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April 22, 2010

Apple iPad WiFi 64GB

Reviewed by David MacNeill

Sunday morning I awoke to a choice: either wait a week for Apple to send me an iPad, or drive 602 miles round-trip to buy one today and get to work writing this review tonight. Actually there was no choice at all — I gulped a second cup of coffee and hit the road.

The smallish Best Buy in Idaho Falls had the only iPads available to purchase for a thousand miles around my current residence in Boise, perhaps due to them receiving their shipment later than the big city stores. Several phone calls confirmed that the few they had were going fast and that Apple had forbidden all stores from accepting payment over the phone or even reserving iPads for later pickup. I could only hope there would be one left for me when I arrived; there was no guarantee I would bring home the bacon.

I was not to be disappointed. It turned out that I had my choice of all three models and decided to spring for the 64GB iPad ($699) and a dock ($29), the only iPad accessory they had left on the shelf. I wolfed a celebratory burger, gassed up my trusty old Honda, and drove home with a new computing platform on the passenger seat.

What is iPad?
iPad is a 24-ounce wireless tablet computer running the iPhone OS, a variant of Mac OS X that is not designed to run standard Mac OS X software made for desktop and laptop computers. The iPad is positioned as a portable, lightweight device for web browsing, email and chat communication, and media enjoyment in the form of digitized books, music, video, photos, games, television shows, and theatrical films. Secondarily, iPads are intended to be used for common office productivity using word processors, spreadsheets, and presentation tools. Beyond that, iPad is a platform for a new kind of software experience navigated entirely with one’s fingertips.

Laying down 200 additional bucks for the extra memory space turned out to be a good move. After the first sync my media promptly ate up well over half the memory and I haven't even downloaded any theatrical length movies yet! It took about 45 minutes, with a 28GB iTunes music database of 4427 tracks including 93 mixed audio and video podcasts, as well as my 25GB iPhoto photo library of 8,326 stills and 178 short VGA-resolution digital camera videos. I had downloaded a couple dozen iPad apps the night before, all of which synced along with my collection of roughly three dozen standard iPhone apps. Everything worked flawlessly the first time — impressive!

If you opt for the 16GB or 32GB model, help is at hand for those with large media libraries. In iTunes 9.1 there is a new “Prefer standard definition videos” as well as the option to convert higher bit rate songs to 128 Kbps AAC, an option that originated with the current iPod nano but is now available to all devices.

Kick back
Fully synced and connected to my home 802.11g network, I kicked back in my battered old Norwegian leather recliner and got to work. My strongest first impression is how different the iPad is from any other large mobile computer I have ever used, except one: the Newton eMate 300 from 1997. What makes these two machines stand out is a certain relaxed character about them, a coolness. Conventional laptops, even those from Apple, give off a kind of “Lets get to work and be super-productive!” vibe. They sit there, battery meter running down, hard drive whining and fans spinning, subtly guilt-tripping you into Getting Something Done — it's like they are impatiently tapping their foot.

Sitting with an iPad is profoundly calming by comparison. The battery lasts essentially forever, the smaller screen doesn't block out half the room around you, and the silence makes you forget you are in command of millions upon millions of transistors pumping countless electrons around the world at the speed of light. For most us, keyboards are forever associated with work and productivity, so not having one staring at you leaves your options open. Call up Mr. Qwerty if you need to, but otherwise make him go away, please!

Finding a comfortable position was easy. Knees slightly up, the iPad rests nicely in your lap. Turn it sideways and two-handed typing feels surprisingly natural. I am not a talented touch typist, but I can type as fast as I can think and found the iPad’s virtual keyboard to be no detectable hindrance to my writing. I quickly found that tossing the iPad aside to attend to other things around the house was reflexive and stressless — I simply did not think about the tablet at all until I returned, however long I was away. With a click and a swipe, I was right where I left off instantaneously. This is the way personal computing is supposed to be.

Physical highlights

Overall Feel: In your hands, an iPad has some interesting properties, all positive. It is slightly heavier than people expect the first time they hold it, though more suggesting solidity than mere weight. The display glass is somewhat thicker than the current iPhone in order to create more stiffness to the center so it does not indent when pressed. Combined with the wide, thin lithium-polymer battery pack and the unibody aluminum shell, the thing feels more like it was grown than assembled from many pieces. The overall impression is of an organic balance and a reassuring tautness.

