iPad: Trial By Fire

My initial thoughts on Apple's latest geek toy were clouded by hype. I knew that going in. When I was a kid, I remember sitting on the floor Christmas morning and looking at my first bicycle, and thinking, verbally and clearly and with full internal dialog, "how will my life be different now that this thing is in it."

While a ludicrous piece of materialist existentialism in retrospect, I can't help but put the iPad in the same category as that bicycle. On day one, flipping through dozens of shiny new games and apps, it was impossible to have any perspective. Everything new was awesome, every wart a fatal flaw that would doom it to irrelevancy.

I was lucky enough to get the iPad immediately before a major rash of travel. I made the decision to eschew any of my normal travel toys. No DS, no PSP. I did pack my laptop, because I couldn't risk the grand experiment being a failure, and being thousands of miles from home in a foreign country unable to work.

I needn't have worried.

As a travel companion, the iPad has shown its true colors, and with some caveats, they're bright and shiny. Here are my discoveries in the last week.

Airplane: The iPad can be criticized for being too in-between. Not as big as a laptop, not as small as a phone. However, that middling size is perfect for the airplane seat. Small enough that it can easily slide into the magazine pouch on the seatback, it's still large enough to kick the pants off that portable DVD player showing Avatar in seat 2b.

More to the point, on an 8 hour transatlantic journey, it was the only thing I ever needed. No fumbling between laptop, DS, Kindle, iPod, magazine and book, it served as all 6 at once. Unlike a laptop, it doesn't require a tray table to be used comfortably. When my food arrived, I could easily keep watching Netflix (thank you onboard WiFi!) just by leaning the iPad against the seatback in front of me.

And while much has been made of the battery life, it truly was a joy to get off the plane at the end of a long day with 30% battery, having used the thing incessantly for work and entertainment.

Cab & Train: After a week I had become used to not pulling out my iPhone for casual emails or web lookups any more. But once I left the confines of my usual WiFi saturated environment, I immediately felt the loss of connectivity. In this case, my trip brought me to Europe, where AT&T has a convenient pay as you go 3G system. Still, it became clear that if I truly come to rely on the iPad as my main travel gizmo, I will need to upgrade to the 3G model, or hope that the next version is 3G by default, or that some enterprising set of hackers figure out a tethering solution.

Still, I used the iPad regularly in cabs and on subway cars, in situations I certainly couldn't have used a laptop. My iPhone would have been fine for most of this, but I was able to catch up on dozens of emails and write lengthy responses with the iPad propped on my lap in the back of a cab without difficulty, something much more difficult on the phone.

Restaurant: Ah the plight of the lonely traveler eating alone at the bar with a glass of scotch and a book. While I've seen plenty of businessmen who put their laptops on the bar, it's always struck me as a bit much. But I found that I resorted to carrying my iPad around like a Moleskine or a small portfolio, a constant companion in its small rubber case, perfect for these kinds of situations. Being smaller than a magazine, it easily fits on the table next to innocuous businessman hotel fare, serving up newspapers, books, or Words With Friends. Again, I could have sat squinting at my phone during dinner, but it wouldn't have been comfortable or nearly as hands-off.

Conference: The novelty of being at a conference with an iPad the week after launch meant that hordes of strangers walked up to me and asked to play with it. Reactions were mixed, but it was definitely a great icebreaker. That novelty quickly wore off, and once people stopped noticing it for a toy, the iPad became invaluable. In most small conferences, checking your phone every few minutes would seem rude, pulling out a laptop insulting. Oddly, it felt very natural to use my iPad as I would have used a small notebook, taking notes on sessions, reading the conference agenda, browsing speaker's slides. Of course, that I could very inconspicuously and silently check my email or play chess was an added bonus.

I also found that the iPad is incredibly helpful in small meetings, around a meal or side by side at a coffee shop. Instead of pulling out a laptop to show a clip, a slide, or a website relevant to the conversation, I just pulled it up on the iPad and handed it across the table. The effect was fantastic, and I can't imagine being a modern day traveling salesman without one.

"Real" Work: It's hard to say whether the iPad is capable of real work, because it depends on your definition. Most of what I do is write, and for that task, the iPad is good, but not great. My typing speed on the virtual keyboard is now up to my norm, but my accuracy is slightly worse. This means it's great for first drafts, but requires caution for finished work.

Unfortunately, the only real word processor on the platform, Apple's Pages, is a terrible editor, lacking a good grammar checker, a thesaurus, word counts, revisioning, or any of a dozen things I rely on. Worse, without a mouse and keyboard, it's effectively impossible to move large blocks of text efficiently. Some of these are solvable problems, but there's no doubt that I couldn't replace all the other computers in my life with an iPad (not that anyone's ever suggested that it could.)

