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.
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 1024×768 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 1280×800 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.
Bluetooth versus The Claw
Using the iPad 2 for anything beyond light communication can become a chore, especially if your expectations have been set by the use of a full-featured laptop. I had high hopes for the iPad 2 on this front, because my work needs mainly involve simple manipulation of words and pictures. So far, though, I’ve found myself reaching for my laptop whenever there’s real work to be done—and I wouldn’t dare travel to a press event with only an iPad in my bag.
If you’re serious about productivity on a tablet, you’re going to want to get an external keyboard. The iPad 2 supports them via Bluetooth, and the obvious choice is Apple’s nifty Bluetooth keyboard, which is what I bought. I’m picky as heck about keyboards, but this one is excellent. The key feel is quite good; the layout is about as vanilla QWERTY as one could hope; and it’s incredibly light and compact. It puts a whole heckuva lot of laptops to shame—and if you don’t like it, there are other options available, one of the benefits of not having a built-in keyboard.
With the iPad 2 propped upright via the Smart Cover, the tablet-plus-keyboard pairing functions in a free-form version of the usual laptop layout. The freedom to reposition the keyboard is a nice perk, and the whole setup works reasonably well on a deep enough tabletop or what have you. There are a couple of big, hairy drawbacks, though. For one thing, well, good luck trying to use this setup in your lap. If it can be done, I’m not the guy to do it. Also, I find that the Smart Cover positions the iPad 2 at too steep an upright angle, and unlike on a laptop, there’s no way to correct that problem. Other iPad 2 covers and such are available, some of which even bind the tablet and keyboard together into a laptop-like folding folio, but most of them tend to add quite a bit of weight and bulk. Some folks may find such alternatives workable, but if I wanted that, I’d just use my laptop.
Nevertheless, you can write on an iPad 2. In fact, I’ve made a point of writing this entire review on mine using an ultra-simplified, Zen-inspired word processing app called iA Writer. Typing things on that Apple keyboard is great. Wanting to make a change to something a few lines up and trying to position the cursor precisely with the touchscreen is… less great. More complex operations like cutting blocks of text and pasting them are possible, but it feels like playing the claw-grabber carnival game, trying to pick up a toy in the glass box. iA Writer attempts to circumnavigate these problems by using really huge text, which makes me feel like I’m fumbling to edit the large-print edition of Reader’s Digest. Perhaps with lots of use, I’d become more proficient at it, but mostly I just want my mouse and pointer back. During such moments, the inclusion of a touchpad in the Eee Pad Transformer’s keyboard dock sure seems like a smart move.
I use a couple of key tools for staying connected while on the go: a client for Windows’ Remote Desktop feature, which gives me access to all of the files and programs on my main PC in my office, and an IRC client for keeping in touch with rest of the TR staff. Turns out the iPad 2 isn’t great at either of these things. I burned through a host of free and paid Remote Desktop client apps before finally settling on my current favorite, Jump Desktop. At first, Wyse’s PocketCloud app seemed like the right answer, but it had some keyboard input problems that sank it. Jump Desktop is better, although it still crashes now and then. Both PocketCloud and Jump Desktop have some clever features that deal with the inherent problems of using a touch-based tablet to attempt to control a Window-based machine, including a slick virtual pointer, a pop-up keyboard, and special provisions for things like right-clicking and dragging. As coping mechanisms go, they’re quite effective, but controlling a Windows 7 system from a tablet will probably always be somewhat awkward. If you’re just using something simple on the remote box, like an IM client, a tablet will get the job done, though.
