It was hyped and ripped before it even had a name, and after it was announced, it was both praised and panned. Apple’s iPad has been the subject of debates about the future of technology and media, and massive speculation about whether people will really want to buy and use it.
Without a doubt, it’s remarkably easy to dump a heap of existential baggage on the iPad. It’s likely that its existence is a direct repudiation of the last 25 years of computer interfaces, an era kicked off by Apple itself. It’s a product in a category—tablet computers—that has been a flop despite nearly a decade of hype.
But before we get into the big, existential questions about the iPad and what it means for life on Earth, it’s probably a good idea to look at what the product actually is: a solid glass-and-metal slab of high technology.
Holding the slab
The iPad may be the most impressive piece of Apple hardware I have ever handled. It weighs a pound-and-a-half—much heavier than an iPhone, but much lighter than a laptop. The front is almost entirely glass, save a thin aluminum frame at the edge. The back is a gently curved plate of anodized aluminum with a black Apple logo smack in the middle.
The iPad is designed to be held and carried, and it couldn’t have felt more solid in my hands. What my senses told me is that this is not a delicate piece of technology to be coddled, but a rugged device that I should feel free to tote wherever I want to go. (Yes, I know some of that feeling is an illusion—it would probably be a bad idea to hurl the iPad like you’re tossing a ball of pizza dough, especially while standing on concrete. But that doesn’t change the fact that, with the solid glass front and tapered aluminum back, the product feels nigh invulnerable.)
The iPad’s touchscreen is 9.7 inches measured diagonally, with a resolution of 1024-by-768 pixels. That’s the traditional 4:3 aspect ratio found on older TV sets, as opposed to the 16:9 ratio favored by modern HDTVs. The screen resolution is 132 pixels per inch, less than the 163 pixels per inch found on the iPhone. The iPad’s glass front continues past the screen, creating a bezel three-quarters of an inch wide all the way around. (The bezel is a good place to put your thumbs when you’re holding the iPad, so you can keep a solid grip without interfering with the touchscreen.)
I found the iPad’s screen to be extremely bright, with vibrant color and a broad viewing angle. I absentmindedly set my iPad down on my coffee table while it was displaying an article within Instapaper Pro, and was surprised to notice that I could clearly read the text despite the extreme angle, thanks to the same in-plane switching (IPS) technology used in iMac displays. (At a certain angle I could also see an array of fingerprints—and boy, does this screen collect them. Fortunately, it’s got the same oil-repellant coating as the screen on the iPhone 3GS, meaning one quick wipe with a sleeve and they’re history.)
Now about the size of that screen. When the iPad was announced, one of the common criticisms of the product was that it’s just a bigger version of the iPod touch. That’s true so far as it goes, but I suspect a lot of the people who said it didn’t understand just how vital that increased screen real-estate—the iPad has five times as many pixels as the iPhone or iPod touch—really is.
Sure, if the interfaces of iPad apps were just scaled-up versions of iPhone apps (like what you get if you run iPhone-only apps on the iPad), the iPad would be the technological equivalent of one of those oversized novelty checks presented to lottery winners. But what the additional pixels really allow is entirely new, richer, and more complex interactions. On the iPhone, an app like Mail is a series of single screens, with the user constantly burrowing down and then backing up like a confused gopher. (Tap on an account, then the Inbox, then a message, then tap the back button, tap another message, tap the back button three times, tap another account, tap Inbox…) The iPad changes that experience by displaying the body of messages in their own, capacious pane, while your mailboxes and lists of messages fight over a smaller pane or, in portait orientation, a pop-over element.
Beyond the more sophisticated user-interface possibilities, the iPad’s large screen opens the door for new gestures that simply wouldn’t work on a pocketable device. You can put lots of fingers (and, indeed, both hands) on the iPad, to type or to interact with on-screen objects. This is one of those areas where the whole is more than the sum of its parts, and people who disparage the iPad as merely a hyper-thyroidal iPhone are failing to see the bigger picture.
Next: Specs, speed, and typing
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.
- 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