Long-term test: one month with the iPad

23rd Jun 2010 | 09:11

Long-term test: one month with the iPad

Does Apple's tablet stand the test of time?

One month with the iPad: Day one

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone, people instinctively understood it, despite having never seen one before – it was a phone, an iPod and an email/web browsing device all rolled into one, and it fit snugly in your pocket. Simple.

With the iPad (iPad review, iPad 3G review), the reaction was different – instead of almost universal acceptance, many people were totally confused. It looked like a large iPhone, but what exactly was this device for? Some people didn't care about the whys, they just wanted a large iPhone.

But the question that kept coming up was, "Why would I want to buy this?" Well, I felt the same way, so it's been interesting to look back at how my opinion evolved as I set about using the iPad for a whole month.

With the UK launch of the iPad unbearably delayed by greedy Americans buying too many of them, I had no choice but to add to the problem and get my hands on one. Our colleagues in the US arm of Future Publishing took pity on us and bought MacFormat magazine a Wi-Fi version then shipped it over (we still owe you a beer, MacLife guys!).

So, just a few days after the iPad went on sale in the US, one arrived in the office. As you can imagine, just about everybody in the building wanted to try it out, and soon the crowds swarming around the MacFormat's desks became so unmanageable we had to turn people away and stage an official 'show and tell' about the iPad in Future's biggest meeting room instead.

iPad unboxing

You'll find that holding an iPad for the first time is a curious experience. It's heavier than you expect and after a while your arm will start to ache and you'll want to sit down and cuddle up with it, rather than stand for an extended period.

As with the iPod touch and iPhone, the first thing you have to do with an iPad is to sync with your computer, copying across all the apps and media from your iTunes library. After the joy of unboxing the iPad this felt like a frustrating barrier to using it, but once the initial sync was done I was good to go.

Since the iPad runs the same OS as the iPhone I instinctively knew how to use it, but there are a few subtle differences that caught me out. For example, I found myself reaching for a nonexistent mute button a few times before I got used to it not being there (to mute the iPad you press and hold the down volume button).

It's also missing some of the iPhone's staple apps, such as Calculator and Messages. In fact, the home screen looks strangely empty, with only nine icons filling less than half of it, plus the four on the OS X-style dock at the bottom.

Despite this, I was instantly impressed by the vibrancy of the colours on the screen and the speed and fluency of using it. Everything is just so smooth: the way the screen flips between portrait and landscape mode when you rotate the device; the way the apps zoom when opened; the scrolling of pages in Safari, the virtual keyboard. It all just works so well.

Probably because Apple has had time to fine-tune things with the iPhone, the iPad doesn't feel like a first generation product at all. It feels more like it's already matured.

You have access to all your purchased iPhone apps on the iPad, but get ready to be disappointed. To make the small iPhone apps fill the iPad's larger screen you tap a button to activate Pixel-Doubling mode – the problem is, this made most iPhone apps look so bad that I simply didn't want to use them and sought out proper iPad versions instead.

Even at this early stage in its life, there was no shortage of iPad-specific apps on the App Store. Many are free, but you do need to be careful you don't go overboard buying new iPad apps – Apple just make it so easy and tempting to install new ones.

My old iPhone games fared slightly better at being pixel-doubled, but still looked terribly fuzzy compared to games properly designed for the iPad.

One month with the iPad: Day two-eight

Day two

Like most parents, I was intrigued to see what my kids would make of the iPad, especially my three-year-old, Jacob. He was already used to an iPhone, so when he saw the larger iPad his face was a genuine picture of the child-like wonder that Apple products supposedly seek to instil in us all.

He had no problem turning the iPad on and navigating the different screens to find his favourite apps. There are plenty of great apps for kids to keep them entertained and learn as they have fun.

First Words proved to be a big hit with Jacob, as did the free drawing app Doodle Buddy, especially once he worked out that he could paint little cartoon dog poos, complete with sound effect, all over the screen. Kids, eh?

iPad and jacob

A word of warning for parents here: once you've let your child have a play with an iPad, there's no going back!

