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My iPad – a short review

About two weeks ago, I got my hands on an iPad. For those of you who have been living under a rock for the last months, and iPad is something that looks like a big iPhone, but behaves much like a small laptop.

Since people who just spent over $500 for a toy, are very subjective in their judging (buying something bad would make you look stupid!), you have to take this review for what it is: Me trying to justify buying an expensive toy. To help my mind balance things a bit, I’m going to talk about two good things, and two bad things about the iPad.

Good: Looks, UI and surfing the web

An iPad, here shown next to a old banana for comparison. Click for bigger image.

The area where the iPad really shines is when it comes to the look and feel. It’s simply gorgeous, feels good in your hand, and makes all your friends instantly drool (like you expect them to). The screen is as sharp (or sharper) than a computer monitor, and its brightness could light up a dark room.

Working with it is just as pleasant. You click, swipe, pinch and type, like you’ve done nothing nothing else in your life. As someone who haven’t used an iPhone before, I’m impressed. Those that have, say that the iPad is even snappier than the iPhone. Some application are of course better fit for a touch interface than others. Google Maps is one of them, when a large display combined with panning and zooming makes the old arrow and zoom buttons on the traditional Google Maps interface feel like stone-age.

They keyboard surprised me by being even better than I expected. In landscape mode it’s almost as large as a laptop keyboard, and in some cases even faster than a traditional keyboard since you don’t have to push, just touch the buttons. The biggest keyboard problem though is of course that you usually only have one hand available. When you have two hands, it’s great.

Another area where the iPad really works is as a window to the web. Safari comes pre-installed (Microsoft monopoly anyone?) but works like a charm. Pages load quickly, and swiping to scroll and pinch to zoom works just like it should.

Web standards are well supported, like you expect from Safari. But some new problems emerge when looking at HTML5 demos though:

  • The Safari inside the iPad isn’t as performant as a desktop browser. So there’s lots of lagging when trying to rotate things in advanced ways.
  • Even though Apple has decided to ban Flash and pick a fight with Adobe, many new apps are built to take advantage of the mouse moving around. On the iPad, there’s no mouse pointer, so you have to simulate one by touching the screen and moving the finger around.
  • Keyboard navigation is strange, because most of the time, you don’t have a keyboard. The keyboard only shows up only when you focus a text field, at other times, you’re lost.

These things sound like annoyances, and they are, but they are also quite minor. For all the surfing you usually do, the iPad works just like it should.

Bad: A horrible Developer Platform

As you’ve probably heard during the last few weeks, Apple have no clue whatsoever about how to cultivate a vibrant developer community. Let’s look at the facts:

  • To distribute your app you need to join the iPhone Developer Program, that costs you $99-$299 per year.
  • To download the SDK you need to fill out a huge multi-step form (where almost all fields are required), and where you’re asked to give away lots of personal information.
  • When you “publish” your app it has to go through a manual approval process, which could take months if you are unlucky.
  • You need to approve to a ridiculous legal statement preventing you from using some programming languages, and making calls to some APIs.

To quote:

“3.3.1 — Applications may only use Documented APIs in the manner prescribed by Apple and must not use or call any private APIs. Applications must be originally written in Objective-C, C, C++, or JavaScript as executed by the iPhone OS WebKit engine, and only code written in C, C++, and Objective-C may compile and directly link against the Documented APIs (e.g., Applications that link to Documented APIs through an intermediary translation or compatibility layer or tool are prohibited).”

Needless to say, I’m never going to be develop anything for the Apple Platform. Apple and its developers is much like one big company (with strict rules). The only difference is that instead of a salary the developers get to pay to work for them. Good for Apple, horrible for developers.

Good: Games that use the touch interface

There are lots of good games that have started to take advantage of the big touch surface to make fun interaction styles possible.

  • Tap Tap Radiation builds on you tapping the screen in pace with the music playing. The place to hit move around, just like the markers that indicate where to tap.
  • Asphalt 5 is a beautiful racing game where you use the iPad as a steering wheel and tilt it back and fourth to steel. Since the accelerometer is so sensitive it works remarkably well.
  • N.O.V.A. – Near Orbit Vanguard Alliance is a first person shooter that uses gestures to control who you shoot and how. Advanced gestures makes it possible to throw grenades that fly around corners, and targeting multiple enemies at once.

Simply put, there are lots of fun games for the iPad, and the reason is experimentation with the touch interface. Combine this with several days of battery power, and you have many hours of fun ahead of you.

Bad: Downloading apps through iTunes

A closer look at the iPad, still with the banana present. Click for bigger image.

Sadly, the only way to get apps legally into the iPad is through iTunes. Since my iPad was bought in the US, the App Store icon leads to a “Your request could not be completed” with no further info. So it seems that the App Store is only launched in the US. Silly me, that thought the web was an international thing.

Anyway, it is possible to get apps into the iPad without getting a fake american App Store account. You just use iTunes to download the apps to a desktop computer, and then sync your app to the iPad. It’s easy.

Well, strike that, using the iTunes store is not easy. Not being a previous iPhone using I had thought that downloading apps from iTunes was like shopping on Amazon. IT’S NOT EVEN CLOSE. This is how Apple built iTunes:

  1. Take one  fully functional e-commerce web site.
  2. Make it slow so that people like me that surf on a 100 Mbit/s fibre connection have to wait several seconds after each click.
  3. Make sure you can only access the store through a special downloadable app, that requires you sign several legal agreements, and leave away personal information, before you even bought anything.
  4. Remove the possibility to sort through listings, remove any information what the list is currently sorted by, and hide options to only show apps for the device they know you just connected (the iPad).
  5. Tada! You’ve built iTunes!

Needless to say, each visit to the iTunes App Store is a bad experience, and no something you want to do often.

Summary

Situations where I see myself using my iPad:

  • In bed, watching public television through Svtplay. They have a great app, that is mainly adapted for iPhone, but scales up when used on a bigger screen.
  • Casually surfing the web from the couch. This includes checking my e-mail (which is IMAP over SSL, which works fine), checking my feeds through Google Reader, checking Facebook through the iPhone app (which can be pixel-doubled to fit the screen nicely), and twitter through twitterific.
  • Surfing all kinds of maps, and wikipedia in some social context. If I ever get into an argument about where a country is exactly, I’m pull up my iPad instantly and check it.

And that concludes this iPad review.

iPad rests here, next to banana.

As usual I’m looking forward to your thoughts in the comments. Thanks for reading!

Friendly Bit is a blog by Emil Stenström, a Swedish interface developer and web strategist that blogs about the modern web and how to make best use of it.