Two of my colleagues from IT and I stopped by the Apple Store today; several faculty members have requested iPads, and we received authorization to get one for ourselves, to become familiar with it. We weren’t able to take delivery today, though. (The Apple sales rep at the store actually said that “because of the demand” it “didn’t make sense to stock product.” I kid you not.)
I’m glad I’m not from Planet Cupertino.
We did, however, get to try the iPad, since they did have a couple dozen or so demonstrator units on display for people to play with. As with everything Apple, there’s a lot of good, but mixed in with some bad and some downright ugly.
First of all, hardware-wise, I think Apple has a winner. Apple’s engineering has nearly always been quite good (we’ll forgive them the original iMac, since they seem to have learned their lesson.) The iPad feels solid and professionally made, while still being light and usable. Apple claims that the battery life is ten hours. I’m guessing that they mean ten hours reading a single page of an eBook with brightness set to minimum and WiFi off — more like four or five hours, the way I’d probably use it.
- The display is gorgeous. Bright, crisp, and (mostly) easy to see. The glossy screen does mean that if you’re viewing dark images, you will tend to see a distinct reflection, which hurts the experience. It’s generally pretty dark in my Geek Cave, though, so this isn’t a big deal.
- It has an accelerometer, and puts it to good use just like the iPhone does; most apps will rotate around to follow the way the iPad is being held, switching smoothly from portrait to landscape mode and back within a few seconds. The demonstrators at the Apple Store included a really fun ball-in-the-maze game, complete with all kinds of obstacles and puzzles only possible in a computer game.
- Pinch-zoom and scroll are generally very snappy; the Google-powered Maps app that it comes with makes a great demonstration. Whatever Apple has under the hood, it gets the job done nicely.
- As with most Apple offerings these days, it feels like a solid, quality product. Apple’s hardware engineers do tend to “do it right.”
- 3G isn’t available until a few weeks from now; the iPads available now (well, “now” being “in a few business days since we at the Apple store can’t be bothered to stock product”) are WiFi-only.
- There’s no real keyboard (unless perhaps a Bluetooth one will work), and the onscreen keyboard is about on par with the iPhone’s — that is to say, slightly south of a “meh” in my book. I had expected faster, more accurate response, especially since there is so much more screen real estate to work with.
- As mentioned above, the screen is glossy and therefore very reflective. This made it difficult to see at times, when darker content was being viewed. (The environment was the Apple Store, lit similarly to a modern office.)
- The sound was just barely audible in the (admittedly somewhat noisy) store. The (very cool if a bit unresponsive) Piano app that I tried (a great use of multitouch if I ever saw one) was very difficult to hear, even with the app and system volume controls set to max.
- It runs Apple iPhone OS. This does make it easy and fairly intuitive to use, but to someone used to “real” computers (Linux, and even Windows), it has the distinct Apple mindset of “you’re-not-supposed-to-be-using-this-for-things-that-Apple-doesn’t-want-you-to.”
- It’s too big to put in your pocket — even in cargo pants. Size-wise, it’s definitely in netbook territory, only a lot thinner.
- The screen could possibly be a bit larger (but that’s personal preference). This would allow more touchscreen apps like a full-size, playable piano, or a much easier-to-use onscreen keyboard.
Showstoppers (for me):
- The Apple-way-or-no-way-at-all groupthink is in full force here. I was curious as to how well the iPad would work as a Remote Desktop client, and tried downloading a free RD client from the App Store. Unfortunately, you need to register with Apple, even to download free content. Contrast this with Linux or Windows, where you can download a tarball, zipfile, msi or exe installer, or Linux installation package of your choice from anywhere, anonymously. Registering shouldn’t even be required for payware content (other than to pay the developer) — let alone for free apps.
- The lack of a keyboard would relegate the iPad to use as a eBook reader (which it admittedly is great at), casual game device (which it does okay at, especially with the accelerometer), and/or map device (which it also is great at.) Unless it were an emergency, though, I wouldn’t want to write code, documents, or emails, on it. Typing anything more than a very occasional search phrase was very aggravating (even typing in an address into the Maps app was painfully slow compared to using a real keyboard.)
- The iPhone OS means, to me, that it isn’t a “real” computer — and therefore could never replace a laptop. If I had a laptop with me, I just don’t see using an iPad all that much.
- Most importantly, Apple hasn’t seen fit to change their totalitarian ways. Guys, you build some awesome hardware — if the iPad ran Linux, I would seriously consider buying one at some point. By all means, make it available as it is with the iPhone OS or any other proprietary OS — but throw us hardcore geeks a bone and make a Linux distro for it (with proprietary hardware drivers, if you must.)
Finally, an idea — why not make a portable docking station for the iPad — where it could be used as a semi-intelligent monitor for a laptop platform, detachable to work on its own as a slate computer when needed? You would have the functionality of a netbook with a great touchscreen display, with the ability to disconnect it and use it as a native iPad whenever you wanted? This would seem to be the ideal way to bridge both worlds.