My biggest frustration with using the iPad 2 as a Remote Desktop client, however, is the way iOS handles multitasking—that is, not at all really. What the OS is doing is probably better called “backgrounding,” since apps not in the foreground are largely just suspended. Trouble is, this model of app switching doesn’t mix well with clients that need to maintain a persistent connection. I like to switch between several different programs during a typical usage session—say, email, web browser, and RDC client—as needed. On the iPad 2, the Remote Desktop clients won’t stay connected for more than a minute or so while they’re in the background. That same limitation makes the iPad 2 a lousy IRC client, since the consensus best IRC app, Colloquy, won’t stay connected for long in the background, either. My solution so far has been to use a Windows IRC client via Remote Desktop, and to tolerate the RDC reconnects. It works, but not well.
|My biggest frustration with using the iPad 2 as a Remote Desktop client, however, is the way iOS handles multitasking—that is, not at all really.|
Another potential area of concern, especially if you’re trying to replace a laptop with an iPad 2, has to do with the way user data gets handled in iOS. Heck, the iPhone started out as a glorified iPod, chained to a user’s PC for management via iTunes. Apple has eased away from that position somewhat, but the iPad still shares those roots. True independence won’t come until later this year with the next version of iOS. Even then, things like data management will move into the cloud, not directly into the user’s hands. The iPad doesn’t expose a file system to the user, has no means of adding additional storage, and won’t talk to USB devices like cameras without extra help.
For some folks, I know, those limitations really chafe, especially if it feels like Steve Jobs himself is telling you what you can and cannot do with your tablet. The turtleneck can stuff it!
To me, none of those limitations is a big deal. I just emailed myself the text of this review from within iA Writer, for instance, and many apps already support services like Dropbox for cross-platform syncing. Apple’s $29 Camera Connection Kit does a fine job of importing pictures from a camera or SD card, if that’s something you want. Also, jailbreaking to gain more control is always an option.
Then again, my sense of the tablet usage model has been shaped by the iPad 2’s limitations. I’m not likely to import pictures and videos directly into my 16GB iPad 2 because the 18-megapixel still shots and 1080p videos produced by my camera would eat up every ounce of its remaining storage space. I’m not trying to manage lots of files, because I’ve largely given up on attempting to produce a complex document like one of our CPU reviews, which mix text, images, and large HTML tables, on the iPad 2. I’ll freely admit that I’ve not put enough work into, say, buying and trying a number of different image editing programs in order to find one that might serve my needs. But I’ve had the iPad 2 for months now, have spent countless hours with it trying all sorts of different things, and I no longer relish the idea of using this device for serious work. Surely that says something about the current state of affairs.
So what’s the verdict?
We posed some questions earlier about the tablet’s place in the computing constellation. I think the answers to some of those questions have come into sharp focus. The iPad 2 is decidedly less than stellar as a productivity device, and it’s not about to replace my laptop as a real on-the-go office, let alone my massive, six-core desktop with a glorious 30″ display. On the other hand, the iPad 2 is downright superior to virtually any netbook and also a great many laptops for various types of media consumption, from book reading to gaming and perhaps even web surfing. Such tasks are where tablets excel and where, for a variety of reasons, many PCs are unfortunately disappointing.
Although I’ve said my time spent with the iPad 2 was eating into time spent with several of my other computers, the one that’s taken the biggest hit is the iPhone 4. Once a wonder of modern technology, my iPhone now feels small and slow; its only virtue is being able to fit into my pocket. If I’m going to plunk around in the app store looking for the latest game or what have you, I’ll do it on the iPad 2, thanks. Having a tablet on hand has ruined my enthusiasm for smart phones. I can’t say my interest in laptop or desktop computers has been similarly affected.
|PCs need to learn an awful lot of the iPad’s tricks in order to remain competitive.|
However, my expectations for mobile devices, especially laptops, have been revised upward. Compared to the iPad, the amount of time the average laptop takes to wake from suspend feels like a century, and waking from hibernate feels like millennia. PCs need to learn an awful lot of the iPad’s tricks in order to remain competitive, including quicker wake-up and suspend, lower power draw while suspended, and noise output that’s much closer to a tablet’s utter silence. Better graphics for gaming are a must; we’re hopeful AMD’s newly integrated Radeons will push Intel into competence, at long last, on this front. PCs also need to become easier to manage and harder to break. The iPad 2 has come nearer to the ideal of being a simple consumer electronics device with very broad appeal than any Windows computer yet. The rumored Windows app store can’t come a moment too soon, and it probably needs to bring cloud-based automatic user data backups along with it.