Beyond word processing, I'm afraid I think the other iWork apps are a bust. Numbers is an exceptionally poor replacement for excel, and again, without a mouse, working on spreadsheets is impossible. Keynote is fine if you happened to live in an entirely closed mac ecosystem, but I don't. I work with PowerPoint files going between multiple reviewers, and the list of incompatibilities and missing features in iPad Keynote is long. Could you make a budget or a presentation Numbers and Keynote? Sure. Will I? Not likely I'm afraid.

Tourist: I was surprised by how useful having the iPad with me was. While it lacks a GPS, it didn't matter in this case since I had no data coverage to drive Google maps. However, I was able to download PDF maps, guidebooks, and website pages using GoodReader and thus carried around a complete library of everything I could ever have wanted in my travel backpack. Inside museums, I was able to browse the museum websites or online catalogs in a manner that felt much more like toting a clipboard than squinting at my phone.

Even better, the iPad turns out to be a phenomenal sketchbook. While I am a terrible artist, when I have the chance I love to sketch street scenes, architecture and copy art from a quiet bench in a gallery. Usually, I'd carry a backpack with a sketchbook and supplies. I forewent all of that on this trip, and used just the iPad and the phenomena AutoDesk SketchBook Pro application. While the iPad isn't pressure sensitive, the experience is still finely tuned and feels just right, not technological at all -- like drawing in ink.

Goofing Off The irony of my attempt at living laptop free on this trip was that I was forced on only one occasion to dig the laptop out of my bag - to play World of Warcraft.

I found myself playing mostly "small" games on the iPad during the week, things like the excellent GalCon update or WarpGate. The most exciting game experience for the iPad so far has been Sam and Max: The Penal Zone. With Penal Zone, telltale brought the full experience of playing their point and click adventure on the pc right into the iPad, and it's actually better experience than the series has been on the PC. It is, after all, point and click. It also shows that fairly hefty games are easily doable on the platform.

But the sad truth is that when I wanted a real social experience in the lonely hours of the hotel room night, it was impossible to beat a big laptop with Ventrillo and 11 gigabytes of Azeroth.

Living with the iPad for an intense week gave it a chance to show it's stuff, to prove there was a place that it truly "fit." But that place isn't the be-all and end-all of the digital world. Instead, it fills a hollow center between "serious" work and the casual communication of a phone, pressing into the territory once occupied by both.



Trial by fire... Because they overheat, amirite!? Harharhar...

Thanks for the perspectives Rabbit. It's a toy that's far out of my pricerange but I'm glad to hear that it has uses beyond the "gimmick" that many thought it to be.

Not helping me impatiently wait with the (now delayed) launch in Canada!

I was completely ambivalent about this product. Then I used one for 15 minutes at my lab. The following weekend, I bought this for my wife. All I can say is that it is a dream to work on. In the short time she's had it, she hasn't used our PC for email.

A few days ago, we purchased the Keyboard Dock. Let me tell you, Rabbit, editing documents is much easier with this. It's a quality Apple keyboard and I was able to type at my usual 90-wpm speed with almost no errors.

The irony is that while I was using the keyboard, I kept unconsciously going for a mouse until I realized I need to touch the screen.

Once Apple makes peace with the cloud, I suspect that many other applications will become more useful. My wife needs to access Dropbox data, which hasn't been going as well on the iPad. We're trying Evernote to see if that will be an easier way for her to create words and pull them up on the main machine.

Thanks for the well-organized thoughts. I went from ambivalent, to purchaser, to wanting this very badly for myself, and I'm no Apple-fanboy.

And beware, goodjers: Civilization Revolution is ungodly beautiful on this thing. I am truly afraid to purchase it, even for my wife...

docbadwrench wrote:

The following weekend, I bought this for my wife....


Geez. Make it hard to resist, why dontcha?

Thanks for this article Rabbit. Your perspective and mine are very similar on this device. I think this article, tempered with the "real world annoyance" article here will help folks to determine what the use-case might be for buying one (as opposed to just assuming it fits exactly the same niche as a "large iPhone."

Absolutely, GoodReader (for managing PDFs and movies) + the Kindle app have made this my go-to for reading. I gifted my wife with a gen1 Kindle during the initial release, and I've contented myself with using the iPhone (and hopefully soon Android) Kindle apps. But I find reading on my iPad to be fantastic and what with everything else it does, I can't imagine traveling or sitting in a waiting room without it.

Nice article Rabbit. I'm curious as to your use of your iPhone though during this trial. Did you use your iPhone for anything except phone calls and checking web/email during the times when you weren't on wifi? You mentioned a lack of GPS on the iPad and how that didn't impact you, is the reason because you were using your iPhone for GPS?

I think most importantly, would you be willing to give up your iPhone for a normal non-smartphone and instead have the 3g iPad?

And when is the article about the actual trip going up?

