There has been a question buzzing round the Internet ever since the launch of the iPad which we, today, and the last 7 days, as a matter of fact, have attempted to answer. That question is this - does anyone actually need a tablet?
While a few of the team here at Pocket-lint have already succumbed to the way of the keyboardless computer, it was down to me, (Padless) Dan Sung to invite such a machine into my home and my life and document my experiences for all too read. Lucky all.
The tablet chosen for the experiment was the iPad 2, largely because it was the one most available at the time, and this particular model was the 64GB Wi-Fi and 3G version running on Vodafone. This is how it went...
I’ve taken delivery of the hallowed gadget and, as a staunch Android user, it’s horrible to see that I’m already getting sucked into the whole Apple marketing spiel. I feel special with my special white box as I specially find a cleared surface and some special me time where I can specially open the packaging and lovingly remove its special contents with extra special care. It makes me sick but I’m loving it. It’s like eating an expensive McDonalds and it’s clear very quickly that it’ll be hard separating the iOS intrusion into my life from the tablet it rides upon.
I plug the sucker into the mains and get on with my work until it’s ready to go. Naturally, my first port of call is the App Store. Fortunately, there’s the best part of a £20 iTunes voucher still sitting on a log in I never use because iPad apps don’t come cheap.
A quick virtual shopping spree later and there’s a good page and a half extra on the desktop filled with games like Real Racing 2 HD and Mirror’s Edge but the one that has me glued to the device from dawn to dusk and back again is Infinity Blade. Ignoring the tour de force of iPad 2 technology that it represents, what’s of most note about it is that I’d rather play Infinity Blade than anything I’ve currently got on my Xbox 360 and, until know, I’d been happily blasting and questing my way through a fair few console titles.
What’s even better about tablet gaming is that you can take it anywhere - the bus, the train, the car, hotels, planes. Best of all I can play it while Mrs Pocket-lint is trying to talk to me about what kind of laminate flooring we’re going to buy for the basement and all the while, she thinks I’m browsing B&Q and the like when I’m simply gaming with the volume down. It’s astonishing how a few directed swipes of my finger can be easily masked with serious furrow in my brow instead of my usual tongue-lolling game face. Now that’s something you just can’t get away with when there’s a console controller in your hand.
The part of the experiment I’ve most been looking forward to comes at bed time. A laptop’s a pain to take to bed and a mobile phone is too small. Surely this is what tablets were made for? Well, yes and no is the answer. Now this may be specific to the iPad 2, but it’s actually not that nice to hold. While it’s virtually paper thin, it’s still a fair old weight to lump around and that just means that its mass digs into your palm at a finer point and it’s not very comfortable, particularly when you’re supporting it with just the one while using the other to swish about on the screen.
At the same time, whereas I had dreams of using it to read ebooks at this moment, actually, what I end up doing is just playing a few more fights on Infinity Blade. Not only does it actually prolong my wake time to beyond when I really ought to have the lights out for the sake of my beauty sleep, but jabbing swords through large evil creatures isn’t really soothe-yourself-to-sleep kind of stuff.
With the iPad down at the side of the bed, the first thing I remember to do, as Baby Lint calls for me to come and spring him from his nightly cell, is not to tread on the thing as I get up. Mission accomplished. I look down on its screen and remember having to switch it on to mute at some point during the hours of darkness when it kept waking me up with junk email alerts. Thank you spammers.
I stick the the tablet under my arm as an afterthought and take it downstairs for breakfast for the little guy to play with. I’ve seen all those videos of dogs and cats digging these things, my 18-month old boy should be able to get some mileage out of it - at least enough to occupy him while I make his banana and raisin topped porridge. I find a free app called FluidMonkey - essentially an interactive ripple tank where you can mix in colours - and set the iPad down on the floor next to BL. He seems pleased. It’s only a matter of seconds before he works out the power his mere touch has over this device but, typically, a few delicate prods quickly turn to full on hand slaps. This means I end up diving back to save the thing as he’s about to bring it down over his head, screen first and onto an unforgiving tiled floor. Tablets might be for furry pets but not very young children.
Baby Lint safely at nursery and the iPad is sitting next to my laptop chirping away either ahead or behind my phone and work computer as the emails, tweets and IMs pop in throughout the day. It’s serving little purpose other than calling me to play games. I pay it little heed with the odd round or two of Infinity Blade thrown in whenever I think I deserve it.
Finally, the iPad comes into real use when the chief calls in on Skype for a chat about the business of the day. I don’t have a webcam built into my laptop chassis. I could perch one of those external ones onto the top my machine but it’s a pain in the arse every time you need to open and close the lid. So, to actually hold a two-way video conference call is quite a treat, presuming that Stuart wants to see my face staring back at him, which of course he does. So, if you don’t have a webcam, a tablet can work well as a very bulky, very expensive desktop accessory but work well it does.
