The iPad after two weeks

From what I can tell, there are two types of people when it comes to the iPad: those who see it as the next best thing since sliced bread, and those who think it is nothing more than an oversized previous generation iPod touch. After playing with one briefly after the launch, I was of the latter opinion. To give it another try, I was able to borrow another one for two weeks which included a business trip to Europe. While not 100% converted to the other camp, I can see how the v2 of the iPad will certainly be on my shopping list if some of my feature requests make it in (not that I expect Steve to listen 😉 )

For those who read my (very) infrequent posts, you know that I have been looking for solutions to reduce the numbers of trees needing to be cut every year in order to print all the documents I read (mainly in PDF and MS Office / WordPerfect formats). I also travel a lot, and have tried different solutions to reduce the weight of the books in my carry-on luggage (the Sony eBook reader does a good job for eBooks, but isn’t that great for PDFs). Doing email and browsing the web on the go are secondary (or so I thought) as I have an iPhone and a Sony Vaio laptop with me (and tethering works just fine in Canada with my data plan, sorry US friends).

My first experience with the iPad was for a few hours one evening shortly after it got released (and with no apps optimized for it to speak of). I really was not that impressed after this quick test. The device felt heavy after a short usage period, and the apps I had at that time didn’t provide a must-have type experience… A large iPod touch was my verdict when I gave it back, something I would not purchase.

But as for the other iOS devices, what really makes the iPad interesting are the apps. Noticing that I had more and more iPad compatible apps as my iPhone ones got updated, I wanted to give this device a new spin, this time for a longer period. I was able to borrow a WiFi-only model for my recent trip in Europe (3G would remain off anyway due to roaming charges) and I loaded it up with all my apps / information. I used iOS 3.2 for that trip, and used the 4.2.1 version of the OS for a few more days after its release (almost feels like a new device as Steve would say).

From a hardware perspective, there is a big debate if the tablet devices should be 5, 7, 10 or any other inches size. Considering that I already have an internet phone in my pocket (there was a great article about Symbian OS and why modern devices should not be called smart phones on TechCrunch recently), and that I really look for a content consuming device that I can have in my bag when I travel, I am happy with the 10” form-factor. The iPad size therefore is really well suited and is perfect for letter / A4 documents reading (smaller would require some reformatting). And when it comes to the weight of the device, yes it feels heavy, but you actually get used to it quickly. Battery life is great, and as long as you charge it once a day, as with any modern gizmo, you should be good to go (at least I am).

But not everything is perfect from a hardware perspective neither. First, why do you need a 10W USB charger, and why can’t the iPad charge over a normal USB connection? Really annoying when you travel. Yes, it might have taken a little longer to charge, but you cannot use a normal USB charger (or a laptop) to get juice to this device.

On the subject of hardware, the other big problem is that the iPad very quickly got old with the launch of the iPhone 4 and the latest iPod Touch, especially when it comes to the display resolution and the front-facing camera. I know there are many rumors that the iPad 2 will have a retina display (the name Apple chose for the high-DPI display used on the iPhone), and I really look forward to it. If this happens with v2, it will truly be a great device to read magazines and books on the screen. And having a front-facing camera will certainly be nice, but is not a must in my use-case.

I won’t spend too much time on the built-in apps as they are almost identical to the ones on the iPhone. Overall, Apple did a really nice job at leveraging the larger real-estate and optimizing the screen of the portrait vs. landscape mode. At the same time, why aren’t there calculator, weather or clock apps? I was hoping that these would make it in the iOS 4.2 update, but that is not the case. The one big negative with the built-in apps is that the iPad doesn’t support the concept of multiple users. Yes, I know, in the world of Apple, everyone in a household should have one of each, but seriously, would it be possible to select your username when you swipe to unlock, and then get access to your email, your calendar (or your Twitter if you have an app for that™). Perhaps with v2…

As mentioned, what makes the iPad such a great device is the amazing apps available. Instapaper (that I only started using recently) is really great to read long web articles, the Evernote app is cool (especially the offline mode for premium account holders), and Zinio is really nice to read a huge list of magazines. You can even subscribe to magazines with Zinio that you can only purchase individual copies on the iOS app. One example: Flying Mag has an iPad app where each issue is $2.99, but the Zinio subscription of the same magazine is under $13 for the year (12 issues)…

Watching videos (especially videocasts) and reading books / PDFs with iBooks is working really well. For those who recall one of my complain regarding improving eBook readers, the iBooks app actually tells you how many pages are left in the chapter you are currently reading… looks like Apple took the time to talk to people who actually read books like I do. And with DocumentsToGo supporting Dropbox and other online services for document syncing, you can read Office documents (and even edit / annotate them), PDFs and more on the go with ease (could DocsToGo add support for the WordPerfect format?). The only iPad optimized app really missing is the Remember the Milk iOS app, but it looks like Bob is hard at work eating bananas.

And this brings me to another of the improvement request for iPad 2: Enable apps to sync / download stuff in the background. I fully understand the policy set in place by Apple only to allow specific tasks to be done in the background in order to keep the battery life and user experience as unaffected as possible (Skype in the background in the iPhone is really horrible for battery life). I can also understand that there could be concerns about background data transfer over 3G (fewer and fewer people have unlimited 3G data plans)… but if my iPad / iPhone is connected to the power adapter and is on a WiFi network, why couldn’t Instapaper, Zinio and other content delivery applications such as The Economist app or even a podcast / videocast viewer apps download the latest stuff over night? The Kindle can do it with books, the Mail app can do it with emails… why can’t other apps do it (under conditions of external power and WiFi for example).

All in all, after two weeks of usage, I really like the iPad as a content consumption device. I even have a few ideas / concepts of iOS apps that I wasn’t able to find in the store, but I won’t share these in this public forum (if you are a serious developer and are interested, feel free to contact me). Will I buy one? I am really tempted, especially as Apple is doing their Black Friday promotion today. But with the next generation iPads expected for Q1 2011, I have decided that I will be waiting for v2, hoping that it will include a high-DPI display and a few other goodies before I make the jump.