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Impressions from a few months with the iPad 2


What role can this glossy slab play?
— 12:41 AM on July 25, 2011

Some weeks ago—this is something of a shameful admission for me—I stood in line for hours at the local Best Buy store in order to purchase an iPad 2 on the device's launch day. I'm not one of, you know, those guys, and I hadn't intended to commit much time to the endeavor. Nevertheless, I got sucked in by Best Buy's promises of a well-organized ticketing solution that would let me reserve a spot without standing in the store for hours on end. Such promises turned out to be a mirage, and I became a conflicted hostage, forgoing lunch and potty breaks in order to reserve my place in line.

I suppose it was, in the end, just as well. I got to participate in the full-on iPad 2 buying experience, a ritual that is largely foreign to me as a PC geek. And it is a strange thing. Folks don't regularly line up in order to purchase much cooler computer hardware. As far as I know, nobody had to initiate a ticketing system for the Radeon HD 6990 or Dell's 30" IPS display. I've used them both, and I can tell you: worth lining up for. Exquisite. But here people were, congregated inside a depressing big-box electronics store in order to drop hundreds of dollars on securing a 10" tablet.

Not just people, either. Sure, you had your requisite contingent of quasi-geeky, overweight graphic designers with questionable facial hair configurations, but there were also girls in this line. Intentionally. Some as a favor to a boyfriend or husband, but others entirely on their own behalf. I don't know what dark magic Steve Jobs wields, but it is truly magic unlike ours.

Reviewing an iPad 2 is something of a challenge, in my view, because the assessments of it seem to fall into one of two categories. The first category is the skeptic, whose dismissal follows a well-known script, almost always nearly to the letter: "It's just a big iPhone." That summation is, of course, indisputably true. Yet it doesn't really capture the novelty of the tablet as a computing platform and, thus, isn't terribly helpful.

Those in the second category at least mean well, but a great many tend to suffer from a peculiar condition I call iPad Derangement Syndrome, or IDS. Those afflicted by IDS tend to explain, with a sense of wonderment in their voices, what you can do with an iPad, as if that captures something important about it. You can check email; you can surf the web; you can play games; you can watch movies; you can download new programs and try them out.

Yes, Sherlock, computers can do these things. Welcome to computer enthusiasm. Been here a long time, and it's nice.

But a list of the components of the tablet usage model isn't terribly helpful, in the end, all by its lonesome. After all, most smart phones will do those things, too, but using one to do them feels more like punishment than productivity.

My main question about the iPad 2—or about any tablet computer, really—is whether the user experience is good enough to make computing with the thing livable, even enjoyable. In other words, does this category of device truly have a reason to exist, and if so, where does it fit into the constellation of other computers we use every day? I like shiny gadget toys as much as the next red-blooded American geek, but are they really worth a darn?

For me, those questions come into sharp focus because I'm surrounded by excellent computers. Damage Labs is packed with high-end desktops connected to giant monitors, systems that define the power user's ideal productivity situation. When I'm on the go, I can check in on things with my iPhone 4, crammed full of apps for every purpose. Between the two sits my Acer Aspire 1810TZ ultraportable, which may just be my favorite computer of all. At 11.6" and just over three pounds, fortified with an SSD, the TZ is as close to my ultraportable ideal as any laptop I've seen, with an honest-to-goodness eight-hour battery run time. Any device that wishes to horn its way into my computing constellation will have to contend with some ridiculously formidable incumbents.

What I'm finding, interestingly enough, is that the iPad 2 is stealing time from each of those other computers in various ways.

 

Coming into the iPad 2 as an iPhone user, I had collected certain apps and habits for iOS, so getting started didn't seem daunting. One of those habits was a penchant for the mobile uber-game, Infinity Blade. This game's combination of RPG elements and an innovative multitouch swipe-and-tap-based combat system got its hooks into me on the iPhone for more hours than I care to admit. I started over from zero on the iPad, right as an update to the game added substantially more content and refreshed graphics for the iPad 2's improved hardware. This ain't Angry Birds or some imported Flash game, either; it's based on the Unreal 3 Engine and looks like it belongs on an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3. The update even added multisampled antialiasing for the iPad 2, making the PC gamer in me vaguely enraged, given the history there.

