One week with the iPad

Please bear with me as I type this review directly on the iPad — on Pages to be copied into WordPress — while reclining on the sofa. Although I have used it in a number of other ways, my intent right now is to get a good feel for using it in this particular real-life scenario. (The result of this test should be toward the end of this report.)

First of all, let me get the obvious out of the way. OMG! It doesn’t multitask! It’s just a giant iPod touch! The bezel is huge! There’s no keyboard! What good is a machine in-between a phone and a laptop? Netbooks are more useful! So these are the various criticisms out there about the iPad — well, besides the dumb name. None of them really matter to me. The size is just fine. In fact, in post-iPad times, my iPhone feels ludicrously tiny — almost unusably so. The multitasking becomes less important when the interface is designed to only show one app at a time (with one exception — I *really* miss not being able to run Pandora in the background, bit I hear that will be fixed later this year). I find that I now only use my laptop for creative endeavors: programming, editing graphics, typing long-form text (except for just now), downloading large files, reverse engineering, network monitoring, and so on. The iPad covers everything else now: accessing Google reader, email, Twitter, controlling other machines (via SSH, VNC, and VPN), watching video podcasts (something I never even did on other machines), web browsing, and so on.

Lots of people are asking “what’s an iPad FOR?” With the iPhone, it was pretty obvious: cellphone, iPod, and Internet communicator. With the iPad, the answer is less clear. In fact, it’s almost akin to asking what your laptop or desktop computer is for. My answer may be different from yours, which may be different from someone else’s. My main (original) use-case for the iPad is as a Kindle replacement, with a few casual games, video, and audio thrown into the mix. Getting the Kindle last year, for me, was a huge game-changer. I greatly enjoy reading, but have never done as much as I wanted to because many of the books I want to read are huge (see also: Anathem). Carrying such books around has been too much of a pain, so I only got to read for short spells at home. The Kindle allowed me to carry such books around in my tiny satchel without a second thought about size and weight. My intent for the iPad was to be a better Kindle. You see, the Kindle is great for straightforward linear texts like novels, but any sort of skimming, browsing, or cross-referencing (e.g. technical documentation) is not speedy enough to be useful on Amazon’s device. For more of my iPad vs. Kindle thoughts, see my previous article on the iPad, Kindle, and DRM.

I can happily say that the iPad exceeds my expectations as an ebook reader. My initial worry was that the backlit LCD screen, compared to the Kindle’s e-ink display, would be too harsh on the eyes over long periods of time. This turned out to not be the case. It is just fine, especially when you adjust the screen contrast (which is available directly in the reader application). Admittedly, I no longer have the nostalgic “reading under the covers with a flashlight” that I had with the Kindle’s screen, but I think I can live with that.

I find that I can prop it up in the kitchen and watch short video podcasts while prepping dinner. I never really did anything like that before and am glad to be doing it now. I have a big backlog of TED Talks videos that my computer has been collecting, but which I have just never gotten around to watching. The iPhone felt too small and the laptop just did not feel like the right place — I kept wanting to multitask and would stop paying attention to the video.

The games are great, Netflix streaming is amazing, and I found I could (very awkwardly) build up a spreadsheet a few nights ago for Kim’s company. Building the spreadsheet was a little too awkward to be productive, but I can certainly picture a scenario (probably not in my life, but in someone’s) in which a complex spreadsheet is imported and then specific numbers are plugged into it in the field. Writing long-form text really is quite comfortable, I now realize. The keyboard in landscape mode is just a tad smaller than most laptop keyboards and (with the assist of auto-correction) I can touch-type pretty darn fast.

Now, the bad. The iPad does not feel like its own miniature stand-alone computer. It feels like it *should be* and is really trying hard to do so, but it really cannot be used without being frequently tethered to a desktop or laptop computer. I don’t mean tethered in the cool wireless connectivity way that you can tether a laptop to a cellphone to get wireless Internet. Nor do I mean tethering in the way that you can pair wireless headphones to a computer or media player and walk around the room. I mean tethering in a bad way, as in the only useful way to get the files you have edited in and out of the iPad is to hook up the USB cable. Not only that, but before you can even use it, it has that familiar iPhone “connect to iTunes” graphic to activate — so forget being able to send one to Mom or Grandma as a replacement for a primary computer. It needs a primary computer to turn it on for the first time.

