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Of GUIs and swipes
John C. Dvorak wrote a column years ago based on a simple observation: there's something mildly addictive about the input-response combination of moving a mouse and seeing a pointer sweep across a screen. That thought has stuck with me because there's some truth to it, at least for me. At a very basic level, using a modern, mouse-based GUI is satisfying. (Crank the responses to such inputs up a notch or ten, and you have Call of Duty, which dispenses a whole other level of satisfaction.)

Using a tablet with a touch-screen interface is at least as satisfying as a mouse-and-pointer arrangement, if not more so. Perhaps that's why I was so taken with Infinity Blade. Just using the iPad 2 to surf the web, with all of the swipe scrolling and pinch zooming, is pretty gratifying, even fun.

Yes, many laptops offer touchpads with multi-touch gesture support, but they're typically not nearly as responsive as a tablet, especially for things like zooming, and they don't let you see the response happening beneath your fingertips. The best user interface paradigms involve experiences that feel intuitive after a little bit of use, and tablets with relatively large screens are, so far, the best expression of a very good UI mechanic. The iPad 2 sells it by offering smooth and instantaneous responses nearly all of the time.

We could talk about its very capable graphics and dual-core CPU in this context, but the key is simply performance good enough not to be an issue. The combination of iOS, its standards for apps, and the iPad 2's guts together yield something that feels seamless—much better than one might expect from a second-generation product with a focus on portability. And much better than, say, any netbook running Windows.

The tablet as media client
As the iPad morphs into an ever-more massive sales success, lots of folks in the traditional PC industry are wondering what to make of it all. How do tablets fit into the overall mobile computing picture? What does their success mean to established categories of devices like netbooks and ultraportable laptops? There's a gathering consensus among early adopters, I think, that may already sound like conventional wisdom to many ears: tablets are great for consumption, but kind of lousy for most creative or productive tasks. That's a fitting summation of the iPad 2, more or less, though there are always exceptions.

The first part of that formula has it right: the iPad 2 is an excellent platform for consuming media of many types, from surfing the web (where I don't miss Flash support as badly as I'd have expected) to watching YouTube videos to reading books and magazines. Reading the full-color PDF version of the latest issue of the Missouri Conservationist in iBooks feels like a new experience, even if you've read full-color magazines as PDFs on the PC before.

The experience feels different because of the tablet form factor, and especially because of the iPad 2's interpretation of it, the combination of smooth and nearly seamless construction, minimal heft, and almost miraculous thinness. Holding it in the hand is the natural thing, whereas even the finest ultraportables and netbooks want to be perched on a desktop. The display is an IPS panel, evident in the color reproduction (which is better even than most laptops costing two to three times as much) and in the way it maintains much of its color contrast even at heavily off-center viewing angles.

This panel, along with a relatively loud and clear-sounding internal speaker, makes the iPad 2 much better suited for sharing, say, a YouTube video or the latest round of vacation pictures than nearly any of the multitude of laptops I keep around.

The experience feels different because of the tablet form factor, and especially because of the iPad 2's interpretation of it, the combination of smooth and nearly seamless construction, minimal heft, and almost miraculous thinness.

Strangely enough, the display that sets this device apart is also the most obvious place where the iPad 2 leaves considerable room for improvement. I'm down with the 4:3 aspect ratio—the proportions make perfect sense—but the 1024x768 resolution feels cramped. In landscape mode, with sites like TR (and the majority of the rest of the web) designed for 1024-width browser windows, the iPad 2 still scales every image slightly, blurring text and reducing sharpness. Yes, the image scaling is fast and effortless, but that's no substitute for displaying a native-sized image where possible. The iPad 2 owner who picks up a Motorola Xoom in the store and pulls up a webpage in landscape mode on its 1280x800 display will feel a pang of envy, at least on this one front.

Of course, my real source of consternation here is my daily exposure to the iPhone 4's Retina display, whose pixel density must be four times that of its big brother. If you've spent any time at all with that display, you'll know why the rumors about an iPad with a similar pixel density persist: this is something you want. The crisp text and the raw sharpness are addictive. There are good technical reasons why cramming a four-megapixel panel into a device like the iPad isn't easy, but knowing that doesn't make me want it any less, especially when I'm reading books in the Kindle app.

Apple could provide a large measure of relief to current iPad owners with a straightforward software change: the addition of sub-pixel font antialiasing, a la Microsoft's ClearType, to a future version of iOS. I have my doubts whether that will happen, but it would in an ideal world.

