Apple

10 things about the iPad that don't suck

Sometimes it takes more than a quick test drive to warm up to a new device. See why Deb Shinder has decided the iPad has a few things going for it after all.

Back in January, shortly after the specs for Apple's iPad were released, I wrote an article giving 10 reasons why I didn't plan to line up outside the Apple Store to be one of the first to buy one. The lack of a physical keyboard, SD card slot and USB ports, the size and weight (just a little too big and a little too heavy), the phone OS, the high price, and the AT&T network were all factors that made me less than enthusiastic about Steve Jobs' "magical and revolutionary" new device.

So why did I end up trekking to two Apple stores in a vain search for the thing and then ordering it online and enduring a two-week wait while it sat (according to the tracking Web site) in Hong Kong? Mostly to silence all those iPad fans who told me that I didn't have the right to criticize it based just on playing with the demo models at the Apple Store — that I needed to actually live with it for a week or two to appreciate its magic.

Never one to pass up a challenge, I shelled out $540.17 for the least expensive model, the 16GB device with Wi-Fi only. It arrived two weeks ago, and I've gotten pretty well acquainted with it. While I can't say it was love at first sight, I do have to admit that I like it more than I expected to. It's no laptop replacement, and I ran into a number of frustrations, but it does do some things well and best of all, it has brought the tablet form factor into the mainstream and opened the door for competitors to make even better variations on the theme. Meanwhile, here's my list of 10 things about the iPad that don't suck.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: The form factor

There have been complaints that the device is too big and heavy, and I'd love for it to weigh a pound or less. But in working with it, I've found that the 10-inch screen is really just about the right size, and the weight isn't as annoying as I thought it would be. Sure, it's tiring to hold it up with one hand for a long period of time. But there really aren't many instances where I've needed to do that. And that extra size is what makes it so much more functional than a smart phone.

The slate form factor also makes it easier to use than a laptop in many situations. For example, if you're stuck in economy class on a plane and the person in front of you leans the seat way back, even a small laptop can be cramped — but not the iPad.

2: "Always on"

Windows 7 laptops resume very quickly, but there's still a short wait after you hit the power button before you can use the OS. The iPad desktop is right there, right now, when you push the button (Figure A). That little bit of difference can make a big difference. You'll find yourself using it when you wouldn't have bothered to open up the laptop and wait.

Figure A

The iPad desktop is right there, right now, when you want it.

It's a great device to sit on the coffee table for quick reference when you're having a conversation or watching TV. Can't remember where you've seen that actor before? Hit the iPad button, touch the IMDB app, type in the name, and find out in a flash (but not Adobe Flash, since the iPad doesn't support it).

3: Battery life

Some netbooks get 10 hours or more of battery life, but the ones that do tend to be the heavier ones. My Sony VAIO X gets 12 hours, but that's with the extended battery, which adds bulk and weight to its otherwise super-slim profile. If you're used to the typical five hours or so of notebook battery life, the iPad's long-lived battery is a welcome change. And I've found that it actually gets a little more than the advertised 10 hours.

4: Maps app

Of all the apps that came preinstalled on the device, the Maps application impressed me most. I love the way it's integrated with your Contacts, so that you can search for a person's name within the Maps app and (assuming you have the address entered) it will show you the person's home location on the map. You can also invoke the map from within the Contacts app (Figure B). You can touch and hold a spot on the map to "drop a pin." Then with a touch, you can bring up information about the address or show it in Street View. One more touch gets you directions to the location from your current location (which the iPad picks up via GPS). You can change the map view to classic (road map), satellite, hybrid (road names imposed over the satellite view), or terrain. The more I play with this app, the more new things I find and the more I like it.

Figure B

The Maps app is fully integrated with Contacts for a seamless mapping experience.

5: Email

In the beginning, I wasn't sure about the iPad's email client (Figure C). It seemed overly simplified and there appeared to be some functionality missing. Some things weren't obvious, and I had heard from another iPad user that you needed to use Gmail if you wanted to separate your mail into folders. I live and die by my Exchange account, so I wasn't at all happy about that. Fortunately, it turned out not to be true. Setting up my Exchange account took only a minute. At first, only my Inbox folder was populated but I found (in the Settings app) where to select subfolders to "push."

Figure C

The mail client works surprisingly well — after you figure it out.

