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.