If you are reading this iPad review, you are probably still wondering if you should spend $499 or more on an iPad, and you are looking for answers. In this post, I will try to tell you what the iPad does (or does not), and how good (I think) it really is. Many aspects of the iPad are covered: design, display, books, videos, cool apps, productivity, gaming, web, battery life… you name it. After reading this, you should have a good idea of whether or not the iPad is for you and what it will really bring on the table. If not, well… you can leave a comment! Let’s dive in…
We all perceive the usefulness of these devices differently depending on our lifestyle, so let me tell you where I come from. I spend most of my time using a powerful desktop computer (a PC) with a very large display. If I need to get some real work done outside of the office, I use a laptop (Sony Vaio, or Macbook Pro + Win7). On the go, I keep track of emails with a smartphone, but I tend to reply only moderately from a cellphone because typing long emails is painful (even more so on a touchscreen phone). I check news websites a lot, and I often use a laptop in my couch. Now you know…
External design (Beautiful)
The build quality is excellent. The aluminium back feels great under the finger and nothing feels cheap. There is an audio jack connector for headphones, and a microphone for apps that need it. The speaker is on the bottom of the device where the “Home” button is. The audio quality is so-so and the maximum speaker volume is too soft for my taste. My advice: use headphones whenever possible. The volume button is accessible and active whenever the iPad is playing something.
Other than the standard 3.5mm audio jack, the only external connector is the proprietary Apple connector, which seems similar to the one found on the iPhone.A number of accessories can be connected to that, and this is the only wired way to connect to the outside world. Update: I’ve spotted an iPad to VGA connector at the Apple Store.
The iPad is heavier than most people expect: at 1.5lbs to 1.6lbs (3G), it is heavy enough so that my wrist would get tired after less than 30mn of firmly holding it. $499 is a good amount of money, but making something with this build quality at that price is not easy. iPad technical specifications on Apple’s website
Display (Very good)
The display deserves its own section: with a resolution of 1024×768, it has a seemingly low pixel density compared to select high-end smartphones. That said, everything looks sharp and colorful. The contrast and colors are very nice (dare I say “Amazing”?). Plus, the brightness distribution is very stable regardless of the viewing angle.
In direct sunlight, you will get a good amount of reflections, but overall, the iPad display does OK, especially if you are looking at an image with bright colors. If you are watching a dark movie, only a trans-reflective display could help you in that situation. Note that the iPhone 3GS display is slightly better in direct sunlight.
I’ve heard many complaints about the thick bezel around the screen. There’s no question that thinner is better, but the bezel is currently needed because your thumb or another finger will land on it while firmly holding the device. If it wasn’t for the bezel, your fingers would be on an active touch surface and that would interfere with the user interface (UI).
Eye strain: some fear that reading from an LCD display would cause headaches and eyestrain. I can only speak for myself, but I have not experienced any eyestrain, and you can imagine that I’ve been spending a lot of time on the device to write this review. However, remember that I’m looking at a computer LCD most of the time anyway…
User Interface (Easy)
For those who have used an iPhone or an iPod touch, there is no learning curve whatsoever. It’s the same look (with many additions) and feel and you’ll be productive right away. If you are not familiar with it, this is arguably one of the best touch interface out there, and I expect most people to be able to ramp up fairly quickly.
There is a lot of: “grand parents would love it”. May be so, but this is largely unproven. I think that most people who believe this have never actually tested it on their tech-averse relatives. If you have, feel free to drop a comment at the end of the review. Anyway, if you are thinking about getting one for an elderly person, just keep in mind that: 1/ it might not be as easy as you think it is. 2/ A computer is still required to register and setup the device.
Media Consumption (Very good)
The iPad promises to “revolutionize” how we consume media, in a “magical” way, according to Apple. “Magic” is an exaggeration, but yes, this is going to shake some habits.
iBooks: I like the user interface of the Apple book reader, it’s simple and readable, it has a search feature and most importantly, most books (if not all) come with a free sample. Overall, I don’t think that there is such a big difference between the Apple book reader and the Kindle reader when it comes to the act of reading but… Amazon seems to be a better book provider.
