A Week With An iPad

The Line

Two Fridays ago I had finished the edit for the day and was heading home at around 4 o’clock. Got in to the city at about 4.30 and since I tend to have little sense, I decided to find the nearest line of people in which to stand, wait, and hope that we might be granted the opportunity to fork over a nice wad of cash for a piece of consumer electronics.

I was at Next Byte Adelaide, where the line was something approaching reasonable. I had gone past the JB HiFi, where the line was abysmal. In the line with me were a whole lot of strangers, but as the clock ticked towards the 5pm release I spoke to a couple of them. There was a woman in line who kept vacillating between a 3G and a WiFi model. I was decided. I’ve been without a 3G connection for years now, no need to change that now. There was a man in line who, showing far more sense and preparation than I possess, had already ordered and paid for his and was just waiting to pick it up. I noted it several times - he clearly was not one of us.

A photographer and someone else from the Advertiser were there taking photos, and asking inane questions in the hope of receiving inane answers. Nobody was disappointed. At worst, my shoe might have appeared in the Saturday edition of a Murdoch paper. No matter. 

It was perhaps 5.30 when the bad news came through the line. The store was running out of stock for some models, and were certain that they would not have enough even to cover the preorders. Ouch. Fortunately nobody seemed to be a jerk about it. Despite the hissy fits that one plague all discussion threads about the subject, people seemed cool about it, and the staff were handling things well. I put my name down and bolted. Well perhaps not that quickly, but I did have a hilariously poor fashion show to avoid, as well as all those jerks with iPads.

I tried a few more places in the next couple of days. The local Target was one of the few to carry the new models. They did not carry them for long. Nor did the local JB. And the Whirlpoolers and the Mactalkers were reporting growing waiting times. Next Byte had said on the night that they were hoping for more stock on the next Wednesday or Thursday. Then people were reporting two to three weeks. Then three to four. The iPad is hardly a necessity, but it would have been disappointing to wait a month and potentially longer just so I could walk around the house feeling like Captain Picard. I resigned myself to waiting for Next Byte to call.

Which they did. On April 1st, the next Friday. While I was sleeping. So somehow I managed to sleep through my phone blaring Murray Gold’s 2010 rendition of the Doctor Who theme right next to my lousy head. I’m sure it was good sleep. A round bus trip to the city later - with a brief stop for some sushi from Genki Roll - and I had a gorgeous glass panel to smear my greasy mitts all over.

Smart Cover

Maybe I’ll come to regret it, but I picked up a black leather Smart Cover while I was picking up the iPad. The cover itself feels great. It sits perfectly over the screen while it’s closed, and the magnetic grip is so damned sturdy that the cover feels like it’s a part of the iPad. 

While holding the iPad in portrait view (e.g. when reading a book), the cover can fold in half and provides a nice grip on the back. Folding it into a triangle to use as a stand is interesting to say the least. The sturdiest method is to fold it up as done in the Smart Cover ad Apple produced, however this means exposing the micro fiber panels that ordinarily are held against the iPad’s screen. Dirty. The alternative is to fold it the other way, with the leather facing out. This works (I am doing it right now) but the grip is noticeably weaker. It is fine for propping the iPad up for typing, but often too weak for holding the iPad up vertically to watch a movie. 

The other downside is that it offers no protection for the back of the iPad, and at the moment it seems exceedingly difficult to find a case that leaves space for the Smart Cover to operate. Rather, it seems that case makers would prefer to create their own magnetic covers. Their own ugly magnetic covers. With puffy leather and the like.

I like my Smart Cover, and I hope I can keep using it. The back of the iPad certainly feels less in need of protection when compared to the silly glossy back of my iPod Touch, but I’d still prefer to have something there. I’ll need to sell this thing one day of course.

The Damn Thing Itself

Even after using the device for a week, it still feels delightfully small. I handled a first generation iPad a few times and one of my few complaints about the feel of the device is that it felt just a smidgeon too heavy. Not a problem for sitting in the lap, but just a touch too heavy to carry around in one hand while ordering an ornery Klingon to fire on those bastard Borg with the other. The second generation iPad shaves off a bit of weight, and it upscales the nicely tapered rear of the 4th generation iPod Touch, and damn this thing is nice to hold. 

Of course the first thing that really stands out to me when I power it on and start flicking through the screens is that damn, I really love the Retina display. The iPad 2 doesn’t have one of course, and for damn good technical reasons, but a man can dream. This is wish #1 for the next iteration of the device. That’s not to say that the display is not lovely. Nice and bright when I want it to be, and very readable even when I turn the brightness right down. The colour looks superb. It’s only when I go back to my iPod Touch that I notice the relatively poor pixel density. 

The cameras are shit, there’s really no dancing about it. Give them enough light and they’ll give you something satisfactory at best. I’ve yet to try a FaceTime call - I’ll note, the only thing I could really imagine using either camera for anyway - but just in Photo Booth the front-facing VGA camera produces a blocky, blurry image. Looks worse than a 2x blown up iPhone app, and they look pretty bad.