Also not obvious at first was how to select multiple messages to delete all at once, but some trial and error revealed that you use the Edit setting to do that. After I finally figured it all out, I found the mail app to be easy to use and perfectly good for most of my mail management duties (although not nearly as powerful as Outlook 2010). I also like that in addition to my Exchange mail, it gives me access to my Gmail and Hotmail accounts without going to the Web browser.

6: The onscreen keyboard

When I tried the iPad in the Apple store, I hated the onscreen keyboard (Figure D). I couldn't type accurately with it at all. It seemed to be out of calibration; you had to press the top-left corner of the key to get it to respond with the right character; if you pressed it in the center of the key, you got a different character. Apparently that one was defective, because when my iPad arrived, the keyboard worked as you would expect it to. It's very responsive and I can enter text fairly quickly with it.

I still think the device would have benefitted greatly from Swype technology, which I have on my Omnia II smart phone. I find myself trying to swipe the keys instead of lifting my fingers between keys; it's a much faster form of "typing." But even though the keyboard could be better, I have to admit that it doesn't suck.

Figure D

The iPad's onscreen keyboard could be improved, but it doesn't suck.

7: Watching TV

One of the first apps I downloaded, due to all the rave reviews I'd heard about it, was ABC Player. I wanted to see how well the iPad could play streaming TV, and it turns out it does it very well, at least on my fast 802.11n Wi-Fi network. (I can't vouch for 3G performance.) Of course, the drawback here is that you get only ABC programming, but it's great for catching an episode you missed if you have a wireless connection and you're away from your big TV set. I watched the Lost season finale on it, and playback was smooth and the picture was sharp.

8: Reading ebooks

I have the Kindle for PC software on my laptop and had purchased some books, so I downloaded the Kindle for iPad app (Figure E). I logged onto my Amazon account and my books showed up there. I have to say the reading experience on the iPad is better than on the laptop. The form factor just lends itself to reading, whereas the laptop is made for typing. "Turning" pages with the touch interface is more comfortable, too.

Figure E

The Kindle app for the iPad makes ebook reading a pleasure.

Barnes & Noble's reader is also available for the iPad, and Apple has its own reader as well, so you have plenty of options for turning your iPad into an ebook reader. And rather than spend $200 to $300 for a dedicated reader, you get a device that does much more.

9: Making phone calls

What's the difference between the iPad and the iPhone, other than the size? Well, along with the lack of a camera on the iPad (which is something that does suck, since it would be such a good device for video conferencing), there's the fact that you can't make phone calls on it. Or can you?

Skype is available in the App Store, but it's really made for the iPhone, not the iPad. That means it displays by default in the iPhone screen size (Figure F). You can increase it to 2x but then it gets blurry. However, even though it doesn't look pretty, it works okay. Skype-to-Skype calls are free, but you have to pay to call regular phones, and you have to pay more to get a Skype phone number to receive incoming calls.

Figure F

You can use Skype on the iPad, but it's really made for the iPhone
Another option is Whistle Phone (Figure G), which is made for the iPad. The app is free, and best of all, outgoing and incoming calls within the United States are free, too. Whistle assigns you a phone number (unfortunately, you can't pick the area code, so people calling you from landlines with old-fashioned calling plans may have to pay long distance charges), and call quality over Wi-Fi was excellent in my tests. The catch: You have to listen to a 20-second commercial before it dials out. There is no commercial when you get an incoming call. There is a charge for international calls.

Figure G

You can make and receive free phone calls with Whistle, but there's a small catch.

10: "Running" Windows 7

Sure, the iPad is cool — but I like Windows. Fortunately, I don't have to miss my Win7 desktop when I'm using the iPad, thanks to the iTap RDP app (Figure H). This is a Remote Desktop client for the iPad that lets you access your Windows 7, Vista, or XP (Pro/Business edition or above) desktop and use all your Windows applications. The iPad acts as a (very) thin client, and all the processing takes place on your Windows machine.

It takes a bit of getting used to, learning the gestures for right-clicking, double-clicking, and so forth, but once you get the hang of it, you can have the illusion of a powerful Windows computer in a tiny, slate-format package. And that doesn't suck at all.

Figure H

With an RDP client app, you can have your Windows 7 desktop on your iPad.

About

Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 add...

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