Article: Getting the iPad Experience

by on June 29, 2011

Not often do I refute a particular article, post, or news story somewhere else online, but about a week ago, I came across a piece on Low End Mac by Charles W. Moore and I think it’s an interesting point of discussion. To summarize, he bought an iPad and wasn’t thrilled with it. Not compared with other tablets, but the idea of a tablet in general, especially when a computer remains an option. Not to sound like a gadget apologist, but I think what he wrote defines the big problem facing tablets today—expectations.

I think going in, he expects the experience to be subpar, which may be a self-fulfilling prophecy:

I’ve been a tablet computer skeptic since the iPad was just a rumor during the fall and early winter of 2009-10. Even after Steve Jobs rolled out the first iPad to enthusiastic reviews, I still expected it to be an ephemeral fad that would soon fade after the initial novelty wore off.

As we’ve now seen, that was not one of my most astute prognostications.

However, I am a consummate aficionado of the classic, clamshell laptop, and I just couldn’t fathom all the blather about how the tablet was going to displace the laptop for all but specialized power-user needs. Nevertheless, that’s pretty much what’s been happening – especially to PC laptop and netbook vendors, although not so much Apple, whose MacBook lines continue to hit sales and market share records. This is partly, I suppose, due to the halo effect from the iPad – and the iPhone before it – as well as their essential goodness.

I’ve used a lot of different computers in my life and have found positives and negatives of each. There really hasn’t been a “perfect” machine. My current MacBook Pro is close, only because of its power and capabilities have gotten to a point where I may not need a new computer for a few years. Still, the battery life is lacking and it is bulky (at least compared to some of Apple’s smaller alternatives). I think the iPad is there to serve as a lightweight, low-power option for those who want something that can do 80% of the tasks you’d use a computer for. I think a lot of people purchased iPads for this reason (along with the novelty/fad aspect).

But continued strong MacBook sales performance notwithstanding, a push is on at Apple, with Steve Jobs presumably the primary pusher, to converge the Mac OS X experience with the smartphone/tablet iOS way of doing things, so going forward, it’s a given that in the future even MacBooks are going to feel more like tablets.

With that in mind, and in order to be able to give the iOS and the iPad a fair evaluation, I decided earlier this year that I needed to get an iPad 2, which I also hoped would be able to take on some of the utility duties that have been performed for the past several years by my two 11-year-old Pismo PowerBooks.

I think this is an interesting point, since, for many, an iPad is used alongside of a much more contemporary machine. I do know of some folks (who generally do the web browsing/email/music/video mix of casual computing) looking to replace their G4/G5/first-generation Intel Macs with an iPad, though. Some are even documenting that experience.

First, I’m still at a loss as to what all the fuss is about. The iPad 2 is an interesting, clever little machine, but a potential replacement for a real laptop computer? Not even close in my estimation. Not even in the same ballpark.

Apple thinks so, with iOS 5…but it really depends on the user.

First, the virtual keyboard is every bit as lame as I had expected. Possibly even worse than I’d expected. I’m picky about keyboards at the best of times, but this thing isn’t even in the game as far as I’m concerned.

It does help to use the iPad in landscape mode, but it does take some getting used to. While I cannot type as fast as a desktop keyboard, it is satisfactory enough that I’m not pained to use it for writing articles. Still, for someone who makes their living writing, the iPad probably isn’t for them. Heck, a laptop may not be comfortable enough. For writing an email or composing a simple document, the keys are pretty close in size to a MacBook, just not having that tactile goodness. Although, some have noticed that the iPad with the on-screen keyboard in use, looks a lot like the much-loved-by-journalists Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100.

Secondly, the touchscreen experience isn’t growing on me at all. I’ve never liked touchscreens, and aesthetically the finger smears drive me nuts, but functionally, it’s just a lousy input medium compared to a mouse. The combination of the abominable keyboard and the touchscreen’s obtuseness for things like making text selections makes me feel like I’m trying to thread sewing needles wearing mittens. It’s been suggested to me that a touchscreen pen (or stylus) would probably help, and I want to try that.

I think touch screens aren’t for everyone, but then again, the mouse was criticized back when the Mac was launched. If you think about it, touching something is the quickest, most convenient way to access something, rather than translating movement of an object to an item on the screen. And, Apple’s select/cut/copy/paste isn’t the best, but it certainly is usable, much better than on the iPhone or iPod touch, due to size.

…there’s no way to display multiple windows simultaneously, which I find frustrating.
Then there’s multitasking – or rather its absence, at least in any substantive context (and yes, I know about the Home button double-tap thing*). Because all iOS applications run fullscreen (a mode I steer clear of on the Mac even when it’s supported), there’s no way to display multiple windows simultaneously, which I find frustrating…

…My usual work MO is to have about 18 to 2 dozen applications open, scattered about in nine Desktop Spaces, switching back and forth among them instantly with mouse clicks and keyboard shortcuts.

I find it a little funny how we have gone back to a simpler way to use our gadgets—this is much more like computing in the early days. You could run one program at a time on most computers in the 1980s, and even the Mac didn’t introduce multitasking until System 6 (a few prior versions had hacked-together things such as Switcher and MultiFinder), but it was still largely one task-at-a-time. The only difference now is that you can switch applications almost instantaneously, and with iOS 5, 4/5-finger gestures will make switching apps even easier. Still, the iPad wouldn’t be a primary machine for someone that is doing such intensive tasks.