I’m one of the people who can see little reason aside from video conferencing for a tablet to have cameras. Certainly however, that’s no reason not to include them as someone is bound to come up with some amazing new app which will make them indispensable. I’ve seen the ARG apps people have put together. I don’t think they’re worth it. And anyone holding up their iPad to take pictures is a fucking dingus. All that said, if they’re going to put cameras in I’d rather they reached a certain level of quality, which the iPad’s cameras do not. 

Those niggles aside, the machine feels great in the hand, and is incredibly responsive in use. I am also finding the keyboard to be quite nice. In portrait mode I can use my giant gumby thumbs to reach over and hit most keys without effort. In landscape mode I can type and type. I’m even typing every last word of this big dumb post on the iPad right now, so any stupid spelling mistakes I will blame on the iPad, since my spelling is brilliant and I am never wrong.

Apps

iOS devices are app consoles, in the way that the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 are game consoles. This rightly makes some people shit their pants. I still love my Mac, I still cheat on my Mac from time to time with my PC, but damn if I don’t get tired of maintaining them. While iOS and Android and WebOS are not yet to the point where they can completely replace a PC for most people, as far as I am concerned the sooner they get there the better.

I have the benefit of coming to the platform a year after launch, and already with a swag of apps on my iPod Touch. Only one of these - the excellent Reeder - required repurchase on the iPad. No big deal. $12 in total for an app I’ve used daily for over a year is a damn good deal. Outside of games, universal apps seem fairly common. And delightfully, Chair’s Infinity Blade is a universal app, has been updated for the iPad, and is damn brilliant. The Monkey Island games which would no doubt be right at home on the larger screen, sadly are not universal.

Though I bought Reeder again I am surprised that I do not use it as often as I did on the iPod. Instead I find myself quite taken by Flipboard and Zite, two apps that take your own feeds and do a remarkably good job of turning them in to newspapers. Flipboard looks better, Zite has better customization of feeds, but between them I often find little reason to return to an RSS reader, or even a Twitter client.

These two apps also make me even more disinterested in Murdoch’s new venture, The Daily. I do want journalism to find its way to profitability, and I do think good news sources should be supported, even if that means with actual cash and not just eyeballs. And I get that not being a proud American (so anti-American in fact that I had the audacity to be born and spend my entire life in a different country altogether) this isn’t really pitched at me, but good god how can anyone be interested in this banal shit. When I can have my own newspaper produced for me using the sources I’ve chosen, as well as curated feeds from sources all over the world, why would I bother with such small minded trite as The Daily? Thanks Verizon ever so much for the two week trial, but I can’t say I’ll be sticking around. 

PlainText, which I am using to type up this post, is even better on the iPad which its larger keyboard. Hooked up to Dropbox, I have a universal note taking system. For a lazy bastard like me, this is brilliant. I picked up GarageBand if only to remind myself of just how little musical talent I have. It’s a really fun app to fart around in, however. And since the iPad is loud as he’ll you can really piss off your drunken neighbors.

The ABC’s iView app is even better than their website, and makes me wonder out loud right here why all the free to air stations aren’t getting on this streaming television thing to my damn iPad right now. To go off on a bit of a tangent here, I wonder if ABC is going to bother coding up a native Android iView app, or make them use the Flash site. Given how damn well the iPad app runs, and how well Flash still doesn’t run on brand new Android devices, I do wonder.

Finally, there are the pure reading apps. The book readers. iBooks, Stanza, Kindle, etc. Can’t be bothered, quite good, really good in limited circumstances, respectively. iBooks is gorgeous, but I don’t really enjoy reading in it. It bothers me that the stacked pages on the side are a dumb graphic rather than any actual representation of my progress through the book. Stanza eschews a bit of the fanciness for functionality, and most importantly lets me read PDFs without much hassle. It also ties in well to Calibre on the desktop, if I ever have the energy to deal with that ugly ugly piece of very useful software. 

If I could run everything I wanted through the Kindle app I’d be really happy. My one complaint about it is that I need to tap the screen to get a marker of my progress through the book. I wish there were some permanent display of it. But that’s it. Everything else feels great. As long as it is set to Basic Reading Mode of course. Turn that off and the app puts on airs, throwing in silly animations all over the place. Forget that noise. Any time I have a .MOBI ebook, I read it in the Kindle app. It helps that the background image on my library is so damned charming.

In Summary

I have very little insightful to say about the iPad, and anyway that’s not what I’m aiming for here. This is me gushing. Gushing over Apple doing such an excellent job on their end, if we ignore entirely the horrible cameras. But even more gushing over the great apps that third party developers have put together, so often producing things that just would not feel right on a PC or even a laptop. I’m an Apple person certainly, but I’m excited to see how WebOS and Android and their respective developer communities contribute to this new approach to the form factor. They’re going to make tablets better, and in the process they’re going to make PCs, laptops, and all of computing better.

And now I’ll stop being a lofty idealistic shit.