What, precisely, is the iPad? Compared with its iconic ancestors, the iPod and the iPhone, that's a surprisingly tough question to answer. It runs the same operating system as the iPhone--but you can't make phone calls on it. It has been hailed as the gadget that may save the publishing industry--though its e-reader software, which isn't preinstalled, does not display magazines and newspapers. It features a bevy of games--but it's neither an Xbox 360-killer nor a handheld device like a Nintendo DSi.
Most paradoxically of all, the iPad takes on the Windows world of netbooks and even more full-featured PCs, though it doesn't run all Web apps. Or print. Or provide a file system that lets you get to all your documents in any app. Those shortcomings would make the very concept of competing with PCs laughable, if weren't for the way its small size, touch interface, and impressive battery life add up to one of the best devices ever built for consuming content of all kinds, from Web pages to books to feature films. It's both more fundamentally limited than a PC and an exciting sneak peek at where interfaces are likely to go--which is why it makes much more sense as a supplement to the other computers in your life than as a replacement for any of them.
In short, Apple's tablet competes with an array of existing devices without mimicking any of them. And the best way to figure out whether it's a plausible alternative to a PC, an e-reader, a game console, or any other better-established gizmo is to give it a whirl. So we did--read on to see what we found. (For more coverage, browse to go.pcworld.com/ipad.)
The iPad vs. the PC
Let's state the obvious: The iPad isn't going to be your only computer. It tells you that yourself the first time you turn it on, when it asks to be connected via USB cable to a PC or a Mac running iTunes. Even if you don't want to buy music, movies, and apps on a computer and transfer them to the iPad, you'll want to sync from time to time, especially since that's the only way to back up an iPad.
So the question isn't whether you want an iPad instead of a computer-it's whether you want both. If you're happy with PCs in their current form, you may find the iPad's limitations crippling, especially if you're creating content rather than consuming it. The on-screen keyboard is probably the best ever created, but it's still no match for a real, tactile QWERTY board when it comes to comfort and typing speed.
Everything operates in full-screen mode, and with few exceptions only one app runs at a time--a shocker if you're used to leaping between browser, word processor, spreadsheet, and e-mail. The iPad can't run standard desktop productivity applications, and you can't always find adequate substitutes among the Apple-approved choices in the App Store. The device doesn't even have a solid office suite yet (see "Does the iWork Suite Work? Not Yet").
The list goes on: It has no camera, no support for Adobe's Flash browser plug-in, no direct way to print, and no slot for your digital camera's memory card. (Several good iPad photo editors are already available, but the simplest way of getting images off a camera and onto the tablet requires a $29 adapter.) The roomiest iPad has only 64GB of storage, compared with the 500GB found on even some inexpensive laptops.
But the iPad's profoundly un-PC-like personality turns out to be its biggest virtue, too. For starters, its small size, half-inch profile, and 1.5-pound weight make it far more portable than even a netbook. The 9.7-inch color screen may be small, but its IPS (In-Plane Switching) technology makes it look good from any angle. And the groundbreaking battery life--an honest 10 hours on a charge--lets you spend less time stressing out over the possibility that you will run out of juice.
For a machine that lacks timesaving features such as multitasking and windows, the iPad doesn't feel hopelessly cumbersome. And actually, thanks to its fundamentally simple finger-driven interface, zippy performance, and true instant-on capability, the device often feels like a quicker, more efficient, less annoying alternative to a Windows PC or Mac. It's absolutely impossible for apps to pop up annoying messages without your permission, and the tight restrictions that Apple places on third-party applications make security a nonissue for now.
Unlike a PC or phone, the iPad isn't a necessity. Many people who find the idea of it intriguing are going to buy an iPad and be glad they did. But refusing to buy one is also a viable option. So is biding your time as an interested bystander. As usual in tech and in life, good things will come to those who wait: The library of iPad apps will only get richer, and iPhone OS 4.0, due this fall for the iPad, will bring multitasking and other benefits. And chances are that roughly a year from now, Apple will release a second-generation iPad that sports at least some of the features most obviously missing from the first model.
VERDICT: PCs are better at being PCs than the iPad is. But the iPad is something new, useful, and important--and you shouldn't dismiss it until you've tried it.