Thursday, August 5, 2010

My take on the iPad

There is a lot of hype around the iPad and there are a lot of reviews available, many among them are pretty emotional (either the iPad is the best invention in history without any flaws, or it is the most ridiculous and the most expensive gadget ever). I'll try to give a different view on the new Apple product. I decided to go for a 64GB Wifi (non 3G) version.

 1) the concept is not really new

A user friendly device including
. A touch screen
. Screens with clustered icons representing applications
. Simple applications standard, like contacts, calendar, mail, ...
. Downloadable free applications
. Applications store
. Multimedia possibilities, video, audio
That thing was the Palm Tungsten.
What is really new is
. The form factor
. The multitouch inherited from the iPhone, IPod...
. A very nice high res screen
. Much more computing power
. The motion/orientation sensor
. A much better marketing
. The integration with iTunes and the appstore
. The modern communication possibilities, wifi, 3g...

 2) the form factor and the ease of use/user interface are THE differentiating factors

people who are criticizing the iPad probably never tried to use one.The whole experience is just amazing, there is no startup time, everything reacts as foreseen, most interactions are logical and intuitive. Here a small comment, there is no user guide with the iPad, you can download one on the Apple website and I would recommend to do so if you are not familiar with recent Apple products. Just an example: if you don't know it, you'll probably never discover all by yourself that you need to swipe from left to right to delete an item (a podcast for instant). After some time, you get so used to the iPad way of interacting that any other machine looks prehistorical in comparison. A system with a keyboard and/or a mouse is just so unusable and against all logic... This will be your conclusion. Applications are very well designed and really a joy to use. The App Store and iTunes on the iPad are really nice apps.

3) the iPad is not without MAJOR flaws and a few really minor ones

- the first big problem I had was the user experience with iTunes and the interface with the iPad.
I downloaded iTunes on my PC and the installation process crashed, corrupting the registry and a few processes, making internet access impossible, killing my firewall, and making my system totally unstable. It cost me more than 3 hours in total to recover a working system and to reinstall iTunes. Only after that I could enjoy the iPad experience in a normal way. On another machine, it took me 5 minutes to install and to configure everything properly (use the proper version BTW, 32 or 64 bits depending on the OS you are using)
- the second not so nice experience was a consequence of the first one, some functions were not working properly, Youtube being a problem at the beginning. This has to do with the fact that iTunes crashed my PC, and that I needed some time to recover a working PC: if you don't sync your iPad with iTunes, Youtube will not be reachable ("Cannot connect to Youtube" error). Once you have synced, everything works as foreseen.
- the third not so nice experience almost convinced me to bring it back to the shop and to forget the whole thing, I have been unable to do anything (buying/installing apps, surfing) for a few days because of the lack of working Wifi interface.
 In several locations, and ALL iPad users were affected in the same way, the Wifi was just unusable. I don't believe in pure chance: in the first hotel where I tried to use the iPad, I needed tens of tries to get a connection, having the Wifi bars oscillating between 1 and 3 bars in real time, losing the connection every few minutes, making the creation of an account on iTunes close to impossible (I succeeded after three days), and the whole iPad experience a total nightmare: five other users were there in the same (huge) bar with EXACTLY the same behavior, while something like 20 people were surfing using their PCs, Macs and iPhones without any problem at speeds up to 500KBytes/sec. In other words I suspect that ALL iPads in the world have an unusable Wifi interface. In a second hotel (smaller, maybe I was the only user of their Wifi network) and at home, no problem at all, I got a fast connection and everything was working properly. Move to another hotel a week later, public Wifi with access control: as displayed on the screen, in several locations on the resort, network detected, address allocated, no router... impossible to connect, again three users at the bar, somebody from the UK, another one from France and myself from Belgium, iPad bought in France, strictly the same symptoms, impossible to connect. Again, ANY other device connects with all the bars on without any difficulty. I found another place in the resort where I could connect, but only after I discovered a few tricks: the iPad was NOT capable of keeping the connection more than a few seconds (timeout problem ?), making the login process impossible: I had to switch between pages while typing my username/password and once in a while (typically after 5 tries) I could get in and have a semi-stable connection with a few interruptions.

Now what about Apple's reaction: they seem to know (I am cynical) that there is a problem: the last software release addresses Wifi issues: what happened: after the installation of the new software, nothing works but three bars are displayed all the time: what a joke !

A last update: I have been visiting friends this week, with a Wifi connection in a condo building, several users, I could get a connection but I lost the connection every few minutes, but the iPad was recovering all the time, in other words, serious flaw again but usable. Again, any other device did NOT show any problem.

My current conclusion is and I still need to be proved wrong: there is not a single iPad until now with a properly designed Wifi interface. On the Apple site they even recommend things like switching Wifi On/Off, upgrading the routers, using Wifi n only, what kind of joke is that again ?

Now, my conclusion should be taken with a grain of salt, because I really love the iPad and I am still recommending the whole experience because of all the wonderful things, and the fact that in practice I can manage (at home, among others) but this should be taken a bit more seriously by Apple.