I am going to be testing my iPad "in the wild" when I finally bring it out of my house and with me to our trip to Florida. I am not gonna bring my DS or PSP or laptop. I'll need my iPhone for you know, phone calls and stuff, but all my gaming and Internet activities will be solely on the iPad. I'm encouraged by your report. I'm just a little bit nervous about the TSA screening though. I hope they are gentle.

A word of warning for those who want to use iPad for travelling. Apparently the Wi-Fi does not meet some European standards and so Israel banned iPad. If you attempt to enter the country with an iPad, they will take it from you.

Stylez wrote:

Trial by fire... Because they overheat, amirite!? Harharhar...

To take this comment seriously, reviewers have said it appears to have no heat issue at all, even after hours of usage. A switch from some earlier Apple products...

In the last year or so I became a console gamer and have barely touched PC games (after 25 years of hardcore PCness) -- and now, more slowly, as gaming options grow and an Xbox Live equivalent is added, I expect I'll be spending more and more time on this...

A few followups:

I haven't it noticed it getting even warm since I out the case on it (the apple one, which is awesome). Before I had the case on, i could feel he aluminum slightly warm after an hour of a game.

I was in the Amsterdam, so my iPhone had no coverage at all most of the time, although WiFi was pervasive so I just used Skype the whole time. It would have been nice to have a GPS, but I made do with local PDF maps.

I'm not sure I'd drop down to some cheapo phone. My iPhone is my music player when I run, and there are for sure times I won't be carrying my iPad around (running,biking,hiking,kicking around town at lunch, whatever) and I've gotten really used to it.

I got hassle from security both directions, and i had a snotty flight attendant tell me that it counted as a laptop and thus i couldn't put it in the seatback pocket for landing, when i pointed out that it was smaller than the inflight magazine in every dimension she relented,

Nice writeup - some aspects there I hadn't considered. I can see them being fantastic for conferences, especially for easily keeping the timetables, abstracts, slides, and notes all in one place and easily linked to each other.

Surreptitious chess-playing would also be a lifesaver in some cases.

Thanks for the follow-up info Rabbit. I've just been really noticing the symbiotic relationship of people using their iPhones while they review their iPads.

Has anybody bought the iPad but doesn't have/had an iPhone? docbadwrench?

I would imagine transitioning to the iPad would be quite easy as I already have an iPhone, but what about iVirgins?

I am surprised at your comments about sketching on it. Can you elaborate a bit more on that?

Elliottx wrote:

Thanks for the follow-up info Rabbit. I've just been really noticing the symbiotic relationship of people using their iPhones while they review their iPads.

Has anybody bought the iPad but doesn't have/had an iPhone? docbadwrench?

I would imagine transitioning to the iPad would be quite easy as I already have an iPhone, but what about iVirgins?

I currently don't own an iPhone. I used to have an iPhone then iPhone 3G which I traded in for a Nexus One. I VASTLY prefer the Nexus One as a workaday cell with GPS. However, I DID also pick up an ipod touch in order to keep a couple of apps, and music. At this point though, I think I may just switch to a nano and sell my touch.

If you do a youtube search on sketchbook pro iPad, you'll see some awesome demos of what it's capable of. I'm a bit embarrassed to show my own sketches.

so i can get rid of my laptop and my iPhone if i get the iPad? Because if I can't then what is this the answer to?

I was curious about the reactions you got from other folks who saw you using the iPad. Aside from the convention, did anyone else comment on it (at the bar, in the cab, etc)? I suppose the flight attendant noticed it, but she didn't sound too impressed.

I've only messed around with one at work, but I found that the lack of an apostrophe and other punctuation on the on-screen keyboard (without going to a sub-screen) immediately killed my enthusiasm for the device as a work platform. Do you really find that you type just as fast having to constantly go to sub-screens? Or is there a way to expand the default keyboard?

draez wrote:

so i can get rid of my laptop and my iPhone if i get the iPad? Because if I can't then what is this the answer to?

"What computer-like device can I use on an airplane for 8 hours for almost anything practical to do on an airplane and not run out of batteries ever?"


"What's better than both an iPhone and a laptop at web browsing in bed?"

i've preorderd my 3g model. did u try the bookstore and read books? also what about pdf's? is it easy to get pdf documents into the ipad?

Hey there Elliott,

My wife and I are complete iNewbies. I have an Android, the family's primarily PC-based, but all three of us have shuffles. In the brief time that we had an old mac, it collected dust because none of us knew what to do with it.

All that said, the iPad is really intuitive and we've had no problems using it. It's getting it to play nice with the cloud and networked-resources that's the hard part. At the very least, it's easy to email a copy of a Pages in Word, Pages, or basic text format. It's not perfect, but great in a pinch.

