First Impressions: My iPad Wi-Fi + 3G

ipad_video_star_trek-300x189.jpg

Thanks to my girlfriend's boundless generosity, I am now the proud owner of a 64GB iPad; one of the "Wi-Fi + 3G" models. I've had about a full day to play with the device. I'll share my initial thoughts about the iPad and its potential here, and may write another post down the road. Before diving in, permit me two paragraphs that are intended to proactively address community concerns and potential feedback. I know many of you are supporters of the DRM-free open software and hardware movement, and are philosophically opposed to proprietary, closed marketplaces and technologies. I also know there are consumers who crave more of "something" in the iPad -- USB ports, a camera, Flash support, etc.

As a new media creator, I have always appreciated the open culture philosophy ... and as a consumer, I appreciate the hunger in wanting more of "something" in the products I purchase. However, this "first impressions" review will not address those matters. As an intelligent adult who's fully capable of making informed decisions, I understand the landscape and idealogical arguments, and have clearly made my purchase. Advocates may respectfully beat the drum in the comments (for it is a worthy drum to beat), as long as they respect my right to purchase and support the products I wish.

With that out of the way, what do I think of the iPad? I'm smitten. For the past day, I've consistently marveled at the speed and slickness of the device's software, and the elegance of its hardware. I've experienced a sense of wonder at nearly every turn, and have hummed a childlike mantra while using it: I can do anything! In this respect, I submit that the device is as "magical" as Apple's marketing campaign suggests: it's an intuitive, dazzling experience.

I haven't used a product this personally transformative since I purchased my first computer, a Mac LC, fifteen years ago.

Wi-fi speeds scream. I've yet to use the device's 3G feature, as I haven't had the need to drop $20 or $30 for "internet anywhere" access. However, I imagine speeds will be comparable to my iPhone's 3G transfer speeds (which are adequate for anywhere-access).

While the iPad certainly won't be the only slate-like device to disrupt the saturated PC/laptop/netbook space, I'm betting it'll be one of the best. Performance is excellent in the apps I've used, as is the display and touchscreen interface. The external mono speaker is very good; headphone audio is excellent. I'm no screen expert (or a device critic for that matter), but I've been amazed by the picture quality. It's the perfect size for what it does.

Much like Apple's iPhone and iPod Touch products, the iPad's true brilliance is its flexibility and personalization. I've downloaded several apps that match my interests and needs. They include:

  • Evernote: Note application that syncs notes over multiple devices via the web. Killer app.
  • Pages: Word processing app. I haven't used it yet. More on this in a moment.
  • iBooks: Apple's electronic bookstore. More on this in a moment.
  • Kindle: Amazon's electronic bookstore. More on this in a moment.
  • Comics and Marvel Comics apps: Electronic comic book app. More on this in a moment.
  • NewsRack: RSS/blog reader app. Spiffy.
  • Twitterific: An adequate aggregator of your (and my) preposterous, ADD-addled tweets.
  • A/V network apps such as NPR, ABC Player, TWiTPad: Terrific presentation of streaming content from excellent media outlets.
  • Netflix: This is a frickin' game changer. Amazing streaming video experience.
  • Text-based media apps such as USA Today, NYT Editors' Choice, SCI FI Wire: More great content, smartly packaged.

No games yet, as I'm not much of a gamer. I might give one a spin.

On to the stuff that's been in my head since the iPad was announced months ago. After asking Twitter pals to submit topics for this review, it looks like many of you have been thinking the same things.

How's the overall touch-based experience? Excellent; even better than the iPhone and iPod Touch experience. This is mostly because there's now real-deal real estate for fingers to do cool and interesting things.

What about multi-tasking? Like the current iPhone, the iPad does not support multitasking. This feature will come to the device this Fall in a software update. I've found my iPad experience to be just fine without it. I've been aiming for fewer distractions in my life, and a lack of multi-tasking certainly focuses my full attention to the content in-hand.

Is the iPad a laptop or netbook replacement? That depends entirely on how you do your computing. Most folks use their PCs to check email, surf the web, browse photos, listen to tunes, watch videos. The iPad absolutely does these things, and does them excellently. The device excels as a portal to consume content, just like a computer. (More on this later.)

Is the iPad J.C.'s laptop replacement? No. While it's entirely possible to bang out a novel-length work or screenplay on the iPad, I don't think I'll be doing that. (Though I might try with shorter fiction.) I can't imagine creating a complex video, or recording and editing a podcast, or doing nearly all of the other creative stuff I do -- desktop publishing, website design, image creation/manipulation, etc. -- on the thing. I have no doubt that savvy developers will create apps to fill these gaps in the months and years ahead. I also have no doubt that the iPad's computing power will increase, making such content creation possible. But for the time being, I'll probably be rak-a-takking on my MacBook Pro's keyboard for robust content creation.

This shouldn't surprise people. If you're accustomed to writing long-form emails, fiction or essays on your mobile phone, you'll be fine. I'm not.

How's the on-screen keyboard? Really really good, actually. Typing is brisk, and -- as most reviewers have claimed -- most comfortable in landscape mode. The keyboard is accurate; blame your chubby digits for typos. I'm looking forward to connecting my Bluetooth wireless keyboard to the iPad. Typing will certainly become even easier then; writing long-form content will be more feasible.

