Alex headshot

AlBlue’s Blog

Macs, Modularity and More

Ruminations of an iPad user

2010, ipad, iphone, mac, review

It has been a couple of weeks since I bought an iPad (and about half that time being able to use it), so what are my experiences?

Since I pre-ordered my iPad, I took delivery a day before it was released and hooked it up to the net via an O2 SIM card (my Three micro SIM didn't turn up until the next day). As far as connectivity goes, it's about the same as an iPhone, in that it's always connected. In fact, the 3G signal will often outperform my iPhone 3G connection – but then, the signal on the iPhone is so bad when it's on 3G that i turn it off most of the time.

Incidentally, with all of the furore about the 3G signal dropping on the new iPhone, I wonder if the real issue is that the iPhone 4 just sends all of the audio calls over 2G instead of 3G – either that, or they have fixed the handover between 2G and 3G.

But I digress. And, as my last comparison with an iPhone goes, saying that an iPad is just like a big iPhone is like saying a bicycle is just like a big unicycle. Yes, it's true that they share similarities in the OS (now called iOS) and in the way that applications are built and delivered (the term "universal binary" has gone from meaning Intel+PPC to meaning works on both iPhone and iPad).

The apps built specifically for iPad (or with iPad support) stand high above other iPhone apps. If you are a developer, and thinking of getting away with just building an iPhone version, think again. Yes, it meant that on launch day, there were a lot of applications available for the iPad – in much the same way that the original OSX had support for running "classic" apps, or the first Intels had Rosetta in order to allow existing PPC apps. Being able to run iPhone apps on an iPad is purely a transitional support phase. Of course, the best apps are those which can be installed on either an iPhone or an iPad and automatically present themselves in the appropriate way.

So what of the device itself? Well, there are stories abound that iOS is going to put Mac developers out of business. Certainly there's a lure to the AppStore if only because it gives access to a much wider market than independent developers are able to command – and with a built in mechanism for collecting money.

However, OSX isn't going away any time soon. The iPad is an excellent consumption device, but not a creation device. Even the iMovie available on the iPhone now is just an indication of the GPU horsepower (combined with the fact that stitching together movie segments isn't the most difficult thing to do from a UI perspective). Whilst the on-screen keyboard is good, it really doesn't work well as an elongated input mechanism - and although the keyboard dock is acceptable, you can only really use it on a steady surface like a desk. Other than the lack of haptic feedback, there are really three problems with the keyboard:

  • The input text line is often at the bottom of the screen, closest to where they keyboard is. If your fingers are in touch typing mode, then they almost always obscure what it is that you are typing. As a result, any errors that creep in are often not noticed until you have gone over a few words, and it takes a while to reposition the cursor to go back and manipulate the errors.
  • The shift key is too near the A key; and since there's no feedback (and rough approximations of where the fingers are) it means the shift key is hit about 1% of the time you want to hit the A key. You end up with words like thT which aren't picked up by the auto correction engine; and although iOS 3.2+ highlights words that aren't in the dictionary, it still interrupts the flow of typing.
  • The speed of being able to arbitrarily jump to a point to fix an error is insanely slow. Whereas on as keyboard, the key repeat is sufficiently tuned to be able to speed up after the first few keys, the iPad doesn't have that incremental speed up. So you end up deleting one char at a time to fix problems. If you have made an error in the past few words, it's often quicker just to delete all of the interim odds than it is to move your hands to get it back again. What's worse is that after about three seconds, it jumps to deleting whole words at a time which often means that you go too far back and delete more than what you want.

In order to measure the effective speed differences, I went to http://www.typeonline.co.uk/typingspeed.php on my devices. Both the iPhone and Blackberry suffered from having to scroll up to see the copy text; I expect they'd be more like 25wpm for on-the-fly composed text.

  • Blackberry: 20wpm (4 errors)
  • iPhone: 20wpm (4 errors)
  • iPad: 35wpm (4 errors, half A problems)
  • iPad with keyboard dock: 90wpm (1 error)

Although the keyboard dock is a great advantage over speed, the accuracy problems still persist. You'd think with having a touch screen it would be easy to correct. However, deleting a char is much more difficult than it needs to be - in fact, in a number of occasions it's just easier to select and delete the whole word rather than trying to move the magnifying glass to the precise space. When you're only doing 20wpm then taking 2 seconds to delete an extraneous character is in the flow - but at 35wpm you are doing 3 chars/second: if the word is shorter than 6 chars then it's just faster to retype. The problems are magnified if you are doing two to three times faster.

The conclusion of this piece is that an iPad is a good addition to the set of device, but not really a replacement for a laptop. The bigger screen size helps to create more immersive applications and the on-screen keyboard means that you cam type faster than with an iPhone - nut if you are a hunt-and-peck typist then there probably won't be a significant difference between them. If you are a touch typist the problems are more magnified.

Where it really wins is in being portable. It's much easier to take an iPad with you to write a brief missive than to lug a laptop round with you. With a decent cover, it feels like you are carrying a large book or a small magazine; and you can carry it one-handed. As a result, it's good for getting some notes jotted down – but pencil and paper would be much faster (especially with shorthand).

Unlike the iPhone though, the iPad is really a two handed device. The keyboard is too big to use one handed effectively (as compared with an phone or blackberry) – and if you need two hands to type, then you need a third hand or a desk/lap with your legs stretched out in front of you in order to work.

The ability to store movies (especially with 64Gb storage) is a real win though. Having downloaded (and crapped out my broadband connection with) the WWDC 2010 presentations, it was easy to just prop up the iPad over the weekend whilst preparing food in the kitchen, sitting on the sofa and be able to pause and resume where I left off whenever the need took me. Having a laptop feels much more defensive, and even though it's possible to go full-screen there as well, you occasionally switch over to twitter or try and shut off the rest of the room. With an iPad, particularly because it can be standalone in a much smaller space, you don't mind just hitting pause and leaving it where it is.

So is an iPad worth it? Well, it's not going to replace a laptop any time soon; but if you've got a lot of media (photos/video; audio is handled well enough by an iPhone) then there's a lot to be said for getting an iPad. If you're a developer, it's not going to replace a laptop – if you want a more portable developer device, the MacBookAir is really for you. If you don't really need a laptop (or use a laptop mainly for viewing videos/photos) then an iPad is a (slightly) cheaper replacement. One thing's for sure; when the iPad comes out with FaceTime as well next year, I'm pretty sure it will be the best way of keeping the grandparents in touch with their grandkids.