We’re a year into the iPad world. What have we learned?
- First off, despite all the punditry to the contrary, touchscreen tablets are a device the public has been eager to buy. As someone put it to me the other day — “this is what I always wanted a laptop to do, but without the weight”. Ardent laptop users will argue (and I’m not about to ditch my laptop except for the odd train journey), but if you do look at what people are using their laptops for on trains, it’s mostly either — reading documents, watching a video, or attempting to surf the web.
- A blank canvas is more or less what we wanted. The big advantage of the iPad over the Kindle, which is the only other tablet-sized device which has really carved out a niche for itself, is the way you can populate it with the applications you want, rather than going with built in functionality. Some applications seem pretty widespread — FlipBoard, Kindle and iBooks are on a lot of iPads — but there are far more esoteric, full-featured apps for the iPad than there seemed to be in the first year of iPhone apps. Musicians and artists do particularly well out of this, though people wanting to control their PC or Mac at a distance also have a lot of options.
- We don’t really need speech or handwriting recognition — an external keyboard, though, is something to think about. The lack of handwriting recognition for the iPad was one of my real annoyances when I first got it. There are apps that do it for you — HW Calculator is a calculator that runs off your handwriting, and WritePad does it for documents. They are ok — but they’re not as accurate as the on-screen keyboard (and not as quick). More to the point, if you’re using the iPad to take notes, there’s no real reason to want to convert the notes into editable text. Very few people’s notes are of much use to anyone else. The iPad is great, using Penultimate or Noteshelf, for quickly writing down notes on a pad that never runs out of paper, never requires a pen, and never gets lost among your other papers. But the notes are for the person who wrote them — actually writing them out into intelligible text is a task that requires conscious thought, not just automatic conversion. The same is true for voice recognition. Dragon did well to release their Naturally Speaking free of charge. But, even when there’s a good signal (it needs you to be on Wifi or good 3G), it’s still painfully slow and inaccurate — just like desktop based voice recognition. You can (and should, if you’re going to use it) ‘train’ it to get things more often right than wrong, but it’s still slower than typing for people who can type. If you want to rattle along, a bluetooth keyboard like Apple’s bluetooth keyboard works just fine. It doesn’t occupy much space, and you can leave it at home when you don’t want it.
- We don’t miss Flash at all. This will be controversial, especially for people who want at all costs to position the iPad as inferior to some other product, but, for myself, I have to say the absence of pop-up ads (which is 95% of the time I see Flash content) makes the iPad browsing experience significantly better than a desktop. For the inconvenience of not being able to see embedded videos on the BBC website (I never watch the embedded videos when using a laptop, though I do like to listen to Test Match Special), I can look at www.newsnow.co.uk without being offered opportunities to date ‘mature women seeking younger men’, cheap mobile phone calls to the developing world, or free doughnuts in Liverpool. Equally, pages load up without annoying interspersed Flash pages advertising products that I also don’t want to buy. All this will gradually change, of course, once developers start coding their pop-up annoyances in HTML5, but, so far, the experience has been enhanced by a lack of Flash rather than the opposite.
- Getting the basics right was what got us. What do you want in a tablet? Long battery-life, nice display, responsiveness so you aren’t waiting for things to happen, enough space for the data you want to carry around, good connectivity. That would be my list. I still haven’t managed to fill my iPad 1’s 64 GB of storage, and there doesn’t seem much prospect of doing so in the near future. I only have to charge it up once every two or three days, and I usually do that before a Directors’ meeting, as I’ve entirely replaced paper. Except for direct, strong sunlight, there’s not usually much of a problem reading, the Wifi and 3G work fine, and the smoothly responsive touchiness of the iPhone is even better in this format. None of these things are rocket-science. But they’re also the things that previous devices failed to get right.
- Uses will find themselves. Many of the things I and others use the iPad for are not things originally posited. Some of them — like the BBC iPlayer — were just a question of time. Others, like FlipBoard, were someone’s inspired idea. But many of them, such as business and medical use, are about the iPad finding its way into contexts where it just fits in. It’s the iPads generalness, rather than its specialisation, which has allowed it to flourish in other environments. It’s interesting that Phase One chose to support the iPad as part of its CaptureOne software — arguably the very high-end of commercial photography. It’s also instructive that they chose to use the iPad as a way of sharing the images during a photo-shoot, for example between the lighting director, art director, creative director, rather than as a way of controlling the camera — something which would have more appeal for the enthusiast market.
- Games are a winner. I promised myself I would just have one game on the iPad — Orbital. But once you start playing Broken Sword, or Sim City, or any of the other games which began life when the typical resolution of a computer screen was less than that of the iPad, it’s easy to get entranced and simply not want to stop.
So what didn’t we like, and does the iPad 2 fix this? It’s always hard to gauge what really was a show-stopper, and distinguish it from the marketing for a rival product. In many ways, this has been easier because, for most of the iPad’s first year, there was no rival product. Some people didn’t like the weight, though to me it was always less than a hardback book. That’s fixed in the iPad 2. Some people didn’t like the shiny screen, which genuinely is hard to use in strong sunlight. That’s not been fixed yet. A lot of people complained about the lack of a USB port, though I often wondered: ‘what do you actually want to connect?’ Bluetooth and Wifi pick up many of the things which you might do by USB, including using the iPad as a file server, given the right apps. The USB connection kit works fine for cameras and camera card readers, and also supports MIDI transmission for musicians. Battery life could still be better — the ability to go for a week or so without a charge would make an enormous difference if, say, you were going away for a few days.