Summary and Conclusion
Apple promised us a computing revolution with the iPad. A change in the way we saw mobile computers, and a change in the way we interacted with the digital world around us. However, it made those promises using a form factor that had been around for nearly ten years, albeit a much slimmer one with a hint of brushed aluminum and a gorgeous IPS panel. The real question here is did it deliver, and if so, in what ways? The iPad is hard to sum up in a few short phrases or quips. We have heard countless times that it seems "exactly like an enlarged iPod touch," but it's really not that at all. Surfing the web on the iPod touch is far nicer than surfing the web on any other portable media player, but it's still not ideal; if you touch the browser in the iPad, you'll understand what we mean. The iPad's web experience blows the doors off of the web experience found on the iPhone and iPod touch, which many consider to be extraordinary for hand-held devices already.
We've honestly never had such a hard time summing up a product evaluation, but we've never been dealt a product such as the iPad before. Apple's industrial design is absolutely beautiful, and it's clear that a great deal of thought went into it. Unfortunately, we noticed that the metal used around the edges is somewhat soft, and bumping into a table or sharp corner even slightly can nick or cause an indentation in your device. We'd suggest getting a case for every expensive piece of consumer electronics that you take on the go, and the iPad is no different. The size is just about perfect for what it does, which is to bring a computing experience to your fingers and not require a mouse and keyboard. Our main gripe with the size is that those with smaller hands won't be able to reach all the way across the screen with just their two thumbs while holding the iPad horizontally; even vertically we couldn't quite reach all the way across. Having to revert to one-handed mode frequently gets tiring, but we get the feeling that most app developers will take this into consideration to make the interactions more convenient.
Regardless of its faults (which we'll expound upon here in a second), the iPad is a joy to use. It's fun, it's easy to grab, it lasts for what seems like forever, and it does an amazing job of turning the Web into a keyboard/mouse-free zone. Apple has managed to simply create a device that's interesting and enjoyable to use, and in many cases, it will do all the things a casual computer user needs a computer to do. It surfs the Web with an amazing amount of speed, and the on-screen keyboard typing experience is the best we've seen to date. The tablet's A4 processor kept up with our typing regardless of how quickly we were pounding out e-mails, and we honestly didn't find the on-screen keyboard hard to get use to at all. In fact, we kind of liked it. It also handles multimedia (even HD video files) with ease, photo slide shows with style and e-mail with...well, with a good enough client to get most people by. We still think some serious work needs done to the Mail app (see our full Mail critique for more on that), but as we said, it's probably good enough for a casual user.
The screen on the iPad is the best looking panel we've seen on a device this size, hands-down. It's gorgeous from every angle (even extreme angles), and while the glare is rather bad outside, the ability to really crank the brightness helps it to still be useful outdoors, which many tablets cannot claim. We would have preferred a widescreen aspect ratio, even in a device of this size however.
On the other hand, the overall speed of the device and the UI is excellent. Page swipes, app load times and Safari renders are all lightning quick, and the refresh times on Maps has to be seen to be believed. This A4 chip is a winner for Apple, and we can only hope it shows up in the next generation iPhone.
Most of our gripes with the iPad stem from the operating system. iPhone OS 3.2 seems sort of dated when compared with the latest builds of Android, particularly when you think that a Nexus One can multitask while an iPad cannot. But again, perhaps the allure of the iPad is not what the tablet is today, but what it can be tomorrow. iPhone OS 4.0 is coming, that's a fact. We'll learn more about what Apple plans to bring to the table with it on Thursday (4/8). There are only 1000 or so iPad apps today; tomorrow there will be more, and three months from now you may not be able to keep track of them all. The utility of the iPad is really only hamstrung by the imagination of those producing applications for the App Store, which is something that other upcoming tablets won't be able to say. The iPad has a chance to grow, expand and become different things to different people over time. Once again, it's not the beautiful Apple hardware that really sets the bar, but the software that goes along with it too.
The iPad definitely isn't without flaws, however. Its metal casing is easy to ding up if you're not careful. Apple's OS does not support Adobe Flash, which is a significant shortcoming when you consider the amount of Flash-based video content on the web. The device has no USB/SD card slots for access to external storage or file transfers. A camera of any sort is surprisingly absent and the tablet could at least use a couple of flip-out feet to prop it up on a bit of an angle for easier access on a table top. Finally, the OS doesn't support multi-tasking in its current form. However, the iPad does more for the tablet industry than has been done in that last ten years. This device has made the tablet form factor more viable, and it has given touch computing another chance to succeed beyond the limited experience offered with Windows 7 currently.
What the iPad does do, it does extremely well. Web browsing is extremely quick (along with everything else), it's enjoyable to use, the battery life (10 hours or so) is fantastic and it can definitely go where even some netbooks cannot. Unfortunately, it's pretty much a coffee tablet/travel companion right now, but as the App Store expands and (hopefully) as iPhone OS 4.0 comes to light, the iPad's utility will likely increase. Some Windows PC users and hardcore computing enthusiasts will probably look elsewhere at some of the more complete, competitive tablet solutions coming to market this year, but for everyone else, the iPad brings a lot of computing fun and function on the go.