A Very Unscientific Late Review of the iPad

The Day the World Changed (i.e., the day iPads went on sale), the big boss here got one and generously agreed to share it. Anybody on staff who wanted to could borrow it overnight and take it on a trial run. Since then, it’s been making the rounds slowly, with allowances for travel schedules, real-work deadlines and the boss's understandable desire to play with it himself occasionally.

Last week, it was my turn. I took it home for a spin over two days. But rather than just share my own take (more on that later), I did a quick survey of the others who have used it as well. The opinions of the half-dozen fellow borrowers are surprisingly similar. (I really thought the art department folks, who are all Mac users—Mac being the platform all our magazines are designed with—would be real fan boys and girls, finding no flaws at all. I was wrong.)

The summary judgment from folks who have used it from anywhere from four hours to three days is this: The iPad is a good device for consuming content; for generating it, not so much. And don't even think about it as a replacement for your laptop or desktop model. As Keith Larson, our VP of content says, "It's a wonderful device for mobile content consumption and light-duty communications, but it will not take the place of a keyboarded PC for heavy-duty communications."

It's Not There Yet
Not surprisingly, everybody loved the design, the interface and the ease of use—which have always been Apple's strong points.

But, the overall impression it made, contra the hype all over the Web, is that its world-changing capacity will have to wait awhile. It still needs work. Derek Chamberlain, one of our art directors, said, "It has potential to be a great household tool, but it's not there yet." Steve Herner, our VP of graphic media, echoes: "It still needs to develop beyond an oversized iPhone and into a real tablet computer." Control's editor in chief, Walt Boyes, in the techie take, says, "I learned a long time ago never to buy version 1.0 of anything from Apple or Microsoft."  

The two biggest flaws came down to no Flash and the keyboard. "Apple absolutely has to stop fighting with Flash," says Derek. "It's not fair to the users (or to advertisers who pay for Flash ads). Maybe Flash will go away eventually, but right now it's here to stay and [its lack is] the biggest downfall of the iPhone and iPad."

Other missing features that were bothersome to the gang include no camera, no USB connectivity and lack of 3G—although that last is a flaw Apple is already planning to fix in its next iteration.

While some saw its battery life (about 10 hours) as a plus, Keith, our only Kindle owner, sees it as a problem, since his Kindle goes nearly a week without a charge. And Walt points out that his netbook's battery life is almost as long as the iPad's.

Epic Keyboard Fail
Now we come to what for me was the deal-breaker flaw: the keyboard. As Walt says, it's "a really bad joke."

I’m a verbal communicator. Words are my medium of choice. While I appreciate Derek's opinion that the interface is "the way we are meant to interact with a computer—with our hands," Apple sure muffs that with its iPad keyboard. That "touch it and make it happen" experience is part of the iPad's appeal, yet perversely, the keyboard gets in the way. Any touchpad keyboard that requires me to go to a second screen to find a punctuation mark is a loser. The only typing experience I find worse is trying to enter data on a cheap cell phone with a standard keypad. Send a multi-sentence mail or, God forbid, write even a short news story on an iPad? Please. Even tweeting is awkward, since the @ symbol requires a move to a second screen.   

Add to this the fact that the iPad's form factor requires you to hunch over the pad while it lies flat on a surface in order to see what you've typed, and you've got a non-starter. That you can buy a case from Apple (for an additional $40) that enables you to put the screen at an angle, albeit a wobbly one, is an insult. For $500 to $800, I think I'm entitled to a functioning keyboard from the get-go. And no tilt-screen also creates a huge glare issue with overhead lights and bright sun. I would have thought Apple's vaunted design team would have solved these issues out of the gate.

I'm with Walt on this one. I don’t see the iPad doing anything that my netbook doesn't already do for less money—and I can actually write on my netbook.

None of the iPhone users that reviewed the iPad saw it as a substitute for that—since the iPad doesn't make phone calls. They said they would want both. So why is the iPad a "must-have"?

Not one of my reviewers saw the iPad as a substitute for a work station or a laptop, although Derek did point out one idea I hadn’t thought of. "It could be a nice supplement to a laptop or desktop computer," he says. "I heard a study done on engineers recently that said they could increase productivity up to 20% with a second monitor (for email, IM, media players, etc.). The iPad could act as that second monitor."

Keith suggested that at a lower price point, it might be a replacement for his wife's PC, which is used primarily for Web surfing. "Then it could go right into a kitchen drawer."

Still, it might have a future in business somewhere down the road. Walt and Keith both suggest that a ruggedized, intrinsically safe version might find its way on to the plant floor as a replacement for bar-code readers and laptops.

So is the iPad really the next iDoorstop? Probably not. It is cool. We have to give it that. Keith says its "cool beans interface" and its graphically rich environment open the door to magazines and other graphically oriented media. He suggests it will do for them what the Kindle has done for long-form prose. (Whether it will "save print" is another question all together.)

Fact is, it's just so slick, and Apple's media machine is so well-oiled that a whole bunch of folks will just have to have one whether they "need" it or not. They're already lining up to get one.

However, its place in the world will be—at least in the short term—as a personal, private media access point, especially for road warriors looking to shed excess baggage—or, as Derek suggests, "an all-purpose coffee table computing station." It could something else entirely as more and more apps become available for it—and as Apple tweaks it and corrects its more obvious flaws. Meanwhile, it's a nice-to-have luxury rather than a have-to-have tool to get along in the evolving world of mobile connectivity.