Multitouch: Millions of us are used to the miracle of multitouch from years of iPhone use. Multitouch on an iPad is like discovering it again. The responsiveness of this display paired with the excellent performance of the Apple A4 processor (more on this below) will raise your eyebrows and perhaps even make you involuntarily say “Woah!” It is neuron-speed response, lag-free and intensely satisfying. This is the “magical” part of the “magical and revolutionary” message Apple is promoting in its marketing materials.

Dual speakers: The dual speaker array on the lower-right edge produces surprisingly loud and full audio. The drivers are mounted sideways facing horn that channel sound out to the three ports — why three and not two? Only Johnny Ive and Steve Jobs know. The speakers resonate strongly within the iPad so you feel the rumble of low tones through the shell, providing haptic feedback when playing games that involve holding the iPad.

Display: Apple chose to use a 9.7-inch, LED-backlit, 1024x768 In-Plane Switching (IPS) LCD display on the iPad, perhaps not the best choice in regards to power consumption but this tech has other qualities that more than compensate. IPS was developed by Hitachi in the mid-1990s for high-end desktop displays for the graphics market, where its rich 8-bit color and extreme viewing angles — up to 178 degrees — on all four sides gave it a distinct advantage over the conventional LCD technologies of the day. Prices were initially quite high but have since settled; the iPad display costs about $60 in quantity. Compared to 6-bit twisted nematic (TN) displays common on netbooks, the IPS is in another league entirely. Incidentally, the latest iMacs use IPS displays as well.

Some reviewers have bemoaned the iPad’s glossy screen and its tendency to attract smudges. This is the same oleophobic (oil repelling) coating Apple deployed on the iPhone 3GS glass and is a great leap beyond earlier iPhone screens. It is tough and easy to clean with a quick wipe. The glossiness, though admittedly highly reflective when dark or turned off, is perfectly opaque when in normal use. Had Apple chosen a matte-finished coating, the iPad’s visual impact would have been dulled as well. Don’t get me wrong; I prefer the matte display coating on my MacBook Pro and will gladly pay extra to have my future laptops built to order with them. But on the iPad, the glossy screen looks and feels great to me. I carry a microfiber cloth for my reading glasses anyway so now it keeps my iPad clean as well. For those who really, really can’t stand the occasional glare there are already matte skins on the market.

Living with the iPad
I have spent a week with the iPad, every spare waking minute I could find. I took notes on everything but did not sit down to write the body of this review until the shine had worn off a bit. I even took it to my day job so I could gauge reactions from employees (most of whom are half my age) and so I could take notes while on breaks. Everyone who saw it commented on its beauty and coolness of course, but the universal opinion these people brought to the party was that it was too costly for what it offers. This, I explained to any who would listen, is nonsense. I advised taking ten minutes to browse though the App Store and look at the what thousands of brilliant developers have created before deciding the worth of the device and how it could fit into their life. The iPad is most definitely not a giant iPod touch or iPhone, nor is it a netbook without a keyboard, nor is it a Tablet PC or some kind of MacBook slate. The iPad is something entirely new. It looks a bit like a duck and can quack like a duck but it is not limited to being a mere duck.

Though the tablet form factor has been with us since the early 1990s, none of these early machines were as daringly different because they could not have been: without widespread wireless internet connectivity through WiFi and cellular data, an iPad could not exist. Had the brilliantly prescient but sadly ill-fated Newton platform of the mid-nineties survived into the new millennium, it clearly would have morphed into the iPad. Lacking a wireless infrastructure doomed this promising technology; Newton was simply born prematurely.

One of the strongest indications that we are not dealing with a conventional personal computer is the file system, or rather, the apparent lack of one. Your files are stored within the applications — there is no Finder composed of nested folders. And at this point in iPad’s development you can only see documents within each app. Want to open an RTF doc in Pages? Can’t do it. You can tell iTunes to sync it over but it won’t be there when you launch Pages. You will have to convert these files to the .pages format. Within a week of the launch, several utility apps became available for sale as workarounds, the most popular of which as of this writing is GoodReader ($.99), a sort of Swiss Army knife document manager and PDF viewer.

As a personal challenge I wrote the bulk of this review on my iPad in Pages ($10), using it as a straight text editor rather than a template-driven page processor. I found the iPad version of Pages inviting and easy to work with, with one glaring exception: file syncing. Or rather, the lack of it. What Apple calls “file sharing” here is extremely crude, though it does kind of work. You can import and export copies of your documents through the App section of iTunes, but this is nothing like true syncing. You end up with a bunch of successive copies of each document and it’s up to you to figure out which is the most recent on both machines. It’s as big a kludge as the awful Newton Connection Kit was — clearly a work in progress that will surely be addressed in future updates. Until then, I recommend just emailing drafts back and forth as needed, since you will have a clear time stamp on each copy in your mailbox.

