Review: Apple iPad

iPad finally arrives, now it must live up to the hype (April 4th, 2010)

After generating much hoopla, the highly anticipated iPad has finally arrived on the market. It is not the first tablet, but none of the previous designs from various manufacturers have successfully evolved past niche devices with modest sales numbers and limited adoption by consumers. Will the iPad suffer the same fate, or transform the entire concept of computing as we know it? MacNN has obtained a 16GB Wi-Fi model to see if Apple's latest product lives up to its "magical" description.

Electronista Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: Apple

Price: $499 as tested, up to $829

The Good

  • Quality construction
  • Attractive housing
  • Vibrant, bright display
  • 802.11n Wi-Fi
  • 3G-enabled (certain models)
  • 10 hours of battery life
  • Fast processor
  • App Store compatibility
  • Usable virtual keyboard

The Bad

  • Lacks support for Flash content
  • No multitasking with current firmware
  • Screen difficult to view in direct sunlight
  • No camera
  • Heavy to hold for extended periods
  • Lacks HDMI output, native HD resolution

Form and construction

As expected from Apple, the iPad offers top-notch quality construction and overall design. While the touchscreen dominates the facade, following in-line with the iPhone and iPod touch, many of the smaller details appear to be taken from the company's latest MacBook Pro offerings. Glass completely covers the front surface, with a 9.7-inch LCD surrounded by a dark black bezel. Overall appearance captures Apple's characteristic design elements, recognizable even without the logo centered on the back.

Unlike the polished stainless case of the iPod touch, the iPad features an aluminum housing similar to the unibody notebooks. Both share light contours and a fine matte finish which closely resembles ceramic bead blasting. Like aluminum MacBooks, the iPad should maintain its brand-new look over an extended period of time without showing small scratches that are obvious on a polished surface.

After pulling the iPad out of its packaging, the device felt a bit heavier than expected. After a quick look at Real Racing HD turned into an hour-long session, the weight naturally led to more arm fatigue than playing accelerometer-based games on an iPod touch or iPhone. iFixit's recent teardown indicates the glass panel and LCD assembly account for 350g, while the battery weighs approximately 148g and the entire device totals 680g for the Wi-Fi model.







Display

The 9.7-inch touchscreen offers an area very close to many netbooks, although Apple chooses to use a higher-quality In-Plane Switching (IPS) technology. IPS expands the viewing angle, allowing content to be viewed at extremely shallow angles to the LCD plane. Apple claims 178 degrees, which seems to be an accurate statement. Glare became the primary problem when viewing from the side. Not only is the screen readable at extreme angles, it does not appear to degrade the image with color distortion or other artifacts.

LED backlighting is another great technology utilized by the iPad. Brightness seems to be on-par with Apple's LED-backlit MacBook Pro LCDs, although both share the same problems with glare from the glossy glass panels in direct sunlight. Colors appear vibrant and bright, while the contrast ratio is also decent for an LCD.

The LCD offers 1024x768 resolution, which is based on a 4:3 aspect ratio instead of a 16:9 layout of many HDTVs. Native resolution is therefore not technically true "HD," which would require 1280x720 or 1920x1080. Despite the 4:3 format, playback of 720p content is still impressive and crisp. Users can switch between a filled screen, cropping the furthest regions on each side, or widescreen presentation with black bands on the top and bottom. Either way, the iPad screen is much more suitable for watching movies than LCDs on smaller devices such as smartphones or media players.

Apple covers the LCD in an oleophobic coating which helps resist fingerprints. The layer is not completely fingerprint-proof, although it does help keep the smudges to a minimum. Wiping the device across a shirt quickly removes any buildup, although the company likely recommends using a microfiber cleaning cloth. During limited testing, it was unclear if the coating might be less scratch resistant than the glass.

As the iPhone is based on the iPhone OS, it retains the familiar home button centered on the bottom of the glass panel when the device is held in portrait orientation. An integrated accelerometer ensures the screen keeps the correct orientation when rotated or flipped. A screen-lock switch is located above the volume controls, preventing unwanted reorientation in certain situations such as reading a book in bed or placing the device flat on a table.

Ports, connections

The dock connector is logically placed on the bottom edge of the iPad housing, directly below the home button. Three oval ports serve as a channel for audio emanating from the internal speakers. A headphone jack, microphone, and power button complete the external ports and controls.

Apple chose not to integrate any additional ports such as a USB connector. The move adds credibility to claims that the iPad is just a big iPod touch, as the iPhone OS is simply not geared for many functions that are common with full-fledged PCs or netbooks. The company does offer several accessories for photography, however. The camera connection kit provides a USB adapter and SD card reader, allowing users to upload photos without first offloading the files onto a computer and transferring via iTunes.









Keyboard

After working with cramped keyboards on netbooks, many users might expect the typing experience on a 9.7-inch tablet to be closer to an iPhone than a notebook. Surprisingly, the iPad's virtual keyboard spans across a horizontal distance very close to that of a full-size keyboard. When comparing the tablet layout to a MacBook Pro, the virtual "Q" and "P" appear to be aligned only 1/8-inch inward compared to their physical counterparts.

