Tuesday, June 1, 2010

First Use Of iPad In Field Conditions

It will come as no surprise to my readers (either of them) that I've bought an iPad. Indeed, I rushed in fanboyish haste happened to be sauntering in a nonchalant fashion past the Apple Store in Norwich on the day the iPad was released on Albion's fair shores, which will now be called Day One of the Year Zero, and bought the basic model - 16Gb with WiFi but not 3G. It cost £429, with the iPad case an extra £30. The very nice salesgirl tried to flog me a much posher after-market case, but I chose Apple's own - it fits very snugly round the machine and protects the iPad completely (except for the screen), leaving canny holes for the charger/sync cable, the headphone socket and so on and so forth, though £30 does seem a little pricey. When in use, the lid of the case folds back and behind to tilt the machine forwards about ten degrees - as if it were on a shallow lectern.

What follows is strictly a set of first impressions. You should be aware (hey, Alejandro! No falling asleep at the back!) that first, I'm a user, not a techie; and, second, that my impressions will be colored by my own expectations and uses of this device, which might be different from yours.

Anyway, here it is, as described, on the 06:10 London-Norwich train on Monday, 1 June. I've added my glasses for scale.
First use of iPad in field conditions
As a device to take with you on a train, it's a joy, and everything I've been looking for in a replacement for my very basic Asus Eee road-warrior. The screen is big and bright; it's easy to edit documents (using the Pages app from the App Store, a snip at £5.99 - and Keynote and Deuteronomy Leviticus Numbers, the other components of the iWork triumvirate, are also available); you can listen to music on it; you can bore people to death enthrall your family and friends with your photo collection; it boots up instantly without any tedious hanging about; and the battery life is long enough for you not to worry about it. Even after a long morning's commute, editing and listening to music, the charge has gone from 100% down to 92%. After the return trip, it was down to 59%. My Asus Eee would have been gasping by elevenses, even with a dimmed screen and WiFi switched off.

The first thing that strikes you about the iPad is that it's smaller than you expect, and also heavier. It's about the same size as my mouse mat at work ...

My mouse mat at work, recently.

... but has a pleasing heft to it. One's immediate impression is Quality with a Capital Q. Yes, it looks like a big iPod Touch, but one immediately feels in the presence of something qualitatively more.

The controls are refreshingly few. There is one socket (I counted it very carefully) for Apple's proprietary enormo-plug, and one button (ditto) on the front. Close inspection reveals a headphone socket; the on/off switch; a small switch to lock the inbuilt screen in either portrait or landscape mode (for those moments when the onboard accelerometer induces nausea); a small rocker switch to control the volume; and ... er, well, that's it.

Almost everything is done through the touch screen. For applications that demand a keyboard, an on-screen virtual keyboard pops up when you want it. It's rather like the one on the iPhone, but the bigger size makes it, unsurprisingly, easier to use, especially for those, who, like me, use the AHAP (Advanced Hunt and Peck) technique.

Such things are invariably matters of taste - if you don't like the virtual keyboard, you can get the iPad dock with attached keyboard, and news has reached mes oreilles that the iPad responds well to Apple's own remote keyboard, and even third-party bluetooth remotes, though I can't vouch for such things myself. I happen to like the virtual keyboard, but after I've tried using the iPad for a long writing session, I might change my mind - so watch this space.

The iPad is not - repeat not - a laptop replacement. If you need to categorize it, think of it more as a rather good PDA (Personal Digital Assistant), like the Psions and Palm Pilots we used to have before smartphones were invented (except that the iPad is to a Palm Pilot as angels are to apes). The bottom line is that if you already have a decent laptop, you probably won't immediately want or need an iPad. The iPad is not a stand-alone machine, and shouldn't be treated as one. If proof were needed of this simple statement (which seems to have confused some reviewers), you need to have a computer running the latest iTunes to activate the iPad. Without that, the iPad can do nothing. The computer can be a PC or a Mac (I have a 24" iMac running Ocelot Mongoose Leopard), but it has to be a computer, whose relationship to the iPad will be exactly the same as with your iPod or iPhone.

Apart from activating the iPad, you need iTunes to manage content on the iPad (audio, video, photographs, applications) and to load any new software. In other words, just like an iPhone or iPod. Apart from that, managing settings such as WiFi, bluetooth, mail accounts, buying applications or content and so on in the iPad is exactly the same as with an iPhone, only easier, because the screen is bigger.

And what a screen it is. Virtually the whole of the front surface is a touch screen, and it is truly a thing of loveliness. Tactile, broad, flawless, firm, yet somehow silkily soft, it puts one in mind of voluptuous sexpot celebrity chef Nigella Lawson, and ... and ... [that's quite enough celebrity chefs: Ed].