Kindle for iPad : Amazon has done a good job of making its Kindle app available on many platforms. As a result, it is possible to buy a book from Amazon on the iPad (on amazon.com) and bypass Apple completely. The great thing about the Kindle app is that once you own a book, you can re-download it on as many devices as you want (PC, iPhone, etc…). Kindle also lets you take notes, if you care about that. Finally, Amazon has about 450k book versus Apple’s 60k – oh and Amazon eBooks are getting cheaper too.
Comics: the Marvel comics look fantastic! This is really a great demonstration of what’s possible on a nice color display and why black and white is not a sustainable value proposition. The Marvel app is a must-see and there are free comics for you to try it with. Now, I would *love it* if Marvel would make the old comics available…
Magazines: I’m a big fan of magazines and I had high expectations for them on the iPad. At the moment, it’s promising, but I don’t think that I’ll buy them by the dozen each month. First, you don’t know what you’re getting before you pay. Secondly, some are really overpriced. Time Magazine (which has a 2.5/5 rating in the app store) sells for $4.99 while you can get the 12-issues subscription for less than $10 on amazon: this is lame. Others (3D Artist) will sell you the app that is needed to download the magazine itself… For the sake of this review, I bought GQ and one issue of 3D Artist (this one is messy). Overall, they are visually very promising but not quite there yet: it’s buggy and often slow. Also, while there is only one way to read a paper magazine, each e-mag has its own set of user interface rules… not good.
PDF files: the iPad has great support for .PDF files. It is much faster than the Kindle to handle those and the rendering is much better. If you are reading complex PDF files, this is a no-brainer.
The arrival of the iPad got many publishers excited. Thanks to the “pad” form-factor, many have dedicated applications to access their content. There are many out there, but I tried three to give you a sense of what was out there.
USA Today: This is my favorite implementation of a news app. It is well laid out and very fast to load and navigate. Unfortunately, it does not offer video playback. Content is free.
BBC: BBC is fast and clear. It looks more like a mobile website than a “newspaper”, but I don’t think that the “newspaper feel” is really what I’m looking for. I want good and readable news, that’s it. BBC features video as well. Content is free.
Wall Street Journal: WSJ is mostly a subscription/paid content service. They arguably have a great design that looks the most like a “newspaper”, but I was disappointed after using it. It’s slow, seem buggy and freezes for a few seconds after each page turn, this is annoying.
Bloomberg: I usually go to Yahoo Finance to keep track of the markets, but the Bloomberg App is very well done and lets me follow a bunch of things (indices, news, currencies..) better and more clearly than I would on their website. Because there is less display surface, the developers had to prioritize the important content. The result is a no-nonsense information access. It’s free too.
Netflix: I tried watching a few movies on Netflix and it worked beautifully. The streaming movie resolution is slightly inferior to the iPad’s 1024×768 display, so things are not as sharp as they could be, but it’s enjoyable enough to have a good time.
YouTube: Youtube has more high-resolution content, so we tried watching a few movie trailers and they all came out looking smooth and sharp – much better than anything we’ve seen on Netflix anyway. Can’t wait for the Hulu app…
DLNA: If you don’t know what DLNA is, skip this paragraph. Apple doesn’t support DLNA network access out of the box, but I spotted at least one app that brings DLNA support to the iPad: http://plugplayer.com/. Remember that you are still limited to whatever formats the iPad player supports.
The user interface is a little different from the iPhone version, but music playback basically works well, there’s not much to report on that front. it’s an iPod after all.
Productivity (Below average)
Virtual keyboard: after typing on it for some time, here’s my feedback: it is so much better than a smartphone in either portrait or landscape mode. However, this is not as fast as a 10″ Netbook keyboard, or a full-sized keyboard. Here’s my own typing speed: 60 words per minute (wpm) with the iPad, 70wpm on a Netbook and around 80wpm with a full-size keyboard. Personally, I think that the iPad is great for casual typing (one paragraph email replies), but I don’t like sustained typing (10mn+) on the virtual keyboard.
Email: The email experience is comfortable, in some ways, more so than on a Netbook. Because the Mail application user interface is tailored to a small display, it is better than it would be on a 10″ Netbook with Outlook or Gmail. Emails are easy to read and it’s also easy to switch from one account to the next.