Typing on the iPad's landscape keyboard was a much more natural experience than we had anticipated. Although the layout is slightly more compact than a notebook keyboard, sections of the review text could be written quickly with minimal mistakes. Where a finger might normally hit the center of the "P" on a physical keyboard, the placement still hits the outside edge of the iPad's virtual "P." Despite the lack of tactile feedback, the iPad keyboard seemed more natural than many netbooks. Auto-correct also helps maintain speed during the initial familiarization period.

Rotating the device back to portrait orientation further shrinks the keyboard and slashes maximum typing speed. The smaller layout is still a good choice when entering short phrases such as search terms. Even when holding the iPad with both hands, most people should be able to reach the center axis with both thumbs.

If the lack of physical keys still feels awkward, Apple offers a Bluetooth keyboard or a special dock made specifically for the iPad. The company also offers a case that flips backward to lift the device at a slight angle, which might help enhance the typing experience with the virtual keyboard.





Included apps, web browsing

Safari remains mostly unchanged for the iPhone variant, however most websites are initially presented as whole pages instead of smaller sections. The extra screen space potentially could have been used to add tabbed browsing, although users must still switch to the grid layout to view active pages. With pages expanded to fill the screen, text appears slightly grainy but usually readable. Apple's A4 processor quickly loads content and reacts quickly to multi-touch input such as pinch-to-zoom, while 802.11n helps maintain fast connection speeds.

While the overall browsing experience is much better on an iPad than an iPhone, both devices still lack support for Adobe's Flash technology. The issue has been at the forefront of critical assessments surrounding Apple's "magical" device. Despite the limitation, executive Phil Schiller describes the iPad as "the best web surfing experience." Aside from Steve Jobs' alleged complaints about Flash being a battery hog and crash prone, the technology is nonetheless a dominant multimedia platform across a wide range of websites.

Directing Safari to Apple's iPad website shows a list of sites already adapted for the iPad, which is said to support the "latest web standards." Several publishers have voiced frustration over the Flash issue, as many developers have yet to transition to the newer HTML5 specification. Many argue that HTML5 is more difficult to use and not yet ready to replace Flash. Until everyone jumps on the same bandwagon, a variety of sites will still show blank spaces where video should be.





E-mail configuration does not diverge from the straightforward process experienced on the iPhone or iPod touch. Users are initially prompted with choices for Exchange, MobileMe, Gmail, Yahoo Mail, AOL, or custom settings. The interface has been slightly revamped to take advantage of the large screen, with inbox listings automatically presented on the left-hand side after rotating the device to landscape orientation. In general, Apple's iPad apps place most of the common controls near the sides for easy access in either orientation.

Apple also revamped its Calendar utility with an attractive layout showing more content on the primary screen. The Day view lists all entries for a particular day, separated into two columns, while a small calendar in the right-hand corner shows a colored box over any day of the month containing entries. A slider along the bottom edge also provides a quick way to pan ahead a few days or weeks. The new design maintains the simplicity of iCal or the iPhone app, while providing more information with less physical input.



YouTube regulars will be impressed with the new iPad app, especially when watching HD videos. In portrait orientation, the videos play on the top half of the screen while users can view related content or comments on the bottom section. Rotating the device to landscape orientation automatically switches the video to full-screen mode. The larger screen also allows 12 thumbnails and titles to be shown in a grid arrangement while trying to browse through videos.

The iPod app is somewhat disappointing, although the list and grid views maintain the standard iTunes design. Considering the faster processor and larger screen of the iPad, it was surprising to find that Apple did not add Cover Flow views to flip through albums. Albums are presented as grids, with the album art expanded to fill the screen when a track is chosen.

The Google Maps utility also remains mostly unchanged, keeping the same basic layout as the iPhone version. The 9.7-inch touchscreen offers a clear improvement over the smaller devices, however. Unfortunately, Apple stripped GPS from the entry-level devices. Customers who want integrated GPS will also have to pay for 3G components, adding $129 to the base price.



Photos, slideshows

The Photos app is intuitive and easy to use, helping enhance the photo-frame functionality of the device. Albums are shown as a photo stacks, which expand using pinch gestures. This is a great way to take a peek at album content without going back and forth between menus. Continuing the pinch gesture or tapping on a stack slides the pictures into a grid view, with 35 thumbnails presented on the screen.

The iPad truly serves as a great way to show pictures to other viewers. Showing pictures on a smartphone-size display might be a last resort when nothing else is available, while loading slideshows on a notebook takes much more time and makes it difficult to pass around or show someone across a table. Users can bring up images with two quick finger taps and manually navigate through content using swipe gestures.

The slideshow functionality is now embedded directly into the lock screen, eliminating the need to unlock the device and press any additional buttons. Users can either slide to unlock the display, or press a small button to proceed directly into a slideshow. Content can be manually chosen from the system preferences menu, which also provides options for zooming in on faces or applying various transitions.





iBooks

Apple appears to have aimed the iPad directly at Amazon's Kindle, touting the new tablet as a perfect e-book reader. Users must manually download the free iBooks app from the App Store. The interface closely resembles the Mac software Delicious Library, which places each title on wooden bookshelves. The app easily switches between the iBookstore interface and the user's existing library.