Several commentators have noted that while you are looking at Nigella Lawson the iPad screen, the sense of having a physical gatekeeper between you and what you're looking at simply disappears - in other words, it's as near perfect a user interface as you could want. Surfing the net is what the iPad was made for. Facebook and Twitter are a breeze. Crox Minima (aged almost 10) enjoys playing with it and watching films on YouTube, and Crox Minor (12) revels in the fabulous iPad ScrabbleTM app. Most of your iPhone apps can be ported over to the iPad and will work, at either their original size, or toggled to fill the screen. Sometimes the extra graininess doesn't matter - but if it does, there'll probably be an iPad app optimized for the iPad's lusciously Nigellaesque screen.

Mrs Crox, who had been hostile to the very idea of the iPad, spent a very happy couple of hours with it while I took Canis Croxorum to the beach.
Canis Croxorum on the beach. More recently than the previous picture.

Mrs Crox is no stranger to the online world  - she's a web journalist for a living. She is, however, a confirmed PC user and totes a Blackberry rather than an iPhone, so she came to the iPad without preconceptions. Her verdict was that the iPad was very 'intuitive' to use - better than a laptop, as one doesn't have the additional clutter of a keyboard and mouse, and you can just dive straight in.

That's another advantage - almost no boot-up time. Some apps resume, immediately, just where you left off. When you've switched off (or changed apps) in the middle of a Pages document, and want to pick it up later, the iPad drops you straight in. If, like me, you've spent irreplaceable minutes and hours waiting for laptops to go through the motions (as if they were sewage workers on a work-to-rule), booting up, footling about and generally scratching their own nether regions, this is the answer to a prayer.

The sound quality is also very good - the tiny inbuilt speaker delivers sufficient punch for a small group of people to watch a movie or a YouTube clip, without the soundtrack sounding shrill or tinny - and the experience through headphones is excellent. Even with a fairly basic set of in-ear phones, the audio seems rich and full (my test was Deep Purple's 1999 re-staging of Jon Lord's Concerto for Group and Orchestra - am I a reactionary old fart? Guilty as charged Your Honour, and my client should like you to take 3,457,099 other Deep Purple albums into consideration).

The main thing, though, is that it's fast. Blazingly fast. As fast as Jeremy Clarkson in a Bugatti Veyron with a phalanx of vegetarian cyclists in front of him and his foot stuck to the accelerator. As fast as a very fast thing. Not quite as fast, admittedly, as a hot buttered ferret with chili powder up its bottom hurling itself headlong down a TeflonTM drainpipe, but as near as might require a Steward's Inquiry. This speed only adds to the involving user experience.

I said above that the iPad was like the iPod touch, only more so. What is this 'more' of which I speak? It is, of course, the iBook facility, in which the iPad becomes a reader, and you can buy eBooks from Apple's own eBook store. My iPad came loaded with Winnie-The-Pooh, and reading it on the iPad screen is very pleasant. I can't compare the experience with a Kindle, but I have used the Stanza app on the iPhone. This is good - very good, in fact - but it's that iPad screen, again, that makes all the difference. As a test I bought some Tolkien, and I look forward to reading this in my copious free time. Needless to say, reading anything on this super screen - magazines, newspapers, blogs, pdfs, neckties, samplers, stained-glass windows, tattoos, anything (more, more, I'm still not satisfied) is pure pleasure.

An aside for those with Macs who subscribe to the MobileMeTM facility - you can hoof this machine into your plans for world domination. The native Contacts and Calendar apps in the iPad are gorgeous, and if you note things like 'Tigger Tea Wednesday' in one of your linked devices, they should turn up in all of them.

But just in case you think that Apple has paid me to write this, there are irritations. I can't write my blog on Blogger with this, because the software can't handle content in windows within windows.

And you can't add attachments to emails. You can't just go into an email and attach any file willy-nilly, as you would on a computer. This is because the iPad, like the iPhone, has no clear directory structure, so finding anything to attach to an email might be fiddly in any event. However, you can attach files from within those apps where export might be useful.

Importing documents to Pages is a doddle. I have a few bits and pieces in Pages on my iMac which I wanted to take with me to edit on the move. I sent them to one of my email accounts, opening the attachments with ease in the iPad and - what do you know - the iPad invited me to open the documents directly in Pages (even the one which happened to have been saved as a doc file). This is brilliant.

But what about getting one's edits back to the iMac? Well, you can export a Pages file in Pages, PDF or Word formats, and send it by email. When you opt for that, the document formats itself appropriately and an email window opens with the document already attached, ready to send. The Keynote and Numbers apps have similar functionality. Neat!

Now, I believe that there are ways of printing out Pages documents, and there is a VGA cable accessory, available extra, which can in theory be used to attach an iPad to a projector or TV for Keynote presentations. There is also a dongle that allows you to connect the iPad directly to a digital camera, which might, I surmise, be useful for sneaking in other kinds of file apart from photos. But of these I cannot speak, so I shall thereof be silent.

