Sunday, April 04, 2010

iPad review

So I finally got to use the iPad. Here are my first impressions.

It's heavier than I thought. At about a pound and a half you really feel it when you hold it continuously for about an hour or so. When you first hold it it just feels slightly heavy, like a hardcover book - you'll definitely want to rest it on your knee when reading a book on this device.

It's fast. Feedback is immediate and highly responsive. There were a couple of situations where button presses didn't respond straight away but for the most part everything screamed.

After launching Safari, the device's speed is immediately apparent - when you two finger pinch to expand the text, you can pan the page while holding the pinch magnification steady. When you drop the pinch, the resolution fills in the detail. Same with Google Maps - pull down and pinch out and the the image balloons under your fingertips like magic, with the map tiles coloring in like patchwork. It's a lazy async loading pattern and beautiful to watch.

The screen is so big and you hold it so close to your face that the apparent size is far bigger than the screen size belies. When you're using a computer you normally sit a lot further back from the glass. It makes for an impression of size that's huge. This is really obvious when playing games. Playing plants vs zombies is so much fun on the big screen. You find your eyes darting all over the real estate. And labyrinth 2 - the marble and wood tilt game - is gorgeous, eye-popping. The unused space while you're concentrating on one corner of the game seems indulgent.

Games are going to be huge on this device. Apple have overcome a bunch of technical hurdles to make handheld gameplay cheap for consumers and given developers the tools and speed they need. The only drawback is the controls, though accelerometer and virtual joysticks go a long way. I couldn't tell you how fast I would buy a bluetooth game controller for the iPad. The car racing game, Real Racing, is so in-your-face, it's hard not to be immediately drawn in to the action. Let's hope Prince of Persia makes it to the iPad!

The book reading app is fast and functional - with special attention paid to the bookshelf, page-turns and searching. The screen is definitely easy to read and if reading my kindle books on the iPhone is anything to go by, it will be pleasant to read on this too, but if you're lying in bed you'll want to rest it on something cause it'll get heavy. The hardware orientation lock will come in handy for books and web browsing - this is a constant frustration in safari on the iPhone (I'm sure we'll see this in the next iteration of the iPhone OS).

The built-in apps are polished and so fast. Photos flick by and load almost instantly, stacks can be opened and closed with a pinch, held and moved about the screen. Touch gestures have been given a very stable state system that allows the users a great deal of control. Given the ad-hoc nature of gestures, this was important for Apple to nail so it felt intuitive and stable.

The maps application is a world in itself (although I'd love to see the ability to change routes or search alternate routes, perhaps draw a projected route on the screen). The calendar app real-estate will be very welcome. The contact app is functional rather than mind-blowing. Notes still has the same lame comic sans font and the text doesn't even line up with the lines so that app is obviously not getting much love. Given the amount of great notes apps (including taskpaper, my favourite), that's fine by me.

There is a new Videos app by itself dedicated to showing movies - despite the squarish aspect ratio, the screen is so crisp they look great. And over 10 hours of battery life with movie playback is very desirable. Many children and adults will use these devices on long trips - unless motion sickness is an issue (that remains to be seen).

The iPhone felt puny when I'd finished using the iPad for a length of time. That's not to say I don't love the speed and richness of functionality I can get on the 3GS but for web browsing, there's not comparison: the iPad is what you want to have in your hands. It will remain to be seen how well that experience plays out for the vast variety of web pages out there. (Can anyone say Chrome for the iPad? Yeah right :)) Interestingly, when I went to google and put safari in landscape mode, google mail had an Apple-like mail web app waiting for me - at iPad launch day, that's pretty impressive. There was a list of mail on the left and detail on the right. I hope I can turn that on in Chrome.

Touch is here to stay. A generation of users, especially children, will be growing up with touch-based computers. We are still at the infancy of this technology but it's clear after using the iPad that you are starting a new paradigm of computer interaction. Gestures are going to become more and more intricate. The computer gurus, instead of using keyboard shortcuts will use little-known gestures and combinations to make the computer fly.

The simplest example of this effect was when I tried to pull up the control menu in Pages. I couldn't get it to work with gestures in the side bar, double-tap, swipe - nothing worked. I then later realized I had it in landscape mode - only turning it to portrait would yield the menu bar and controls. The gestural nomenclature has been extended to orientation.

Keynote, Pages and Numbers are a good reminder of how far this device might be pushed. With a bluetooth keyboard and a way to prop the device up you could easily do basic word processing, write a book or create keynote presentations on the road. People might use it to take meeting minutes and so on. The on-screen keyboard will suffice for short bursts of text or be useful for editing, but is still not so good for touch typing IMHO. (Early hint: take a rubber non-slip mat with you to let you prop the device up against things - would work well on a tray-table in a plane).

I'm holding out for a 3G model. Given the limited options for transferring files on and off the device, I suspect copy and paste mechanisms as well as online services like dropbox and iDisk will become more popular. When opening a keynote/pages/numbers document from mail there was a button to "open in keynote/pages/numbers" for each filetype but it didn't do anything. With any luck this will be enabled so a Dropbox app can use the built-in viewer and then launch pages or keynote and open the file. Without wifi or 3G your options are very limited - you might have a file stuck in the device until you get into wifi range or can connect it to your computer. If you're on the road - get the 3G version.

I've never had a computer experience so responsive and fluid. Perhaps once when playing a first person shooter on a tricked-out PC with a fast graphics card and decent processor, the mouse controls finely tuned, where every twitch yielded instant results. But never with a general user interface. To be able to turn a computer on and immediately get to precisely the task you want is going to be very welcome to most users. Being able to run one app at a time may not bother people too much in this context.

The iPad is an experience as well as a device - I enjoyed every minute of it.