Core iPad apps
Future reviews will cover all manner of iPad apps in appropriate depth, but at this early date I will briefly cover only the core Apple iPhone OS 3.2 apps.

Safari: Essentially this is iPhone Safari scaled up. Several interface elements have been shifted around, most notably the toolbar’s move to the top of the screen. You can also set your bookmarks bar to stay visible, though this is off by default. Due to the larger memory requirements of the larger screen, you can still open eight web pages and switch between them easily, but after three or four the remaining will be flushed from the frame buffers. They remain as an icon but when you tap them they reload from scratch — not a huge issue but still worth noting if you tend to have lots of pages open simultaneously.

Mail: If you are a heavy email user — and who isn’t these days? — you will love the expanded version of iPhone Mail on the iPad. While we have yet to enjoy a unified inbox, the accounts popover window in portrait orientation becomes a full-fledged pane in landscape, occupying the left third of the screen, leaving the rest for the email you currently have in view. It’s a much more efficient environment to work in.

Notes: Like Mail, Notes displays your note list on the left and your current note on the right. The interface now mimics a leather portfolio, with the list inserted into a stitched pocket. The current note is outlined in faux red marker, a welcome touch. Beyond that, it’s the same old Notes.

iPod: This app is laid out very differently than on the iPhone and iPod touch. It took me a few minutes to get my bearings, but once I had the lay of the land it made perfect sense. One big change is the relocation of all video content to the Videos app. You can see video podcasts in iPod but when you tap them they launch in Videos. All music videos are in Videos as well and cannot be launched from iPod.

It's great to see album art on the big iPad screen, and the sound quality from the side-firing dual speaker array is surprisingly loud and sweet and the audio output to my AKG K271 studio reference headphones is indistinguishable from my iPhone 3GS.

Calendar: This app is a dramatic enhancement to the small screen version and clearly demonstrates the critical concepts laid out in Apple's iPad User interface guidelines:

~ Make sure the user's data is always central to the experience.

~ Flatten the information hierarchy so more data can be viewed on one screen.

~ Incorporate real world elements whenever possible to enhance the experience.

~ Always preserve the user's current state so they can resume seamlessly.

~ Avoid gratuitous changes to the screen that distract from the experience.

~ Make it beautiful.

Aesthetically, Calendar is now a cross between a traditional paper organizer and iCal on the Mac, offering split screens in landscape view that are packed with information and delightfully easy on the eyes. Facing a crazy-busy day is only made easier when viewed this way.

Contacts: Like Calendar, Contacts has been enhanced to look like a real world Little Black Book. In either orientation the interface is identical, with a narrow column on the left listing contacts and the rest of the screen sowing the current contact's information. Groups are accessed by a handy crimson bookmark on the upper left — an attractive touch.

Photos: Another major improvement that really shows off the iPad at its best. Albums and Events are shown as stacks, slightly askew as they would be on a table. You can tap on a photo to enlarge it, or use the spread-finger method to zoom it. Slideshows work pretty much as in iPhoto. It’s very responsive and way more fun than browsing through your library in iPhoto. The tactile nature of interaction in this app works beautifully.

Videos: Not much to talk about here. It is similar to Photos but without any fancy displays, just a tab bar across the top for Rentals, Movies, TV Shows, Podcasts, and Music Videos.

Maps: This app has changed the least of any of the majors. It is just like the iPhone version, only larger and noticeably faster. Only thing I missed was the Route By Bicycle option Google Maps just recently added.

YouTube: Again we have an iPhone app essentially enhanced only to make sense on the larger screen. One welcome feature is the ability to view videos in either portrait or landscape.

iBooks: Though technically not a core app since it must be downloaded and installed, iBooks, and the iBookstore library it connects to, is Apple’s foray into the realm of digital book readers such as Amazon’s popular Kindle. Replicating the wildly successful iTunes Store model, iBooks stands to make iPad the dominant player in this space. In addition to thousands of current titles, iBookstore provides access to a library of public domain titles for free.

The iBook reading experience is extremely pleasant, with iPad’s bright, colorful screen making even plain text look fabulous. Though not as crisp as the Kindle's monochrome eInk display, the color LCD more than compensates. Pages turn convincingly, following your finger precisely and even showing a bit of type bleed from the opposing page as it turns. Navigation is simple, using an always present bar across the bottom of the page. You can create your own bookmarks by selecting passages and tapping an icon at the top of the page. This is as close as one can get to the experience of reading a hardback book available on any electronic device. It is thoroughly immersive, easy on the eyes, and comfortable to hold for hours.