Come the evening, I’m out having a few drinks at an event. I’m in the middle of a conversation with another journalist about cloud storage but actually I’m wondering how many more fights I need before I can afford the Iron Claw in Infinity Blade. I give it a shot when I return but am in no fit state to be taking on the God King and his minions.
I’m writing up an iPad 2 features app and it's time to take that rear facing camera for a spin. It’s not long before one realises that it’s totally rubbish but, more than that, the whole notion of a rear facing camera on a tablet soon becomes fairly ridiculous.
What is that situation that turns up when one thinks “Oh, I must take out my tablet and use the camera”? Whatever that killer application is, it hasn’t been invented yet. All the same, there are some amusing apps to play around with before I end up back in the games section of my iOS desktop.
I’ve had this thing for 3 days and it occurs to me I haven’t once used the 3G. As a matter of fact I haven’t even put in the SIM. I put the SIM in.
It’s in now. I can see the Vodafone network logo pop up in the top left corner next to the Wi-Fi symbol. There it is. There. Just in case I need it. Whenever that is. Ready.
I’ve got a day off. Why? Because it’s long weekend time. I’m off to Madrid. I’m not sure if the iPad 2 is supposed to leave the UK but I decide it’s better not to ask questions and just go all the same. Fortunately, I’m sure anything in my bag is covered in case of theft, damage or my inability to look after my possessions in a hot country after an alfresco sherbet or two.
Off on the train to Stansted and I’ve just a little work to wrap up before it’s all flip flops and Acapulco shirts. I’ve left the laptop at home and I whip out the tablet to give working post-PC a shot. The only trouble is that I soon discover that the Pocket-lint CMS is not compatible with iOS. Now, that’s obviously an iPad issue rather than a general tablet one but even before the moment arrives, I already find myself wishing I had a keyboard in front of me rather than this screen just balanced on my lap. Worse still, of course, 3G is absolutely rubbish on the train or in a car or while you’re moving at all for that matter. In fact, given that those are some of the major niches one might hope for a tablet, it does rather render that extra outlay for mobile broadband a bit pointless.
Fortunately, a tablet does come into its own for air travel - especially budget air travel. Now, you could play games or films on a laptop but the advantage of something like the iPad 2 is the extended battery life. Ten hours is more than enough for a few episodes of Eastbound & Down, a muck around on Garage Band and the obligatory hour of Infinity Blade. Perhaps the only downside to the tablet form is having to hold the thing all the time. It’s not exactly tiring but resting a laptop on your knees or the tray table is somehow more comfortable.
Aside an early morning read of the virtual papers on that nice, big screen over our mid-range hotel’s pleasingly free and strong Wi-Fi connection, there’s not an awful lot of call for a tablet when you’re on a city break - apart from the odd go on Infinity Blade, of course. In fact it’s not until...
...that it comes in handy again. Having a tablet means I can print out my boarding pass for the return flight at the hotel over the wireless network. Now, you could do this with a laptop as well but the special bonus about doing it with an iPad 2 is finding out that it won’t recognise the printer and then realising you can’t even plug it in on a hard line over USB because, hey, thanks Steve, it doesn't have one. Now, again, that’s an iPad issue rather than a tablet one, per se, but it’s certainly worth pointing out.
In the end, the friendly hotel staff allow me the other side of the counter to log into my email account direct from their archaic 486 Windows 3.11 machine. Loading the relevant PDF file takes about as long as breakfast. Long.
Back on the plane it’s all sleep rather than content-consume and it’s just left to the train home before a few more games of Infinity Blade and the end of my time with tablet.
As it happened, I got to hang onto my iPad 2 for a week or two longer. I’d like to tell you that life changed and that I found new uses for it or grew tired of the ones that I had, but I didn’t. Tablets are good. They’re fun. I can tell you that with ease. At the same time, they serve no particular purpose. I’ve been without the thing for quite some time now and all that I really miss is the Ebay app. Sure there’s one on my phone but the screen is so small in comparison and one of my greatest pleasures very quickly became scanning through new Ebay items to add to my watch list last thing at night - just after a few fights on Infinity Blade, that is. While I’ve got back into console gaming and taking my laptop on long journies, nothing has quite replaced that last thing auction browsing pleasure.
The other thing I noticed about tablets is that they tend to make you a little more insular. I wanted to spend more time consuming personal content than I did watching TV with Mrs. Pocket-lint. I’d even look forward to her going upstairs to bed so that I could do a little guilt-free gaming. Podcasts are back on my agenda as is music in general - both things that you don’t need a big screen to enjoy.
What it seems to boil down to with tablet PCs is this, something that Editor Stuart, and owner of two iPads quickly informed me half way through the experiment. Tablets are lovely devices. Truly, but they’re just excuses to sell you things through - particularly in the case of Apple. I’d still like to own one. I would use it, but there’s no real loss to my life without and, while they don’t offer anything significant that a laptop can’t manage, buying one will always be some way down my list. All birthday presents welcome though.