Apple iPad Review: The Tablet Revolution Begins

Design and Build Quality

If you've held any of Apple's "Pro" products in the past few years (the 13" MacBook Pro that we recently reviewed is a great example), then you'll know exactly how the brush aluminum rear of the iPad feels. It's made from a solid hunk of metal, and it wraps nicely around the sides and edges until it bleeds into the 9.7" IPS panel on the front. Aside from the mirrored Apple logo in the center and the small bit of text at the bottom, there's nothing but silver metal on the back. It's a clean, elegant look that Apple manages to execute better than any other major competitor on the market right now.

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The overall device weighs 1.5 pounds, and spread across 9.7" of screen, that doesn't feel too heavy. In our opinion, it's a nice mix of rigidity and firmness, and it's just heavy enough to let you know that you're playing with a serious piece of hardware. When holding it with one hand for long periods of time, we did find ourselves growing tired, but with two hands, the weight simply isn't an issue. We should say, however, that 9.7" is pretty large if you're used to using an iPhone, and it honestly takes some getting used to. You're looking at the iPhone OS, but on a screen over twice as large, and it definitely takes some adjusting before you're able to whiz about the screen as users can easily do one-handed on an iPhone or iPod touch.

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Across the top, there's a microphone, 3.5mm headphone jack and the power/sleep button; along the left edge is the typical volume rocker and a new switch that's making its debut on the iPad. It's called a screen orientation lock, and it's a great inclusion. When it's flipped on, the screen remains locked in horizontal or vertical mode (whichever mode you activate it during is the one that stays), and this is great for holding movies as horizontal even if you shift your position or happen to tilt it upright a bit during viewing. Definitely a nice anticipation move, and it's one that we greatly used while watching multi-media with company around. The right edge is completely blank, while the bottom has a 30-pin Dock Connector in the center and a tri-grilled speaker on the left corner.

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You'll notice that we didn't mention a USB slot or SD card slot; neither are present, and these two are certainly glaring omissions. We aren't quite sure what Apple was thinking by leaving these out, and they obviously knew just how important they were. In order to get both ports, you'll have to buy a $29 Camera Connection Kit, which includes a pair of dongles that plug directly into the Dock Connector port (one for USB, one for SD), so even if you shell out the extra money, you have to be responsible enough to remember (and not lose) to dongles. It's a rather poor setup, but you can almost see these two ports integrated into the second-generation iPad right now.

The overall size is just fantastic to hold. It's tough to explain, but it just feels good to hold. The cool aluminum across the back is a great material to have against your flesh, and the slick display invites your fingers to have at it. We know it sounds cheesy, but this is the first tablet PC in a long time that actually feels comfortable and ergonomic in every way that we held it; it's pretty clear that Apple did some serious testing here to make sure the device was suited for extended use.

The final design aspect is the front plane, which involves a solid Home button at the bottom (exactly the same in size, fit and function as the one on the iPhone) along with a black bezel and a 9.7" IPS panel with LED backlighting. The bezel measures just under an inch all the way around, and it's there so your thumbs have a place to rest on each side without blocking the screen or inadvertently activating a command. As we feel about the iPhone, the single Home button works great, and the 2x tap to find "Search" from the first panel is also a useful extra. The main complaint here is the lack of a front-facing webcam atop the unit's screen. This device would be excellent for video chatting, but again, we get the feeling Apple's holding that for round two.

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The display itself rocks. There's no other way to say it. It's the best looking LCD, at this size, we have ever seen. Hands down, the IPS panel looks miles better than TN panels that are so commonplace, and while IPS is a more expensive technology, it's perfectly suited for tablets. You see, the iPad can be used in a lot of ways, and unlike a notebook which generally stays positioned in one main spot for a long time, you're likely to move your iPad around. This means that the display has to have killer viewing angles so you can see everything clearly and sharply regardless of the angle change. The panel survived our movement test with style; we held it straight out, laid it flat our lap to input a URL, tilted it up slightly to watch a movie and then flipped it sideways to show a neighbor. We didn't notice any color fading or bleeding at all, and even when viewed at a nearly-flat angle, every single pixel was perfectly sharp.

We're glad Apple put such an astounding display into the iPad; it easily steals the show. Watching movies on it was truly gratifying, and the brightness level can be cranked to a point where it almost hurts your eyes indoors. This is a huge point, because it also makes the iPad useable outside. Now, the glossy panel definitely hurts things here, as reflections are everywhere while out in broad daylight, but at least you can blast the brightness so you can use it when outside; many other tablets with lesser LCDs cannot. We could go on for hours about this display, but instead, we'll simply reiterate that it's the current king in the notebook / tablet realm and we'd love to see something top it.

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A final note on quality: the iPad exudes quality from every angle, and just holding it you get the impression that it was handcrafted. But we noticed during our testing that it's not quite as sturdy as Apple makes you believe. We happened to bump the bottom lip of the iPad into a corner of a wooden table; the force was moderate, and we thought nothing of it. A few minutes later, we inspected the bottom and noticed two indentions in the metal. A relatively minor bump into a table caused irreversible indentions into our iPad, and we're obviously not pleased. It's clear that you'll need to factor an iPad case into your budget; the metal, while beautiful, simply is not strong enough to handle day-to-day abuse without the case becoming marred.

We will say, however, that the internal speaker was as good as we've heard on a tablet (far louder and crisper than the iPhone 3GS speaker), and the few buttons that are on the device are all well-built and ready to mashed over and over again.

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