And then there's the old bugbear about multitasking. On the iPad, just as on the iPhone, you can use only one app at a time. First, this is not strictly true - you can almost always listen to music while doing something else, like browsing, or editing a document. Second, this is not as big a disadvantage as you might think - because of the machine's speed and lack of boot-up time, toggling between applications is not as big a bore as the nay-sayers might have you believe. Moreover, I quite like devoting myself to one task at a time without being forever tempted to tap into another.

My verdict? This is just the thing I've been looking for. I can write and do edits on the move. I shall be able to update Facebook and Twitter and take notes at conferences without having to find a power outlet every two or three hours. I can send and receive emails, and update my calendar and contacts. I can - gasp - even log in to work, and do 90% of what I'd normally do in the office, whether I'm in London or working at home in my Wearable OfficeTM. However:

-- IF you already have a laptop or a netbook, you'll probably have no need for an iPad - a decent laptop can do everything an iPad does, and more. But:

-- IF your main machine at home is a desktop;

-- IF you can't justify (and don't really need) a separate, second, fully-featured computer, with all the weight and dangly bits that such things entail; and/or

-- IF you tend to be a watcher or a listener as much as a creator:

-- THEN you should check out the iPad and all that's in it, and, what's more, you'll be a Geek, my son.


  1. Interesting and encouraging because I WANT one (though the boss says I can't unless we can sell one of the daughters).

    However, in the interests of balance, I would also refer to this piece by a fan who has been using one a while and went off it: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/05/28/ipad_love_affair_goes_sour/

  2. Great post. I don't think I'll get one yet, until it has matured a bit. Each time one of these things gets invented I get offered one but I always refuse. (I am a very low maintenance person so my family is always desperate to find something I actually want to give me for xmas, birthday, etc). I still like to read books in print, though I suppose I can see the advantages if going on holiday - assuming one can charge batteries in distant climes. According to the bookseller, books on ipads are more expensive than in print or Kindle: http://thebookseller.msgfocus.com/c/1ue1tpIU5ct4aLdcV So far as I am aware, no UK book publisher has done a rights deal yet, if this is correct presumably one has to read books that are more than 100 years old (or however long the book equivalent of the statute of limitations is?)

  3. Bravo Sir. This comment foreshortened due to over-click error deleting long previous comment that was almost as long as this one but with more content.

    Good review HG.

  4. Thanks all. Actually, I made a mistake in my original review. You can, actually, attach things to emails in certain circumstances. I've edited the post to reflect this.

  5. Henry, at last some sense on this topic! You must replace S Fry as the nation's technology guru asap. I learned two useful things - (a) I don't need this yet, and (b) there is a 1999 remake of the Deep Purple concerto, please advise further. BTW I hope you are enjoying Tory Britain now the wastrels and scroungers have been vanquished.

  6. Thanks Martin - the 1999 Concerto is great, partly because it's a better recording, but mostly because that tedious Blackmore fellow is no longer there, having been replaced by the more talented (and very much more cheerful) Steve Morse. As for Tory Britain - I shall be happy once it is legal for the wastrels and miscreants to be ripped limb from limb by foxhounds.

  7. I want one for aircraft, as I travel in economy slave lower level on the air triremes, and the bastard in front always lays his (it's always a he) back so I can't see the screen of my beloved MacBook Pro. Also, I don't want physical copies of airport books when I travel.

  8. John - it would be absolutely ideal in such a situation. As you see from the first picture in the post, it's a breeze to use in a confined space - the picture was taken on a train with the iPad resting on the flip-down table of the seat in front. I hate sitting at the four-place tables as the leg room isn't enough and one invariably finds oneself being joined by three people who know one another and chat loudly about their personal lives as if one weren't there at all. Happily people like that almost always alight at Ipswich, which is no better than either it or they deserve.

  9. Execellent review Henry - really informative. I am so tempted to get one, mainly as device that I can take home at night instead of my laptop for basic browsing, email.

    I share some of Maxine's reservations about being an early adopter but we shall have to see how influential that is...

    By the way, this is me, Stephen Curry - not sure how to get this system to take my name!

    I wonder if there's an app that would allow you to write posts and upload to your blogger account?

    Another attraction for me is the possibility of using the device to read scientific papers, there is an iPad version of teh Mekentosj Papers program that I use to organise pdfs on my Mac that I gather is quite wonderful.

  10. OK - you can ignore the sentence in the middle!

  11. Hi Stephen - as a basic browser and emailer it is probably without peer, especially if you already have a wireless router at home (I deliberately avoided getting the 3G option - one has as many tariffs and contracts as one can manage, I feel). I expect the Blogger problem will resolve itself in time.

  12. Update: yes, you can in fact write blogsnin Blogger on an iPad, sort of.

  13. @Stephen: I can haz Papers now and it is indeed frabjous.