At first glance, the iPad looked like a heavy, overgrown
iPod Touch. After just a few months of use, however, this iPad skeptic realized
that it's so much more: it is one of those devices I always have needed. Those
do not come around very often.
Most things get less interesting the more examples you see
of them. If you've never seen a computer before, the first one is a revelation,
but each successive model gets less and less remarkable.
Apple Inc.'s iPad is the other way around. It looks more
impressive in light of what has come before it. I've seen many tablet computers
of different stripes since 2002, when Microsoft introduced Windows XP Tablet
Edition. The quality has varied, but they all have failed, even the recent
ones. They are a Stonehenge's worth of near-useless slabs.
The iPad finally fulfills the promise of the tablet computer
when it came out in April.
It cuts the mouse and keyboard out of the equation, giving
us a straight, tactile connection. While the iPad builds on the iPhone, it
feels like a bigger achievement. The first iPhone was a great phone, driven by
far-thinking new ideas. But other people had made good phones before. Before
the iPad, no one had made a good tablet computer. Even Apple failed with its
first attempt, the Newton, back in the 1990s.
When I first got my hands on an iPad for a review, I played
games on it for about a month. My favorite strategy game, "Battle for
Wesnoth," was written for the PC, but actually works better on the iPad,
thanks to the immediacy of the touch interface. Several other games conspired
to suck away my productivity, so it took me a while to realize that the iPad
actually fulfills a longtime tablet vision as well: It is like a sheet of
paper, electronified. That is what made me plunk down $499 for one of my own
once I was done with the borrowed review unit.
I knew I was waiting for a device that could replace
printouts, magazines, newspapers and books in my life. At first, I didn't think
the iPad was it, because it is too heavy to hold comfortably in one hand. In
particular, I need one hand free to steady myself on the New York subway.
Better, I thought, to wait for a smaller device, something with a screen that
measures 5 to 7 inches diagonally instead of the iPad's 9.7 inches.
I was wrong. The iPad is not too heavy if I support it on a
bag when standing. And the screen is just big and sharp enough to display
decently a letter-sized document or a reformatted newspaper page with teasers
for a couple of articles.
That means the last defenses that kept dead trees relevant
to me have been overcome. I canceled the print subscription for one of my
newspapers and went electronic. I've also started stuffing papers I want to
have with me through a sheet-fed scanner and moved the resulting files to the
iPad as PDFs. It is like ripping CDs to get MP3s; the iPad is like an iPod for
Replacing paper was the rationale of Amazon.com Inc.'s
Kindle e-reader, but the multipurpose iPad beats it at its own game. The Kindle
was revolutionary in its way because it could download books wirelessly, but it
has been held back by a screen technology that is slow to react to our
commands. It can display static page after static page, but scrolling and
zooming do not really work, so PDF viewing is impractical.
Amazon launched a new TV spot this week, showing a man
struggling to read an iPad poolside in bright sunlight, while a bikini-clad
woman next to him is reading a Kindle comfortably. It is true that Kindles are
more readable than iPads in bright light. What the ad does not mention is that
that is the only situation in which you will be happier with a Kindle. By all
means, if you spend your days at the pool or beach, get a $139 Kindle and spend
the $360 you'll be saving over the iPad on a lot of sunscreen.
Other reviewers have spread confusion about the selection of
books available on the iPad. It is true that Apple's own iBook store has fewer
books than the Kindle store. That does not matter, however: You can buy and
read Kindle books on the iPad, along with books from a lot of other retailers,
including Barnes & Noble Inc.
What about other competing devices? A lot of manufacturers
want a piece of the tablet action, and we will see quite a few options in
stores this holiday season. For instance, Samsung Electronics Inc. has shown
off a 7-inch (18-centimeter) tablet called the Galaxy Tab, and according to The
Wall Street Journal, U.S. wireless carriers will sell it subsidized with
two-year data service contracts.
From a hardware standpoint, these could be compelling
options (although a 7-inch screen is now too small for my taste). Samsung and
others can take advantage of the same technological advances that helped Apple
improve over previous tablets. They also could remedy some of the annoying
omissions of the iPad, such as the lack of built-in USB and memory card ports.
They will have built-in cameras, too.
The crux, though, is the software. Competitors are relying on
Android, a free software package from Google Inc. that has done well in smart
phones. It is not intended for tablets, though, and Google does not promote it
as such. Apple managed to move the iPhone's software to the iPad without much
trouble, but that transition looks more difficult for Android. It just is not
as slick to begin with. That said, Android has some compelling advantages,
including PC-like access to stored files and the ability to run Flash on Web
Next year, we may see better software alternatives. Google
has another software package called Chrome OS in the works. It is to be
designed for netbooks coming out this year and could be used for tablets as
well. But it is heavily Web-oriented, and may not provide a lot of functions
when used without an Internet connection. Hewlett-Packard Co. recently bought
Palm Inc. and plans to use its excellent webOS smart phone software for a
tablet, probably next year.
It took competitors a couple of years to start catching up
to the iPhone in a serious way. The gap probably will be shorter for tablet
computers, but by getting the iPad right on its first try, Apple has real head
start. Maybe I am trying to justify my purchase here, but I have a strong
feeling there isn't a lot to be gained by waiting for the others to catch up.
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