Verdict is In: iPad is a WinnerRich
Months of speculation, feverish lust, an überhyped prize that could disrupt the status quo of computing. You wouldn’t be the first person to compare the run-up to Saturday’s arrival of the iPad to the prelaunch mania that surrounded the iPhone. Apple’s freshly conceived slate-style computer promises to influence the media, mobile entertainment and publishing industries the way its close cousin the iPhone has affected wireless.
The first iPad is a winner. It stacks up as a formidable electronic-reader rival for Amazon’s Kindle. It gives portable game machines from Nintendo and Sony a run for their money. At the very least, the iPad will likely drum up mass-market interest in tablet computing in ways that longtime tablet visionary and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates could only dream of.
For more than a decade, nobody, not even a deep-pocketed company like Microsoft, has successfully cracked the tablet market. Apple, based on my tests over several days, is likely to be the first. Back in 2001, Gates predicted tablets would be the most popular form of PCs sold in America within five years. That obviously didn’t come to pass. Apple’s roots with the tablet form of computing date at least to its ill-fated Newton, an early 1990s personal digital assistant pushed by then-CEO John Sculley and later killed by Steve Jobs.
These days, several large computing companies have shown off or announced some sort of slate-type computer, including Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Lenovo. Netbook pioneer Asus told Forbes that it, too, plans to roll out tablets. But Apple’s new tablet will do the most to spawn renewed interest in the category and could tap into markets as varied as medicine and education. This week, Pennsylvania’s Seton Hill University announced plans to give every full-time student this fall an iPad. Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster expects 2.7 million iPads to be sold in 2010 and 8 million next year. Endpoint Technologies analyst Roger Kay ups the sum to about 4 million units the first year.
An often-asked question after Jobs unveiled the tablet at the end of January was: What is iPad’s purpose for being? I answered that question by surfing the Web, watching the movies Up and Michael Jackson’s This Is It, reading the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s True Compass, playing Scrabble and an accelerometer-driven game called RealRacing HD, and boning up on the periodic table of elements.
The iPad is larger than a smartphone but smaller than a typical laptop. Depending on your perspective, the space between is either fertile ground for an electronic device or a no-man’s land. Even Apple seems unsure to what degree the iPad may hurt sales of its MacBook or MacBook Pro notebooks.
The iPad is not so much about what you can do – browse, do e-mail, play games, read e-books and more – but how you can do it. That’s where Apple is rewriting the rulebook for mainstream computing. There is no mouse or physical keyboard. Everything is based on touch. All programs arrive directly through Apple’s App Store. Apple’s tablet is fun, simple, stunning to look at and blazingly fast. Inside is a new Apple chip, the A4. The machine is the antithesis of the cheap underpowered netbook computers that Jobs easily dismisses. “Netbooks aren’t better at anything,” Jobs scoffed during his January presentation introducing the iPad. “They’re slow, they have low-quality displays and they run clunky old PC software.”
What does a successful iPad launch mean for traditional netbooks? They’ll have to adapt or disappear – especially since their price advantage compared with the entry-level iPad isn’t as great as some might have thought it would be. “You can use the iPhone as the blueprint for how this will play out,” Munster says.
Early buyers (and those who were among the first to reserve the iPad online) can get one Saturday at Apple Stores and certain Best Buys. Those who preorder it now online must wait until April 12 because of apparent shortages.
Wi-Fi-only models will cost $499 for a 16-gigabyte version, $599 for 32 GB, and $699 for 64 GB. Models with Wi-Fi and 3G wireless – which lets you connect through AT&T’s data network when Wi-Fi isn’t available – come later in April, at $629 for 16 GB, $729 for 32 GB and $829 for 64 GB.
The latter models don’t require a wireless contract. Monthly AT&T prepaid data rates are attractive: $14.99 for 250 MB or $29.99 for an unlimited plan. You buy 3G service directly from the iPad. The charge doesn’t show up on your AT&T bill or through iTunes, but rather on your credit card.
You will have to buy into the iTunes ecosystem, of course, to watch movies, read e-books and sync up the apps.
The half-inch-thick, magazine-size iPad is thin and, at 1.5 pounds, light with a gorgeous, glossy, backlit 9.7-inch multitouch display. The fingerprint-resistant screen has an exceptionally wide viewing sweet spot for a movie and is terrific for showing off most of a Web page. The device resembles an iPhone on growth hormones. It shares many of the smaller handheld’s design elements, down to the lone home button below the display. As on the iPhone, you can have up to 11 screens of icons.
IPad has the same kind of smart sensors that change the orientation of the screen from portrait to landscape, depending on how it’s rotated. (It’s always right side up.) And, like the iPhone, it takes its cue from your fingers, whether you pinch to zoom in or out on Web pages, location-based maps and pictures – or flick to scroll up or down a page. You can easily search across all content.
There’s a hidden microphone but no built-in voice recorder app (for leaving voice notes, say). The single speaker isn’t stereo, but you can get stereo output when you plug in headphones.
The iPad will run just about all of the 150,000-plus iPhone or iPod Touch apps sold (or available free) in the App Store, presenting boundless “there’s an app for that” possibilities. If you own an iPhone or Touch, you already have a stable of programs to work on the iPad.
Those older apps appear in a small window on the iPad display. You can blow them up to fill the screen through a process called “pixel doubling.” It’s more than adequate for many apps, but enlarging the characters reveals any imperfections.