The really minor issues
A post about the iPad would not be complete without a picture showing the nice "mirror effect" making the screen unreadable under the sun light, and the nice visible finger prints (here just after a complete cleaning and just a few manipulations)
It can take quite some time to backup the device on iTunes, if you download a lot (including videos/podcasts for instance), the whole process can take up to half an hour (everything has to go through the USB 2.0 interface not always using the whole bandwidth and you have to copy GBytes)

The official Apple cover (a very nice one BTW) is not compatible with the docking station !!! Are Apple engineers really using and/or testing their products ? A company with a decent quality department should never make that kind of mistake.

Certain international keyboard layouts are not interpreted/mapped properly (I have found this info on the net) if you are using an Apple wireless keyboard. This should/can be solved easily. I expect this problem to disappear because the supersexy Apple thin keyboards are a really nice addition to an iPad if you want to type faster. Update on this one: Apple wireless keyboards ARE compatible, but you have to select the appropriate soft keyboard BEFORE linking on bluetooth. A wonderful addition to the iPad when you need to type a lot of text ! Apple should give a better explanation on their sites for international users (non US keyboards).

4) as far as I am concerned, the wonderful things largely compensate for the flaws

- the user interface, the way you interact with the device is just logical, extremely easy to master and after a while, it even becomes difficult to understand how it is possible that people are still using computers with keyboards and mice. There are a number of killer applications making the whole experience exciting on the longer term: reading books is easy, comic strips get a new dimension, there are amazing simple and less simple games otherwise impossible (thanks to the orientation sensors, the multitouch interface). The reaction time makes me always grab the iPad to consult all kinds of information on the net, I don't use my PCs (laptops or not) a lot anymore, unless I need the power, the storage or specific interfaces, which is not all the time. I cannot accept the boot time or the "resuming windows" time on the PCs anymore.

5) the missing things ?

- a better design, allowing to dock with the cover attached
- some people are complaining about the absence of a camera or webcam. I am not sure this is a real need after using the iPad for a few weeks. Video conferencing could be a nice addition in the future, but this might cost a lot of power drain. Adding a camera to take pictures does not really make sense, looking at the form factor.
- a memory extension and/or SD card reader for file downloading is a missing element as far as I am concerned. The addition of the special kit (including a USB interface and an SD card reader) for photographers is a step in the right direction, but the main issue is that memory cannot be extended, not even externally.
- replaceable battery (I really wonder how the battery is expected to work after two years and how much they will charge to have a simple battery replaced).
- "multi-tasking" would be a wonderful addition (expected for November 2010), to be able to switch between application without losing the current work.
- a nice evolution would be a better screen, readable under the sun light.
- communication about the various versions is not very clear to say the least, there is a kind of confusion about the possibilities of the Wifi, Wifi+3G versions, regarding GPS positioning.

6) the killer apps (YMMV of course)

The reasons why I am using the iPad all the time are not the ones I initally expected:
- not a killer app but a major reason to grab the iPad: no boot time !!!
- reading books (novels), using the iPad as a Kindle
- reading comics (the common engine used by most readers is really nice to browse through pages, a really nice experience)
- surfing on the net is WAY better than with a classical computer thanks to the multi-touch user interface
- the games exploiting the specifics of the device like the multitouch screen and the orientation sensors (Labyrinth, driving a car, aso...)
- nice integration with the app store and iTunes shop

7) Local limitations

Something which hopefully will be solved in the future. The whole iPad experience is content driven, and that content is location dependent. Totally unacceptable for international travellers. If I live in Belgium, I am not allowed to download videos, I cannot buy American novels from the Apple store (well from Amazon). This is just ridiculous. Somebody living 100kms or miles from me has access to 10 times more content, for free or not. This should urgently be addressed. In a modern world those kinds of limitations do not make sense at all anymore. I can go to the UK (I do that) and buy books, order them from but I am not allowed to download a book from there ???

8) a few hints

- use the App Store on your iMac or PC, you will easily find the apps you are looking for. The iPad screen and the user interface are not (yet) designed to browse through enormous amounts of applications.
- use one of the available tools on the net to convert video content (DVDs among others) for viewing on the iPad, an interesting (free) choice being
- use the Goodreader app to view your docs (pdf) on the iPad
- try comic books (for instance Marvel) just for the fun
- using the iPad as a Photo Frame might be an expensive choice, but the image quality is very impressive, an ideal showcase if you want to show pictures to friends or customers.

9) Conclusion

The iPad is far from perfect, but other technology combos look so prehistorical after you have tried it. The user experience can be improved, there are some design flaws, but at the end, I always grab the iPad for a lot of things, instead of my laptop PC. The effect on the longer term can be/will be enormous, I even expect that some professions might disappear as a consequence of the introduction of the iPad (major leap in the direction of eBooks, Comics reading)

The Pros
. incredible ease of use
. excellent concept (stable, reliable, the advantages of a closed system)
. excellent screen
. overall performance (games, video, reactivity)
. battery life (up to 10 hours)
. close to zero startup time (this is really a killing one compared to ANY computer)
. very nice reading machine
. lots of appplications/possibilities
. design
. the iPad is a "cold" machine, you won't burn your legs because the back becomes hot !
The Cons
. serious design flaws (Wifi, docking...)
. expensive ?
. unusable under the sunlight (even in the shadow)
. closed system, fully depending on iTunes
. needs constant cleaning
. some technical limitations (allowed video formats, browser compatibility, Flash...)
. long charge time (4 hours +)
. unable to charge with most PCs
. charger/USB cable too short
. no real expansion possibilities 

Overall conclusion: highly recommended