Calendar: the calendar is another element that benefits from an increased display size. Looking at a week’s worth of appointments can be done easily. In two taps, you can ener in Edit Mode and change the time and other properties of an event. Cool stuff.
File management: Outside of iTunes, there’s little to no way to manage files. Apps are so sandboxed that their access to files are severely limited. If you email yourself a PDF file, you will be able to open it, but not save it. I don’t think that you can even create a folder to dump stuff. Photos from emails can be saved in the “photos” directory, but not elsewhere. Whether it is for security (sandbox) or simplicity reasons, I don’t like it. I want a “user” folder that I can organize the way I want, and access it like a USB key – most other devices work that way. In the meantime, I use Memeo Connect Reader (free) and Google Doc files to work around this. It works pretty well, but it’s a little more work than just dragging and dropping to a folder.
iWorks: Microsoft has announced that there would not be a version of Microsoft Office for iPad, but Apple has its own productivity suite, that is getting rave reviews. In the end, I think that the question is: how much typing can you really do on this platform? For me, the answer is “not much”, so regardless of how good the software is, you ultimately are the limit.
Gaming (Getting better, but…)
Hardcore gamers might consider the iPhone platform to be a sub-par gaming system, but commercially, it is quickly becoming huge. I’m probably a hardcore gamer but I try to stay open-minded: recent 3D games do look great on the iPad and this is only the beginning. The thing that I dislike about iPad gaming is the tactile controls. I just prefer a game controller, a keyboard+mouse or a wheel. You might or might not like it better – there’s only one way to find out: try playing on an iPhone or an iPad.
There have been reports of iPad overheating, but at the moment, I have not experienced any issues, despite playing 3D games for more than 30mn – 45mn.
Web browsing (Good but incomplete)
The web browsing experience is very like the one on the iPhone/iPod touch, but a little faster, and with a much more comfortable display. Now, there is no need to zoom much and this feels very much like browsing on a computer but, they are some significant hiccups:
1/ Page loading is still noticeably slower than on a computer
2/ There’s no flash, and many flash-heavy sites like local restaurants or entertainment sites won’t work properly (if at all). See: fleurdelyssf.com, jpchocolates.com and starz.com/originals/spartacus
3/ Google docs won’t let you edit documents, and I’ve noticed issues with some Facebook widgets as well. Expect some difficulties with edgy Web 2.0 sites.
Overall, it’s not a real problem but I want to make sure that you realize that these issues do exist, and that they might not be fixed in the near future.
Social Media (Effective)
There are a ton of apps to use Twitter more efficiently. I have tested TweetDeck, and I like their clean and clear interface. As for Facebook, it’s nice that you can use the website directly to get the whole experience (minus Flash video). When chatting with AIM, the screen is a little small when the virtual keyboard is on, but switching to portrait mode made it work. Overall, there’s usually “an (iPhone) app for that”, or you can head to your favorite social networking site directly. The apps let you get notified when something happened, that’s why I keep using the Facebook app for iPhone. Can’t wait to see the iPad version…
Adobe ideas (free): There is a ton of apps, but this one caught my eyes. It’s a fun finger painting program that lets you sketch things. Autodesk has a much fancier, but paid application that does something like this too.
Memeo Connect Reader: lets you synchronize Google Docs files to the iPad. Because built-in iPad file management could be improved, this little program can be very handy.
WiFi chip faster than the iPhone 3GS
The 3G model isn’t available yet, but the good news is that the WiFi chip of the iPad is faster than the iPhone’s – if you can find a network fast enough to saturate both chips… It is not surprising thought, because Apple has less power and thermal constraints with the iPad WiFi chip, they can crank it up.
Just as we predicted, the $499 iPad is the one that has been selling out, but some folks that we know have been buying MiFi or Sprint Overdrive (read our complete overdrive review) wireless modems to create a WiFi “bubble” that the iPad can connect with.
How is the iPad at 3G speeds?
To figure out how the 3G model would behave, we have played with our iPad and the Sprint Overdrive in 3G mode. Of course, this means that we didn’t use the AT&T network (!), but that will give us an idea.
