Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Apple iPad

So, today's the Big Day. The day when Apple changes everything. The day that they announced... the iPad.

I have mixed feelings about Apple products. On the one hand, I'm a fan of their design quality; Apple puts a lot of thought into making their products work well. I remember the first time I opened a G3 PowerMac case and being impressed by how well everything fit together and the ease with which Apple made it possible to upgrade and maintain the system. On the other hand, Apple often has a "our way or the highway" attitude that -as a PC user that is used to being able to configure my machine to fit my needs- I find absolutely infuriating. Couple this with their premium price and (undeservedly) smug attitude and it's no wonder I stick with PCs.

Still, I can't help but admire their hardware design and I don't turn up my nose if I can get my hands on it. Heck, my home network's file-server is a tricked out MacMini (albeit running Ubuntu, of course)!

So I have to admit I'm drooling a little bit at the thought of owning an iPad. Odds are, I'll grab one of the 16GB Wireless iPads when they come out in a couple of months. But when friends ask me what I'll use it for, I must admit I'm immediately taken aback.

The first thing that comes to mind is movies; the bright 9.7" LCD screen seems perfect for this, and it would be great to have a portable movie-player with decent battery life (Apple claims 10 hours). Of course, I can watch movies on my laptop or netbook too (or even my PSP or iTouch) but either the screens are too small or the form factor gets in the way. Having a nice flat 10" display seems perfect for portable video.

Yet almost immediately, it also occurs to me 16GB is not really that much space to hold a lot of movies. Oh sure, I could constantly swap a bunch of videos on and off the device but that becomes a bothersome chore (especially if I have to use Apple's god-awful iTunes application). Even 64GB isn't that much if you also intend to use the device for music, books and games. Streaming online video might be feasible... if the iPad supported Flash, which it doesn't.

Reading an e-Books is the second big application. Personally though, I prefer a device with a much smaller form-factor for that purpose. For years, I stuck with the Palm Tungsten E because it fit so comfortably into my hand and because I could carry it anywhere. Later I moved to an iTouch for the same reason. The Sony E-Reader and Amazon Kindle never appealed to me because they were just too large; I can't just stick them in my pocket and go. So I don't expect to use the iPad for reading books either. On the other hand, I can imagine using it to read PDFs of magazines and scanned images of books with photos or diagrams, something that a handheld device is not very good at displaying.  At the same time, it isn't very comfortable reading them on a computer screen either. I have gigabytes of PDFs that I almost never look at because of this. I think the iPad might be perfect for that purpose as well.

Web-access? I don't expect to spring for the 3G model, so this limits where and how often I can access the Internet. But even if the Internet was available everywhere, the joy of the modern Web is that it is collaborative; I don't just read articles but I can contribute my own stories and opinions. This requires me to type and -though the larger on-screen keyboard looks far more usable than the tiny things we have to use with smartphones- the lack of haptics means that typing on the iPad will never be as easy or instinctive as with a real keyboard. Thus, the iPad is relegated to a device you'd use only to do quick checks on your favorite sites or scan your incoming e-mail, a duty smartphones already do very well. But posting something on your blog, or even just typing in your username and password to your favorite sites? That's not something I would want to do often on an iPad; I'd still haul around my netbook for when I needed to do some real surfing. Oh, and then there's that whole "no flash" thing I mentioned above, which breaks about half the websites out there.

Apple also suggested the iPad could be a tremendous game platform. Certainly its larger screen and more powerful processor make it a better fit for "real" games rather than the casual gaming that has dominated the iPhone. But the lack of decent controls  (did you ever try to play an FPS on the iPhone? It's not fun) limit how far this platform can go. Plus, I already have several hundred games for PC and consoles and unless Apple is willing to let me run those games on the iPad (which not very likely seeing as they don't even allow the C64 emulator on the iPhone) I am hardly going to abandon those platforms for the untested iPad.

I guess you could use it as a music player... but no, it's too over-sized and bulky for that. Portable computer to do work on? Again, not with an on-screen keyboard, thank you. Phone (with Skype or Google Voice?)? Get real; can you imagine holding this sucker up to your face? It would make the n-Gage look cool in comparison.

So ultimately, why get an iPad? Well, it's a neat toy and I guess. But is that enough of a reason to buy one? I guess if you are a geek like I am it might be, but I'd be hard pressed to recommend it to the general populace. It hardly seems, despite Apple's hyperbolic claims, like something that is going to revolutionize the world.

Nonetheless, here are some pictures to drool over anyway.

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