Later that week, when the device was being borrowed by Deputy Editor Chris Phin to review the iWork apps, Jacob sat on the sofa inconsolably wailing, "I want the iPad!". I did feel a bit concerned for the iPad's safety in the hands of a three-year-old, but provided you supervise your children when they use it, it shouldn't be an issue.

Apart from being dropped, the main danger comes in the form of scratches, so you're probably going to want to invest in a case of some kind. In fact, the biggest danger was accidentally sitting on it or knocking it off the coffee table. While a laptop can be stashed down the side of the sofa or behind a cushion, you're not going to want to risk the iPad in the same situation.

One solution is provided by the iPad's Picture Frame mode, in which you can have it cycle through pictures or albums in your photo gallery. So I sat it in a dock on the mantelpiece and had it function as a digital photo frame, showing off pictures of the kids.

Day five

By now I'd had time to see how the iPad functioned as a work machine – Apple has released Pages, Keynote and Numbers in its attempt to broaden the iPad's functionality.

We also picked up a few handy hardware additions from Apple: the iPad Dock, which enables it to stand up in portrait at a nice viewing angle so you can place it on a desk, and a wireless Apple keyboard that connects over Bluetooth.

iPad keyboard

The apps provide Apple's trademark ease of use and beauty, but are restricted in what they can do. Effectively the combination of Pages, a dock and keyboard turns the iPad into something similar to a MacBook, but it's not up to the same tasks.

In fact, I didn't really feel comfortable using the iPad with a keyboard at all – I kept reaching for a non-existent mouse, simply through force of habit. Maybe this would change with time, but I was almost one week in and the combination of typing on a real keyboard and touching the screen to reposition the cursor still felt alien to me.

Day eight

Most of the built-in applications are pretty much the same as their iPhone versions, just with slight makeovers.

Three that really caught my attention were Maps, YouTube and Calendar. With Maps, what worked really well on the iPad was Street View. By dropping a pin anywhere on the map to enter this mode, I could take a walk down the nation's highways and byways from the comfort of my sofa. It's amazing on a Mac, but it felt even more so when holding the screen in my hands.

The Calendar app was a standout simply because it looks gorgeous, while the YouTube app seemed to take on a whole new lease of life on the iPad. I hardly ever use the YouTube app on the iPhone, but the size of the iPad made the interface a lot more intuitive, so I started to make more use of it.

iPad outdoors

Which brings me nicely onto watching video on the iPad more generally. While the screen was gorgeous for displaying movies, being viewable at just about any angle, the glossy display made reflections a big issue. It was fine for one person watching a video, but when it came to people huddling around the iPad to view something, the reflections became a real problem.

Given the screen quality, many people will be looking at getting an iPad as an ebook reader. Since the iBooks Store hadn't yet been launched internationally, I had to log in using a US iTunes account to get access to it in the UK.

But I had a great time using the iBooks Store – it really is iTunes for books, full of the usual slick Apple touches. I was given access to such classics as Pride and Prejudice and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes for free, while for the commercial store I could get a sample chapter of each book before purchasing.

The reading experience is pretty good, but there are issues to be aware of. Firstly, the formatting of the free books is a bit of a mess, especially when it comes to contents pages. Secondly, I couldn't read books outside in the sunshine on the iPad – something that doesn't pose a problem on e-Ink devices such as the Amazon Kindle.

On the whole though, the reading experience was good, and the fact that the screen is backlit did have advantages – I could read perfectly well at night without having to keep the bedside lamp on.

One month with the iPad: Day 12-30

Day 12

While I used to be a big gamer back in the day, apart from the odd round or two of Wii Tennis, I don't really play games any more. The iPad has changed all that. Because it's the sort of device I can just pick up and fiddle with while I'm in front of the TV, I've found my attentions regularly wandering away from the latest episode of Dr Who towards delightful little time-wasters like like Angry Birds and Plants Vs Zombies.

iPad games do cost more than their iPhone equivalents, but they offer better graphics and more features.

Angry birds

Here's my prediction: the iPad is going to force a lot of people to revaluate Apple as a gaming company. But that's the thing about the device. It is, if you'll excuse the term, a blank slate. Installing a new app can change the functionality of the iPad entirely. One minute it's a games console, the next it's an ebook reader and the next it's for email.