The holy grail would be if there was a Diigo application, because my wife does a lot of internet research and we are accustomed to highlighting and marking up webpages directly. There are annotation apps out there, but we've yet to drop more cash (that initial flurry of app-buying was entirely too easy to do).

Oh, and Morgoth, it's really, really cool to read PDF's on. Check out this pro-tip for converting PDF's to ebook format, too.

I haven't put mine through quite that rigorous trial by fire, but Its become the default Internet machine for me at home. It's funny though, I can't take it out when my two year old is up, because she'll drop whatever she's doing if she sees it and whine until I hand it over. I think it's a testament to the touch interface and/or Apple UI design that she knew how to operate my iPod touch to watch her movies at 18 months, so of course she glommed right onto the iPad. She's still really confused about using a mouse or trackpad.

hubbinsd wrote:

I've only messed around with one at work, but I found that the lack of an apostrophe and other punctuation on the on-screen keyboard (without going to a sub-screen) immediately killed my enthusiasm for the device as a work platform. Do you really find that you type just as fast having to constantly go to sub-screens? Or is there a way to expand the default keyboard?

It will do autocorrection, including placing apostrophes appropriately for contractions. It will also put a period if you hit space twice and will do apostrophes if you hold down the comma key long enough. If you do have to type a lot of numbers or use other symbols, yeah, its gonna kill your typing speed. But for mostly text stuff, if you let go and trust the autocorrect, you can type pretty reasonably fast. If you're going to attempt serious work on this thing then you have to get an external keyboard.

I think there's danger in considering the iPad a computer. Once I realized it was an MID, I understood its purpose. It doesn't completely replace anything, but it's a nice media viewer. Instead of investing in a smartphone, an option might be a cheap cell phone plus tablet. It might be sufficient in some cases to replace notebook use for users who primarily use their desktops for work.

Personally, I wouldn't invest in a closed device. And frankly it also scares the hell out of me what the iPhone and iPad are doing to the games industry right now. I really hate device exclusive gaming, no matter how cool it might be. It's probably idealistic, but that's how I feel.

I'm not really an Apple fan, despite owning 2 iPods.

The iPhone makes no sense to me at all. The 'killer' features sound like gimmicks to me and my iPhone owning boss wishes he owned a Blackberry, my usage patterns are similar to his, but the more I hear about the iPad the more compelling it gets.

WiFi coverage here is neither ubiquitous or cheap, so when the 3G shows I may seriously consider it, finances willing.

A collection of responses:

Personally, I don't feel that it was designed to replace anything. It is designed to supplement your existing computers, particularly if you are into media consumption (minus flash), want an instant-on device to respond to email and browse the web, take notes, listen to music, watch videos and play games on.

As for the apostrophe, you can access at without going to a submenu I've discovered by "holding down" the comma for 1 second.

It is dead simple to get large PDFs onto it, and this was a big use case for me. Reading PDFs with full graphics in a an easy to hand, large format is wonderful.

I also am not fond of close systems, but I also really like many of things apple has brought to the table with some of their devices. As a tech enthusiast, i'll also be picking up the Google slate when it/if it appears. However, I know a lot of developers, game or otherwise, who are very excited about developing for the iPad, and not so much for other open systems. Look at the apple apps store versus android's; some great apps on both, but they have very different audiences and different levels of mature developers working on em.

What the iPad provides that is new: a platform for relatively large screen apps that don't fit on a phone but aren't the best on a laptop/desktop (drawing, video, comics, various games); in particular for apps that work well as tactile experiences (including web browsing).

Probably more important is not "what" it replaces, but "where" and "how". As Rabbit indicated, it provides a convenient form factor for planes, trains, and automobiles. I've found in 1on1 meetings it makes for a more human experience, as I can refer to and make notes without a laptop between us.

And the tactile experience of touching and manipulating your apps cannot be overstated. Or, rather, of touching whatever you are working on, as well-designed apps and games seem to fade into the background and let you just "get things done"...

Great article, Rabbit. Thank you.

As someone who has been linked to a DOS/Windows OS for 20 years now, but has an ever increasing need to be connected to teh Intrawebs, how would I make the transition to an iPad? I cannot forsee myself ever leaving my PC/laptop worlds as my primary but the capabilities of the iPad cult make it sound better every second. Where would I begin?

PseudoKnight wrote:

Personally, I wouldn't invest in a closed device. And frankly it also scares the hell out of me what the iPhone and iPad are doing to the games industry right now. I really hate device exclusive gaming, no matter how cool it might be. It's probably idealistic, but that's how I feel.

The irony in that statement being that the best games are generally designed from the ground up for one specific platform.

I was thinking about saving up for one - I have never owned an Apple product, ever SHOCK HORROR - but I've just found out it's going to be something like £600-£700 in England if you include all the extra rubbish you have to buy with it, including internet access etc. No. Thank you, but no. I'll stick with my crappy Linux laptop.