Apple looks set to shake up casual computing with a tablet that offers clever design and ease of use. But that streamlined approach may also be the iPad's weakness.
iPad as reading device
One of the most talked-about aspects of the iPad is its potential as a reading device, most specifically as a competitor to e-book readers such as Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook. There’s also been quite a bit of conjecture about the iPad’s ability to singlehandedly save, transform, or otherwise alter the downward trajectory of the magazine and newspaper publishing industries. (That’s a lot of drama to pack into one little gadget!)
I’ve owned an Amazon Kindle 2 for a little over a year now, and I like it a lot. It’s lightweight and its grayscale e-ink display is quite readable, albeit bland. The iPad is quite a bit heavier than the Kindle (think hardcover versus paperback, though that comparison isn’t quite right), and its backlit LED display couldn’t be more different. The Kindle fails in dark conditions, because it can’t light itself—I actually bought a clip-on book light for mine. And of course, the iPad presents everything in glorious color.
I suspect many people expect the iPad to put the Kindle out to pasture, but I’m not entirely convinced. What the Kindle has going for it is its simplicity as a unitasker. The Kindle does one thing well: allow you to read books. (It also lets you read magazines and newspapers, though it does that a bit less well—but then again, Apple’s iBooks app doesn’t support magazines or newspapers at all.) It’s cheaper than the iPad, and will presumably get cheaper still in the face of such stiff competition. If a friend or relative came to me and said that all they wanted was a book reader, nothing more, I would happily endorse the Kindle.
What the iPad offers is, quite simply, more. It’s not a unitasker. It reads books, but it also surfs the Web. (The Kindle has a Web browser, but it’s terrible.) It runs apps. Competing merely as an e-book reader, it’s a tight race, but the iPad’s boundaries go far past where the Kindle was ever intended to go.
Speaking of apps, one of the iPad’s strengths is that it can display e-books from more than one source. Apple’s iBooks app is front and center, of course, and it’s attractive and functional, though hardly the best iPhone OS book-reading app I’ve ever seen. (My vote there goes to Eucalyptus.) iBooks will even display DRM-free Epub files you can make yourself or download from the Internet. But Kindle for iPad is here too, giving iPad users access to Amazon’s entire e-book library (and allowing them to sync those books between the iPad and other devices, including Kindles and iPhones). Other readers will undoubtedly follow. That adds even more to the iPad’s flexibility.
A year ago, when I bought my Kindle 2, I cancelled my print subscription to the San Francisco Chronicle and replaced it with a Kindle subscription to that newspaper. If I decided to stop using my Kindle tomorrow in favor of the iPad, though, I would actually be taking a major step backward when it comes to reading that particular paper. That’s because every morning there’s a new copy of theChronicle on my Kindle, pushed automatically over the network. Meanwhile, Apple hasn’t provided newspaper and magazine publishers with any standardized method to sell their products, other than the obvious one: the iPhone/iPad app-development kit.
Some newspapers and magazines are building their own apps; others will likely use third-party apps built to house their content. But it’s one area where the iPad currently lags behind the Kindle—though with the staggering momentum on display in the App Store, it’s not a gap that’s likely to remain for very long. And the iPad’s large, color screen will be able to replicate the magazine experience in a way that even the larger (but still grayscale) Kindle DX just can’t.
Then there’s the reading that goes beyond books, newspapers, and magazines. Perhaps the most important app on the iPad is its web browser, Safari. This version of Safari, like many of the iPad’s apps, is a hybrid of its Mac and iPhone iterations. From the iPhone, Safari inherits the easy tap-to-zoom interface and resolution-independent type that makes even seriously zoomed-in pages readable. But the browser benefits greatly from the extra screen space, not just to display proper widescreen Websites at readable sizes but also to add Mac-style interface niceties like a set of toolbar favorites.
There’s just something about surfing the Web using Safari on the iPad. It feels different, somehow. Apple’s marketing pitch says “it’s like holding the Internet in your hands,” and while that’s a little bit cheesy, it’s not far off. There’s just something different about holding that Web page in your hands, rather than seeing it on a desktop or laptop PC, or on a tiny iPhone screen. Tapping on links doesn’t feel the same as clicking on them with a mouse. It’s a good feeling.
When it comes to reading Web pages, the App Store is once again the iPad’s ace in the hole. The excellent iPhone app Instapaper shines even brighter on iPad, allowing you to save interesting items you’ve found on the Web and read them later. And NetNewsWire, the RSS feed reader, uses the extra screen space to make paging through your feeds as easy as reading a restaurant menu.
Now, no app on the iPad will let you view items created using Adobe’s Flash technology and embedded in web pages. Apple omitted Flash from the iPhone three years ago and hasn’t looked back. The popularity of the iPhone (and the wave of interest in the iPad) have succeeded in making Flash less of a must-have technology than it used to be. Many major Websites are replacing Flash or offering a Flash-free version as an alternative. Still, if viewing Flash-based content on the Web is a major part of your life—I’m thinking specifically of all the Flash games out there for kids and Facebook users—the iPad is not going to satisfy you.
Finally, let’s not forget the variety of comic books and graphic novels that are out there, already being served by a half-dozen different apps. The iPad’s big, color screen makes it the best device for reading comics in digital form yet invented. If you’re a comic-book fan, buying an iPad is buying into the future of the medium.
So is the iPad a great device for reading? I have to say yes, mostly thanks to the remarkable flexibility allowed by the variety of apps in the App Store. Now, people who find it hard to stare at backlit LCD screens for long periods of time will probably not share this opinion; but as someone who stares at backlit computer screens all day, every day, I didn’t have a problem with it.
Next: Media playback and using an iPad in place of a laptop
Apple looks set to shake up casual computing with a tablet that offers clever design and ease of use. But that streamlined approach may also be the iPad's weakness. Read the full review
- Best-in-class touch interface
- Large display shows pics and videos beautifully
- All-day battery life
- No way to manage files, no camera, no multitasking
- Lack of Flash support cripples many Web sites
- Poor scaling of iPhone apps