The iPad 2 is also an excellent media client because, well, it's an iPad, and Apple has marshaled considerable support for this platform. There are custom apps from nearly every large print and online publication, along with a host of TV networks and the like. The support is so wide-ranging and, in some cases, so exclusive that I'm actually kind of ambivalent about the situation.

For instance, as a Time Warner Cable customer, I'm able to download a free app that will let me watch a host of TV channels right on my iPad, so long as it's connected to the Internet via the Time Warner network. Time Warner has even gone to war on behalf of its customers over this app, pushing the TV networks to allow streaming for as many channels as possible. That's all well and good, but as far as I know, Time Warner has only provided this kind of streaming freedom via its iPad app. There are limited web-streaming options for a few networks, but for the most part, you'll need an iPad to partake of this service. Why?

Some of the magazine and newspaper apps are pretty nice, but there are too many of them, with too many unfamiliar layouts and a strange fealty to a swipe-based interface design language that doesn't actually, you know, exist in any coherent form. The end result is that many of the iPad apps aren't really worth the navigation effort; you're better off just pulling up the publication's web site, which usually works pretty well on a tablet, after all. The worst offenders may even detect an iPad client browser and redirect you to an app download page, gating off web-based access to their site. (I'm looking at you, New York Post.)

The end result is that many of the iPad apps aren't really worth the navigation effort; you're better off just pulling up the publication's web site.

On the plus side, a great many traditional print magazines are now offered via the App Store, for subscription rates similar to print. The iPad is a promising platform for those few decent print mags that have survived this far into the Internet age while retaining a pure subscription model, and I'm happy to see outlets like Car and Driver finding a potentially viable home there. (My wife is also pleased about the potential for such arrangements to eliminate the stacks of magazines and such that have always cluttered our home. Heck, I even downloaded my new DSLR camera's manual into the iPad and tucked away the original into storage.)

There are zillions of other apps, too, we should not forget. You will not lack for selection, whether you're looking for a diverting puzzle, an electronic version of almost any popular board game, or a voice-narrated Thomas the Tank Engine book to keep a toddler occupied. Many of the apps are high quality, and Apple's reputedly strict controls do seem to work in keeping out the worst buggy disasters, malware vehicles, and truly offensive material.

Speaking of banning things, I should mention books in this context, too. I've experienced a bit of a reading renaissance since picking up the iPad 2, much like Cyril did with his Kindle. Heck, I'm using the Kindle app on the iPad, mostly because Apple doesn't support as many devices (including Windows-based PCs) with iBooks. My initial impressions of the iPad 2 as a book reader were negative for two reasons: the pixel density and the weight of the device. For reading, especially reading in bed, the iPhone 4 seemed like a better option, with its razor-sharp text and lighter weight. However, I've found myself picking up the iPad 2 for reading more often in spite of these things. Even seems like my T-Rex-style forearms have gained enough strength to make holding the tablet aloft less of a burden. I've plowed through thousands of pages in the past several months, putting away almost the entirety of the Song of Ice and Fire and Kingkiller Chronicles series, so something must be working right.

Beyond its size, shape, and display, one factor that makes the iPad 2 so good as a reading device is almost a non-factor: battery life. I've heard figures in the 10-hour range, but I've never used the thing continuously for long enough to deplete it entirely in a single day. I can tell you the variance in battery life based on what you're doing is smaller than with most laptops. A Windows laptop with eight-hour potential can burn through its entire battery reserve in two hours while playing games. Not so with the iPad 2, where even Infinity Blade won't move the needle terribly faster than just reading a book will. Thus, you don't really have to manage the iPad 2's battery life as you would a laptop's. I just plug it in to charge overnight every day or two, and the meter rarely goes below 50%. When it does get a little low, charging seems to happen fairly quickly, especially since each percentage point of charge buys quite a bit of time.

Presumably you've seen the iPad 2's so-called Smart Cover, which attaches via magnets to one edge of the device and can be folded back in sections to act as triangular a prop on a tabletop. Two orientations are possible: one where the the rear of the device is elevated slightly, so it slopes toward the user, and another where the tablet sits nearly upright. The gently sloped setup is eminently useful, especially if you're catching up on the various forms of text-based communication that dominate so much of our time: e-mail, IMs, social networks, and such. Typing on the touch-based graphical keyboard in this orientation isn't exactly a joyous ergonomic triumph, but it's miles better than texting on an iPhone and more than good enough for keeping your Twitter followers enthralled with your deep thoughts about Rupert Murdoch and custard pie.