What’s missing in the app department compared to the iPhone 3GS? Clock, Calculator, Weather, Compass, Voice Memos, and Stocks. These apps are all better suited to display on a small screen — 1024x768 would be too much. It makes sense to speculate these will all become Dashboard-like widgets in a future iPad OS update. Since all core iPad apps use the entire screen, some kind of smaller window design for applets like these seems likely.

Specs, SOCs, and silicon sandwiches
One only has to spend a few minutes ogling the iFixIt iPad Teardown to see that this is a silicon sandwich: a lean circuit board encased by a huge flat battery on one side and a huge flat display on the other. The logic board is built around a new Apple A4 processor running at 1GHz, 400 MHz faster than the similar chip at the heart of the iPhone 3GS. There is 256MB of RAM (just like the iPhone 3GS) and your choice of 16, 32, or 64MB of flash memory for storage — think of it as a silicon hard drive. The degree of integration on this logic board is astonishing even to non-geeks. One would think a board with so few chips would power a CD player, not a computer, but its apparent simplicity is deceptive. That A4 is not merely a state-of-the-art mobile microprocessor but a system on a chip (SOC) with a powerful graphics coprocessor on the same silicon wafer. There is also solid evidence for one or more additional logic modules sleeping within the A4, since the 45-nanometer die has room for roughly a third more transistors than required for the CPU and GPU modules we know about. Speculation about a hidden third processor abound, but since only Apple knows the code to release such a beastie only time will tell.

Tips and tricks
1: Want to reset your iPad? Hold down the Sleep/Wake button and the Home button for several seconds until the Slide to Power Off slider appears.

2: Need to force quit a rogue app? Do the same sequence as the reset, the press and hold the Home button until the foreground app quits.

3: To quickly mute the device, press the down volume button for two seconds.

4: Select text quickly by double-tapping to select a word and quadruple-tapping to select whole paragraphs.

5: The iPad’s Dock ships with four app icons installed, but you can add any two additional icons by pressing and holding an icon until it wiggles, then dragging it to the dock. When you’re done, stop the gyrations by pressing the Home button.

6: To quickly scroll to the top of a long web page, don’t bother rowing all the way back up there with your finger, just tap Safari’s title bar text.

7: Screen shots can be captured by clicking the Sleep/Wake and Home buttons simultaneously, the result of which are saved to your photo library and synced back to your main computer.

8: Like the iPhone virtual keyboard, the iPad’s keyboard has numerous shortcuts to less common keys that are accessed by simply pressing and holding a key, revealing a pop-up list. Open the keyboard in any app, then press and hold on each key for a moment and see what pops up. The one I use most often is the apostrophe: press and hold the comma key and up pops the handy apostrophe.

Things that could be better
There have been some reports of WiFi range issues but in my testing on both Apple and non-Apple wireless hubs I experiencded range and speeds comparable to my MacBook Pro. I suspect this may be related to a known software issue with IP addresses that has caused iPads to be temporarily restricted from use on campus wireless networks at Cornell, George Washington, Princeton, and many others. At press time Apple had not commented on the issue, which is caused by an iPad neglecting to release its temporary IP address after the DHCP server expires the address. I predict Apple will push out a minor software update to all iPads shortly. The iPad’s dual WiFi antennae are located behind the large Apple logo on the back and under the front display bezel to the left of the Home button, so there is plenty of coverage on both sides of the tablet; it does not seem likely this is a hardware issue.

There is clear evidence of some functionality being left out to make the hardware launch deadline. Several ordinary, everyday apps are inexplicably missing in action. No PDF viewer? No text editor except for the cute but rather lame Notes? And no iDisk support and no ability to mount the iPad as a virtual disk on the desktop...really?

There is also reason to assume Apple left some accessories out of the retail box to drive add-on sales. Even though there is plenty of room for it in the retail box, there is no extension cord for the AC power adapter — but you get one with the optional iPad 10w USB Power Adapter ($29). And no earbuds? They ship with $59 iPod shuffles, so how much can they cost to make in mass quantities? A buck? A buck and a quarter? The lack of an iPad Dock in the box I can forgive since Apple probably believes a sizable percentage of buyers will opt for the iPad Keyboard Dock instead. (The iPad Dock, incidentally, will not accept an iPhone or iPod touch because they are thicker at the edges than iPads.) I can also understand the lack of an included carrying case since Apple does not want to stifle the huge third-party case market, but how about throwing in a simple microfiber slipcase, or even a cleaning cloth? Would including those obvious little amenities break the bank, Apple?