Obviously, things do slow down quite a bit when going from WiFi to 3G. In general it’s OK for text-based applications such as email. Websites do slow down noticeably, but things are still fast enough to enjoy Netflix movies – at a lower resolution. The Maps application still works very well. In fact, it is almost as fast as it is with WiFi. Content download is the part that should suffer the most under 3G, and of course, there’s the general reliability of the AT&T network remains to be proven. By the way, AT&T has confirmed that for the iPad “unlimited” really means “unlimited” and not 5GB.
Note that using a MiFi or an Overdrive works perfectly, but both devices have a battery life of about 3 hours, which is a far cry from the 10+ hours of the iPad. Download speed as tested: 803kbps (3/5 bars, Sprint network with Sprint Overdrive)
Battery Life (Excellent)
Thanks to progress in low-power designs, testing the battery life of computers is becoming seriously long. The custom iPad A4 processor consumes very little power, so in most cases, the display will be the largest drain factor on the battery.
* Local storage video: 10+ hours
* Streaming video (Netflix): 10+ hours
* Book reading:11-12hrs
* Music (display off): (too long, if I want to publish this week)
A typical day: For my personal use, the iPad will stay alive for about 1.5 days, and possibly 2 days if I stop trying all the apps with shiny icons.
Sleep mode: most gadgets continue to drain power when they are in sleep mode. In the case of the iPad, I noticed that it lost about 1% per night (7hr), which is quite low. This might be a positive effect of not having too much stuff running in the background…
USB charging incompatibility: although it is mentioned that the iPad can be charged from a computer USB ports, it turns out that this is true mainly for Mac computer USB ports because they have a little more juice. It doesn’t work on most PC computers, or USB HUBs. More details about the iPad USB topic.
Battery replacement: the battery is not user replaceable, and like most batteries, it might lose its charge capabilities or simply die (after a while). Right now, the cost of replacement is $105.95. For more info head to Apple’s iPad battery replacement page.
What could be better? (Plenty)
As good as the iPad is, it is not perfect. Here’s a short list of things that iPad critics usually complain about:
* No camera
* No USB ports
o We’re stuck with that iPhone port for everything
* No background execution (multi-tasking) for third party applications
o No always-on IM
o No app-based music in the background
o No data crunching in the background
*This should be addressed by the iPhone OS 4.0, due to be released for the iPad in the Fall.
* Virtual keyboard is not as productive as a real one
* No Flash (see our Web Browsing section)
* AT&T-only (in practice)
* No widescreen
* Closed application market (iPad has been jailbroken)
* Can’t create a list of apps/files to buy/download
* And more…
Most of the critics are pretty legitimate, but many people don’t factor in the cost that they would induce in terms of form factor, power consumption or dollars. The reality is that there’s not a whole lot of competitors out there and by and large, the iPad is “good enough” for a certain crowd. Joojoo, a Tablet that supports Flash in the browser has apparently pre-sold 90 units…
How bad is it to not have multitasking? Not being able to leave apps running in the background is annoying sometimes… Personally, I’d like to get some sort of notification if someone sends me an Instant Message (IM). Right now, even that is not possible. This is really the only thing that bugs me, although I do understand that others will want to do more things that require multi-tasking. I suspect that iPhone OS 4.0 might address that, to some extent.
Is this a Netbook/laptop killer? (No)
In general, the iPad it’s not a Netbook killer, but it will take away revenues from that market. From a hardware and functionality standpoint, there’s no argument that the iPad only performs a subset of the things that one could do with a classic computer. If you currently use your laptop for doing things that exactly overlap with the iPad functionalities, then yes, the iPad could be a Netbook replacement, but I would not generalize this. It’s just “different”, let’s accept it.
Limitations listed in the “What could be better?” paragraph show that the iPad can’t do things that most people take for granted like leaving your IM client in the background, going to Flash-based websites, copy data with a USB key, or simply type comfortably for extended periods of time. Many observers also forget how important Microsoft Windows is for the large majority of Netbook buyers. Linux Netbooks failed because of that. Being able to install Windows apps is still very high on people’s list of “must have”.