While the iPad is a great all-around device, it is a stretch to declare the device an all-around winner compared to standalone e-book readers. Publishers can take advantage of the color screen and include rich illustrations that would otherwise be reduced to grayscale on a Kindle. On the other hand, the glossy facade is much more difficult to read than e-ink displays in direct sunlight. The iPad also becomes uncomfortably heavy during longer reading sessions if it is not placed on a lap or table. The slim Kindle weighs 290g, which is less than half of the 680g iPad.





iWork

Our doubts surrounding the keyboard usability naturally extended to Apple's promise of a device perfect for productivity applications. The company brought its iWork suite onto the tablet platform, reworking the interfaces for multi-touch input instead of a typical mouse and keyboard setup. Without a decent on-screen keyboard, productivity aspects would have been largely overstated. After typing a few paragraphs, however, most of our initial fears were quickly soothed.

Even for someone unfamiliar with the desktop version of Pages, the iPad app was extremely intuitive and easy to use. Apple was able to simplify the software without whittling down the basic functionality or many of the advanced features. Multi-touch gestures can be used to place and resize images, add effects, or modify text formatting. A range of templates are included to help jump-start certain projects.

Pages allows users to export documents as PDFs or files compatible with iWork and Microsoft Word. A short document with several pictures and effects was properly exported as a PDF, which retained all of the original styling.

Transferring files to a Mac or PC seems to include more steps than would be expected from Apple products designed to "just work." After choosing to export files from a menu in Pages, the document is saved to the iPad until it is connected to iTunes. Once in iTunes, users must navigate to the Apps tab and scroll down to the File Sharing segment. After clicking on the appropriate app in the iTunes interface, the Documents box is populated with any files that have been exported. Files must then be manually saved to a location on the notebook or desktop computer. The same iTunes interface is required to upload documents back to the iPad.

Mounting the device as a hard drive, migrating files on a SD card, or using a thumb drive are several ways to make file transfers easier. Most of the said methods are standard options on common notebooks and netbooks, but not the iPhone and iPad.





Internal components, battery

Apple chose to design its own silicon for the iPad, culminating in the A4 ARM-based CPU. The in-house development appears to have reached an outstanding balance of speed and power efficiency, extending battery life out to 10 hours. The 1GHz CPU is paired with a PowerVR SGX GPU, likely a step above the iPhone 3GS.

The review iPad arrived with the battery meter indicating a 95-percent charge. After the device was plugged into its USB-AC adapter to top off the battery, it was then run with the screen lock disabled. Recharge was not necessary until completing 9.5 hours spent browsing the Internet, gaming, Pandora playback, iTunes tracks, several movies and work with Pages. After a complete discharge and recharge, the battery life will probably exceed Apple's 10-hour estimate during typical use.

The 1GHz CPU really shines when watching HD videos, loading websites, or playing graphics-intensive games. Sailboat Championship HD was almost nauseating due to an extremely slow frame-rate, although several other games showed great graphics performance. Real Racing HD is a perfect example of an iPhone title reworked for the iPad's higher resolution and potential graphics capabilities. The game never lagged or appeared to be choppy. Loading between menus was also much quicker than expected.

Apple has yet to harness the power of its silicon for multitasking, a common feature among many smartphones or other devices. It was frustrating to work with Pages and browse the web without listening to Pandora in the background. Multitasking support seems to be an inevitability, however, and reports suggesting it is on the way have recently been gaining more credibility.




Final thoughts

Compatibility with the entire App Store catalog is one of the primary selling points for the iPad. Using iPhone apps on the larger screen is awkward, as the smaller interfaces are either placed in a large black void or upscaled until the visual elements become blocky. Nonetheless, many users will be happy to know their favorite iPhone apps are at least usable on the new device. Developers have been working diligently to redesign apps for the iPad, or rework existing content for universal use.

Before the iPad was even launched, it was lauded by many eager individuals anticipating the coming of a technological messiah. Others blasted the device as an overhyped object of exaggerated significance and limited value, unlikely to draw much attention beyond Apple devotees. Critics will focus on the lack of Flash support, multitasking, cameras, a physical keyboard, or additional ports, among other details. The iPad does not serve as a perfect replacement for a notebook computer, e-book reader, smartphone, or TV. The device is progressive, however, in its ability to strike a unique balance between portability, usability, and productivity. And as a first-generation product, Apple probably has many additional features waiting to be added.

Prices for the Wi-Fi-only iPads start at $499 for the 16GB model and rise to $699 for the 64GB variant. Adding GPS functionality and 3G components, which work only on AT&T's network, brings each price up by $129. The 3G service is quite different from AT&T's typical mobile broadband plans or smartphone packages, as 250MB of monthly usage costs $15 and unlimited data can be obtained for $30 per month. Users are not tied into a contract, allowing the service to be enabled or disabled at any time.





by Justin King


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