None of this is lost on Apple, which is encouraging developers to write for the bigger screen. Apple expects more than 1,000 iPad-specific apps to be available at launch, and I’ve already sampled a few, including Reuters News Pro from Thomson Reuters, the Bento for iPad database from FileMaker, and the Twitterrific Twitter program from the Iconfactory.
I’ve enjoyed racing games and Labyrinth on the iPhone, but playing such titles on the iPad spoils you. The once-appealing iPhone screen looks puny. I played Scrabble over my home network, with one player using an iPhone, the other an iPad.
A larger screen is perfect for a recipe app such as Epicurious or the digital painting app called Brushes. The built-in Maps app also benefits from the larger display. As with the similar iPhone app, you can zoom in to a street-level view or locate nearby restaurants.
The iPad’s splendor and power may be best shown by The Elements: A Visual Exploration The $13.99 program is more electronic book than traditional app, but it’s not like any e-book you’ve seen. The periodic table of elements comes to life when you touch your finger against any element. Handsome photographs of objects spin around so you can observe them from all vantage points.
Equally attractive: the Marvel Comics app, which closely replicates printed comics.
USA TODAY will be launching its own app.
Apple is taking solid aim at the burgeoning electronic-reader market dominated by the Kindle. Judged solely from a sizzle standpoint: There’s no contest. Titles on the iPad such as Winnie the Pooh (which comes preloaded on the iPad) boast colorful illustrations. The 6-inch Kindle screen is grayscale.
You can change pages on the iPad by tapping the screen: The page turns naturally, like a book. On Kindle, you have to press physical buttons and wait an instant while the page refreshes. Rotate the iPad, and you’ll see two pages side by side.
Newspaper and magazine layouts look vastly superior on the iPad compared with Kindle. The iPad is backlit, so you can read in the dark. You have to supply a reading light with Kindle.
The covers you buy in Apple’s new iBookstore land on a handsome depiction of a wooden bookshelf, again more elegant and easier to navigate than Kindle’s clunky menus.
But Amazon retains some bragging points for avid readers, starting with a cheaper $259 price that I suspect will need to drop a lot further. At 10 hours or so, the iPad battery life, while impressive, falls far short of the two weeks you might get off a Kindle charge. It remains to be seen whether reading on a backlit screen for hours will be as easy on the eyes as the Kindle is. Curling up in bed was more comfortable with a 10.2-ounce Kindle than with the weightier iPad.
Amazon has about 450,000 book titles in the Kindle Store vs. 60,000 in iBookstore. Many best sellers in Apple’s store cost $12.99, though some are $9.99. Amazon is likely to charge similar prices after iPad arrives; Amazon wouldn’t comment. Out of the gate, Apple has support from major publishers Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin and Simon & Schuster. Random House remains on the sidelines; it does support the Kindle.
The iPad has its share of Version 1.0 inadequacies. It doesn’t multitask, save playing iTunes music in the background. There’s no webcam for those of us hoping to do video chats. The battery is sealed. It’s too big for your pocket.
Videos failed to play at Hulu and ESPN, among other Web destinations. Why? The Safari browser on the iPad doesn’t support videos based on the popular Adobe Flash Internet video standard.
The issue may be alleviated over time. Apple is backing an emerging video standard called HTML5. Just this week, Brightcove, whose video technology is used by many media companies, said it plans to offer HTML5 video streaming to its customers. The iPad can also display video at YouTube (there’s an app for that), Vimeo and the White House website, whitehouse.gov.
Some will decry the absence of a USB port or other connectors, which might let you hook up a printer or bolster storage. Everything comes through the standard iPod-like dock connector on the bottom of the iPad. You can purchase a $29 iPad Camera Connection Kit, which lets you connect a USB camera or import photos via an SD card.
Another quibble: Controls to start a flick from the beginning or to resume where you left off are buried in settings rather than presented when you launch the videos app.
Many people will still need a more traditional computer. You can’t edit video on an iPad. And the virtual onscreen keyboard that pops up when needed is fine for e-mails or scribbling notes, but I wouldn’t want to regularly write articles using it.
You can employ a wireless Bluetooth keyboard, and Apple sells an optional $69 iPad Keyboard Dock. It’s a full-size keyboard that connects to the dock connector.
Apple sells a $39 soft microfiber case that doubles as a stand for watching videos and slideshows. You can bank on third-party companies to provide other accessories and how-to books. (Disclosure: I’m co-writing one, iPad For Dummies.)
The iPad has built-in notes, calendar and contacts applications, and Apple sells slick, redesigned versions of its iWork productivity applications – $10 each for the Keynote presentation program, the Pages word processor and the Numbers spreadsheet. Still, for most folks, the iPad is more about consuming content than creating it.
Nowhere is this more true than with photos. The built-in Photo app is similar to the iPhoto program on Macs. Photos are placed in stacks. Tap one, and the picture album spreads apart so that each picture is visible. Tap a picture, and it swells up. Pinch and spread your fingers to zoom. The Faces and Places feature lets you find pictures based on who is in them or where they were shot.
Apple has pretty much nailed it with this first iPad, though there’s certainly room for improvement. Nearly three years after making a splash with the iPhone, Apple has delivered another impressive product that largely lives up to the hype.