Btw, the first thing that happens when you turn the iPad on is that it is asking you to plug it to a computer to initialize it (PC or Mac).
What is the iPad great for?
I’ll speak for myself, and you have to realize that I have not tried every possible applications on the platform, but in my case here’s what the iPad is great for:
Web browsing, Email: I tend to use my laptop in my couch/bed, and for most of the web browsing and email that I do, the iPad is great. The battery lasts much longer, it’s lighter and most importantly, it is “instant-on” – no boot, no shut down. As I said earlier, some sites aren’t accessible because Flash is not supported, but 95% of the time it’s not a problem.
Browse my Netflix account: Add DVDs or instant-on movies to the queue and check new releases. Watching streaming video works great too.
Read news & comics: Reading comic books is truly awesome, it is so much better to me than the paper experience… Some news apps are great too. They are faster than going to the website, although I’m not quite sure if the web won’t win in the long run. It’s too early to tell. Books are good too, but I feel that the display could use a higher resolution and a higher size before I can truly love it. That said, I would chose the iPad over the Kindle any day.
Watching movies on a plane: Because of its size, the iPad is very good at displaying movies in cramped environments like airplanes but you will need some kind of stand, because it is not comfortable to hold it for a while. Movie playback is something that recent netbooks can deal with, but most of them will run out of battery after 3-6 hours while the iPad can go on for 10 hours.
Maps: the Map application looks great on the iPad. At the moment, we have not tested it on the 3G+GPS enabled, but it would be interesting to take it for a ride. Using the iPad as a personal navigation sounds cool, especially if we had a good way to mount it in a car (like this one). Is there an accessory for that?
Watching photo, videos: I like to play with the photo gallery, and I like to watch a trailer quickly to decide if I should record something on my video recorder, or rent a movie on my PS3 or Netflix.
It’s (really) instant-on: unlike my laptop, the iPad turns on and off instantly and in situation where I would turn things on and off a lot (in my couch) it’s pretty handy and convenient. Plus, it prolongs the battery life.
What the iPad is not great at
This is my personal preferences, but here’s what I don’t like to use the iPad for:
Writing reviews: it’s just painful to write for an extended period of time on the iPad. Yesterday, I had a 10mn IM session with a friend and I was getting tired by then. There’s no way that this would be my primary text input system.
Gaming: I know, the App Store game content is exploding these days, but I’m a hardcore gamer, I like game consoles, I like to play on PC, and I’m just having a hard time to be entertained with iPad games. The controls aren’t that great – although they are getting better and more creative. In the end, it’s just not my type of games. Maybe this would work better for me: iPad arcade cabinet
Productivity apps: While the iPad is capable of doing things like Word Processing, Presentations or even Spreadsheets, I would rather do that on a classic computer. In a pinch, it’s great that you can get some stuff done, but I don’t buy the argument that productivity apps are a “pleasure” to work with.
Instant Messaging: the iPad isn’t great at instant messaging for two reasons: 1/ I get tired quickly when I type. 2/When i put it to sleep, the IM app is closed and I won’t get any notifications (my Blackberry does notify me of incoming IM). 3/Each time I switch to another app, IM is closed too.
This list of “not so great at” is limited to things that I would do with my laptop while sitting in my couch. The conclusion is: the laptop won’t be too far.
Conclusion (Very good, but not for everyone)
What the iPad is “useful for” will evolve with new apps and ideas, but in the end, it is just a tool that should help you do what you usually do… more easily and in a better way. You have to ask yourself why it would be useful to you. Actually, if you think “what is the purpose of this?”, then there’s probably no reason for you to get one.
For those who know what they will use it for, I hope that this review has clarified some things and provided enough information to make an educated decision.
Let’s be real: most people currently don’t *need* an iPad in the way they do “need” a phone or a computer. Right now, it is an entertainment device that could make one’s computing life a little better if you find the right apps. It has a lot of great qualities: Über-portable, pretty, responsive, tons of apps, great display, excellent battery life… But it also costs $499 in its simplest form, and this is not pocket change (people are buying the 16GB for $700+ on eBay). If you can afford it, and if your usage model is compatible with its design, the iPad is a great device. Love it or hate it, but let’s all live in peace.