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Reflections on Three Weeks as an Apple iPad Owner

General
Written by Fred Swan
Wednesday, 26 May 2010 03:13
After three weeks owning an iPad, I’m very happy to have gotten it. There are some areas of use I can’t evaluate fully, because the app market is still immature, but it has improved my productivity both in and out of the office. Below, I touch on some issues which have sparked a lot of discussion.

3G
Some people insist they don’t need 3G because they will only be using the iPad in WiFi zones. That is short-sighted. Eventually, they will to want to take it on the road. I opted for 3G and am glad I did. To me, it is essential. I spend so much time in places where there is no WiFi that a WiFi-only iPad would have been infinitely less useful. For the most part, the 3G performance for downloads and web surfing has been good too.

There are a number of places where AT&T phone and 3G service doesn’t do well though. These include a lot of rural areas such as western Paso Robles around Tablas Creek, much of Spring Mountain in Napa Valley, and the road between Middleton and Calistoga. Unfortunately, it also includes more than a few parts of San Francisco. While the AT&T service has been fine for the most part, I will sample other options when they become available.

Because of the spotty 3G, I’m also going to invest in GPS software for the iPad that downloads all of the maps in advance. As it stands, when you’re in the middle of nowhere and need your mapping software the most, there’s no data connection and the map doesn’t update. There are some good GPS apps for iPhone and I’m sure they’ll be out for iPad fairly soon.

In one respect, the 3G experience is too good. Between the speed of downloads and the  overall surfing experience being much better than with an iPhone, the 250 MB data plan is not sufficient. It took me about 20 days to get dangerously close to exceeding the 250 MB limit. Fortunately, AT&T sends warning messages when you have 20% left, and then again at 10%, so you have the opportunity to upgrade to the unlimited data plan rather than being surprised by over-limit surcharges. The unlimited plan is $30 per month, twice the cost of the 250 MB plan.

I never thought I would go over the data limit. I don’t do a lot of uploading of photos from  or to the iPad. Nor did I download a bunch of music or movies. I essentially used up my data allotment just by looking at news and blog sites on the web. Sites these days are so graphically intensive that, even if individual photos are very small, they send a lot of data your way. When surfing on the iPad, you’re looking at full versions of the sites too, not crippled incarnations designed for mobile phones. And, the 3G service is fast enough that you can find yourself working in that mode when you think you’re still on WiFi.

In fact, the 3G surfing experience is so good and the iPad so portable, I’ve completely stopped looking at websites (and using most apps) on my iPhone. I’m sure there will be circumstances where I will need to use the phone. So far though, the iPad and I are joined at the hip and I haven’t launched Safari on my iPhone since joining the iPad club. The same goes for apps such as weather, mapping, and news readers.

Flash
One way in which the iPhone and iPad experiences are the same is Flash. Tech bloggers and Apple anti-fanboys have screaming about Apple’s strategic decision not to support Adobe Flash. Whether or not Apple’s choice not to support Flash is wise in the long run, it does have a bit of an impact on my web usage now. There are quite a few sites whose video clips require Flash.

Sites with video that is iPad friendly include: YouTube, Vimeo, Break.com, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, ESPN, NBC (though it stupidly defaults to the mobile version of the site for iPad), Gawker.TV, NYTimes, and WSJ.

These sources have some video that works, but you need to use their app: ABC, Netflix, The Weather Channel, and BBC.

Sites with video that will leave you frustrated include: MTV, Bing.com/videos, video.yahoo.com, CBS News, hulu.com, PBS, USA Today (their app doesn’t have much, if any, video and is buggy), and Comedy Central.

Some sites are hit and miss: TMZ.com, Metacafe.com, Dailymotion.com.

There are also sites that use Flash-based widgets or interface elements. [The clock at the top of the NorCal Wine home page is a Flash module and a non-Flash replacement will probably not be available anytime soon.]  Overall, the lack of Flash support has not been a big inconvenience, since I’m usually not away from my computer for too long and have never frequented sites that happen to be Flash intensive. If there’s something I really need to see, I can use my notebook. However, were that not the case or had I not gotten used to Flashlessness by spending two years surfing on my iPhone, my irritation could be substantial.

The Screen
All of the web surfing, typing, and app usage my iPad gets means that the screen spends  hours with my finger giving it a rub down. That leaves fingerprints, a lot of them. Fortunately, when the backlit screen is on, the prints are completely invisible. It’s only when the screen is off that it looks horrible. I clean the screen daily for sake of hygiene, but it looks ugly again after just three or four minutes.

If someone wants to look at your iPad, and many people will, make sure the screen is on when you give it to them lest they recoil in disgust. On the other hand, if you don’t want people touching your Precious, make sure the screen is off when you hand it over.

While fingerprints go away with the screen on, the sun does not. The iPad screen is glossy and reflective. Glare can be an issue as can reflections of the room. As I write this and look at my iPad, I can see my plaid shirt very clearly reflected in a dark part of the screen. Actually, when the screen is off, the iPad makes a really good mirror. Stick-on screen protector sheets may mitigate the fingerprint and reflectivity issues, but I haven’t tried one yet. They don’t sell them at the Apple stores.

Fingerprints and sunlight aside, the screen is excellent. Movies and photos look great. I also find it to be good for reading. Small text is very crisp. Flipping between pages is fast and feels natural.