Is it just like a big iPod Touch? No. The speed of the device, and the amazing screen, take the touch experience (and content consumption experience) to the next level. It feels like you're holding the future. The iPad does indeed represent a sweet spot: we're accustomed to experiencing media in similarly-sized dimensions (books, magazines, etc.), and the iPad plays nice with that cultural programming. Blessedly, you'll no longer have to squint at the screen while watching video, or reading a book.

But it's really just a big iPod Touch. Right? Whatever you say.

How does it feel in your hands? Too heavy? Nope. It has a reassuring heft. In contrast, my Kindle e-reader always felt toylike in my paws. This is probably a throwback to my analog childhood, in which I always mentally equated quality with weight. If it's heavy, it's expensive. Don't touch it.

How does it work as an ebook reader? Excellently. Much fuss has been made about the iPad's screen (and backlit screens in general), and the accompanying eyestrain from reading material on it. I haven't experienced this, but I did find myself widening my eyes as I read books and comics -- not from the content; more likely from the backlit presentation. I had enough sense to consciously relax my eyes, and reduce the screen's brightness if needed. With these mental and physical adjustments, the device works perfectly well as an ebook reader.

It's brilliant as an e-comic reader too. Comics publishers truly, madly, deeply need to get their shit together in this emerging space. Selection of new stories is currently anemic. Not offering "digital trade paperback" editions of old storylines is a blown opportunity. DC Comics would have easily made $100 off of me in the past day, had they offered Grant Morrison's JLA or Warren Ellis' Transmetropolitan collections in e-format. But as far as I can tell, DC isn't in the e-comic space at all. A shame.

Regardless, the writing was on the wall years ago, but it's in day-glow green now: Paper is now absolutely unnecessary to enjoy traditionally paper-based content.

Will the Apple, iPad and iBookstore marketplace save publishing? No. Only publishing can save publishing. The industry is thoroughly fucked on so many levels by insulated, tech-intimidated decision makers who are (probably) well-intentioned, yet desperate to protect an imploding content creation, promotion and distribution model. But, as they did with the Kindle marketplace, publishers are dutifully porting their text-based books to Apple's iBookstore -- a good thing, as it's another revenue stream money-grab. That's good news for authors.

Will consumers cough up $13 for iBooks that they can purchase in traditional format for $10 at Amazon? As with all things, the marketplace will decide ... and the industry will likely be slow to respond.

How can new media authors benefit from this new platform? The secret to differentiation and success isn't getting your stuff in the iBookstore. It's in apps. And I'll leave it at that.

How has the iPad impacted your life? I'm consuming more media than I was before, for one thing. I'm reading more, and reading content I typically wouldn't via apps. Unlike folks who love bebopping to bookmarked websites or cramming their RSS readers with countless feeds, I enjoy the packaged experience of consuming content through the iPad applications.

Pundits claim this practice is antithetical to the philosophy fueling the web -- that information need not be packaged and placed behind a branded "walled garden" (such as the NYT Editors' Choice app, or the SCI FI Wire app) to be enjoyed. I absolutely understand that, but I also dig the curated, convenient experience of tapping an icon, skimming headlines, and diving in deeper if I wish. Different strokes for different folks. The iPad has a great web browser, which permits users to go anywhere on the web they wish for more information.

I'm also spending more money in the iTunes marketplace than I ever did while using my iPhone. There's a few reasons for this:

  • Obtaining some iPad apps, such as Pages, costs cash.
  • Some free apps brilliantly sell content within the app (such as the comiXology Comics and Marvel Comics apps). I never would have read Ellis' 2004 Iron Man: Extremis storyline, had it not been for the iPad. It's excellent stuff.
  • I wanted to see how purchasing video content from the iTunes app worked. Snagged two Lady Gaga music videos. As with the other video content I've loaded on the device, these videos looked and sounded terrific. She's so pretty.

These recent purchases bring me to my suspicion about the iPad since its announcement, which is now confirmed by my ownership:

The iPad is built from the circuitboards up to get you to buy shit. Lots of shit. Music, books, videos, apps (and content within those apps), all via iTunes. Unlike the iPhone -- which has at least one true real-world "purpose," to make calls -- the iPad is savvily designed to be an impulse purchase portal. This is neither a good thing nor a bad thing; it simply is, and folks who ignore Apple's brilliant business model do so at the peril of their bank account. Keep an eye on those purchases, peeps. Spending money doesn't hurt when you can't see it pass from your hand to the clerk's.

Parting thoughts? The iPad is wicked cool -- and for my lifestyle, wicked useful. Any quibbles I have with the device are so minor, they're not worth mentioning. The thing is very expensive, probably too expensive for most folks to purchase in good conscience. However, if you're interested in this fascinating and disruptive "middle ground" between a smartphone and laptop, have no qualms with embracing the iPad and iTunes marketplace as they are, and have the money to spend, I recommend it without reservation.

I'm holding the future in my hands, man. I can do anything.

--J.C.