The iPad 2's larger screen and better graphics improved the experience immeasurably. I played prolifically, obsessively to the point where the game had nothing left to offer—no more levels to gain or objects to master. I was dedicating evenings to playing Infinity Blade rather than gunning my way through Bulletstorm or whatever else on the PC, and was happy to be doing so. I wouldn't say I ever finished playing Infinity Blade so much as I eventually paused and moved on to other things until the next promised update adds more content. I still go back to it every now and then, though, because the core game mechanic is simply fun and addictive, even beyond the rocks of RPG-style crack the game dispenses.

More than anything, Infinity Blade was my introduction to the iPad 2, and it proved that a true, hard-core gaming experience is possible on a tablet. Yes, the multitouch controls are sometimes awkward, but they allow new possibilities that are well-suited for certain types of game mechanics, like Blade's swordfighting. The presence of a really good pointing device also creates the opportunity for true depth in things like inventory management. I wouldn't want to navigate this game's menus with a gamepad, but touch makes it easy.

If Blade alone doesn't convince you, spending some time with the iPad rendition of Dead Space should do the trick. This game, too, looks like it came right off of a modern console, with the happy exception that EA seems to have cracked wide open the enduring puzzle of how to replicate the multi-axis control experience of the mouse-and-keyboard combo. A split touchscreen arrangement provides the same sort of precise look control as a mouse while offering true "analog-style" variable control over movement—something the classic WASD arrangement can't offer. I'll admit playing this way still feels clumsy with my untrained thumbs, but the potential is blindingly obvious.

Play Dead Space with some headphones attached to the iPad, and you'll find an outstanding aural experience to match the visuals.

Beyond that, of course, the iPad 2 is wirelessly networked and has access to a vast store of games priced between zero and seven bucks. In many ways, this is a more capable gaming system than the PCs on which I cut my teeth as a PC gamer, with overclocked Pentiums and 3dfx Voodoo cards.

In many ways, this is a more capable gaming system than the PCs on which I cut my teeth as a PC gamer, with overclocked Pentiums and 3dfx Voodoo cards.

No, scratch that. The iPad 2 is better than that. Heck, it's more capable in practical terms than the best desktop PCs of five years ago, which also had dual-core processors and DirectX 9-class graphics.

Now, I'm not saying the iPad 2 or any tablet will challenge or truly replicate the gaming experience on a modern high-end PC any time soon. That's not gonna happen. But I'm convinced the iPad 2 is deadly serious as a gaming platform, and not just for flinging miffed fowl. Handheld gaming devices, netbooks, and mainstream laptops—which chronically have been graphically inept—ought to be terrified.

Many big PC titles, both current and classic, are being ported. I've grabbed iPad versions of Command & Conquer Red Alert, Madden NFL '11, Need for Speed: Shift, SimCity Deluxe, and World of Goo, among others. There's also the very real possibility the bajillion-dollar World of Warcraft franchise could see a reconfiguration with the introduction of a well-made client for the iPad. This platform offers everything WoW needs to work properly, and a mobile version of that particular time-suck would probably prove massively popular. Already, there are clones available in the App Store, so the impetus is there for Blizzard.

I've started by talking about games for a reason, of course. If there is a "killer app" that drives adoption of new computing platforms among consumers more than any other, gaming is it—pretty much always has been. Face it, dropping $500 or more on a e-mail-inator or a web-surf-a-tron isn't very sexy and heck, it doesn't seem very practical given than your existing desktop, laptop, phone, or microwave will probably do those jobs just fine. Also: booo-ring. A new gaming setup, though, appeals to the portion of the brain that pushes aside any objections and slaps the plastic down at the checkout counter. The iPad 2 does a number of things pretty well, but the potential of tablets as gaming devices makes them formidable.