In 10 years of reviewing tech products for The New York Times, I’ve never seen a product as polarising as Apple’s iPad, which arrives in stores today. “This device is laughably absurd,” goes a typical remark on a tech blog’s comments board. “How can they expect anyone to get serious computer work done without a mouse?”
“This truly is a magical revolution,” goes another. “I can’t imagine why anyone will want to go back to using a mouse and keyboard once they’ve experienced Apple’s visionary user interface!” Those are pretty confident critiques of the iPad considering that their authors have never even tried it. In any case, there’s a pattern to these assessments. The haters tend to be techies; the fans tend to be regular people.
Review for techies
The Apple iPad is basically a gigantic iPod Touch.
It’s a half-inch-thick slab, all glass on top, aluminum on the back. Hardly any buttons at all – just a big Home button below the screen. It takes you to the Home screen full of apps, just like on an iPhone.
One model gets online only in Wi-Fi hot spots ($500 to $700, for storage capacities from 16 to 64 gigabytes). The other model can get online either using Wi-Fi or, when you’re out and about, using AT&T’s cellular network; that feature adds $130 to each price.
You operate the iPad by tapping and dragging on the glass with your fingers, just like on the iPhone. When the very glossy 9.7-inch screen is off, every fingerprint is grossly apparent.
There’s an e-book reader app, but it’s not going to rescue the newspaper and book industries (sorry, media pundits). The selection is puny (60,000 titles for now). You can’t read well in direct sunlight. At 1.5 pounds, the iPad gets heavy in your hand after awhile (the Kindle is 10 ounces). And you can’t read books from the Apple bookstore on any other machine – not even a Mac or iPhone.
At least Apple gave the iPad a really fast processor. Things open fast, scroll fast, load fast. Surfing the Web is a heck of a lot better than on the tiny iPhone screen – first, because it’s so fast, and second, because you don’t have to do nearly as much zooming and panning.
The bottom line is that you can get a laptop for much less money – with a full keyboard, DVD drive, USB jacks, camera-card slot, camera, the works. Besides: If you’ve already got a laptop and a smartphone, who’s going to carry around a third machine?
Review for everyone else
The Apple iPad is basically a gigantic iPod Touch. The simple act of making the multi-touch screen bigger changes the whole experience. Maps become real maps, like the paper ones. Scrabble shows the whole board, without your having to zoom in and out. You see your e-mail inbox and the open message simultaneously.
The new iBooks e-reader app is filled with endearing grace notes. For example, when you turn a page, the animated page edge actually follows your finger’s position and speed as it curls, just like a paper page. Font, size and brightness controls appear when you tap. Tap a word to get a dictionary definition, bookmark your spot or look it up on Google or Wikipedia. There’s even a rotation-lock switch on the edge of the iPad so you can read in bed on your side without fear that the image will rotate.
If you have the cellular model, you can buy AT&T service so you can get online anywhere. (Cellular iPads aren’t available until next month; I tested a Wi-Fi-only model.)
The iPad’s killer app, though, is killer apps. Apple says that 150,000 existing iPhone apps run on the iPad. All the greats work this way: Dragon Dictation, Skype (even voice calls) and those gazillion games. But the real fun begins when you try the apps that were specially designed for the iPad’s bigger screen. (When the iPad section of the App Store opens today, it will start with 1,000.)
Newspaper apps will reproduce the layout, photos and colours of a real newspaper. The Marvel comic-book app is brilliant in its vividness and panel-by-panel navigation.
Hulu.com, the Web’s headquarters for free hit TV shows, won't confirm the rumours that it’s working on an iPad app, but wow — can you imagine? A thin, flat, cordless, bottomless source of free, great TV shows, in your bag or on the bedside table?
Speaking of video: Apple asserts that the iPad runs 10 hours on a charge of its non-removable battery — but we all know you can't trust the manufacturer. And sure enough, in my own test, the iPad played movies continuously more than 12 hours.
That’s four times as long as a typical laptop or portable DVD player.
The iPad is so fast and light, the multi-touch screen so bright and responsive, the software so easy to navigate, that it really does qualify as a new category of gadget. Some have suggested that it might make a good goof-proof computer for technophobes, the aged and the young; they’re absolutely right.
But the techies are right about one thing: The iPad is not a laptop. It’s not nearly as good for creating stuff.
On the other hand, it’s infinitely more convenient for consuming it — books, music, video, photos, Web, e-mail and so on.
For most people, manipulating these digital materials directly by touching them is a completely new experience — and a deeply satisfying one.
The bottom line is that the iPad has been designed and built by a bunch of perfectionists. If you like the concept, you’ll love the machine.
The only question is: Do you like the concept?