Some people are concerned about eyestrain due to the backlit screen and think they’ll prefer the “more natural” non-backlit E-Ink screen of devices such as a Nook or Sony Reader. I’ve used E-Ink readers quite extensively and agree that their screens are comfortable to read and have white might be called a book-like appearance. However, the non-backlit screen on those devices is problematic in low-light environments and glare from ambient lighting is also an issue.

I have found, and this is no surprise, that the backlit screen of the iPad will cause eyestrain if used at a high level of brightness in a dark room. However, the Apple iBooks software allows you to adjust brightness, font, and font size very quickly. The Kindle app for iPad has brightness and font size settings, but doesn’t offer a choice of fonts. It does, however, allow you to choose to view book with black text on a white page, white text on a black page, or both the text and page in sepia tones. I like the sepia option a lot and think it’s both more attractive and easier on the eyes than pure black and white.

To me the iPad goes well beyond devices like the Kindle, Nook and Sony Readers, even for reading, in a few significant ways.



Battery Life
One thing that I’m happy not to see on the screen of my iPad is the “Less than 20% of battery life remaining” message. I get that all the time on the iPhone. The phone drains quickly enough when Bluetooth and WiFi are enabled. Doing serious surfing or playing games on the iPhone drains its battery incredibly quickly. The GPS is even more of a power hog. Not so with the iPad. Surf, game, watch movies streamed over WiFi and GPS yourself from here to there. You’re going to get roughly 10 hours of active use before the battery empties.

With my normal usage, which is pretty heavy, I can go two days on a charge. On the other hand, charging the iPad seems to take forever. In reality, it takes almost exactly four hours. But, if you run out of battery in the middle of the day and aren’t in a position to use it while tethered to a power outlet, four hours is an eternity. Also be aware that, while the iPad has the same connector as current model iPhones, the iPad uses a different, more robust charger. On the bright side, you can use the iPad charger to energize your iPhone too.

Typing
Some people are concerned about typing on the iPad. They suspect that the keyboard, which is smaller than a standard notebook keyboard and lacks the tactile feedback, will be difficult to use. Both concerns are valid. But, while I have not spent a lot of time actually typing on the iPad, I find that the keyboard works pretty well.

I tested my typing speed on the iPad and came out at roughly 40 words per minute. I’m a touch typist and that’s about a third of the speed with which I could type on a regular keyboard. However, it’s still not bad.

Hunt-and-peck typists will be able to type much closer to their normal speed because the keys are both well-sized and clearly labeled. Much of the speed decrease I experience is because I’ve not spent time getting used to the slightly different size and layout. As a result, I hit some wrong keys. I have the same problem going from a desktop keyboard to a notebook. With more practice, I could probably double my iPad typing speed.

There are a couple of layout issues I find annoying with the keyboard. Most significant is that the apostrophe is on the secondary numbers keyboard. I use apostrophes a lot and it’s a royal pain to have to switch to the secondary layout for it in the middle of a word. It’s also annoying to have the numbers and ampersand on a second screen, but less so than the apostrophe.

Getting Things Done
The iPad isn’t a replacement for a notebook computer. It’s a temporary stand-in and a mobile media device. Hard core productivity tasks such a long documents, complicated spreadsheets, photo editing, etc. are not what the iPad is designed for. And using the iPad actually requires a computer. The first step in configuring the iPad is connecting it to a computer.

However, the iPad is aces at email, calendars, contacts, surfing the web, reading books and magazines, displaying photos, presentations and videos. Today, I was at a media lunch and a winery owner pulled out her iPad to show pictures of the harvest. Openign the Photos app and finding the right pictures was very fast. Because the iPad is so portable, she was able to pass it around the table like you would a stack of printed photos. That isn’t practical with a computer. Yet, like a computer, the iPad can send a video signal to a TV or projector using an RGB cable. (The RGB adapter for iPad is sold separately, as are all accessories except the basic power supply.)

The iPad works well enough for creating short documents, including letters, spreadsheets and presentations. I’ve done each of those things using the Apple iWorks applications and have been satisfied. There are features missing that I’d like to have, such as word count, but these programs are actually very feature rich and easy to use. The main complaint I have about typing longer documents though is the the stupid apostrophe issue.

Sound
I’ve mentioned the video display already, but the sound through the built-in speakers isn’t bad either. It’s certainly good enough for watching YouTube videos and most streaming TV shows. Of course, if you want privacy or better sound for music or a movie, you can use headphones.

Multitasking
There has been concern, complaints really, about the iPad not being able to run multiple applications simultaneously. For me, it has not been an issue. The apps load very quickly, so bouncing out of one and into another doesn’t take much time. More importantly, everything works so quickly on the iPad that you’re engaged with it all the time and you don’t think about doing something else at the same time.

For certain things that you may really need to do at the same time, like viewing a website and writing notes, there can be specialized apps. BrowserNotes, for example, does allow you to view a website while typing notes in a text editor. You can also use it to view two website side by side.

I think that, if the iPad did multitask, it could actually be less attractive. It would require either a more powerful and expensive processor or the speed would diminish when other apps opened. More memory would be required. There might also be crashes caused by conflicting programs. As it is now, crashes are very rare.

All in all, the iPad has exceeded my high expectations. I’m sure that, over time as more and better apps are released, I will appreciate the iPad even more.

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