Apple iPad: The Macworld Review

At a Glance
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iPad as multimedia player

Like pretty much every product Apple makes these days, the iPad is a capable entertainment device. There’s an iPod app for music playback; a Videos app for movie, TV show, and video podcast playback; a self-explanatory YouTube app; and of course an iTunes app to purchase and download content right on your iPad.

The iPod app is a hybrid of the iPhone’s iPod app and the desktop version of iTunes. It’s got the familiar iTunes play controls at the top and a source list on the left, letting you select different playlists or mixes. A set of tab buttons at the bottom let you sort your music library in different ways. You can edit playlists and create new ones with custom names, both firsts for an iPhone OS-based device.

And yet I find the iPad’s iPod app a bit disappointing. When you play a track, the interface vanishes and is replaced by the track’s album art, which fills the screen. Quite frankly, I’m not that interested in album art. I’d rather just stay in the iPod interface, so I can see what other tracks are coming next. (You can get back to that view by tapping on the album art, then tapping a back button.)

The iPod app shows giant album art by default (left), and has an iTunes-like interface (right). Click image for larger.

Another missing feature that would make sense on the iPad is the ability to connect to iTunes shared libraries. As I write this, I’m listening to music on my MacBook that’s streaming from a Mac mini in another room of my house. Having access to shared music (and videos, for that matter) would seem a natural for a device like the iPad, but that feature’s not there. Wouldn’t the iPad make a wonderful, portable, self-contained version of the Apple TV? I think so, but none of those features are here. If it’s not loaded via iTunes, Apple’s apps won’t play it.

The Videos app is similarly functional yet a bit disappointing. Movies and TV shows are identified by their cover art; if a particular movie’s poster is obscure, you’ll have to tap on the image in order to discover what movie it is. Displaying text with a movie or show’s title would be nice, at least as an option. (So would a simple alphabetical list.) Once you’ve tapped into a movie or TV show, the information screen is attractive. TV series, in particular, offer a mountain of data: episode titles, air dates, ratings information, and lengthy synopses.

With most movies and TV shows these days shot in 16:9 (and more extreme) aspect ratios, the iPad’s 4:3 screen means most video content will display with large letterbox bars at top and bottom. Double-tapping on the image will zoom you all the way in, cutting off the sides of the image. It’s a nice compromise, yet I kept wishing I could zoom to an interim step, cutting off some of the picture without filling the entire frame.

The general high quality of the iPad’s display means that movies and TV shows end up looking beautiful, and the iPad’s surprisingly loud and clear speaker means you can watch without headphones and still have a pretty good experience. (Unless you’re on an airplane—that would just be rude.)

iPad as a laptop alternative

During the run-up to the iPad’s debut in January, rumors abounded that it would be a device designed solely for the playback of media, be it video, text, or even games. Apple challenged that perception by announcing it had designed iPad versions of its three iWork Mac applicationsPages,Keynote, and Numbers. Throw in the ability to type on an external keyboard, and you got the distinct impression that Apple was trying to make the case that the iPad is a business tool and a true laptop alternative.

So can the iPad truly replace a laptop? It all depends on what you use your laptop for. The iPad isn’t going to replace a MacBook Pro anytime soon. But let’s face it: there are plenty of tasks that we currently use laptops for (checking e-mail and Twitter, surfing the Web, looking up some actor on IMDB) that don’t really tap the power of a laptop. These are the tasks the iPad is perfectly suited for. If you’ve considered buying a cheap laptop to keep around the family room in order to access the Internet, the iPad would fit the bill perfectly.

For me, the iPad excelled at tasks where I could lean back and read, watch, or listen. When I needed to lean forward, things got a little more complicated. The iWork applications are a little rough around the edges, but they’re truly groundbreaking. I am amazed at the amount of functionality that has been crammed into each of those three apps. The three iWork apps seem good for the light editing and displaying files, but using them to create important business documents from scratch seems much more daunting.

[For PCWorld's take, see Jason Cross's comparison between the iPad and netbooks.]

In the hand, on the lap

One of the biggest challenges to using the iPad is simple logistics: Where do you put it, and can you see and touch the screen comfortably from there? The laptop has two separate planes, one of which sits on your lap (or a desk) and the other one faces toward you. The iPad has only the one plane, which makes things trickier. In some positions on a couch or in bed, I felt uncomfortable with the iPad, and had to keep shifting until I found ones that worked for me. For many people, an iPad case will be a must—not so much to protect the device, but to help you prop it up at the right angle so that you can use it comfortably. Reading with the iPad also seems to me to be more of a two-handed activity. Without a case, the iPad is heavy enough and slippery enough that I found it difficult to hold in one hand. With Apple’s case, it was a lot easier to hold.

I didn’t really like Apple’s iPad case on first glance, but I have come to appreciate as a major improvement to iPad usability. A flood of other case manufacturers will undoubtedly follow—many of them useless, but many of them contributing mightily to iPad usability. I’ve never been a fan of iPhone cases, preferring to keep the device unadorned in my jeans pocket. But I suspect I will be singing a different tune when it comes to the iPad.

Next: Apps, iPad's potential, and Macworld's buying advice

At a Glance
  • 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

    Pros

    • Best-in-class touch interface
    • Large display shows pics and videos beautifully
    • All-day battery life

    Cons

    • No way to manage files, no camera, no multitasking
    • Lack of Flash support cripples many Web sites
    • Poor scaling of iPhone apps
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