use my computer less frequently.  The lack of projection and challenges in producing a document are hurdles that I think are too high for me to successfully overcome.  That being said, it is far more portable, more attractive, and easier to use for the consumption of media - the web, movies, slideshows, whatever - than is my laptop.  I would much rather tote an iPad around than my laptop (which comes to feel more and more like a needlessly over-sized behemoth with every day). 

If, maybe they could get the whole comic-books-on-an-iPad thing worked out, I might be a little more desirous of the thing.

I wonder, however, if the iPad isn't a bit of an El Camino of the computing world.  It's not as portable as a smart phone, something that I can slip into my pocket and grab out at the drop of a hat to find the nearest burrito joint or directions to tonight's basketball game.  For all of those things, I'll take a smart phone (even though I don't have one because I'm too cheap to sign on to the requisite pricing contracts).  But the iPad isn't a computer either - not a laptop or a desktop. It's awesome at some things but not small enough or powerful enough to be something that I am desperate to have in my life.

But the iPad is neat.

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