There's been a lot of talk (mainly from Apple, it has to be said) about the iPad creating a whole new category of computing. The more I warmed to the device, the more I realised that Apple really has achieved it.

With just half the month gone, I already feel like this is the direction home computing is going to go in. In fact, once I got back to my MacBook using a real keyboard suddenly felt oddly old-fashioned, even quaint!

That's not to say that the iPad is the ultimate home computer. In use I found I naturally tended to use my MacBook for any work-related projects I had to do from home and the iPad for all the fun stuff. I don't really foresee this division changing when the iPhone OS 4 software update comes out later this year and adds multitasking functionality either.

Day 15

A train trip to London provided the perfect opportunity to test the iPad in the wild. To be honest, I felt really self-conscious getting on a train with one and using it in public. As expected, it did attract people's attention, with lots of folks approaching me and wanting to look at it and have a go. This interest will obviously die down as people get used to iPads, but it further confirmed my suspicions that the iPad is better enjoyed in private, at least for now.

The iPad comes in Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi + 3G versions. If you can afford it I'd definitely recommend going with the Wi-Fi + 3G version, because when I didn't have access to the internet on the iPad I found I really missed it.

One money-saving solution I tried was the MiFi mobile broadband device from 3 mobile. This handy little battery-powered box slips into your pocket, connects to 3's 3G network and creates a mini Wi-Fi hotspot that you carry around with you. You can then connect your iPad to this network as you would with any Wi-Fi hotspot.

This proved to be an effective solution – it works on a pay-as-you-go basis, and also saved £100 on the initial iPad purchase price. When it had a 3G signal, it worked perfectly; the downside is that it's 3G or nothing, so if there's no 3G coverage in the area, tough luck – there's no GPRS or EDGE to fill the gaps.

Also, the iPad Wi-Fi + 3G features GPS ability, which is useful for some apps and recording metadata for photos. The final thing to note is that while the MiFi works on a pay-as-you-go basis, once you start using a purchased data bundle it times-out after 30 days, even if you've not used all your data. Also, the utility it provides to change the SSID and password only works in Windows; luckily I've got Windows on a partition on my MacBook, but this is still a letdown from a Mac perspective.

Day 22

Despite the gorgeous Multi-Touch display, I'm beginning to think that the iPad's real killer feature is its battery life. This thing just doesn't give up!

I suspect Apple's A4 processor might have some special features that make it particularly efficient at displaying video, because in tests that involved playing the same video over and over, I managed to get over 14 hours of playback!

However, if I started doing anything else, such as playing games, I didn't get the same incredible level of performance. But it still lasted a long, long time – which is a good job because it's very slow to charge. I found it I was best off leaving it to recharge overnight every few days.

Day 30

After a month of pretty serious full-time use, the conclusion I've come to is that the iPad is ultimately designed for lounging on the sofa with. Because it's pretty much instant-on, it's perfect for looking up the name of the actor in the film you're watching, or quickly checking Twitter or Facebook. (Or doing just one more level of Angry Birds.)

You don't need a physical keyboard either, because the on-screen counterpart is perfectly usable – it has the same auto-correct technology as the the iPhone, but it has the space to make the keys much bigger, so your typing tends to be more accurate anyway.

Having said that, if you're typing a long article you'll get tired of the virtual keyboard, but for shorter things it's perfect; email on the iPad works really well because of this.

My first month with the iPad has been a pretty trouble-free, thrill-packed ride. I'm completely converted. Just as we were sending this issue to press Apple announced UK pricing, which starts at £429 for the 16GB version. This will undoubtedly put some people off, but I have to say, the iPad has replaced my MacBook as my main device for things like web browsing and email, it really is that good.

iBooks is great too, and while I still love the feel of paper books, I can see myself getting through quite a few titles on my new digital companion.

Don't fall into the trap of thinking you can buy an iPad as a replacement for a notebook. Think of it as a peripheral, rather than a computer – it's better at consuming media than creating it. And if you're reading this on an iPad already, then I hope you're enjoying it as much as I am.

You really need to hold the iPad in your hands and use it to get a feel for what a wonderful device it is – so take a trip to your local Apple retailer as soon as you can!

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First published in MacFormat Issue 222

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