Annoyingly, caps lock is disabled by default but can be enabled in Keyboard settings to work just as it does on the iPhone, with a double-tap. Alternatively, you can hold either shift key down as you type to get an all-caps string.

The iPad appears to lack a built-in help system. If you aren't connected to the net, no help for you!

Start an attachment download then switch to another app and you will discover the download has aborted upon returning to Mail. However, starting a purchase download using the App Store works fine in the background if you switch to another app at any point in the download — weird.

Sober up
There is one good thing about being a little late to the party: you will always be more sober than everyone else. I have the advantage of having read every major iPad review written in the week since the April 3 release. Several common themes arise, all of them stemming from a fundamental misunderstanding of what the iPad actually is and where it fits into the grand parade of personal computing.

For example, many have decried the lack of USB ports, a camera, and an SD Card slot — all features better suited to conventional computers. As a true tabula rasa, the iPad needs to be more future-proof than that. All of these features are subject to rapid revision and obsolescence — this year’s must-have feature is next year’s useless port. Apple’s standard 30-pin connector interface provides access to anything in the iPad through the use of small, inexpensive adapters. As Version 1.0 of a game-changing computing platform, I feel it befits the machine to have no control or physical feature that is likely to be readily outmoded. Another advantage to this approach is the reduced number of entry points for contaminants like water and dust. And of course, there is the aesthetic purity of a seamless aluminum/glass object that isn’t riddled with a dozen ugly holes and festooned with icons. In ten years, you’ll pull out your old 2010 iPad and it will neither look, nor will it be, substantially dated. Have a look at a common laptop from 1999 to experience the opposite effect. If the price of such aesthetic longevity is the cost of a couple of $29 adapters, I’m okay with that.

Summer blockbuster: iPhone OS 4
But it’s not all bad news. Days after the iPad launch, Apple announced the specs of iPhone OS 4, due this Summer. This is a major update that will install on iPhone 3G, iPhone 3GS, iPad, and third-generation iPod touch devices. There is almost certainly going to be a new iPhone released at the same time, generally predicted to be named iPhone HD. [UPDATE: On June 7, Apple announced the iPhone 4 and changed the name of the operating system used on the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch to iOS 4.]

Of particular interest to iPad owners is the new multitasking feature which will allow us to have select apps running in the background, such as chat, IP voice apps, and popular streaming music apps such as Pandora. There will also be a major upgrade to the Mail app including the much-requested universal inbox showing all your incoming messages at a glance. To help manage the overwhelming tide of apps, iPhone OS 4 will introduce app folders to keep things tidy.

A clean break
Perhaps it is not surprising that the iPad feels relatively polished and complete compared to other first iterations of new classes of computers: the iPad is not so much a large iPod touch as the iPod touch is a small iPad, a proof of concept. Thus, much of the groundwork has already been done on a scale model of sorts. [UPDATE: This prediction was confirmed by Steve Jobs on June 1, stating that the iPad concept preceeded the iPhone.]

From a developers viewpoint, this is a rare opportunity to help reinvent the software experience. The iPad platform eliminates most of the annoying and dangerous problems in personal computer software. For example, there is no file system to deal with. Gone are the days when you have to spend hours on the phone guiding people through volumes and folders. Users don’t even have to remember to save their work — ever. And since each app is “sandboxed” and cannot interact with other apps or the operating system, security breaches are history. How many times have you had to teach someone how to quit background apps they are using to free up resources? The iPad takes care of that too. And the simplicity of the platform along with its built-in distribution system brings software costs down to a fraction of what they have been. Bye-bye boxed software!

This is a clean break with the personal computer as we have known it for over three decades. On an iPad, the hardware disappears and the software becomes the computer. Whatever app you start is the interface, the whole experience. To compare an iPad to any conventional portable computer makes little sense. As ever more interesting and innovative apps come into being for iPad that just could not exist for any other computer, this will become increasingly obvious to everyone.

~ David MacNeill (personalmediareview@gmail.com)

David MacNeill produces PersonalMediaReview.com, covering the tools and technologies for creating and enjoying media. He is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Digital Camera Magazine, the first all-digital photography magazine, and executive editor of Handheld Computing Magazine and Pen Computing Magazine.

Posted by dtm at April 22, 2010 11:57 PM