Apple iPad — As smart and stylish as they come

I have read every review about Apple’s new iPad leading up to — and after — its launch today. I’ve seen just about every possible adjective used to describe the brilliant, 1024-by-768-pixel screen; have heard every imaginable description of how “fast” the iPad responds, thanks to Apple’s custom A4 chip set; been told how the 1.5-lb. device disappears, leaving you alone with the content on-screen. And I’ve seen reviewers struggling to fully articulate what using an iPad is really like.

Virtually everyone has gushed about the iPad in the run-up to day’s release, yet I haven’t seen anyone really capture the essence of using one.

I admit to a certain prelaunch bias after watching the iPad demonstrations. Never having touched the product, it seemed to me that Apple clearly had a winner on its hands … under the condition that the iPhone experience scaled with the larger 9.7-in. screen available on the iPad.

Now that I have one of my own, I realize it might not be possible to capture in words the “Eureka!” moment a few minutes with the iPad delivers. Yes, everything you’ve read about the iPad is true: It is immersive, it is a device whose presence fades away when you use, and it is very fast and responsive.

Given that Apple uses iTunes for content management — just as it does in the iPhone and iPod Touch — and uses the same home-screen-with-icons design on the iPad as it does on the iPhone/iPod Touch, iPhone owners will feel immediately at home. The UI is both as limiting and as straightforward as you’ve come to love/expect/loathe. But the native software available for the iPad is what makes it stand apart from the iPhone/iPod Touch.

Best for viewing content

I’ve always used a Mac because content creation was a hobby and a pastime, and always felt that the Mac is the best tool for that kind of work. Having now spent an afternoon with the iPad, I’m convinced that this device is the best tool available for viewing content. I would even go as far to say that this is the Apple product that should legitimately be called the real Mac Mini. The other computer from Apple that bears that name is merely a desktop in a small form factor running the full version of Mac OS X; the iPad truly is a mobile version of desktop computing.

Everything you need on the go is in your hand — as long as you’re near a Wi-Fi connection. The 3G models that take portability to an even higher plane are due out later this month.

The iPad’s OS works like Mac OS X, but it’s different in important ways that actually add to the experience rather than subtract from it. Take the Photos app, for instance. On the iPad, Photos is what iPhoto would be if it had been built for a touch interface. The redesign needed to incorporate multi-touch capabilities makes the application — all such apps, in fact — far more intuitive, natural and obvious to use than a mouse and keyboard could ever convey.

Apps, apps, apps

The same is true with the iPod app on the iPad (which sounds like a tongue twister, I know). It’s one thing to use iTunes with a mouse and keyboard, navigating and clicking your way through menus and song lists. It’s another thing to use the iPod software on the iPad, where flicking your way through songs and videos seems more natural than doing it on a desktop computer. Suddenly, a mouse and keyboard feel like they get in the way of the whole computing experience.

The quality of the software I’ve tried out — both the Apple-made applications (like Pages) and third-party apps — is good. Both take advantage of the display (although iPhone apps that haven’t been updated yet still run in iPhone mode in the center of the screen). In fact, I predict that the iPad will give Netflix a real boost. I was thinking about canceling my Netflix subscription until I installed the Netflix app on my iPad and started watching videos. I put my cancellation plans on hold. It’s also important to note that virtually all of the 140,000 apps that work on the iPhone will run on the iPad. That offers a lot of potential versatility, depending on how you’ll use it.

The iPad is as solid as the software it runs, and my first thought upon picking it up for the first time can be summed up in one word: quality. The entire front is glass, with the now-familiar black border at the edges. The side and back are aluminum, and the design is Steve Jobs-approved minimalist.

All you’ll find are a volume button on the right side, a screen-lock button right next to it, a power button on top, and the home button at the base of the screen. (The iPad connects to your computer for syncing, or to the supplied charger for charging, with a port at the bottom.) There are no seams, screws or anything else to indicate that this is anything less than a solid chunk of technology hardware. The iPad looks like it came from a science fiction movie prop room, except it’s fully functional.

It’s not perfect

As remarkable as the iPad is, it’s not perfect.

It’s a little heavier than I’d like. You don’t notice it so much at first, mind you, but extended periods of use will require resting the device on something, such as your leg or lap. The optional $39 Apple case is highly advised, both as a way to protect the iPad and to serve as a display stand.

And as you’d expect, the screen is a fingerprint magnet — even if it does have a special oleophobic coating that allows you to wipe greasy marks off easily. (It’s the same coating that’s on newer iPhones.)

The iPad model released today may not be the right tool for everyone, however, given that network connectivity is limited to Wi-Fi only. The iPad with 3G and GPS technologies may suit more needs and satisfy more requirements for those looking for truly mobile computing and content viewing, since the 3G iPad allows for access to AT&T’s mobile network. Of course, the 3G models cost an extra $130 and you have to pay to access AT&T’s network if you want to connect when you’re away from Wi-Fi.

Personally, I bought the Wi-Fi version because I have a company-issued Sprint MiFi, which means I have wireless connectivity when on the road. If a virtually ubiquitous connection is what you need, you’re better off waiting until the 3G models arrive.

The one thing I wish this version of the iPad came with is GPS, which would really strengthen Maps and other location-aware applications. I know the 3G version that’s coming will have it, and obviously the lack of GPS wasn’t a deal-breaker. I can use my iPhone for GPS functionality, of course, but it’d be nice to have it in the iPad as well. If I were delivering Jobs’ trademark keynote, GPS is the “one more thing” I’d offer up in the iPad.

Final thoughts

This is the first tablet computer that has a genuine shot at real mass adoption. It makes technology instantly accessible to people for whom a computer is still a mysterious black box that doesn’t always do what it’s supposed to. Apple has long had a knack for designing complete products that appeal to both geeks and everyday people without making either group feel dumb. Now it’s even gone beyond that, crafting something that a young kid or an older grandparent can take to with ease.

The $499 starting price (for the 16GB model) helps, too. Even the most expensive model, with 64GB of storage and 3G accessibility, is just $829. In between is a price point that just about anyone can reach. Don’t believe the hype? Go try one for yourself.

Michael DeAgonia, a frequent contributor to Computerworld, is an award-winning writer, computer consultant and technologist who has been using Macs and working on them professionally since 1993.


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