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Apple iPad Review, Part 3


Apple iPad Review, Part 3

Of accessories and apps

The iPad as it stands on its own is, of course, an unfinished story. People don't buy these devices just for the built-in apps, though what's there is generally decent. And of course there are already some interesting accessories. These will drive up the price of your iPad, but in some cases it's worth it.

Key among these accessories is the iPad Case (a whopping $40 extra), which will protect the device from scratches while you're carting it around and provide a weird little lift in horizontal mode only. This latter feature is handy if you want to watch a movie, and I've used it for a little light typing, though the iPad's virtual keyboard isn't exactly conducive to lengthy writing.

Apple also sells a number of docks, keyboards, cables, and a Camera Connection Kit for the iPad ($30 to $70). And if it weren't for some convenience issues, you might be able to make a good argument for pairing the iPad with Apple's Bluetooth-based Wireless Keyboard ($70), which could turn an arduous typing experience into something more reasonable. Unfortunately, there are two problems with this scheme. The keyboard is yet another thing to cart around (and charge), and you'd need some way to prop up the iPad to make the typing/viewing position acceptable. A built-in kickstand (for the iPad) would be nice.

Indeed, this possibility raises an interesting scenario where the iPad moves from being a "consumption" device, as the pundits now call it, to being a "creative" device, akin to a real computer. That this capability is there at all means that Apple is thinking along these lines, and my guess is that the iPad will move further and further into PC (i.e. "creative") territory over time, minimizing the need for the Mac for most of Apple's customers. Naturally, I am all for this.

For now, however, the iPad is primarily a consumption machine, and while part of that is the nature of the device and its physical limitations, part of it is a set of artificial limitations imposed by Apple. For example, it's not possible to use the iPad (yet) without a PC/Mac. But one gets the idea that all the pieces are in place for that to happen, and how it is that Apple hasn't enabled automatic wireless sync yet--a feature the Zune platform has had for years--is unclear.

With regards to the apps situation, I feel that Apple has made a big mistake by not making it more obvious in the PC-based version of the Apps Store (in iTunes) where iPad users can find apps that are specific to their device. Right now, iPad and iPhone apps are comingled in a very confusing way, and I find myself simply running the App Store app on the device to find iPad apps since it's so iPad focused.

The initial selection of apps is pretty uninspiring, but then that, too, is Apple's fault: The company only seeded a very tiny minority of tier-A developers with devices before the launch, so the selection of decent apps is currently tiny. That will explode soon, so no worries there. But even some of the A-list apps are bad. The Wall Street Journal, for example, uses a weird navigational model that is quite different from that of other eBook readers and periodical applications, and is of course very expensive. The New York Times, meanwhile, only offers a weird "Editor's Choice" app right now, sort of a "best of" thing, though presumably the full deal is coming soon.

NY Times Editor's Choice: Nice layout, but only some of the day's paper.

I very much prefer the Amazon Kindle app to Apple's iBooks app, and for many reasons. I'd start with the huge selection of Kindle books and the integration between different reading devices. So if I read part of a book on a Kindle, and pick up the iPhone and launch the iPhone Kindle app, it picks up where I left off. Then I pick up the iPad and pick up, again, where I left off on the iPhone. And so on. It's wonderful. Meanwhile, iBooks only works on the iPad, and it features awful, distracting page turning animations that you cannot turn off. Typical Apple design, and in this case, it just gets in the way.

Amazon Kindle app.

When reading a book in the Amazon Kindle app, you don't have an annoying distractions: It's all about the content.

One surprisingly good app is Marvel Comics, and reading comic books on the iPad is excellent. I'm not a huge comic fan, and wish there were a better selection--it's all super heroes now, with not a graphic novel in site--but you can see the basics coming together, and it's a great experience, even in this first, limited form. The Netflix app is also surprisingly good, and of course the iPad is a decent way to enjoy the service's streaming movie and TV functionality.

Marvel is onto something here: This is a great way to read comics.

I've been very disappointed by the few iPhone apps I've tried running on the iPad. These apps work in two ways, either in their native resolution, where they are stuck in the center of the screen and are, of course, tiny and hard to reach. Or they can be blown up nearly full screen, which Apple curious labels as "2x" (it's more like 6x). Text-based apps, in particular, look horrible blown up this way. But hey, at least they work. And more and more developers are creating hybrid apps that work on both the iPhone and iPad and provide different UIs on each. That has interesting possibilities. I'm curious why Apple hasn't done any (as with its Remote app, which would be an ideal candidate for such a thing.)

Um. What?

Final thoughts

There's so much more that could be said about the iPad, but this device is really just a work in progress. As it stands in 1.0 form, the iPad is simply another typical Apple release: Beautiful from a high level but lacking when examined closely. Yes, Apple will fix the issues over time, they always do. But while some of the problems can be mitigated by software fixes, and some by price cuts, the lack of a camera (or, ideally, dual cameras), the overly large form factor, and the 4:3 screen will require hardware upgrades. And while adding a camera is easy enough--the place for it is already in the device, sitting empty--it's unlikely that Apple will change the form factor anytime soon because so many add-on makers will rely on that. So we're kind of stuck with the shape. Maybe it will at least get lighter over time.

And that brings us back to the original premise, which is simply this: Here we have this expensive device, one that is not quite a PC, but is very much an iPod touch, albeit a very large iPod touch that cannot fit in any pocket and thus cannot easily be carried. It is beautiful and alluring in ways that only Apple products are, but is completely unnecessary. It is gorgeous and pointless, like a supermodel, famous for being famous but having never really done anything unique of its own. It's an accessory, a bauble, an additional thing, one that does things that other stuff you already own already do.

Put even more simply, you do not need an iPad. But again, I understand why people are drawn to shiny gadgets like this. I do get the attraction. The iPad demands an emotional response, and people who love these things simply invent reasons why they must have it, and justify why the limitations aren't really a problem, but are in fact exactly what they were looking for. Don't be that person. If you want one, and can afford it, God love you. Enjoy it. But if you're more pragmatic than that, or simply not in the upper ten percent from a financial perspective, there are better ways to spend your time and money.

As with the iPod and iPhone before it, iPad prices will come down dramatically as the capabilities expand and the (all too valid) criticisms melt away. My advice is to wait and see what happens down the road. That might be an iPad, or it might be some competing tablet, though I have a hard time imagining that happening. While the iPad is good but not excellent, it's most certainly the nicest tablet device I've ever used. And it's only going to get better over time.

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