The iPad – with no Finder, its underachiever keyboard, and lack of mouse support – makes doing serious text composition or editing on the iPad perversely difficult and vastly slower. I keep thinking: “This would be so much slicker and quicker on a real computer.” As Tom’s Hardware’s Andrew Ku observed in a comprehensive, detailed review and critique of the iPad 2 last week, “Whatever I gained in portability, I lost in productivity. The iPad is a solid content consumption device; it’s not nearly as suited to creation. If you want to be productive, you still need a computer.”

I think this is the one big thing that is holding iOS devices back—this misconception that such a device can’t be used for content creation. Early on, yes, but I think with tools such as iA Writer, Adobe Ideas, iWork, GarageBand, and much more, the iPad is maturing into a competent content creation machine. Oh, and the Mac isn’t a serious computer for business.

Indeed, even my 11-year-old Pismo PowerBooks are much more powerful, versatile, and satisfactory content creation devices than the iPad is.

I think this is somewhat off-base, unless you’re working with pure text. Slower processors, same resolution displays, and aging software support are just a few reasons why an iPad 2 is a more modern “computer” than actual some older computers are. The iPad 2 is benchmarking close to some PowerBook G4 models, which, in some ways, that almost makes the iPad a reinvented low-end Mac!

Even the Internet, supposedly the iPad’s special forté, is IMHO a frustration on the tablet compared with OS X, with which I usually have four browsers running, and maybe cumulatively 20 or 30 tabs open in several windows. With the iPad, I’m stuck with the tabs-less iOS version of Safari, which seems to work reasonably well within its limitations, and Opera Mini, which so far I’m finding a disappointment, considering that Opera is probably my consistently favorite OS X browser. Not the iPad Web experience I’d been hoping for.

Again, the iPad doesn’t exactly promise to take over all of your heavy-duty computing tasks. One of our staff members is big on tabbed browsing and also tends to have hundreds of tabs open. Over time, I started using Reeder and switched to reading things when I got them or starring them for later. It is a different paradigm, and the iPad didn’t force me to do it. One area that that I will agree with Moore’s disappointment of the iPad is the lack of other browsers, but then again, Apple does control the experience and WebKit is well-supported and capable. Do I do my Web development and compatibility checking on an iPad? Certainly not.

I also profoundly miss the Finder/Desktop metaphor, being able to drag files and folders around and organize them easily. Not to mention the iPad’s poverty of I/O connectivity. Dropbox is looming a lot larger in importance.

In so many ways, the iPad is not a traditional computer, and these are just two. Sure, Apple missed the boat on making something like Dropbox before Dropbox, but iOS 5 and iCloud should give a good way to transfer and share files. The appliance-like aspect of the iPad does away with a traditional file system and instead files are stored within their creator applications, adding convenience and reducing confusion. You don’t need to organize files. As for ports, the iPad has the nearly-ubiquitous Dock Connector, which also doubles (triples?) as USB in/out and video out (component, composite, VGA, and HDMI). I think for many, this is more than adequate.

I feel badly that I’ve been so negative in this first iPad report. It isn’t what I would have preferred. But so far at least, I’m seriously underwhelmed. Early days, though, and perhaps I’ll warm to the iPad as I get more accustomed to using it, as my iPhone aficionado daughter suggests.

I’m committed to persevering and giving it a fair trial over some time. However, the overall problem as I see it is that with the OS X user experience so excellent these days, it’s hard to imagine how the iPad and iOS could ever measure up. We’ll see.

I think these two paragraphs have a few of the smartest, most poignant statements in the original article, not because Moore dislikes his iPad experience thus far, but that he remains committed to giving it the full go-around, and I think that for anyone who has used an iPhone or iPod touch on a regular basis, the iPad is much, much easier transition. Just like the original iPhone’s “scary” touchscreen keyboard, you just have to jump in and trust it. As for OS X, it is a great experience, and I think that will be the biggest problem in the transition to Lion for many&mash;do you risk using an updated, yet unproven operating system, or stick with Snow Leopard until the bugs are worked out? OS X is the best desktop-based operating system today, but may be overkill for some users.

My iPad has become my primary writing machine (outstanding battery life, lightweight, syncs with Dropbox), but also the best “couch computer” and secondary entertainment option that I’ve used. It can sit on my coffee table and is great for email, Twitter, IMs, and quick reference (Wikipedia, and IMDb) when I’m on my couch. Furthermore, while I love things like Netflix and podcasts on my TV and stereo, the iPad is great to use in another room, and I can get through a few movies without worrying about my battery. This is a huge advantage over a traditional laptop, even with Apple’s curent crop of power-friendy machines.

At the end of the day, can the iPad replace everyone’s current computers? No, but it could for a number of casual users or those who spend a lot of time working with tasks the iPad does well. Video editors, RSS (and lots of browser tabs) junkies, graphic designers, and even writers would probably find a laptop to be more convenient these days, but for the person who spends more time on the Web or using apps on an iPhone, the iPad could be a great computer alternative.

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