Getting files in and out of the iPad is awkward at best. Some apps do syncing “to the cloud” and sync against servers on the internet. For instance, Evernote and the Amazon Kindle app do this. This certainly seems the easiest route, but very few apps support this kind of syncing because it typically requires a big infrastructure behind the scenes. Other apps require you to run a little server on your desktop or laptop. When you launch the iPad app, it sees the server and let’s you sync against it. For me, this works out extremely well. It allows me to sync against *any* local machine running the server app. Examples of this include Comic Zeal, iAnnotate (a PDF reader), and 1Password. Many others require you to use an awkward feature built into iTunes that lets you drag-and-drop files into and out of a nearly hidden bit of the iTunes window. They then transfer in and out of your iPad when you sync it to the computer. This requires you to use only the one machine you are syncing your iPad applications against to transfer files. You can use no other machine on the planet to copy files into and out of the iPad for applications that synchronize only via iTunes. This includes iBooks, Numbers, and Pages. iBooks is a little unique in that you can buy books from the iTunes store (how I imagine most people are filling up their bookshelf), but there is no easy way to transfer in a personally created epub book or independently purchased one (e.g. from O’Reilly) without tethering to your main iTunes machine. Now, some files you can play the email game with. Mail.app will detect word processing documents and spreadsheets and lets you import them into Pages and Numbers. Those two apps will even let you email documents (under 10 megs in size), which I guess is a sort of export. It even sort of works, but feels more like the old-school “who has the latest version of this document?” game from back when LANs were rare and you kept around 20 versions of the same document with names like report.doc, report2.doc, report2-latest.doc, report2-latest-newer.doc, report2-final.doc, report2-final2.doc, and report2-final-latest.doc. Things get out of hand if you don’t manually keep track of document revisions. This email scheme does not work at all with epub files. They just won’t open iBooks. There is no way to purchase a technical book directly from O’Reilly and download, email, or otherwise get it into the iPad without syncing against your one-and-only iTunes.

Something tells me that in the fullness of time, these wrinkles will get ironed out by enterprising developers and/or by Apple itself. Although I have used up some big paragraphs describing them, and they are awkward when they appear, the truth is that these complaints arise very rarely. They are a minor blemish on an overall experience that is absolutely fantastic. I started out in the “there is positively no place for that thing in my life” camp when the iPad was first announced and, in recent weeks, migrated through “that’s kind of a cool idea” to “I use it all the time.” Is it the right device for you? I can’t answer that any more than I can say which laptop or desktop is best for you. That is a decision you must make for yourself.

P.S. It looks like i cannot copy from Pages and paste into the WordPress iPad client. For some reason, I just cannot get the paste bubble to pop up. I can paste it just fine into the web-based editor, though. It’s not as speedy as the native app, but also not as buggy.

Posted in: Dear Diary Gadgets

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Brian Enigma

Brian Enigma is a Portlander, manipulator of atoms & bits, minor-league blogger, and all-around great guy. He typically writes about the interesting “maker” projects he's working on, but sometimes veers off into puzzles, software, games, local news, and current events.

7 thoughts on “One week with the iPad”

  1. Thanks for your insights. I’m enjoying my iPad in ways I could not have anticipated. But, I share many of your frustrations with I/O. Moving info in and out of the iPad shouldn’t be this difficult, and it really limits the utility of the device. I’m confident that some of the challenges will be resolved in coming months, but I worry as well that proprietary practices will get in the way of utility.

    1. That would be the iPad’s autocorrect at work. It always thinks you intend to type “let’s” and “it’s” for some reason. I keep having to go backspace over the “‘s” and just type “s”.

      Thanks for contributing information of such high utility to the blog comments. I hope to hear more such pearls of wisdom.

  2. I’ve been using my iPhone as a Kindle for about a year and recently purchased an iPad. I’ve downloaded my Kindle books to the Kindle iPad app, but (like you) I prefer the iBook interface. Since I now have both the Kindle books and am building an iBook library on the iPad, how do I strip the DRM Kindle file to eBook format? …and where are the actual Kindle files? On my iMac? On the iPad? Somewhere in iTunes? Ideally, one should be able to remake the Kindle file into an iBook file and then drag and drop to the iBook archive.

    1. I know that backups get stored in “~/Library/Application Support/MobileSync/Backup/(some long hex number folder)” on the Mac. Each user file on the iPhone/iPad is stored there as two files, a *.mddata and *.mdinfo. The former is the content of the file, the later is some metadata about the file. So, for me (I have the Mac Developer tools installed and I’m not sure if these commands come with OS X by default or as part of the dev tools), I can find eBook files by opening a Terminal window and running the following command:

      find ~/Library/Application\ Support/MobileSync/Backup/ -name ‘*.mddata’ -exec file \{\} \; | grep -i book

      Alternately, you can search for the book name in the *.mdinfo files. This will, at least, locate the book files. I do not know what the iPhone/iPad uses as a key, so have no idea how you would remove the DRM from those files, once found.

  3. Living and working in Central Asia as I do, where I have the luxury of spending months planning my twice-a-year technology purchases during my Christmas and summer visits to the US, I can honestly and gratefully say that this is the most insightful iPad review I have read, and I have read what feels like hundreds. It has been a bit of a struggle not to order on impulse, but a week ago I decided to wait for the 2nd iteration.
    Good points re: tethering (which few people ever touch on) and the Kindle (whose 3Gen edition I ordered yesterday).
    Bookmarking your blog for future reference.

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